Argentine tango is one dance that is definitely no stranger to controversy. In fact, the dance itself was rooted in controversy at the time of its inception.
From being disparaged as a dance for the lower classes to being outright banned by the pope, tango has weathered wave after wave of controversy in its more than a century of history.
Even in the modern age, tango continues to be at the center of debates concerning different topics and perspectives.
Gender roles, machismo, feminism, queer tango, acceptance, freedom, creativity — all these and more are discussions that have sparked some measure of controversy in the tango community.
In fact, the fundamental question of what makes tango tango remains a highly debatable topic. On the one hand, there are traditional milongueros who believe that tango must be danced a certain way. On the other hand, there are younger tango dancers who are making strides toward revolutionizing the definition of tango.
Thus, it’s no surprise that some tango dancers themselves are considered controversial personalities.
After all, tango is a form of creative self-expression. By virtue of this definition, it’s reasonable to expect tango to encourage nonconformity among its practitioners — even those who abide by its codigos.
Among these personalities that have sparked some tango controversy is world-renowned tango dancer Alejandra Mantiñan.
Who Is Alejandra Mantiñan?
In the tango world, Alejandra Mantiñan is one name that needs no introduction. But, for those who haven’t been acquainted with her,
Alejandra Mantiñan is one of the living tango legends who is best recognized for being “Los piez milagrosos,” or one with “miraculous feet.”
Such is her talent and her contribution to the tango community that the name Alejandra Mantiñan is synonymous with an angel, goddess, queen, and icon of tango.
Even at an early age, Alejandra dreamt of being able to travel the world as a professional dancer. Though she did not specifically think of tango as the dance that she would make a career of, nothing stopped her from following her dreams — not even an accident.
According to a post from Tango Fashion News:
“When Alejandra was very young, she suffered an accident, and soon her mother encouraged her to practice dance to combat the physical and psychological trauma caused by the accident.”
“From then on, her relationship with dance became unbreakable. Love, passion, dedication, and sacrifice are considered the winning ingredients for her to conquer the world’s greatest stages and shows, such as ‘Tango Pasión’ and ‘Tango Seducción.’
“Alejandra is, without a doubt, one of the greatest dancers of current times.”
“Her style has been described as explosive and expressive with each step. With precise changes in tempo, intelligent pauses, and smooth elegant movements, her show has become a mastercall of traditional milonga, reinforced with the life of a fine soul and modern times.”
Aside from her skills and knowledge in tango dancing, other aspects that are also highly notable about Alejandra include her international experience and roster of partners.
With more than 30 years of tango dancing under her belt, Alejandra Mantiñan has had the opportunity to share the stage with some of the most influential and inspiring tango dancers.
A post from Bali Tango in Paradise lists down not only Alejandra’s partners but also her achievements:
“It’s hard to imagine any woman who has danced with more A-listers than her. See the list for yourself: Fabian Salas, Gustavo Russo, Leandro Oliver, Gabriel Misse, Osvaldo Zotto, Juan Carlos Copes, Juan Corvalan, Omar Ocampo, Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli, Pablo Veron, Martin Ojeda, Horacio Godoy, Diego ‘El Pajaro’ Riemer, Leandro Palou, Aoniken Quiroga, Mariano Otero, Guillermo Salvat. She’s performed in over 340 cities all over the world, has also starred as the main actress for the ‘Tango Pasión’ show for 14 years, and also performed with THE live orchestras of Osvaldo Pugliese, Horacio Salgán, Mariano Mores, Jośe Basso and Sexteto Mayor.
And yeah, one more thing, she was also Antonio Todaro’s assistant for five years.
For those who don’t know, Antonio Todaro was one of the most creative tango dancers that ever lived who loved inventing long, sharp, complex sequences of flashy steps (still seen in many professional tango dancers today).
Alejandra has also served as a top judge for the world Tango Mundial competition, as well as many other competitions from around the world.”
Alejandra & Aoniken in Munich, "Buscandote"
With all these accolades and high praises, how then is such a seemingly beloved tango dancer considered a controversial one in the community?
The Alejandra Mantiñan Method
One specific thing that perhaps separates Alejandra Mantiñan from other famous tango dancers is her background in medicine.
This in itself isn’t a source of controversy. It was the way Alejandra applied her knowledge in medicine to tango that gained both admirers and detractors.
Inasmuch as tango is said to be a dance for everyone, much of the culture surrounding it remains quite traditional. Those who break away from established norms or codigos to introduce new ways of understanding tango are sometimes met with resistance or negative opinions.
Alejandra Mantiñan introduced her own scientific method of dancing tango, which can be seen as one of the ways that she has challenged the status quo.
In an interview with Pepa Palazon in her series “Tengo una Pregunta Para Vos,” Alejandra elaborates on how she developed her scientific tango method:
“Well, it wasn't intentional. Actually, I come from ballet and medicine. Yes, from physiology. I worked doing shifts in hospitals, always in trauma rehabilitation. And even in my own dance, I always used all the knowledge I had acquired in university, in Escuela Nacional de Danza, which also has anatomy lessons, it has lessons on the basic principles of anatomy. Because obviously, for dance, as for sports, you must have a basic knowledge of kinesiology and anatomy.
“When I became a teacher, I didn’t have a model to follow. So I started taking lessons with the woman I considered my mentor, who basically was my inspiration to develop this method: Marijo Alvarez. [...]
“Then I introduced a scientific knowledge to this dance, that up to that point was seen as popular culture. They used to say that you have to relax and follow the lead and find your embrace, and stuff like that. But I came from academic dance, so for me, that lacked a scientific ground. I try to be serious about things. That doesn’t mean other people aren’t. But I try to be more scientific; my brain works like that. So from that moment on, I started to develop a way to do things when applying the information on a student.”
Further elaborating on her method, Alejandra explains that what she developed was “human mechanics” — the mechanics of ordinary people who have no other experience except for walking to work every day.
In applying a scientific method to tango dancing, Alejandra may have been seen as challenging the perception that tango as a dance relies on improvisation, spontaneity, intuition, and feeling.
Women as Leaders
Aside from established norms, tango is also a dance that has established roles. Today, the role of leaders and followers is taking a more progressive route in the West.
In the modern age, there have been many movements from different tango groups pushing for more inclusivity in terms of who gets to be the leader and follower in tango.
In fact, even the terms leader and follower are being challenged for being impartial in the sense that they may breed misunderstandings concerning the responsibility of each dance partner.
At the time Alejandra Mantiñan was making a name for herself in tango, such movements were regarded negatively, even treated with hostility. Thus, it is no surprise that Alejandra was heavily criticized for dancing as a leader.
Tango performance by Alejandra Mantiñan and Marisol. Alejandra leads dressed as a man.
The Queer Tango Project has two videos demonstrating Alejandra dancing with female partners, one of them with her wearing drag. In fact, in “Tengo una Pregunta Para Vos,” Alejandra herself tells the story of her experience:
“I was criticized for dancing as a leader. When I started dancing, I wouldn’t do it as a follower. I began as the partner of a female friend who didn’t have a male partner. So I would dance as a leader. During my first three years, I didn’t dance as a follower. [People criticized me for dancing as a leader in milongas.]
“So I have to work hard to do something today that will open the door to other women who wish to be free and who also wish to be different.
“[...] If I have to say why I never quit tango, I’d say that tango has always let me be myself. It gave me the tools to show the world that a woman doesn’t need a man to survive. Tango gave me that. [...] I began as a man, as a leader. I needed a woman for that. ”
The documentary ‘The Tango and Me’, which was made about Alejandra’s life, makes her stance about women as leaders more apparent. In a review posted in Universal Cinema, the author states:
“What lessons can we learn from this film? There is a message here for anyone with the impulse to become an artist:
”If you persevere and keep an open mind, you may succeed in ways you never expected that you would.”
But there is also an important message here for women. Surprising as it may seem for an art form that relied on a man and woman — dancing the tango — the tango world seems much more focused on the men than the women.
It was a real accomplishment for Alejandra to become noticed with her name alone. This should serve as inspiration for women who want to break through: it is possible and it’s a goal worth pursuing.”
Freedom and Acceptance
Last but perhaps not the least controversial topic about Alejandra Mantiñan are her sentiments about what seems like the hypocrisy in the tango community.
Despite being a beloved tango dancer today, Alejandra had to deal with many belittling and disparaging comments specifically for the dance style that made her famous today.
Many people talk about how hard it can be to learn and master tango, but Alejandra’s experience sheds light on just how tough it can be to achieve freedom and acceptance in a community that supposedly markets tango as a dance where people can feel free to express themselves.
In “Tengo una Pregunta Para Vos,” Alejandra narrates:
“Back then, things were tough. I used to cry after milongas. I don’t see girls doing that today. I’m so happy about that.”
“I tried to quit dancing many times because I was never accepted. It pains me to say it, but I was never accepted. I was always criticized. People would call me names. They’d call me hothead, they’d say I had a power cord plugged in my ass, the things people say to belittle you. And they would do it because I was different.
Most of the decorations (adornos) performed by female dancers today, I would do them back then. And all of them came out as a way to improve my technique.
My students began to perform them in the milongas, as would I. I would do weird stuff. People back then would frown upon and disparage me.
They’d say I was doing way more than I was supposed to, that I wasn’t doing tango.
“I once left… I don’t cry easily. But I felt people were not letting me be. I didn’t feel free. They said tango belonged to the people, that it was free. But I wasn’t allowed to distinguish myself. I was only allowed to follow others. And I resisted doing that. Had I accepted that, I would have never quit ballet.
I got into tango because it was the only dance that made me feel free, that didn’t impose rules.”
With all this being said, it is encouraging to know that Alejandra rose over the criticisms thrown her way and continued to forge her career in tango.
A Free Spirit
Alejandra Mantiñan continues to enjoy the distinction of being a living tango legend.
Many tango dancers, particularly those who wish to improve their craft and do something different, have found her story inspiring. Those who may have criticized her before cannot deny her talent and skills on the dance floor, which has been recognized worldwide.
Though some may still view her as “controversial” for challenging established codigos, Alejandra remains a free spirit whose life is the greatest testament to her beliefs.
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