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Tango and the Political Economy of Passion.

In her book Tango and the Political Economy of Passion, Marta Savigliano presents a comprehensive study of the tango dance form. Grounding her approach in the context of the "colonizing gaze," she examines the construction of the exoticism and the passion of this dance as Other. Savigliano argues that tango became a commodity colonized by imperialism and exploited by capitalism from the early twentieth century to the present. Tango (which reflects gender, race, and class) and its colonization in the world economy form the main focus of Marta Savigliano's study. Analyzing the reception, adaptation, and commercialization of tango from a Marxist and feminist perspective, the author succeeds in enriching the area of colonized popular culture and art.

First, Savigliano identifies tango as a form of popular culture reflecting national identity. In her analysis, she explores the origins of this dance, dancing styles, and the background of the participants in relation to issues of gender, race, class and nationality. In chapter 2, Savigliano explores the tensions that stem from these racial, class, and gender issues by analyzing them in relation to the socioeconomic climate of the country. For example, the author describes nineteenth century Argentina "under rapid urbanization, massive migratory movements, and the incorporation into Western imperialism" (6). Such changes brought about encounters between the wealthy and the poor; among the blacks, the Creoles, and the immigrants; between male and female-expected behaviors. These tensions were all reflected in the tango.

Racial antagonism started when the blacks of Uruguay initiated the first steps of tango in their flirtatious "ombligadas" and "culeadas." Tango was later embraced by poor laborers of the Buenos Aires harbor and European immigrants who danced it with low-class women and prostitutes. (Tango was forbidden for women of higher social standing.) This dance afforded these marginals a cathartic exercise which offset the tensions of urbanization and industrialization. Forbidden to women of higher social standing, tango at the turn of the century attracted wealthy men who "paid to embrace poor women" (31). By bringing together people of such diverse socioeconomic status, tango augmented racial, class, and gender conflicts.

Savigliano best exemplifies these conflicts in her analysis of the specific tango "Ensalado Criolla" (Creole Salad). In its performance, three lower class men (a blond, a dark-skin, and a black) challenge each other in the display of their tango skills. While these men invite other blacks and whites to prove their dancing and fighting talent, their female partners "fight among themselves over the exclusive possession of the men" (38). Thus, conflicting relationships involving racial, ethnic, and gender issues became embedded in the tango. Tango, then, is simultaneously "a ritual and a spectacle of traumatic encounters" (73).

Savigliano highlights the sexual/macho aspect of tango, both as seen in the culture and as represented in literature. Although tango at first exhibited a masculine "self-control and reserved gracefulness," it later became a "superficial and showy" dance "contaminated by erotic preoccupations" (40). Savigliano elaborates on this aspect of the dance's history by references to well-known Argentinean authors whose works explore the sexual overtones of tango. She quotes, for example, Vicente Rossi, who laments the male's loss of self-control and denounces women's subjugation in the dance; Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, who defines tango as the sexual act itself; Jorge Luis Borges, who claims the dance denies love between men and women and sustains male friendship; and Ernesto Sabato, who claims that tango reflects the need for love, not lust (40-45).

Savigliano's feminist approach also becomes the focus of chapter 2. Although in most tango lyrics the virile "compadrito" (the lower class, macho male) controls "la milonguita" (the woman of the tango environment), the female can also be portrayed as a rebellious figure who trespasses bourgeois gendered boundaries to move up the social ladder. The "milonguitas" are portrayed by Savigliano as feminist role models whose "insurgency" drew female attention at the turn of the century (71).

Against this cultural and socioeconomic backdrop, Savigliano explains why and how tango became a commodity for imperialism and capitalism (chapter 3). Tango triumphed internationally because its passion and exoticism attracted those "situated ... in the [economic] power hierarchy" (namely France, Britain, Japan, and the United States) (74). Thus the colonies became economically as well as culturally dominated. Under this form of colonialism, tango choreography, music and lyrics changed: "the colonizer dump[ed] on the tango his own representation of the imperial erotic relationship with the colonized" (76). Tango, in fact, underwent capitalist marketing tactics. Savigliano interprets this economic/cultural relationship between the "uncivilized" tango and "civilized" economic powers as a subversive struggle in which "the colonizer dominates with desire [and] the colonized resists with passion" (76). Thus, tango, the Argentinean political commodity of passion, "was incorporated into the world economy of passion" (82).

After triumphing in 1911-1913 in the main world capitals, tango gained popularity among the Argentinean middle and upper class (chapter 4). Savigliano states that "the participation of 'respectable' women in an up-until-then immoral dance, due to Parisian stylization ..., was a turning point in tango's local history" (6). Tango, which had once separated social classes and endangered moral values, became the accepted dance of Argentinean society. The intervention of the colonizer and the mark of imperialism blurred the boundaries of class and gender.

In chapter 5, Savigliano presents the triumph of tango in Japan, the new tango consumer, and gives a detailed account of the different tango styles accepted in that country. Savigliano analyzes "the ways in which [the] competing French, English, and argentino tangos [were] appropriated by the Japanese themselves as markers of internal social distinctions" (7). Thus, Japan, along with the "core" economic powers, became another imperialist colonizer with its own competitive marketing strategies. Savigliano ends the chapter restating the thesis of her study: "Tango, as a musical and danceable commodity, has been produced, distributed, and consumed within a capitalist market economy hegemonized by [imperialist] powers" (204).

Having combined in her earlier chapters Marxist, feminist, and deconstructivist approaches "to describe the political economy of Passion" (16), Savigliano, in chapter 6, analyses tango lyrics and dance styles to shed light on the imbalance of power between genders, the strengthening of female consciousness, and the psychosexual aspects of tango lyrics in an attempt to eliminate notions of otherness. She deconstructs the subversive subtext of tango lyrics and stories, creating open-ended texts with a plurality of meanings. In her analysis of the story "First Steps in Tango," for example, Savigliano uses Derrida's notion of the "play of difference" to subvert the meaning of "grandfather Albert" and portray him as "a cheap womanizer," "un arra-balero" (a man from the urban slums), and "a trespasser."

Finally, Savigliano, acknowledging that she does not have a consistent theoretical approach, argues that "a coherent method would only reproduce [her own] colonization" (16); she would be conforming to an academic market. She sustains that "methods and theories...tend to alienate methodical workers from their work, from their creative pleasures, from their complex positions of race, gender, class, and culture...from their power for insurgency" (14). Savigliano warns Third World women intellectuals about the danger of being colonized by the academic market and losing their "discourse of liberation" (224).

Tango and the Political Economy of Passion is an informative text with a wealth of references and a comprehensive bibliography. Its pictures illustrate tango steps and clothing at different times and in different countries and cast light on social ambiances. Although innovative and decontructionist, the text's approach sometimes draws the reader's attention away from its ideas. For example, intersecting songs, choreography, the voice of the choreocritic and the chorus, as well as alternating presentations of the text in one and then two columns within the same chapter (chapter 3) may be rather distracting. The style is sometimes convoluted (" thus the battlefield/dance-floor and weapon/dance-step in and by which Argentinean identity is continuously redefined" [5]); and the tone is sometimes flamboyant for a study of this kind ("No time for healing. More exiles, more distress, and again, few women" [31]). But, in fact, Savigliano's style of writing reflects the two main elements of the tango: exoticism and passion.

Tango and the Political Economy of Passion is not a ground-breaking study, but it makes a significant contribution to popular cultural studies because its feminist and Marxist approaches offer new insights to the history of tango.
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Author:Esplugas, Celia
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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