Argentines knowledgeable about tango differentiate between tango de salon, the social tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires and tango escenario, the tango danced on the stage. The differences between tango de salon and tango escenario are clearly evident in the manner of dancing tango, but there are typically differences in environment as well. The primary themes of this post are to identify the characteristics of the dance and the environment that differentiate tango escenario from tango de salon, as well as to identify the varying degrees to which they are differentiated within a more inclusive Argentine tango culture.
Some clarifications on the terminology used here, which may not be consistent with common usage:
– ‘Stage tango’ is, quite literally, tango performed on the stage for presentation to an audience. It is the literal English translation of tango escenario. The performances are conducted in a theatre setting, with a stage and seating for the audience. The theatre may be a traditional theatre, such as the theatres on Corrientes or at the Centro Cultural Borges, where there is standard theatre seating (without tables) or, as more commonly encountered by tourists, in tango dinner theatres such as Esquina Carlos Gardel, La Ventana, El Viejo Almacen, Señor Tango and Café del los Angelitos. There are typically costumes and makeup for show participants, as well as props and background scenery. Within a stage production, there is a series of performances tied together by one or more themes, although these themes may not be readily apparent. Frequently there is some historical perspective in that various periods of tango history are represented, although this is not a universal characteristic. Another common, almost universal theme is the representation of the sexual relationship between man and woman as exemplified in the dance of tango; in this context, historical references to tango in houses of prostitution may be present. Although there are some exceptions (performances by a single couple within a show), dancing is typically performed by a group of dancers working together according to a predetermined plan or choreography. There are also scenes in the production where there is no dancing, for example a live ochestra playing with or without a singer. Live music is common but not universal.
– ‘Tango for export’ is a synonym for stage tango. It is the tango stage shows of the 1980s and 1990s, such as ‘Tango Argentino’, ‘Tango x 2’, and ‘Forever Tango’ traveling around the world that were the primary vehicles for transmission of an aspect of Argentine Tango culture to the rest of the world. The terminology ‘tango for export’ is often used in a derogatory manner by social tango dancers in Buenos Aires to designate it as not representing the way Argentines dance tango socially, in contrast to the way social tango in other countries borrows heavily from exported stage tango.
– ‘Show tango’, as defined here, is a broader term that includes stage tango; stage tango productions are called ‘tango shows’. The differentiation of stage tango as a specific variety of show tango is needed because there is a diversity of environments in which tango is danced for the specific purpose of entertaining an audience. For example, in Buenos Aires there are numerous smaller cafes and restaurants where there is a ‘tango show’ that may consist of only one couple, and the performances may not even be displayed on a specially constructed stage, or without elaborate scenery as would occur in a theatre production. Street performances, such as occur regularly on Avenida Florida or in the tourist area of La Boca are a type of ‘show tango’. Pedro ‘El Indio’ Benavente has a tango show in Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo on Sunday afternoons that incorporates social tango as well as other styles while providing historical information on tango. In most cases, there is typically little difference in the style of dancing or in the manner of dress and makeup of the dancing couples based on the venue of presentation for show tango, except that acrobatic movements are typically limited to the stage where sufficient space is available. Almost all tango shows have a predetermined format (i.e., are not improvised) and thus each presentation of a particular show is intended to be identical.
– The term ‘tango fantasia’ has been used almost universally as a synonym for stage or show tango, although Eduardo Arquimbau, a renouned stage dancer, distinguishes between show tango and tango fantasia. He notes that tango fantasia is an elaboration of the tango de salon of the 1940s, adding dramatic poses, ganchos and high boleos and more extensive use of embellishments, all of which have their roots within some part of tango history. Tango al reves or tango doble fronte, in which than man and woman both face forward rather than towards each other, was developed by social tango dancers as part of tango fantasia. Show tango elaborates upon tango fantasia by adding elements borrowed from ballet and modern dance such as lifts, jumps, and other acrobatic moves. Tango fantasia refers more to a style of dancing tango than to the environment in which it is danced, although tango fantasia is clearly recognized as a form of tango for exhibition and not a variety of social tango, i.e., the tango de salon danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
– The most general and inclusive term is ‘exhibition tango’. This includes ‘show tango’, but also recognizes there are exhibitions of tango in other environments. Most notably, there are also exhibitions of tango at some milongas during breaks in social dancing; these exhibitions range in style from tango de salon to tango escenario. These exhibitions typically feature only one couple, although there are exceptions. For example, the qualifying rounds for the city of Buenos Aires tango competition (Campeonato Metropolitano de Baile de Tango) held in the milongas are exhibitions of multiple couples in competition. Buenos Aires milongas that regularly have breaks for exhibition of tango in various styles include Sunderland Club, Glorias Argentinas, Salon Canning, Porteño y Bailarin and Confiteria Ideal.
Characteristics of Stage Tango
Stage tango is designed for the entertainment of the viewing audience. In order to be visible, movements are large, conspicuous, and often rapid, so they can attract attention and be observed at the relatively large distances that may exist inside a theater. In performing some movements derived from social tango (e.g., boleos), legs are lifted off the floor. Ganchos are frequently utilized. Couples typically dance with an opened embrace to allow for a greater possibilitiy of movements, and it is common for contact between partners to be broken completely and perform solo movements. Movements such as lifts, jumps, and drops, derived from other dance forms such as ballet, jazz, or modern dance, or from acrobatics, may be incorporated into the performance. Because movements between dancing couples are coordinated by predetermined choreography, it is no longer necessary to follow a line of dance that progresses counterclockwise around a rectangular dance floor; in some choreographed sequences, couples may move in unision in an irregular pattern.
In some scenes in tango shows, elements of drama are emphasized, such as simulated knife fights of compadritos, or the even more common scenes of courtship and sexual tension between man and woman prior to or during a dance. It is not uncommon to have scenes representing milongas, although the dancing may or may not resemble social tango dancing. In some productions there may be scenes with Argentine folk dances or non-Argentine dances (e.g., rock and roll) portrayed as part of a larger cultural perspective on social dancing in Argentine cultural history. Thus, a tango show is a mixture of dancing with movements derived from tango and other stage dances such as ballet and modern dance, possibly with the addition of acrobatics, sometimes placed within a context of dramatic scenes representing some part of tango culture, either historical or contemporary, possibly interspersed with non-dancing scenes of tango music played by a live orchestra with or without an accompanying singer.
Some examples of stage tango are provided in the following videos:
Juan Carlos Copes & Maria Nieves:
– This is tango fantasia, probably in a nearly pure form as it had developed in the late 1940s. The movements in this video are mostly derived from social tango dancing, with the modifications of a maintained opened embrace, some lifting of the feet high off the floor, an occasional short jump, and brief separations of the partners for solo turns. Overall, the movements are more rapid than would be danced to the same music in a social tango. The movement of the dancers does not follow a counterclockwise line of dance.
Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran:
– This exhibition contains a core of social tango movements modified to be larger, faster, and more forceful. However, the partner connection is quite flexible, varying from a closed embrace to an opened embrace, partial separation retaining a single hand hold, and some complete separation of contact. There are no acrobatic movements. There are several sequences of dramatic interaction depicting sexual passion. The movement is in a linear direction back and forth along a narrow stage. The music (“A Evaristo Carriego”) is not used for social tango dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
Osvaldo Zotto & Mora Godoy:
– This scene depicts what appears to be a playful adolescent courtship routine done in the dress of the early 20th century. At the beginning it is more about the playful interaction done to music, which evolves, except for the maintained opened embrace, into a social tango but eventually incorporates some lifts and jumps that are characteristic of stage tango.
Eduardo Cappussi & Mariana Flores:
– This scene represents tango comedy on the stage. In its exaggerated movements it pokes fun at stage dance or, perhaps more correctly, the poor imitation of stage dancing. There is also a comedic exaggeration of man – woman interaction as often represented, accurately or inaccurately, in the tango danced on the stage.
– There is little in this performance that is even derived from tango. It is basically modern dance to the tango music of Astor Piazzolla (which is not used for social dancing in Buenos Aires milongas). The portrayal of sexual interaction is reminiscent of the sexual interaction of earlier tango stage productions, minus the passion. It represents the evolution of stage productions using the tango name that have removed almost all tango movements and emotions from a performance, using only the music of tango, broadly defined. If these same movements had been danced to another kind of music, no claim on the name ‘tango’ could be made.
The videos above represent some variation in what is typically known as ‘stage tango’ or ‘show tango’. However, there is some representation of social tango dancing on the stage, as seen in the videos below:
‘Tango X 2‘:
– This is a milonga scene in a stage production. The dancing is the social tango de salon for the most part. (In social tango, boleos remain on the floor). However, the codigos are not accurately represented. A man does not approach a woman’s table and use the cabeceo. This music is also not used for social tango dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
– This is a milonga scene with real social tango dancers. Many of them are considered to be ‘milongueros’. The dancing follows a line of dance, more or less. T’he music (‘Quejas de bandoneon’ by Troilo) is occasionally played for social tango dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires. The dancing seems to be improvised. Nevertheless, there are some violations of milonga codes, such as some use of ganchos and high boleos, prolonged calecitas, and at least one quebrada.
– This show that was held on the ground floor of La Confiteria Ideal employed real milongueros dancing entirely socially appropriate tango. It has been the exception among tango shows.
Exhibition Tango within a Historical Context
Tango exhibitions have been commonplace for at least as long as the earliest renouned exhibition dancer Jose Benito Ovidio Bianquet (El Cachafaz) [1885-1942] performed tango during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, not only in Buenos Aires, but also abroad. Thus, El Cachafaz was part of the first Tango for Export period during the early part of the 20th century.
Tango exhibitions during breaks in social dancing were commonplace during the Golden Age of tango (approximately 1935-55). It is during this period that tango fantasia developed as a style of tango for exhibition. Tango fantasia appears to have been influenced by tango orillero, a style of tango developed in the outskirts of Buenos Aires that was not considered acceptable in the milongas because it had exhibition elements that violated the space of other dancers on the milonga dance floor (Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?). Most of the tango exhibitions at milongas during the Golden Age were done by social dancers. Virulazo was a milonguero who was instrumental in the development of tango fantasia.
Tango dancing was also incorporated into staged musicals and movies of the Golden Age. Here is a scene from the movie Tango (1933) in which El Cachafaz dances tango. Tango composer and orchestra leader Francisco Canaro played a significant role in stage and motion picture productions, both in Argentina and abroad.
The development of stage tango that incorporated elements from other dances such as ballet, modern dance, and jazz, as well as acrobatics, developed in the 1950s primarily under the influence of Juan Carlos Copes. However, it was not until the mid-1980s, after the worldwide success of the tango show ‘Tango Argentino’ that stage tango blossomed into an industry of ‘tango for export’. The interest in tango shows worldwide and the instruction from stage tango dancers accompanying it led to the development of a tango tourist industry in Buenos Aires. A significant part of this tango tourist industry has been the promotion of tango shows, with the tango dinner show becoming a particularly popular venue for tourists to Buenos Aires.
The evolution of stage tango as a commercial industry during the 1980s and 90s stimulated the development of tango dance academies in Buenos Aires for teaching stage tango. The most influential among these was the tango dance academy of Antonio Todaro and Raul Bravo, who trained many of the well known stage dancers of this period. Gloria and Rodolfo Dinzel are stage performers from ‘Tango Argentino’ who currently run a stage tango dance academy in Buenos Aires.
As tango shows have developed over the last 25 years, there has been an increased input of non-tango influences such as ballet and modern dance and acrobatics. Unlike their predecessors in the Golden Age who danced tango de salon at the milongas and tango fantasia for exhibitions, contemporary tango stage performers, who are trained in dance academies, often have little or no experience dancing tango in the social setting of the milongas of Buenos Aires.
Exhibition tango has been part of tango history for over 100 years. During the Golden Age tango exhibitions were common in the milongas during breaks in social dancing, and tango fantasia developed largely within this context. The performers in tango exhibitions in the Golden Age were mostly tango social dancers, and a clear distinction between the tango de salon for social dancing and tango fantasia for exhibition was recognized in tango culture at this time. The large and rapid movements that did not necessarily follow a line of dance that characterized enxhibition tango were considered inappropriate for social tango dancing in the milongas. An industry of tango stage production and academies for training professional stage dancers did not develop to a significant degree until the late 1980s and 90s, after the success of ‘Tango Argentino’ and other stage productions that created not only a ‘tango for export’ product, but also a tango tourist industry in Buenos Aires. Foreigners who are exposed to exhibition tango may not recognize that it is not designed for or considered to be acceptable on the milonga dance floor.