- Dancing Tango, Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World by Kathy Davis
Books on tango could have their own shelf in the dance section of bookstores. In recent decades, the literature has expanded exponentially as tango has become a global market phenomenon, second only to yoga, in terms of body matters. Practitioners of both tango and yoga will sooner or later develop first an interest, then a certain urgency, to travel to the places where it all began—Argentina and India—in order to experience the real, the authentic thing.
Kathy Davis, an American sociologist and oral historian based in Amsterdam, has built her reputation as an investigator of globetrotting, transnational phenomena, often articulated as feminist dilemmas. In the 1990s, Davis explored in depth women’s voluntary cosmetic surgery as a complicated set of negotiations of the subjective sense of self, as a possible source of empowerment, and as a legitimate solution for emotional suffering (Davis 1995). Those were the years, as well, when surgical operations had entered the performance space, becoming “a site of public debate.”1
Perhaps her most highly praised work remains The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves—How Feminism Travels Across Borders (2007). It is a fascinating travelogue on feminist knowledge production, which follows the impacts, traces, and adaptations of the famous book on women’s health, Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Group 1971) from its first appearance in the U.S. during the feminist rights movement, until recent days, and across the globe.
The migration of ideas embodied in women’s practices has always been the major focus of Davis’s research. Her latest book, Dancing Tango, Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World, shares the same perspective, the same puzzles, and rhetorical questions of her other projects: why and how do women do what they do? In this book she asks, among other things, can there be a feminist dancing tango? The latter question was posed to Davis—now a long time tanguera—in the 1990s, by one of her feminist colleagues after discovering Davis’s involvement with tango. Davis herself had to confront the baggage of cultural stereotypes and expectations associated with the dance when she first accidentally walked into a tango salon in Amsterdam in the 1980s and thought that a young punk looking couple, blissfully dancing to the scratchy music of Argentinian tango from the 1930s, was paradoxical. Davis realized how tango remains an “incomprehensible subculture to the non-initiated” (3).
At times, questions raised at propitious moments prove to generate outstanding research. Without a non-sudamericano asking Marta Savigliano: “But, Marta, what is tango?,” we may not have had one of the most theoretically rigorous and passionately argued books on tango—Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1995)—even to these days. Davis’s initial personal motive—to prove that feminists, in the name of passion, can frequent milongas without embarrassment—actively engages in a conversation with Savigliano, whose book she sees as a departure point for any critical study of tango. Being in the position of the cultural colonizer, in Savigliano’s terms, Davis believes that a postcolonial reading of tango à la Savigliano may no longer be relevant for our time, since Argentineans are not seen as complicit with cultural outsiders in the practice of “exotization” or “othering.” Rather, Davis reads the encounters between Argentineans and outsiders as “mutually beneficial—and in some cases—conducive to new forms of community” (17). According to Davis, where Savigliano focuses “on the politics of passion, she leaves the experience of passion unexplored” (13). But where is passion located?
Although Davis is familiar with most of the classic and more recent literature of tango studies, she adopts as a model for her investigation the work of urban ethnographer Loïc Wacquant, who, in his 2004 study of boxers in Chicago, argued that by embodying the practice of the subjects under study, it is possible to write a sociology from the body vs. a sociology of the body.2 Wacquant’s dream of...