BUENOS AIRES — Liliana Furió’s ruby red flat shoes glided across the dance floor in swift, assured moves, making her baggy pants sway gently.
She and a lean young Russian man were rapture personified, clasped in a tight embrace as they circled counterclockwise with a few other pairs in perfect synchrony.
But it was hard to tell who was leading whom. Some pairs appeared lost in a loving embrace while others swung back and forth playfully.
And that is precisely what Furió had in mind when she created a weekly dance fest that would break all the rules of tango, Argentina’s prime cultural export.
Furió started renting venues for the event earlier this year, calling it La Furiosa — or the livid woman. It’s part of a push by Argentine feminists to make tango less patriarchal.
In traditional tango, men invite women to dance through a subtle head-jolt gesture known as a cabeceo, often signaled from across the room. On the dance floor, the man asserts control in a sequence of moves, often fast-paced, jolting, and limb-entangling, that range from teasingly sensual to uncomfortably domineering.
Whether they’re loving or enduring it, the women, who are expected to wear cocktail dresses and high heels, must hold tight for four-song sets. Veteran tango dancers said the 15-minute stretches can turn into agony when a male partner’s embrace feels suffocating — or when his hand wanders well beneath the waistline.
“It’s a bit of a game to test where the limits are,” said Victoria Beytia, an avid tango dancer who, along with Furió, is part of a loose coalition of activists known as the Tango Feminist Movement.
In July, the group published a protocol to make tango halls less dogmatic about traditional gender roles and more assertive about rooting out sexual harassment and assault.
The protocol provides suggested guidelines for tango venue organizers, including acceptance of couples who depart from heteronormative roles. It also offers guidance on how to handle instances of harassment and abuse, advising, for instance, that men accused of acting inappropriately on the dance floor be asked to leave.
“Tango is a reflection of what is happening in our culture, and for a long time our culture has allowed men to touch you when they want to, and if you complain, you’re dismissed as crazy,” Beytia said.
Furió, a 56-year-old documentary filmmaker, became acquainted with tango as a child. Her father, a strict military intelligence officer who years later would be convicted of grave crimes committed during Argentina’s dictatorship, made watching “The Grand Values of Tango,” a weekly television show, an obligatory family ritual.
As an adult, she began attending the storied tango halls in Buenos Aires known as milongas. But her passion for the dance was deflated by the rituals and codes of conduct that struck her as sexist and demeaning.
Argentine tango is the product of a confluence of rhythms and traditions that intersected in the 1700s and 1800s, in poor districts of Buenos Aires that were home to European immigrants, former African slaves and locals.
Initially shunned by elites and the Catholic Church, which deemed the dance transgressive and obscene, tango was ultimately embraced widely as Argentina received a huge influx of immigrants in the early 1900s, and Buenos Aires became a world-renowned cosmopolitan city.
The lyrics of many tango classics are as dramatic as the genre, telling stories of passionate love, desperate longing, and betrayal. But several are explicit odes to the subjugation of women, and physical violence against them, and are jarring to listen to today.
The song “Amablemente,” or “Kindly,” tells the story of a man who walks in on his partner in the arms of another man. The male lover is dismissed, because, as lyricist Iván Díez put it, “the man is not culpable in these cases.” The betrayed lover then demands that the woman prepare him a beverage, leans over to kiss her forehead, and “kindly stabbed her 34 times.”
But this part of tango history began to come under scrutiny as Argentina’s feminist movement grew in visibility and vigor. In 2015, a campaign to draw attention to violence against women galvanized millions.
Soraya Rizzardini González, a tango instructor who is part of the Tango Feminist Movement and helped draft the protocol, said that while songs that seem to explicitly condone violence may be a minority, tango has always reflected pervasive structural sexism in Argentina.
The earliest film recordings of tango, she said, depict women being treated as “rag dolls” across the dance floor.
“The gender roles are fixed,” González said. “One person is leading and the other is not.
“Tango is a caricature of the patriarchy,” she added.
In the 1990s, gay Argentines began organizing dance collectives that upended the staid rules. In what began as a small, underground scene that would blossom, tango aficionados created spaces in which women could take the lead and same-sex couples could alternate between leading and passive roles.
An advertisement for queer tango lessons made Furió do a double-take in 2003. Having recently come out of the closet, she found the idea enthralling.
“It meant being able to take ownership of a piece of heritage that is so deeply ours, but that had been accessible only to a segment of the population,” she said. “There was something very subversive about that.”
As more women became tango instructors and taught the dance in a gender-fluid way, Buenos Aires milongas started embracing same-sex couples, women leading men on the dance floor, and other breaks with convention.
Some tango aficionados remain doggedly committed to tradition. Héctor Norberto Pellozo, who heads the old-school milonga Los Cachirulos, insists that guests at his dance party dress elegantly and adhere to the courting rituals in which women must await interest from men.
On a recent night, he and his wife welcomed old and new patrons effusively as he led women and men to sit on opposite sides of the dance floor. Pellozo scoffed at the suggestion that tango has perpetuated gender inequality and enabled abusive men.
“Women know how to earn respect,” he said. “The issue now is that women want to overtake men.”
Pellozo said that while he respected gay people, the notion that they can partake in tango was blasphemy.
“Being chest to chest is not the same as it is between a man and a woman,” he said.
Having been expelled from Pellozo’s milonga once for trying to dance with another woman, Furió is no fan. But she seems to be having the last laugh, drawing larger crowds at La Furiosa.
“We’ve perhaps broadened it into something that is fraternal and not necessarily sensual,” she said.
Still, watching her and her patrons dance under dim red lights while a live band played, it was easy to drift into something approaching a hypnotic state.