Argentine tango is a musical genre of simple quadruple metre and binary musical form, and the social dance that accompanies it. Its lyrics and music are marked by nostalgia, expressed through melodic instruments including the bandoneón. Originating at the ending of the 19th century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, and Montevideo, Uruguay, it quickly grew in popularity and spread internationally. Among its leading figures are the singer and songwriter Carlos Gardel and composers/performers Francisco Canaro, Juan D’Arienzo, Osvaldo Pugliese, and Ástor Piazzolla.
The origins of tango are unclear because historical documentation from that era hardly exists. However, in recent years a few tango aficionados have undertaken a thorough research of that history –so it is less mysterious today than before. It is generally thought that the dance developed in the late 19th century in working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay as practiced by Uruguayan and Argentine dancers, musicians, and immigrant laborers.
Argentine tango music is much more varied than ballroom tango music. A large amount of tango music has been composed by a variety of different orchestras over the last century. Not only is there a large volume of music, there is a breadth of stylistic differences between these orchestras as well, which makes it easier for Argentine tango dancers to spend the whole night dancing only Argentine tango. The four representative schools of the Argentine tango music are Di Sarli, d’Arienzo, Troilo and Pugliese, all four descendent from Italian immigrant families. They are dance orchestras, playing music for dancing. When the spirit of the music is characterized by counterpoint marking, clarity in the articulation is needed. It has a clear, repetitive pulse or beat, a strong tango-rhythm which is based on the 2×4, 2 strong beats on 4 (dos por cuatro). Ástor Piazzolla stretched the classical harmony and counterpoint and moved the tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. His compositions tell us something of our contemporary life and dancing it relates much to modern dance.
While Argentine tango dancing has historically been danced to tango music, such as that produced by such orchestra leaders as Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos Di Sarli, Juan d’Arienzo, in the ’90s a younger generation of tango dancers began dancing tango steps to alternatives to tango music; music from other genres like, “world music”, “electro-tango”, “experimental rock”, “trip hop”, and “blues”, to name a few. Tango nuevo dance is often associated with alternative music, but it can be danced to tango as well.
Argentine tango dancing consists of a variety of styles that developed in different regions and eras, and in response to the crowding of the venue and even the fashions in clothing. Even though the present forms developed in Argentina and Uruguay, they were also exposed to influences re-imported from Europe and North America. There are records of 18th and early 19th century tango styles in Cuba and Spain, while there is a flamenco tangos dance that may share a common ancestor in a minuet-style European dance. Consequently, there is a good deal of confusion and overlap between the styles as they are now danced – and fusions continue to evolve.
Argentine tango is danced in an embrace that can vary from very open, in which leader and follower connect at arms length, to very closed, in which the connection is chest-to-chest, or anywhere in between.
Tango dance is essentially walking with a partner and the music. Dancing appropriately to the emotion and speed of a tango is extremely important to dancing tango. A good dancer is one who transmits a feeling of the music to the partner, leading them effectively throughout the dance. Also, dancers generally keep their feet close to the floor as they walk, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other.
Argentine tango dancing relies heavily on improvisation; although certain patterns of movement have been codified by instructors over the years as a device to instruct dancers, there is no “basic step.” One of the few constants across all Argentine tango dance styles is that the follower will usually be led to alternate feet. Another is that the follower rarely has his or her weight on both feet at the same time. In many modern variations of Argentine Tango, particularly in Europe, teachers of Tango may establish a “basic step” in order to help students to learn and pick up the “feel” of the dance.
Argentine tango is danced counterclockwise around the outside of the dance floor (the “line of dance”) and dance “traffic” often segregates into a number of “lanes”; cutting across the middle of the floor is frowned upon. In general, the middle of the floor is where one finds either beginners who lack floor navigation skills or people who are performing “showy” figures or patterns that take up more dance floor space. It is acceptable to stop briefly in the line of dance to perform stationary figures, as long as the other dancers are not unduly impeded. The school of thought about this is, if there is open space in front, there are likely people waiting behind. Dancers are expected to respect the other couples on the floor; colliding or even crowding another couple, or stepping on others’ feet is to be avoided strenuously. It is considered rude; in addition to possible physical harm rendered, it can be disruptive to a couple’s musicality.
Ballroom tango steps were standardized by dance studios. The steps have been relatively fixed in style for decades. However, Argentine tango has been an evolving dance and musical form, with continual changes occurring every day on the social dance floor in Argentina and in major tango centers elsewhere in the world. Argentine tango dance is, still based heavily on improvisation. While there are patterns or sequences of steps that are used by instructors to teach the dance, even in a sequence every movement is led not only in direction but also speed and quality (a step can be smooth, pulsing, sharp, … etc.). Although Argentine tango evolves mostly on the dance floor, the government of Argentina does host an annual competition of Argentine tango dance in Buenos Aires, attracting competitors from around the world.
A striking difference between Argentine tango and ballroom tango is in the shape and feel of the embrace. Ballroom technique dictates that partners arch their upper bodies away from each other, while maintaining contact at the hip, in an offset frame.
In Argentine tango, it is nearly the opposite: the dancers’ chests are closer to each other than are their hips, and often there is contact at about the level of the chest (the contact point differing, depending on the height of the leader and the closeness of the embrace). In close embrace, the leader and the follower’s chests are in contact and they are dancing with their heads touching or very near each other. In open embrace, there can be as much space as desired between the partners, but there should always be complete contact along the embracing arms to give optimum communication. Since Argentine tango is almost entirely improvisational, there needs to be clear communication between partners. Even when dancing in a very open embrace, Argentine tango dancers do not hold their upper bodies arched away from each other; yet, each partner is not always over their own axis, there are even styles that demand a constant leaning against each other. Whether open or closed, a tango embrace is not rigid, but relaxed, like a hug.
One characteristic of Argentine tango is the walk outside of the legs of the follower. The inside walk belongs originally to the American Tango. It is seen in Argentine Tango, but it does not belong to it originally. Another difference is that the leader may freely step with his left foot when the follower steps with her left foot. In English, this is sometimes referred to as a “crossed” (e.g. “walking in the crossed system”) or “uneven” walk in contrast to the normal walk which is called “parallel” or “even.” In ballroom tango, “crossed system” is considered incorrect unless the leader and follower are facing the same direction. Furthermore, the flexibility of the embrace allows the leader to change his weight from one foot to another while the follower’s weight remains unchanged. This is another major difference with ballroom tango, where a weight change by one partner usually leads to a weight change by the other.
The nomenclature originated with the Naveira/Salas “Investigation Group.” Early on, they used ‘even/uneven’ to describe the arrangement of legs in the walk (or turn). By the mid-1990s, they began using ‘parallel/crossed’ and later ‘normal/crossed’. In dance the changing of feet is named contrapaso, or “contra-step”. This change can be made off or on the normal beat.
Unlike the majority of social dances, Argentine tango does not have a basic step; instead is a completely improvised dance combining various elements in a spontaneous manner, as determined by the lead. To be able to improvise, the dancer needs to learn the lead and implementation of the different single elements of Tango, so they can be produced later by leading appropriately in space and music. The elements are just a few as caminar (walk), cruce (cross), ochos (figure-eight), ganchos (leg hooks), giros (turns), contragiros (turns in the other direction), sacadas (displacements), boleos (this expression comes from boleadoras, balls linked with cords, thrown to hunt animals), llevadas de pie (moving foot by foot), cortes (cuts), and quebradas (breaks). Well-known and simple combinations are called figura básica (basic figures), especially when they contain just one element. Some of the elements are named as a figure.
Códigos and yeta
Argentine tango developed set of codes and superstitions throughout its history. One important and charming example is the “cabeceo,” a head nod and meeting of eyes which signifies an invitation by a man to a woman to dance mainly practiced in Buenos Aires. “Cabeceo” has the advantage, that not wanted dances can be avoided, because a spoken invitation might be hard to resist for the woman or the refusal of a woman embarrassing for the man. Somewhat related is “yeta” – superstitions. For example, one doesn’t dance to the well known tango “Adios Muchachos” as it is (falsely) believed the last one sung by Carlos Gardel before his untimely accident leading to his death.
Vals and milonga
Argentine tango dancers usually enjoy two other related dances: vals (waltz) and milonga.
Music for the vals is in 3/4 time. Tango dancers dance the vals in a rather relaxed, smooth flowing dancing style in contrast to Viennese Waltz where the dancers often take 3 steps per measure and turn almost constantly. Experienced dancers alternate the smooth one-beat-per-measure walk with some double time steps (often incorrectly called syncopated walks), stepping on one- two- or (rarely) all three beats in a measure. Vals dancing is characterized by absence of pauses; continual turns (giros) in both directions are not done as in ballroom quick waltz, although turns are sometimes introduced for variety.
Milonga, in 2/4 time, has a strongly accented beat, and sometimes an underlying “habanera” rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce double time steps (incorrectly called syncopation and more appropriately called traspies) into their walks and turns. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some danced in other varieties of tango. Some tango instructors say that tango steps should not be used in milonga and that milonga has its own special rhythm and steps, which are quite different from tango.
Milonga is also the name given to clubs and events specially for dancing tango. This double meaning of the word milonga can be confusing unless one knows the context in which the word “milonga” is used. People who attend milongas are known as milongueros.
Styles of Argentine tango dance
Tango canyengue is a rhythmic style of tango that originated in the early 1900s and is still popular today. It is one of the original roots styles of tango and contains all fundamental elements of traditional Argentine tango. In tango canyengue the dancers share one axis, dance in a closed embrace, and with the legs relaxed and slightly bent. Tango canyengue uses body dissociation for the leading, walking with firm ground contact, and a permanent combination of on- and off-beat rhythm. Its main characteristics are its musicality and playfulness. Its rhythm is described as “incisive, exciting, provocative”.
Leading exponents of tango canyengue:
- Romolo Garcia (deceased)
- El Negro Celso (deceased)
- Rodolfo Cieri (deceased) and Maria Cieri
- Luis Grondona
- Marta Anton and ‘El Gallego’ Manolo Salvador
- Roxina Villegas and Adrian Griffero
- Ernest Williams and Maricela Wilson
Tango orillero refers to the style of dance that developed away from the town centers, in the outskirts and suburbs where there was more freedom due to more available space on the dance floor. The style is danced in an upright position and uses various embellishments including rapid foot moves, kicks, and even some acrobatics, though this is a more recent development.
Tango Salon does not refer to a single specific way of dancing tango. Rather, it is literally tango as it is danced socially in the salons (dance halls) of Buenos Aires. Salon tango was danced throughout the Golden Era of Argentine Tango (1935–1952) when milongas (tango parties) were held in large dance venues and full tango orchestras performed. Salon tango is often characterized by slow, measured, and smoothly executed moves, never moving against the line-of-dance, and respecting the space of other dancers on the floor around them. The emphasis is on precision, smoothness, musicality, good navigation, and following the códigos (tango etiquette) of the salons. The couple embraces closely, with some variants having a flexible embrace, opening slightly to make room for various figures and closing again for support and poise. The walk is the most important element, and dancers usually walk 60%-70% of the time during a tango song.
When tango became popular again after the end of the Argentine military dictatorships in 1983, this style was resurrected by dancers from the Golden Era:
- Carlitos (Carlos) and Rosa Perez. The legendary teacher couple at Club Sunderlad, Buenos Aires. Almost all World Tango Championship winners have taken lessons from them.
- Carlos Estévez “Petróleo” †
- Gerardo Portalea †
- Jose “El Turco” Brahemcha
- Jose “Lampazo” Vazquez †
- Luis “Milonguita” Lemos †
- Miguel Balmaceda †
- Mingo and Esther Pugliese
- Osvaldo Cartery † and Luisa “Coca” Inés
- Toto Faraldo
- Pedro “Tete” Rusconi †
- Ramón “Finito” Rivera †
- Virulazo †
- In the milongas at Club Sin Rumbo, Sunderland, Club Glorias Argentinas, Salon El Pial and Salon Canning.
One variant of Tango Salon is the Villa Urquiza style, named after the northern barrio of Buenos Aires where the clubs Sin Rumbo and Sunderland are located. Some argentinian dancers or couples who were or are current practitioners and teach the Villa Urquiza style of tango are:
- El Chino Perico (one of the old milongueros)
- María and Carlos Rivarola
- The Dispari family with Jorge Dispari and Marita ‘La Turca’ and their 2 daughters (Samantha Dispari, Geraldine Rojas and Ezequiel Paludi.)
- Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebs
- Andres Laza Moreno
- Osvaldo Zotto† and Lorena Ermocida
- The Rodriguez family with Jorge and Liliana Rodriguez their daughter Malena Rodriguez, and son Javier Rodriguez.
- The Missé family (Andrea Missé †, Sebastian Missé and Andrea Reyero, Gabriel Missé and Stella Missé)
- Carlos Perez and Rosa Forte
- Fabian Peralta
- Adrian and Amanda Costa. Teaching in Europe. They live in France as of 2014. Studied under Jorge Dispari and Marita ‘La Turca’.
- Jose Luis Gonzalez (CL) and Paulina Cazabon (CL). They live in Chile as of 2015 and tour in Europe (mainly France).
- Juan Martin Carrara (UY) and Stefania Colina (UY). They live in Uruguay as of 2015 and tour in Europe
- Carlos Rodriguez de Boedo (AR) and Brigita Urbietytė (LT). They live in Kaunas, Lithuania as of 2015 and teach mostly in Baltic and eastern countries.
- Chiche Nuñez (AR). He lives in Berlin, Germany as of 2015.
- Alper Ergökmen and Selen Sürek. They live in Ankara, Turkey as of 2015 and teach mostly in Europe.
- Ney Melo. He lives in US as of 2015.
“Estilo milonguero” (tango apilado/confiteria style; estilo del centro de Buenos Aires)
This is a close-embrace style named by Susana Miller in the 1990s. Ideal for crowded dance floors, it is danced chest-to-chest, knees relaxed, back straight, with the partners leaning – or appearing to lean – slightly toward each other to allow space for the feet to move. The center line of the leader’s and follower’s spines are directly in front of each other, requiring that each dancer turn their head to their left slightly to find space over their partner’s right shoulder. The follower’s left arm reaches directly up over the leader’s shoulder without resting any body weight on the leader’s shoulder. The leader’s left hand and the follower’s right hand clasp in the same manner as other styles of Argentine Tango, with elbows pointed down (contrasting with elbows up and pointed back as in ballroom tango), with little or no pressure applied by the arms or hands. The leader’s right arm is held high across the follower’s shoulder blades to help facilitate the upper chest connection, to avoid pulling the follower’s lower torso and hips in toward the leader, thus allowing more flexibility of movement in the mid and lower spine and better extension of the follower’s legs. In the case of followers that are not tall enough to place their head over the leader’s shoulder, it is recommended that the follower’s head be turned to the right and touch the left side of the head to the leader’s chest, and the follower’s left arm may wrap around the outside right arm (although this is generally not preferred as it limits the leader’s flexibility of movement, and is a danger on crowded dance floors to have the follower’s elbow sticking out). It is generally not recommended for a leader to dance milonguero style with a follower that is too tall for the leader to see over the follower’s shoulder since it would be very difficult to navigate around the dance floor.
A style of Carlitos Espinoza can be considered a modern development of tango milonguero.
Starting in the 1990s in Buenos Aires, the Tango Investigation Group (later transformed into the Cosmotango organization) founded by Gustavo Naveira and Fabian Salas applied the principles of dance kinesiology from modern dance to analyze the physics of movement in Argentine tango. Taking what they learned from this analysis they then began to explore all the possibilities of movement within the framework of Argentine Tango. From the work of these founders of the Tango Nuevo movement, there was shift in all styles of tango away from teaching what to dance toward teaching how to dance.
Tango de fantasía
This style mostly evolved over the 1940-1950 time span. The term Tango de Fantasía refers to music, dance, and dresses; it tries to codify a tango form different from the traditional one. Dancers added little sits and fast footwork – doing fantasies, as some people called it. The related men’s suit with a white border is named traje de fantasía. In music, Osmar Héctor Maderna’s was referred to as Tango de Fantasía due to his arrangements which included fancy solos. During the same time period, people used to refer to the non-traditional Argentinian folklore by a similar expression: Folklore de Projección.
Show tango, and Tango de Escenario (stage tango) is a more theatrical form of Argentine tango developed to suit the stage.
In theory, all styles can be performed on stage, but the movement has to take stage elements into accounts, such as diagonals, centres, fronts, placement of lights, etc. Often, show tango routines includes embellishments, acrobatics, and solo moves that would be impractical on a social dance floor. Stage tango can be partially improvised, but in order for the general choreography to fit the set stage, some parts need to be rehearsed as a set routine.
Stage Tango still has to be led like it is led in all other Tango styles; otherwise the couple is missing the main ingredient of the dance, namely, the typical intimate connection; this connection becomes visible only when the leader and follower enter their roles – whether the show is choreographed or not.
Tango on stage should not be confused with Tango de Fantasia or tango acrobatico, which is a particular style of tango that is only suitable for stage dancing.