The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Queer Tango: A gender-norm-defying dance class where anyone can lead or follow

Laura Steiner, 36, and Doris Villegas, 31, practice during during the Queer Tango class offered by Tango Mercurio at BloomBars in Washington. “I took it as a challenge, but it’s been fun more than anything,” Villegas said of the class.
Laura Steiner, 36, and Doris Villegas, 31, practice during during the Queer Tango class offered by Tango Mercurio at BloomBars in Washington. “I took it as a challenge, but it’s been fun more than anything,” Villegas said of the class. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Standing under multicolored lights in a Columbia Heights studio, the tango instructor told her students to find a partner and practice the dance’s basic position, an intimate embrace between leader and follower.

Without skipping a beat, Dhruv Sharma turned to a fellow student and asked a question rarely spoken in a partner dance class — especially by a man.

“Do you want to lead or do you want to follow?” Sharma asked his dance partner, who also happened to be a man.

“Whichever you prefer,” John Foss responded.

The traditional rules of tango are deeply gendered — the man leads and the woman follows. But this is Queer Tango, a class where gender rules don’t matter, where students learn both roles and may dance with whomever they’d like.

Earlier this fall, Tango Mercurio instructor Liz Sabatiuk launched the weekly Queer Tango class, taught at BloomBars in Columbia Heights, in the hopes of making tango accessible and inclusive for members of the ­LGBTQ community.

But the class has become so much more than that. It has allowed longtime tango dancers to rethink gender roles and explore the dance from a new vantage point. It has challenged men to follow and has given women a space where they can lead.

“Rather than be some sort of a sexual game, tango is really a way that you can connect with anyone,” Sabatiuk said.

The class is part of a growing Queer Tango movement worldwide seeking to break apart the gender norms of the Argentine dance. But Sabatiuk says the program is the first of its kind in the D.C. area.

Lesbian bars are vanishing all over the country. In D.C., two just opened their doors.

A ballet dancer by training, Sabatiuk first learned tango while studying in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 2005. But she didn’t truly learn to lead until she began teaching the dance in Washington. At tango dance parties, known as milongas, in the D.C. area, Sabatiuk said it was occasionally awkward for a woman to approach a man or another woman and ask to lead.

Yet there would often be a gender imbalance at milongas and tango classes, Sabatiuk said. Now, she says, “I can balance the gender if there are too many women. I can invite them to dance.”

One of her students, Yiannis Markakis, 23, discovered tango three years ago through a Queer Tango community in Barcelona and first learned the dance as a follower. But at milongas and tango classes in Washington, Markakis said, it’s often difficult for him to find opportunities to practice following.

“Most leaders would not come ask me to dance,” Markakis said.

Perhaps Sabatiuk’s class could help the gender-fluid style of dance spread to more traditional milongas across the District, Markakis said.

When tango first emerged in Buenos Aires, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was considered an erotic, scandalous dance, one that was only performed by men with prostitutes in brothels, said Gustavo Varela, a professor who teaches a course on the social and political history of tango at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, or FLASCO, in Buenos Aires.

Ironically, because it was considered improper for women to dance tango, men often had to learn the dance from other men. But tango’s misogynistic roots came across in certain movements in the dance, with the man commanding and advancing on the woman, almost implying that he was trying to open her legs, and the woman trying to evade him, Varela said.

Queer Tango “opened up the idea that the one that dominates doesn’t need to be the man,” Varela said. “That transformation is radical.”

He has seen the movement take hold in recent years in Argentina, particularly among younger generations and amid a growing feminist tide. Still, Queer Tango ­spaces tend to be LGTBQ-focused groups separate from mainstream milongas. At traditional milongas, where the men wear suits and pointed shoes and the women wear elaborate dresses, even the concept of a woman leading is “unthinkable,” he said.

His husband died months after they were able to marry. He’s still fighting for Social Security benefits.

Unlike in traditional tango ­classes, Sabatiuk and her assistant instructor, Olga Liapis-Muzzy, ask their students to switch roles between songs throughout the class. They also encourage clear communication.

“In tango we do touch each other,” Sabatiuk told nearly 20 students at the beginning of a class Thursday night, reminding them to seek consent from their partners. Then, she asked everyone to circle up and share their names and preferred pronouns.

At one point in the class, Sabatiuk taught the group the parada and pasada, a series of movements that require the follower to pivot and step over the leader’s leg — a brief moment of sensual flair.

After practicing it in pairs, one student, Jose Otero, a 52-year-old lawyer, noticed the step was far more rigorous for the follower than the leader.

“It’s a perfect example of how the technical skill for the follower is much more complex,” Otero told the group.

Otero has been dancing tango for more than four years. He can walk into any milonga in Washington and know half the people in the room, he said.

But up until about two months ago, he had only ever been a leader, primarily dancing with women as followers.

“The minute I started following in tango, both leading and following became much better,” Otero said. “The dialogue in the dance is so much richer. It’s a deeper level of connection.”

Other students in the class, such as Antoun Issa, 33, had never danced tango before. Issa learned about the class from a poster in a coffee shop and said he was intrigued by the idea, particularly because it was tailored to the queer community.

“It’s an unusual activity for gay people in this city,” Issa said. “It’s nice to have something that isn’t the stock standard of what the gay experience is in D.C.”

About 9 p.m. during Thursday night’s class, the song “ La Cumparsita” began to play from the speakers. The traditional tango song always signals the final dance of the night.

But the night wasn’t over for the die-hard tango dancers in the room.

Otero invited all those interested to go to a milonga in Eastern Market that night, where they would continue dancing late into the evening — in whichever roles, with whomever they pleased.