Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

From Dance to Natural Disaster: Stone Center Faculty Speak on Summer Research

November 8th, 2010

By: Shearon Roberts

Photo: Tango mural, homage to Carlos Torrallardona, Paraná Street in Buenos Aires, with grafittied text, “Esto no es arte” (This is not art). (Photo by Marilyn Miller)

The lessons of Argentine tango are best taught by the masters who practice the art-form itself. Miles to the north in the Dominican Republic, the 2010 Haitian earthquake has fostered sympathy among the neighbors sharing an island with the country, but all the while, old fears of mass migration across the countries’ borders are stirring. These were the preliminary findings of two of the Stone Center’s core faculty conducting research this year through the Center’s summer research fellowships.

Tulane Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, Marilyn Miller, has developed her expertise as a tanguera, and her mid-May to July 2010 trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay, allowed her to chronicle the vibrancy of the art-form through the artists themselves.

“The topic lends itself to an exhilarating and vertiginous mix of “hands-on,” “feet-on,” “ears-on” and “eyes-on” experience in dance halls, concert halls, galleries, studies, etc.” Miller said. “Meeting the artists, dancers, musicians, and producers is exciting, but since there are hundreds of tango events happening every day in Buenos Aires, the research is both exhausting and inexhaustible.”

Thanks to a Stone Center fellowship and a Lurcy Fellowship through the School of Liberal Arts, Miller was able to complete the research for an upcoming volume on tango – that is a collection of essays by scholars, of which Miller is the editor. The book, Tango Lessons. Interdisciplinary Essays on Argentine Tango in the Global 21st Century, is an interdisciplinary look at tango from the angles of dance, music, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, literature, film studies, fine arts and photography. Miller was able to meet with the book’s contributors in Argentina during the visit. Tango Lessons will also have contributors from scholars in the United States and from France, and the book is forthcoming from Duke University Press. Miller’s visit allowed her to write the introduction to the book as she met with artists and gallerists in Buenos Aires and Montevideo whose works are representations of tango in popular and fine art.

Miller was able to interview artists such as Carlos Alonso and Hermenegildo Sábat, as well as internationally known dancers and theatre producers such as Juan Carlos Copes and Claudio Segovia. Miller also interviewed Gustavo Mozzi, the producer of the Festival de Tango, an annual event that brings together dancers and tango aficionados from all over the world.

“My biggest ‘discovery’ on this particular research trip was that the real gems of knowledge are to be found, not necessarily in libraries and archives, but in the tales of the living practitioners of the ‘tango arts,’” Miller said.

Given the scope of the book and additional research she hopes to conduct on a subsequent visit to the region in 2011, Miller said she hopes to write an essay on tango dress for the Argentina Fashion Reader.

Further north in the Caribbean, during her research in the Dominican Republic, Tulane Assistant Professor of Sociology Katie Acosta was able to examine, on the ground level, Dominican public sentiment regarding the Haitian earthquake response thanks to a Stone Center summer research grant. As the Dominican Republic served as a gateway to the international community to access Haiti during the earthquake aftermath, Acosta said her findings suggest a slight disconnect between Dominican officials and its people on the country’s relief efforts.

“While Dominicans expressed sincere sympathy and remorse for what Haiti is going through, they continue to fear that the problems in Haiti will result in their mass migration to the Dominican Republic and thereby strain the Dominican economy,” said Acosta, who conducted her research in June and July this year in towns such as Dajabon, Monte Cristi, Puerto Plata, and Santo Domingo.

Another change brought on by the earthquake, Acosta found, is that the tragedy heightened Dominican’s own sense of vulnerability while humanizing Haitians, a profound notion as the countries have historically had a tense and strained relationship.

“Members of the Dominican government, policy makers, relief workers and everyday individuals consistently framed the assistance being provided to Haiti as a matter of humanity,” Acosta said. “This is important because it marks a shift from how Dominicans have historically treated Haitians.”
Acosta concluded that this shift is a slight turn away from a race-based view of Haitians to a humanitarian view of the Haitian people. “Local Dominicans and the government alike are recognizing that this tragedy could have easily happened to them,” Acosta said. “Thus, I see Dominican’s humanization of Haitians as a silent recognition of their own vulnerabilities.”

The humanitarian solidarity arising out of the earthquake stems from some of the social and economic inequalities that exist in the Dominican Republic. While foreign aid workers may have boosted the local Dominican economy as they used the country as an entry-point to Haiti, Dominicans still see a lack of such investment trickling down to public works projects that could improve their own lives.

“The response of the Dominican government has embittered some Dominicans who feel that officials have been slow to invest funds into road projects, health care, and food shortages to meet their own daily needs, but have been quick to invest in the needs of neighboring Haiti,” Acosta said. “Some Dominicans have interpreted the government’s reaction as a political move and one that is not in the best interest of the nation.”