Conference Tangoes Across Disciplines

Ask any two tango scholars to define their object of study and you’re likely to get three different answers. For some, it’s a melodic language of nostalgia and loss. For others, it’s the synchrony of two bodies in motion. And for some, it’s a symbol of passion and possession deeply interwoven in structures of social authority.

At 3 p.m. this afternoon, the curtain will rise on “Tango! Dance the World Around: Global Transformations of Latin American Culture,” a weekend conference in Radcliffe Yard that will interrogate these riddling definitions through a unique combination of theory and praxis.

“We have music and we have dance,” says Homi K. Bhabha, the Rothenberg professor of the humanities, who will moderate the interdisciplinary conference. “And we have something even more interesting, which is, we are continually moving between language and dance.”


“Tango!” was originally conceived in 2004 when Bhabha organized a conference on “cultural citizenship” in his capacity as Senior Advisor for the Humanities at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. At the time, our newly-installed Harvard University President was still in charge of the Institute, and the conference reflects her commitment to the arts, Bhabha says.

“It started when I took this idea to President Faust when she was Dean of Radcliffe. She got enthusiastic about it because her vision has always been one that integrates the arts into the humanities and social science,” recalls Bhabha. “It very much fit in with her vision, and she suggested that we do it at Radcliffe because the whole question of the politics of gender and the history of gender is so important to tango.”

It has since become the opening conference of a new program spearheaded by the Humanities Center, entitled “The Regional and the Global,” a two-year long series of events which highlight the cultural, political, and social links within a region, and the relationship of the region to the rest of the world.

As Bhabha hopes will be the case for future events, “Tango!” is an interdisciplinary event: it’s a joint venture between the Radcliffe Institute, the Humanities Center, and the David Rockefeller Center.

“Tango!” seeks to integrate what Bhabha terms three “major preoccupations at Harvard”: integrated study, interdisciplinarity, and internationalism. Combining the mediums of dance and musical performance with more traditional keynote lectures and panel discussions, the conference includes scholars from disciplines as diverse as dance history, musicology, literature, sociology, and anthropology. This conference explores “tango” as a cultural palimpsest.


When most people think of tango, the image that comes most readily to mind is that of a couple dancing. Bhabha seeks to start from this traditional conception of tango—tango as dance—and then work outwards to tango as a social phenomenon.

“We wanted to start with something that was performance based,” says Bhabha. “And we decided that we wanted to move from music and dance to literature, and then from literature to the humanities, more generally, and social science. Because, you see, tango is a dance, tango is a form of music. But the origins of tango in Latin America, within certain areas of Latin America, within a certain class of people—all of this combines to make a really interdisciplinary, as well as an international, perspective.”

Indeed, rather than opening with a straightforward lecture, first on the conference’s program is “Wallflowers and Femmes Fatales: Dancing Gender and Politics,” billed as “lecture and demonstration” by Marta Elena Savigliano, a professor in the Department of World Arts and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles. Savigliano will utilize a troupe of dancers in her discussion of Latin American gender politics.

Incorporating American and Argentinean scholars from both the humanities and social sciences, panel discussions will address “Tango as Politics” and “Tango as a Cultural Form.”

Bhabha is most excited for Saturday’s three-way “conversation” between cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, another internationally-acclaimed cellist, the Mexico City-based Carlos Prieto, and world-renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov.


While the conference’s topics range broadly, Bhabha says that what unifies these discussions is the role of “tango” as metaphor.

“The world over, it has been seen as a metaphor of passion. The nature of tango in itself, the lyrics, has very much to do with the relationships…between men and women,” says Bhabha. “Tango is associated with the urban environment, so it’s very much about people in transition. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for the way in which culture today is mobile.”

Ultimately Bhabha hopes that the intellectual collaboration begun by “Tango!” will create a model for the University as a whole.

“That notion of partnership, intellectual partnership, gives the metaphor of the crossroads of the Humanities Center a reality,” he says. “For us it’s also important that these collaborations bring Harvard together as a kind of university that functions together.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at