Author interview: Melissa Fitch, Global Tangos: Travels in the Transnational Imaginary

While tango had previously been discussed globally almost exclusively in terms of the United States, Europe, or Japan, Global Tangos takes the reader into other parts of the world, many of which may be a surprise for the reader. Author Melissa Fitch examines in-depth some of the very serious ways in which tango has been used in the Muslim world, including Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, and she also has an extended section dealing with the Jewish dimension of the dance, both historical, in terms of founding composers and musicians in Argentina, but also in Europe during World War II, when prisoners in concentration camps or Jews living in ghettos composed Yiddish tangos expressing their sense of pain. Fitch discusses how, in fact, Jews imprisoned in the concentration camps were escorted to the gas chambers to an inmate orchestra playing what was referred to as the “death tango.”


According to Fitch, “One surprise was when I went to Lebanon. …to find the Lebanon tango dancers dancing in a bar destroyed in the civil war and then again in 2005 when Rafim Hariri was killed in a car bomb …So what you have is this shell that no longer exists and yet you’ve got these tango dancers coming together to dance in the bar and pool area, which survived, each week. And I thought this was so completely unexpected. The biggest surprise for me had to do with the Middle East and Asia because people tend to be Eurocentric. The fact that…one of the most important Chinese pop singers in recent history, Leslie Cheung, after the experience of going to Buenos Aires, incorporated queer tango into his concerts. And this was in 1997-98, in his concert in Asia, at one point dancing a tango with another man. He would put on red high heels and dance with another man.”


Even the cover image of Fitch’s book pushes boundaries as it undermines every tango cliché. Instead of a male-female couple wearing black, the woman in a sexualized position that reveals her body and often her subservience to the male, the faces showing a standard serious demeanor—images that have graced the covers of countless books on the topic–we see a photo of a queer tango couple, both female- identified, one of whom is clearly transgender. This image underscores one of the most important dimensions of the book, the discussion of global queer tango activism and communities as well as the LGBTQ presence in myriad cultural manifestations related to the dance, says Fitch.

The activist aspect of this community has “enabled people to band together in protest, in solidarity, such as the … solidarity dance that took place in Buenos Aires when there were local businesses that were trying to take over a public space for their business, and the community, the global community too, stepped in and did a dance-in in the square.”

Tango, too, has healing power. In one of Fitch’s chapters, she discovers “it all comes down to the embrace. That is, studies have shown how healing it is. Something about the dance, you’re forced to be in the moment …being here in the moment now and everything else falls away because you’re exactly connected to your partner and sometimes you can feel their heartbeat and it is enormously healing.”

An early review, done by Gustavo Fares and published in Chasqui: Revista de literatura latinoamericana (44.2 [2015]) said that “her study leads her to conclude that issues related to cultural appropriation do not disappear as a result of ‘globalization, transnationalism and the digital revolution’ (201), but rather new problems emerge while others become exacerbated. Participation in the global communities is closely related to access to education, time and capital and as such, it remains an elite endeavor.”

Even so, as Fitch says, “there are a number of Facebook groups that are connected to this queer tango phenomenon….and where before people would have been isolated in pockets of the world, now there is a connection in a virtual world and in the real world it ends in the tango embrace on the dance floor. This has created a global community where if you are a dancer you can go to practically any city in the world where you have a line of connection with the local community. And even if you don’t speak the language, the beauty of dance is that once you’re on the dance floor you are speaking the same language.”

What is perhaps most remarkable about Global Tangos is that this unusual compendium of cultural manifestations and diverse theoretical underpinnings from both the humanities and the social sciences are all woven together into an exceptionally readable, lively, thought-provoking, sometimes poignant and often humorous book. Each chapter is followed by a short, personal vignette that underscores an aspect of the main body. These take place in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Venice, Beijing and Beirut. Readers have found this to be a delightful (and insightful) dimension of the book.

Global Tangos catches the reader off guard by the sheer originality of the work and by the author’s ability to make discoveries in unexamined places, in terms of the material examined, the theoretical concepts utilized, and the heretofore understudied geographical areas of the world that are included. Fitch’s work surprises Latin Americanists by exploring things previously unimagined with regard to the global impact of Latin American popular culture. She takes risks, and her voracious curiosity about the way that Latin America is understood in the global imaginary is evident in every part of her book. As Ray Batchelor, from the Queer Tango Project, states, “Global Tangos is a superb book. I admire it greatly, and I recommend it…[it] embodies scholarship at a high level. Fitch exacts truths from her rich, well-chosen body of evidence by the judicious application of theory, insight and intelligence.”