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.