Partner Up with Rebel Tango

Clear the dance floor – we're learning the tango. We speak to the duo behind Rebel Tango about fostering intimacy, open-role dancing, and making radical moves

Article by Eilidh Akilade | 02 Aug 2023
  • Before We Move, 2022

With tango, it’s all about trust. It takes a lot to take another’s body into yours, to let your arms unfold in theirs. Trust, afterall, opens us up to a lot – a person, a promise, a politics. But how do we offer trust and how do we receive trust? One step at a time.

Over the summer months, Rebel Tango has begun to make its home in the CCA. Led by Carolyn Wilson and Rastko Novaković, the drop-in sessions and short courses preach a plainly brilliant ethos: anti-capitalist, feminist, queer tango for all. The duo met in London, about 10 years ago. On moving to Glasgow, they both felt the absence of a queer tango scene; until, that is, they started to form one themselves. The hope is to build the foundations of a queer, Scottish partner dance community – for tango and beyond.

Their sessions begin with light stretching, grounding participants and allowing their bodies to relax into the space. And then there’s the walking: around the room, in circles, forwards and backwards. It’s a welcoming start, signalling that, actually, tango begins with simple movements and builds from there. 

“It's very improvised. It's very intimate,” says Wilson, who came to queer tango some 15 years ago. “And unlike some of the ballroom dances, it's not about learning sequences of steps. It's more about learning how to dance with somebody, how to be connected to another person.” Tango is rooted in the moment – and celebrates sharing that moment with someone else. 

But queer tango also calls back to a certain history. “It wasn't always this heteronormative gendered thing,” says Wilson. The duo explain that, in the early days of tango, it was often danced by men from Spain, Italy, and other countries who had migrated to Argentina for work. Quite simply, there weren't always a lot of women around. And so, men would often dance with men. “It was probably the only kind of physical intimacy and contact they have with other human beings on the dance floor.” 

Its politics has always been far from side-lined. Hugely popular with working class and migrant communities, tango held a certain proximity to revolutionary work in Argentina throughout the country’s political troubles. “There is a tendency to make tango a safe space of pure pleasure,” says Novaković. “But that pleasure is also political.”

To lead, to follow – there’s pleasure in both. “In our classes, we teach people both roles, and that means you've got the freedom to dance with anyone you like,” says Wilson. A binary exists but the movement between that binary ensures it does not constrain. 

In terms of gender, tango hasn’t always had the best reputation. It’s often portrayed as an oversexualised, somewhat seedy dance. And, unfortunately, women can sometimes experience sexist, predatory behaviour in mainstream tango spaces. Rebel Tango is clear: a feminist approach is crucial in creating a safe space for all genders.

Of course, there’s often a financial barrier also, with many classes fairly expensive. The duo is conscious of this, opting to offer all sessions for free or on a sliding scale. Amid images of ruffled, red dresses and sleek black shirts, there’s always this sense that tango is a glamorously pricey dance. But, in reality, no sequins or stilettos are necessary. “You can dance in any shoes – although it does help if your shoes are slippy enough that you can swivel on the floor,” says Wilson. “But you could wear just socks.” 

Tango can meet you where you’re at – and the music is part of that. Its lyrics are rich, a story gently spun between each note. Partners are encouraged to move to it as they please. “There is a relationship that you all have to the music, it is propulsive,” Novaković says. “So it actually moves you around the room.” With tango, music is as much a force as the dancers.

Certainly, Rebel Tango is keen to emphasise that this is a social dance. We often envisage a singular couple under a spotlight, an empty floor theirs to conquer. But, in reality, it’s usually danced in a circle formed by multiple partners. “As you're dancing, you're looking after the couple in front of you and behind you – with both your decorations and with the forwards movement and the backwards movement that you make,” says Novaković.

Heedless kicks or elbows in the face have no place in this etiquette of care. “Tango can fit in with your anarchist politics of mutual aid and cooperation. It only works because you want it to work and because you're cooperating with each other,” continues Wilson. Intimate body movements – steps and taps and spins – translate into something much greater. “Your support brings all these other partnerships in the room to make it work for everyone.”

Tango isn’t a singular thing: what happens on the dance floor has potential off the dance floor. Collective dance is a collective action – coming together, learning to lead and be led is crucial for joy as well as social change. It’s a dance for us all – and a dance that Rebel Tango wants us to trust in.

Find out more at @rebel_tango on Twitter

Before We Move, CCA, Glasgow, 13 Sep, doors 7.15pm – tickets from £5