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Death Dressed As a Dancer: The Grotesque, Violence, and the Argentine Tango
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Tango, beloved bohemian, you
At your soul a slap in the face
You with a wound that you hide,
Dressed in mourning from head to toe.
You are a symbol that dances,
Your shoes tap loudly
You are laughter, and you are death dressed as a dancer.

Intimate Anonymity

The tango — the dance form, its music, and its lyrics — presents us with a mystery in one of its several social worlds: the milonga, or dances held in downtown Buenos Aires tango clubs. In the traditional milonga pesada (or “heavy” milonga), distinguished by its well-established codes, dancers cling together in the uniquely intimate tango embrace. Incongruously, the milonga codes of etiquette dictate that these same dancers remain anonymous, often dancing together for years without knowing each other’s names. The codes and the punishment for their violation push dancers apart, restricting the exchange of personal information, while the dance form itself is physically intimate. Milongueros value both the intimacy and the anonymity. Perplexed habitués and newcomers alike shake their heads over codes that seem arbitrary and enigmatic, even to the most experienced. Based on my 20 years of dance and shared opinions with fellow dancers and students, I propose a view of the milonga as aesthetic creation: these clubs offer a mise-en-scène that reflects central dissonances shared with broader aspects of Argentine popular culture: Argentina’s soi-disant grotesque, the grotesco criollo, a theatre genre associated with the dramatic economic crises and failures that have haunted Argentine history. The mysterious tensions of the milonga offer an arena for the enactment of behavioral patterns by dancers who are drawn to the grotesque in a society that is both violent and violated.

As aesthetic creations, the social gatherings of the milongas, like grotesque artistic genres in Argentina and other cultures, enact incongruities that give them the potential for elaborating the inherently dissonant experience of violence or trauma (see Stafford [1993] 1997; Viñas [1973] 1997). Precisely because traumatic violence is outside the realm of socially validated reality, those who experience violence feel it to be profoundly incongruent with their everyday reality and often cannot speak about it. Thus, deep involvement with the incongruity of grotesques in theatre and cinema in Argentina and elsewhere affords an opportunity to communicate about experiences that otherwise have no expression (see Herman [1992] 1997; Stafford [1993] 1997:276; Russo 1994; Taylor 1998, 2001).

Here in the milongas, then, I portray dancers as victims of violence and crises that defy comprehension. Through their dancing they seek elusive competence and control, or, failing that, comfort and belonging, summed up in the word often repeated in milongas: contención, nurturing or belonging. Dancers in the milonga feel some of the exuberance of Bakhtin’s famous vision of medieval grotesques ([1965] 1984). But they also reveal the pain and disorientation of the excluded, the other face of grotesqueries. The milonga and the social event in which the tango dancers participate is an opportunity for people to inhabit the dissonances in their lives.

While attempting to define the Argentine grotesque theatre, a director responded in conversation: “Ah, yes, the grotesque. A collision” (Rosenbaum 2009; see also Rosenbaum 2010). Grotesques in the broader sense by definition startle, disconcert, distract, and even shock with their internal dissonances, at the same time that they collide with mainstream, harmonious structures (see Bakhtin [1965] 1984; Harpham 1982; Russo 1994; Stafford [1993] 1997). One of the distortions of the grotesque is that it is not related to difference, but to excess: a grotesque exceeds the norm or exaggerates out of all proportion. Carnival celebrations in Western traditions — of which many tangos sing — are commonly discussed in relation to the grotesque, with their caricature masks and mystery as people take to the streets in disguise to turn social hierarchies upside down. Other characteristics typical of the grotesque point to the simultaneity of laughter and weeping, or to hybridity, such as the figures made famous by Raphael’s controversial decorations of the Vatican in the early 16th century. In Argentina, it is often said that great grotesques in US culture are Chaplin and the Simpsons.


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