In love and in tango, Nola Gray swings both ways. "I'm obsessed with dancing lead, and I'm obsessed with dancing follow," says the bisexual, bi-directional dancer. "I'm one of the few people who can look around a dance floor and say, 'I've danced with every single person here.'" Always the outsider, Boston-born Gray just celebrated the opening of her new Northeast Portland studio, La Casita Ovejita Negra—the Little House of the Little Black Sheep. Last Monday night, she shared her passion for tangling tango's conventional roles at the first in a series of tango classes crafted specially for gays and lesbians.
In spite of Portland's reputation as a GLBT-friendly city, few formal dance classes for same-sex couples exist. Aside from the gay-friendly square-dancing and roller-skating antics of the Rosetown Ramblers, same-sex dance has been relegated to smoky bars and clubs. Call this the Portland dance community's real coming-out party.
Inviting same-sex couples to tackle tango signals more than progress. The spirit of Gray's class returns tango to its roots. Flash back to turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires. Argentina's economy was booming, riding high on the mass export of leather, beef and grain. Out-of-work Italian men set sail for the city in droves to become Argentine cowboys. The mass influx of testosterone left a disproportionately small number of women to meet the cowboys' manly needs. "So you'd have 100 guys waiting in line for one whore," says Gray. "Some people say that tango originated in these lines of lustful guys. There's certainly a violence to this dance that's reminiscent of a knife fight between two men."
Artistry, not just activism, drove Gray to initiate a tango class in which men could follow and women could wear the fedora, so to speak: "For those who are deeply interested in the art of tango, role-changing is fascinating. I know of one straight man in Portland who had high heels made for him so he could know what it's like to follow."
And in a city famous for its thriving population of black sheep, she expects to be welcomed with open arms. "Ovejita negra is a term of endearment," Gray explains. "It means the beloved black sheep. The ovejita negra pushes the limits of its community while still remaining a part of it."
Gray's brand-new studio, La Ovejita Negra, is located at 61 1/2 SE 66th Avenue. Currently, the Mini-Marshall, a tango class open to the GLBT and straight communities, takes place at Tango Berretín, 6305 SE Foster Road, 238-3939. 7 pm Mondays. $10.