Degree Name

Master of Arts - Research


Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts


This thesis explores two different forms of improvised, social partner dance – contact improvisation and Argentine tango – arguing that despite their emergence from wildly different cultural and socio-political contexts, there is nonetheless a shared core of physical partnering skills. It draws on my embodied experience as a professional dancer trained in various forms of modern dance, as well as extensive and ongoing study of contact improvisation, Ideokinesis, and Argentine tango, in order to ask: what are the practices and issues that create difficulties or barriers to the transmission or reception of these core skills from one form to the other? In order to investigate this question, this thesis is particularly interested in the ‘lead/follow’ structure within the tango ‘embrace’, understood as key to the partnering relationship.

Consequently, this practice-led thesis draws on field work undertaken at milongas, practicas and classes in Sydney, Hamburg, Berlin and Buenos Aires, as well as on interviews undertaken with key practitioners in both forms. This primary research is supported by scholarship drawing on social practice theory, dance anthropology, gender and performance studies, psychoanalysis and pedagogy.

Critical to this thesis is a concern for gender equality and social practice, particularly in the context of best practice in adult education. Consequently another question is whether the tango partnership, with its historically defined roles of leader and follower, has the potential to grow into a more equal and collaborative relationship built around negotiation, as is commonly practised in contact improvisation, rather than being defined almost exclusively by hierarchical heteronormative gender stereotypes.

Also critical to this research project is an interrogation of the concept of ‘authenticity’ explored through the traditional Argentine tango codigas, or ‘codes’ – the cabeceo and the tango embrace – through which the perception of an ‘authentic’ practice is constructed, maintained and measured. The social practice theory of Pierre Bourdieu, and, in particular, his concepts of hysteresis, habitus, field and social capital, are integral to this research. The recurrent question ‘Is it tango?’ is also explored through an examination of practice and pedagogy, but in particular the philosophies and practices of contact improvisation and queer tango, understood as strategies that may mitigate against a habitual reassertion of normative values.

This thesis concludes by finding that even if there are no absolute solutions in efforts to loosen tango’s socially unforgiving binaries, several areas in movement research might be fruitfully explored in order to understand and foster an ‘endless gliding’ between differences – understood as a search for ways that allow participation in tango partnerships to be more socially inclusive – not necessarily so that tango becomes unrecognisable, but in order that some of the understandings of the postmodern enterprise might enrich the beauty and intimacy of a tango partnership.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.