‘Salon Style’ Tango in North America
During the Tango Renaissance of the late 1980s and 90s, members of traveling tango performance companies associated with stage shows such as ‘Tango Argentino’ and ‘Forever Tango’ taught North Americans elements of stage tango that became the social tango at milongas in North America. This manner of dancing tango used a basic construction a sequence of salida – cruzada – resolucion (the ‘8-count basic’), alternating with sequences of forward and back ochos and giros. These sequences were interrupted or modified with the addition of elements such as sandwiches, calesitas, sacadas, barridas, boleos, and ganchos, not to mention various embellishments added by both men and women. The connection between partners was in an opened embrace and movements were typically expansive, as they are when tango is performed on the stage. In North America this manner of dancing has often been labeled as ‘salon style tango’, an erroneous translation of ‘tango de salon’, because in the tango dance salons (milongas) of Buenos Aires, it is rare to see anyone other than a tourist dance in this manner. (The characteristics of ‘tango de salon’ are described below.) What North Americans had done, having been trained mainly by tango stage performers from Argentina, was bring the tango of the stage onto the social dance floor, largely without the precision, elegance, and musicality characteristic of good quality tango stage performances. Also, since in many cases fixed sequences of movements were taught without reference to the movement of the ronda (‘line-of-dance’), the improvisation and good navigational skills characteristic of ‘tango de salon’ were also absent from North American ‘salon style tango’. (This exportation of stage tango characteristics for social tango dancing was not unique to North America as compared to Europe, Asia, and Australia; however the status of tango in North America is a focus in this blog.)
‘Milonguero Style’ Tango
During the mid-1990s Susana Miller began traveling from Buenos Aires to North America to teach a tango that is different from the tango of the stage. She coined the term ‘milonguero style tango’ to identify this manner of dancing. The implication from the name is that milongueros dance tango this way in the milongas. Miller had studied tango with the late Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi. This style of tango has also been called ‘Almagro style’, referring to the previously existing Almagro milonga in Buenos Aires where Miller taught.
Video of Miller in the lead role dancing vals.
Video of her mentor Tete dancing vals.
Some characteristics of ‘milonguero style tango’ are dancing in a closed embrace with maintained and directly aligned (midline to midline) chest-to-chest contact, the woman’s head looking over the man’s right shoulder with right cheek to right cheek contact if heights are compatible. (In reality, the contact is between the right sides of the partner’s heads at whatever height they meet). There is a slight forward lean while still maintaining one’s own balance (called ‘apilado’), with the weight balanced over the metatarsals rather than over the heels. In the apilado posture, the spine is maintained in a straight position, only leaning forward. This provides space below the waist for movement for the legs. The arms embrace the partner high (man reaching around woman’s shoulder, woman reaching over top of man’s shoulder). In this embrace the lead comes from the man’s chest. Steps taken are relatively short and closely connected with the rhythmic variation of the music. When walking forward, the heel touches the floor first. Back ochos are used, but without the pivoting characteristic of opened embrace styles when proceeding linearly. Unlike opened embrace styles, the forward ocho is not a continuous series of pivoted forward steps, but a single forward step that culminates in a pivot into a cruzada. The ocho cortado (woman rocks side left and back into the cruzada) is frequently used in contexts where the forward ocho might be used. Rock steps are often used to mark the music as well as a navigational tool to change direction. Giros typically start with a rock step instead of from the cruzada, and the movements of the woman around the man are shortened, particularly the back step. All of these are accommodations for a maintained closed embrace.
Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires
‘Tango de salon’ is an inclusive term intended to encompass the stylistic variation among dancers in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Upon observing the porteños dancing tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires, it is apparent that there are some dancers who dance in the ‘milonguero style’ taught by Susana Miller and other instructors at La Academia de Tango Milonguero at her El Beso studio in downtown Buenos Aires, but there is also a considerable amount of variation along several dimensions. Posture can be balanced forward (apilado) or it can lean less, even to an upright posture. Some couples do not align at midline in the embrace; instead the woman may be offset to some degree to the man’s right. The embrace may not be completely closed on the man’s left side, but may open to some small but variable degree (sometimes described as a ‘V’-frame). Instead of looking over the man’s right shoulder, the woman may turn her head inward towards the man’s face. There are variations in the embrace. The man’s arm may embrace the woman either at the level of the woman’s shoulder (‘milonguero style’), or the embrace may be lower on the back, but still above the waist. Some women place their arm on the man’s upper arm rather than over his shoulder. One contemporary style for the woman’s embrace is not to reach over the man’s shoulders, but rather to drape her left arm around the man’s side, reaching for his lower back. The man’s left hand and woman’s right hand hold may vary considerably in the manner of interlacing the hands, and the height at which the hand is held may vary. Some men open the embrace slightly and temporarily for leading ochos and turns, although continuous forward ocho series can also be led with the woman in the outside partner right position, something that is facilitated by an offset right embrace. On rare occasions one can observe porteño couples dancing in a maintained embrace opened a few centimeters only. Some variation in the embrace may be a function of the anatomical characteristics of the dancers, such as height differences or ample girth. The lead need not only come from the chest, as some men lead using their forearm or hand for some movements. In walking, not all steps taken are short, although the long steps of stage tango are absent. Some dancers land on the heel when walking forward, some land on the metatarsals, and some vary how the foot lands, depending upon such factors as the speed and the size of movement. There is variation in how close the steps are to the floor. There is variation in the types of movements used. Some men dance more turns than others. Some men use more sacadas than others. Some women use more embellishments than others. The calesita (woman held suspended while pivoting on one foot) is used to varying degrees, but is still relatively uncommon and executed with considerably less rotation than in stage tango. The sandwich and arrastre are used infrequently, but are nevertheless used by some men. Noticeably absent from the movement repertoire of the overwhelming majority of dancers in the milongas of Buenos Aires are ganchos (and other leg wrapping movements), colgadas (falling back off axis movements), volcadas (falling forward off axis movements), and high boleos. However, this is describing mostly variation in the movements or ‘steps’ utilized. Perhaps the greatest difference among men is their manner of interpreting the music. (See videos of milongueros dancing in the milongas.) Some men pay closer attention to rhythmic elements of the music than do others, who concentrate more on the melodic structure. Men vary in the degree of pulsation in their movements, as well as in the use of pauses and suspensions. There are many more subtle aspects of variation in connection to the music that are more difficult to describe yet are subjectively felt by the women partners. The most experienced dancers vary their movements depending variation in the music, e.g., different orchestras. The variation in dancing tango described above is a good part of the variation in tango de salon, the tango of the milongas of Buenos Aires, yet is by no means exhaustive. Excluded above are variations that are considered bad form.
Thus, ‘milonguero style’ tango, currently more frequently referred to as ‘tango milonguero’, is part of the variation of tango de salon. However, in Buenos Aires today the terms ‘tango milonguero’ or ‘tango de salon estilo milonguero’ are being used more frequently in advertising in publications like Buenos Aires Tango and El Tangauta to encompass a wider range of variation in tango de salon than that taught by Miller and colleagues at La Academia Tango Milonguero.
It is difficult to estimate the exact proportion of porteños who dance in a manner similar to the description for tango milonguero provided above but it is substantial, especially near downtown Buenos Aires, although this stylistic variation is visible in all barrios of Buenos Aires. However, it would still be more appropriate to describe the variation in tango de salon as more or less continuous along the dimensions described here (degree of lean, position of arms in embrace, angle of landing of foot moving forward on the floor – i.e., heel vs. toe, amount foot is lifted off the floor in stepping, etc.). It especially needs to be noted that the most skilled dancers have the most unique ways of interpreting the music with their movements, and the sequence of their movements are the least predictable. Tango de salon is a dance created by the dancers on the dance floor and, thus, is not prescribed by a central dance academy. Nevertheless, certain value judgments and customs apply as to what is considered good and appropriate dancing within the stylistic variation of tango de salon (The Essence of Tango Argentino).
Representation of Tango de Salon in North American Milongas
Although almost all porteños in Buenos Aires milongas dance in a closed embrace, at milongas in North America dancing tango in a closed embrace is typically in the minority, although most tango dancers can dance in some kind of a closed embrace when floor conditions are crowded. Excluding the dancers who have minimal instruction in a close embrace style of tango, most North American tango dancers who regularly dance tango in a closed embrace dance in a style that resembles the ‘milonguero style tango’ described above. This is due in part to the influence of Susana Miller traveling and teaching tango in North America on an annual basis, as well as the influence of other traveling instructors who have been associated with Miller’s La Academia de Tango Milonguero in Buenos Aires, e.g., Oscar Casas, Maximiliano Gluzman, and Enriqueta Kleinman. Alicia Pons from Buenos Aires, although not specifically linked to Miller and La Academia Tango Milonguero, nevertheless considers Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi one of her influences and the style of tango she dances and teaches as ‘tango milonguero’ and it shares many, if not most, of the characteristics of ‘milonguero style’ tango as outlined above; Pons also travels regularly to North American to teach tango. There are also several American tango instructors who consider Susana Miller one of their primary influences, including Robert Hauk, Barbara Durr, Robin Thomas, and Christopher Nassopoulos & Caroline Peattie, who have taught regularly at tango festivals in the United States oriented towards ‘social tango dancing’ – e.g., the Denver Tango Festival, the San Diego Tango Festival, and the Atlanta Southern Tango Social, and who have trained many instructors in local tango communities.
In addition to those mentioned above, there are various Argentine instructors who are regarded as milongueros who have visited North America on several occasions to teach tango, including Alberto Dassieu (video), Dany Garcia, and Ruben Harymbat. The late Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi and the late Ricardo Vidort are also milongueros who had on several occasions taught tango in North America. There are several things that can be said about these men. All have danced in a manner that is somewhat similar to the characteristics of tango milonguero yet, as indicated by the videos, each man has his own unique way of dancing that is much richer than any verbal description of physical characteristics can provide.
There are other tango instructors who travel to teach tango regularly in North America, e.g., Gustavo Benzecry Saba & Maria Olivera from Buenos Aires, Brigitta Winkler and Melina Sedo & Detlef Engel from Germany, Tomas Howlin from Argentina via Canada, as well as Hsueh-tze Lee, Tom Stermitz and Ney Melo & Jennifer Bratt from the United States who do not specifically trace their tango influences to Susana Miller or ‘milonguero style’ tango, but who nevertheless have taught some variation of tango de salon (sometimes labeled as ‘close embrace tango’ in North America), at least as part of their teaching repertoire. (Note: Listing of any instructor in this post is not intended as an endorsement. Also, omission of any other tango instructors who travel in North American and teach within the variation of tango de salon is not intentional.)
It is difficult to describe completely and accurately the variation that exists among North American tango dancers dancing tango in close embrace who are spread out across an entire continent. Nevertheless, there are some general impressions that emerge from observation of dancers at the festivals that have been designed for social dancing (Denver, San Diego, Atlanta), where teaching of some variation of tango de salon is emphasized. It is probably accurate to say that some characteristics of ‘milonguero style’ tango are readily visible, e.g., a maintained closed embrace, partners connected at the midline rather than offset, some degree of lean, and the woman’s head facing over the man’s right shoulder. This is in contrast to another more distant point on the continuum of tango de salon, i.e., posture more or less upright, partners offset to the right of midline in the embrace, the woman facing inward towards the man’s chest rather than over his shoulder, and opening of the embrace slightly for ochos and turns. This undoubtedly reflects the impact of instructors who trace their tango influences to La Academia Tango Milonguero in Buenos Aires or to observation and learning from certain milongueros. Thus, it appears that within the variation of tango de salon that exists in the milongas of Buenos Aires, in North American tango dance venues oriented towards social tango dancing, the characteristics of ‘milonguero style tango’ are represented more than other points of variation among the dimensions of the tango de salon continuum. This is not a criticism, only an observation relevant to the larger issue of the transmission of tango culture from Buenos Aires to North America, which is a central issue in this blog.