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  • Japanese Perceptions of Argentine Tango: Cultural and Gender Differences
  • Etsuko Toyoda

Dance of Passion

In Argentina and Uruguay, the tango, the dance of passion, is a deep-rooted tradition, closely related to the history of the region, and maintained for decades by aficionados. In October 2009, the tango (widely known as the Argentine tango) was recognized by the United Nations as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage (UN News n. pag., par. 1). This study investigates gender and cultural differences in perceptions about the Argentine tango danced by the Japanese and Latin Americans (hereafter “Latinos”). While the dance cannot be separated from the music, my focus is the dance. In this article the term tango refers to the Argentine tango dance, unless otherwise specified. The findings of my study suggest that, despite the clear division of roles, the female and male dancers’ perceptions are very similar. On the other hand, despite the tango’s long history and popularity in Japan, there are significant differences between the two cultural groups, the Japanese and Latin Americans, in their perceptions of the tango.

Gender Settings

In the Argentine tango, the roles played by the male dancer and female dancer are distinct. The male invites a woman to dance, embraces her, and confidently leads by listening to and interpreting the music, and improvising steps to suit (Takahashi 91). During the dance, the male dancer is also required to create a peaceful, protective, and enjoyable environment for his partner while navigating across the floor. The woman accepts (or ignores) the invitation and returns the embrace. She is calm but alert so as to sense the male dancer’s marca (this usually involves an indication of the direction of the next step, but may include the direction of rotation, pauses, stops, timing changes, change of axis, and even passage of control from male to female). She then makes appropriate responses (in three dimensions and time) to the marca. [End Page 162]

The gender roles in the tango are seen by Elshaw to reflect Argentine cultural values such as machismo (manliness):

To be macho the Argentinean way is to be self confident, to be certain of where a man stands and where he is going. He is in charge, he is reliable and accepts responsibility. He cares for the well-being, safety and happiness of his woman.

(Elshaw n. pag., par. 3)

Although the responsibilities of female dancers are fewer compared to their male partners, the female role is certainly not passive. Olszewski claims that the role women play in the tango is also a reflection of the Argentine culture, of the strong social norms that differentiate roles according to gender (75). The woman/mother/housewife is in charge of domestic work, and the man supplies the income for the family’s maintenance (Jelin 193). While machismo is valued, a woman’s role in society is no less valued. For this reason, tanguearas, or female tango dancers, are tough, assertive, creative, and autonomous, both in their dance and in their selection of partners (Olszewski 75). Thus, the tango is often described as “four legs, two heads, and one heart.” Although the man and woman have different responsibilities, they dance as one, actively collaborating in the creation of an ephemeral dance experience (Olszewski 71).

Cultural Settings

Japan first encountered the tango as part of elegant French-style ballroom dance in the 1920s (Savigliano 239). At that time, the tango was a dance of the elite (Gambarotta n. pag., par. 3). By the 1930s, middle-class Japanese had access to the British-style ballroom tango (Savigliano 240). Even during World War II when almost all pleasure was banned, listening to tango music was possible (Savigliano 243). After the war, a circle of tango lovers organized regular gatherings to listen to tango music and, to a lesser extent, dance to it, by copying the Argentine dancers seen on films (Miura 22). As far as the general public was concerned, the key to the dissemination of the tango was the stage show “Tango Argentino,” which opened in Paris in 1983 (Goertzen and Azzi 68), toured the world, and created an Argentine tango boom in Europe, North America, and Japan...


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pp. 162-179
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