The Essence of Tango Argentino

The goal here is to identify the characteristics that are at the core of tango, the sine qua non of tango argentino. For foreigners, the characteristics of dance identified as tango that often attract attention are the dramatic poses and conspicuous movements associated with tango exhibitions. One need only open the pages of El Tangauta to find countless advertisements of tango instruction where these features are displayed. One could legitimately state that these are features of tango for the stage, but what they are not are features of tango de salon, the tango of the milongas.

If a milonguero is asked what are the essential characteristics that define tango, he will typically say ‘the music’ or ‘the embrace’, or sometimes ‘the walk’.

The music is the tango music of the 30s, 40s and 50s from such orquestas as Biagi, Calo, Canaro, D’Agostino, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, Pugliese, Tanturi, and Troilo, the music that is played in the milongas of Buenos Aires. This is the music that calls dancers out onto the dance floor.

When a man and woman enter onto the dance floor, they embrace. They reach their arms around each other and connect, chest to chest, in a comfortable connection that is maintained throughout the dance. All movements that occur are while maintaining this embrace. The embrace is not broken. This is nearly universal for porteños dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

Tango is a walking dance. The tango walk brushes the floor, neither rising high above it nor weighing heavily into it. The tango walk is relaxed yet it contains an expressive energy; it is smooth, not rough, yet it is not constant, instead it varies with the pulse of the music. It is elegant in its clearly defined lines and collection of weight into a point.

The tango walk is improvised. There is progression in the line of dance, walking. When floor density limits linear progression, there is walking in a circular pattern. This walking is neither spectacular nor dramatic. The pace of the walking is connected to the rhythmic and melodic structure of the music. The sequence of tango walking movements is variable, dependent upon available space, the music and partner connection at the moment.

Thus, tango is a man embracing a woman and walking in a elegant manner that is not predetermined, yet is connected to tango music. The music defines it as tango, and the embrace is unique to tango. Walking is not unique to tango, but the manner of walking is.

However, even in recognizing that tango is an elegant walk to tango music between a man and a woman in a maintained embrace, there is still one essential ingredient of tango that has not been mentioned. ‘Tango is a feeling that is danced.’ Without emotion, dancers are just going through the motions. Emotion is what is shared between man and woman in the embrace. The music is the source of the emotion and the embrace is the catalyst for sharing it. All this occurs while walking connected to the music. These are the essential ingredients of tango.

Open the embrace and the emotional connection between man and woman is compromised.

Structure the dance around movements that thrust the feet into the air or break the continuity of the walking movements, whether linear or circular, and the dance enters into the realm of choreography, and is no longer the improvised walking tango of the milongas of Buenos Aires.

The cerebral execution of sequences focusing on accomplishing specific movements fails to allow tango to emanate from the heart, from the feeling shared between man and woman.

The execution of movements of any kind to music that is not tango divorces the dance from the source of energy that drives it.

When the essence of tango is missing, it is not tango that is being danced.

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13 Responses to The Essence of Tango Argentino

  1. cherie says:

    I agree completely with all of your points–except that the tango walk is a “brushing” of the feet on the floor. Perhaps I misunderstood, but to me, the correct tango walk is for the dancer to put his foot (toe/ball first) on the floor exactly where he planned to with energy and attitude; no “skating” to keep his balance or to find the right moment to change his weight. Confidence and assurance are required.

    The folks who “slide” or “brush” to the next position lack balance and confidence.

    Un abrazo,
    cherie

    • tangovoice says:

      No, not skating. The ‘brush’ analogy indicates the feet are raised only slightly above the floor, such that if there were bristles on the sole of the foot, they would lightly touch the floor. Perhaps there is a better image, but this has been used effectively in communicating this concept before. Not too much energy should be directly into the floor. The step should land softly, otherwise the partner will experience a rough ride. A toe or ball landing in walking forward is softer than a heel landing.

      The energy and attitude comes from the chest, not the feet.

  2. jantango says:

    First, I want to comment on your reply above. I’ve heard about a teacher who wants her students to walk like an elephant. I disagree and share your opinion about stepping softly. Directing energy to the floor is pointless.

    You make excellent statements about tango. One point stood out to me: “The music is the source of the emotion and the embrace is the catalyst for sharing it.” Dancers sometimes give all the credit to a partner for a good dance. When we are not embraced for the dance, the music should move us deeply while listening.

    • R. Bononno says:

      This is a very nice summary of what could be considered the essentials of tango. And I agree with them largely. But I have a question as a relative newcomer, concerning stepping both to the original post and to jantango. I have always been told to “use the floor,” to plant my feet solidly on the floor and step off with energy. However, I also see a number of interesting dancers, men, who kind of glide along and land on their toes. It gives them a kind of soft, feline walk and I’m told this can be kind of nice for the follower. But when I watch many of the dancers I admire, like Ricardo Vidort, I see quite a bit of energy in his step and not much brushing of the floor. But maybe I’m misunderstanding the use of the term “brush” here. Maybe it is simply a way of not lifting your fee too high off the floor during the walk.

      • tangovoice says:

        There is indeed variation in walking among men whose tango dancing skill has been widely respected. On the one hand, there is the long stride of Jorge Dispari (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIk7fW4IWKM). In contrast, Ruben Harymbat (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0tMAz4RFaU) takes shorter steps. Both of these dancers (and most other dancers who are highly regarded) walk lightly, applying little force downward into the floor. Close observation of the dancing of Ricardo Vidort (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mekNwq3AW4E), who took short steps, indicates that he did not place a lot of pressure into the floor. ‘Brushing’ the floor refers to walking lightly, keeping feet close to the floor, without placing a lot of pressure (in the vertical plane) into the floor.

        Regarding, ‘stepping off with energy’, perhaps what is meant is to apply energy in the horizontal plane. There is a difference between a hard landing downward (i.e., vertically) onto the floor and using the floor as a foundation (i.e., support) for creating energy for movement in the horizontal plane.

      • Chris, UK says:

        TV wrote: he did not place a lot of pressure into the floor. ‘Brushing’ the floor refers to walking lightly, keeping feet close to the floor, without placing a lot of pressure (in the vertical plane) into the floor.

        The amount of vertically pressure placed into the floor is determined entirely by the weight of the dancer (plus, to be 100% accurate, the square meterage of the soles of his feet).

        The idea that this pressure varies with style of dancing is a myth. A fabrication born and bred in the minds of dance class teachers.

      • tangovoice says:

        Technically, according to Newton’s second law of motion (http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-3/Newton-s-Second-Law), the force placed upon an object (e.g., by a walking person on the floor) is equal to its mass times its acceleration (F = m*a). This is the force generated in the horizontal direction. The force generated in the vertical direction is equal to the force generated in the horizontal direction times the tangent of the angle of impact of the shoe onto the floor [ F(vert) = F(horz) * tan(angle) ]. As the angle of impact decreases (i.e., the shoe brushes the floor), the vertical force decreases. Of course, the actual force depends upon the mass (i.e., weight) of the moving object and its acceleration. The balance of the dancer affects the angle of impact. Dancers with better balance can extend to take longer steps and minimize the angle of impact. The angle of impact is independent of the length of the step, but the acceleration needed to take a longer step may increase the force in the horizontal direction. However, there is probably sufficient variation among tango dancers (particularly weight and balance, which affect angle of impact) to make a generalization regarding the relationship between length of steps and the vertical force generated.

        It is not known to what degree tango instructors are knowledgeable regarding the mechanics branch of physics.

  3. Angel says:

    I am very happy to see this article, and agree with its concepts and philosophies. I havae been teaching these same things for much of the 25 years that I have been dancing tango. I do, however, disagree with some of the statements’ clarity, as they could be misleading.

    You wrote: “All movements that occur are while maintaining this embrace. The embrace is not broken. This is nearly universal for porteños dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires.”
    This appears to be directed to those dancing in other than a closed embrace. I understand, but…

    You wrote: “Open the embrace and the emotional connection between man and woman is compromised.”
    As you did write, “…nearly universal for porteños…”
    This would imply that even these porteños who relax the embrace do not know, or are not dancing, tango. I would question this.

    Again, I agree with your feelings of the walk. Yet, you wrote, “The tango walk is improvised. ‘Tango is a feeling that is danced.’ Walking is not unique to tango, but the manner of walking is. ”
    If these things are true, then the walk is not a didactic, rigid, and unchanging element. One can not say that there is but one way to do it. No two persons walk the same, thus, no two persons will dance the same. In the same manner, no two persons might; ‘feel’ the same thing, to the same stimulus, at the same time. This is not a bad thing. Contrarily, it is a good thing. It has allowed tango to be born, reborn, grow, and evolve as we have since the ’30s and ’40s of its origins.

    You wrote: “Thus, tango is a man embracing a woman and walking in a elegant manner that is not predetermined, yet is connected to tango music. The music defines it as tango, and the embrace is unique to tango.”
    Though, I agree with your definition of tango, your post might be misleading. Some persons receive a certain heartfelt feeling when watching the ocean; others receive the same feeling when watching the mountains. Some are impassioned by classical music…others, by tango. Tango music might define itsels as tango, but the tango does not limit itself to only its music.

    Again, you wrote that tango is a feeling that is danced, and that the execution of movements of any kind to music that is not tango divorces the dance from the source of energy that drives it. Much music has impassioned me to remember, embrace, and dance tango. A smell; a taste; a sound can all remind us of home when we are away. Why would tango be different.

    Furthter, a quick note… tango is not the only dance with its type of embrace, nor the only dance, internationally, that maintains such.

    It might seem as though I do not agree with you, at all. Yet, I do. I understand that you are speaking in terms of what tango is to the argentines who have lived in and with it as an integral part of their beings… their lives… and their culture. In this, you are correct. However, as a bi-national who is well aware of two birth cultures, and having lived in and amongst several others, I would like to submit that it is possible for a foreigner to perceive, conceive, and appreciate another’s culture even if it becomes mixed with one’s own.

  4. tangobob says:

    I could not have said it better. Dancing to music other than tango is, well, dancing to other music. You cannot say you are dancing tango without the music. What you say about the embrace, the low feet, the feeling are all true, but without the music you simply do not have tango.

  5. carlos says:

    nice article,

    but (always there is a but),
    you cannot say how people is going to connect with each other, it could be the music first, or may be first the embrace if is nice, or may be just the contact, may be the heaven-kind of connection doesn’t show up at all in one tanda… who knows? but for sure people is DANCING. This is a bid difference, you can dance, just dance, the kind of conection you have while dancing depends on many things (mood perhaps, navigation perhaps, music perhaps, embrace perhaps, styles perhaps, smells, noise coming from the bar another guy or another woman around you that you might like… who knows)… tango is not a religious thing… tango is a dance, why to pretend to put it in a such a high level of compromise… boy and girls they all want to have fun, to enjoy it freely.

    • tangovoice says:

      Yes, tango can be many things to many people, but to state that the essence of tango is ‘dancing’ is to not differentiate it from other dances, and to not recognize what tango has to offer. It is the close physical connection and the emotional expression it allows, the characteristics walk, and the music that make tango unique and unlike any other dance. Fewer people would dance tango if they were told it was just ‘a dance’. People dance tango because they may achieve something no other dance can provide. Of course, not everyone who dances tango has the ability to achieve what tango provides, at least not in their level of development, and not with every partner, but these are shortcomings of the people, not of the dance.

  6. Alexis Cousein says:

    > Open the embrace and the emotional connection
    > between man and woman is compromised.

    That’s something I wouldn’t necessarily agree with. People have been dancing in far more open embraces than an “open embrace” in other dances and they’re still connected, and it’s perfectly possible to have another kind of embrace than closed without _compromising_ it, and without even losing the particularities of a tango embrace (that is: that both leader and follower can communicate constantly throughout the step, without assuming anything about direction or length, so that improvisation can be led and influenced continuously, and so that both partners share a responsibility to dance to the often complex music).

    If you compromise it, you no longer have an embrace (I don’t dispute that does happen to many). But it is possible to have many different embraces, even open ones and even ones that are so open in their “V” that they’re almost flat, all without losing the emotional connection.

    It is, however, very *hard*, so I wouldn’t recommend beginners to dance too open (or to try fancy stuff). You can only learn what you can get away with if you’ve felt what a true embrace feels like and yearn for it.

    • tangovoice says:

      The connection referred to here is ‘emotional connection’. In the closed embrace of tango (especially the maintained closed embrace of Tango Milonguero) there is chest-to-chest, often cheek-to-cheek contact. Man and woman are locked in this shared embrace for 3 minutes, moving as one body across the floor in synchrony with the rhythm of the music. They feel each other’s breathing, perhaps even each other’s heartbeat. They share the scent of each other’s perfume or cologne. They may even share each other’s sweat that is dripping down their cheeks. Whatever emotion one feels, the other perceives, and tango music fuels the emotional turbine developing between them. There is only one other human activity that is more intimate than this.

      Of course, not everyone who dances tango feels this. For some, the level of intimacy offered in the embrace is frightening. For these people, opening the embrace is less threatening. Perhaps for them, in their emotional universe, flirtation at arm’s length provides greater emotional connection than being locked in a frightening embrace for three minutes. For them, tango may be just another dance that can be safely danced at arm’s length. For them, the intimacy offered by tango is not available.

      Milongueros often talk about the passion of tango as being an essential ingredient of the dance. In a recent interview (http://practimilonguero.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/practimilonguero-presents-osvaldo-centeno-el-oso/), Monica Paz asks milonguero Osvaldo Centeno to define tango in one word. Osvaldo says ‘passion’. He is far from being alone in this definition.

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