If asked to describe what kind of tango they dance in the milongas, since the Golden Age most porteños would have said ‘tango de salon’, which encompasses some degree of stylistic variation, mostly along several more or less continuous dimensions (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tange de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America). Nevertheless, despite this stylistic variation, both in the later part of the Golden Age (late 1940s, early 1950s) and in the Tango Renaissance period (late 1980s, 1990s), two somewhat distinct styles of tango were recognized, at least by those interested in studying and classifying variation in tango social dancing.
By the early 1950s dancers in downtown Buenos Aires milongas (often in confiterias, which were smaller dance venues) were typically dancing a style of tango that has been labeled ‘petitero’, ‘caquero’, or ‘confiteria’ style. In the 1990s Susana Miller, having studied with and assisted milonguero Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi in teaching tango, utilized some elements of the Golden Age predecessor in promoting what she labeled as ‘estilo milonguero’ while teaching at Club Almagro. (Thus, this style has also been called ‘Almagro style’.) This style of dancing tango has been characterized by a maintained close embrace in an apilado (forward leaning) frame, with a limited vocabulary of improvised compact movements (and minimal ornamentation) that are closely associated with the rhythmic variation in the music (Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace). This style evolved on crowded floors, so that navigation is likely to involve more circular and rectangular movements than linear walking (Milongueros Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires).
An example of tango estilo milongeuro is provided by this video of Ricardo Vidort and Myriam Pincen. References to additional videos showing dancing in this style are provided in a previous Tango Voice post.
Prior to this, during the late 1930s and 40s an elegant style of tango characterized by a looser embrace that varied between closed and open, and smooth walking interspersed with turns incorporating variable degrees of ornamentation (sacadas, dibujos, arrastres, amagues, boleos) had evolved in the larger dance salons in middle class neighborhoods in the northern and western barrios of Buenos Aires (Trenner, Denniston). This stylistic variation in dancing tango has recently been labeled as ‘Estilo Villa Urquiza’.
An example of tango stylistic variation that has been labeled as ‘Estilo Villa Urquiza’ is provided by this video of Ramon ‘Finito’ Rivera. References to additional videos showing dancing in this style are provided in a previous Tango Voice post.
Although the barrio of Villa Urquiza has been an important locale in which this style of tango developed, it was by no means the only location is which these stylistic variations were explored and danced; it was quite common throughout the northern and western barrios (and apparently even southern barrios – e.g., Avellaneda: El Tanguata, vol. 14, no 177, July 2009: pg. 35) of Buenos Aires during the Golden Age and Tango Renaissance. However, the paradox is that what is being marketed as Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza is no longer predominant in the milongas of the barrio of Villa Urquiza (video1) (video2) (video3).
Given that the style of tango that has been labeled as ‘Estilo Villa Urquiza’ was danced throughout the northern and western barrios of Buenos Aires in the Golden Age and that it is no longer the predominant style of dancing tango socially today even in Villa Urquiza, the labeling of this stylistic variation of tango de salon is inaccurate. The primary purpose of the current post is to explore other terminology that might be used to describe tango stylistic variation that would more accurately and fairly reflect the origins and current expression of each variant.
One perspective that may be useful in accurately labeling the stylistic differences that existed in Buenos Aires social tango dancing since the last decade of the Golden Age is to recognize that there have been and still are two somewhat different classes of milongas in Buenos Aires (Variation in Traditional Tango Venues in Buenos Aires). This does not include the contemporary social dance venues, typically called ‘practicas’, in which tango nuevo is the predominant style of tango dancing, or the ‘gay friendly’ milongas, which provide a different kind of tango social environment.
Since the Golden Age (and apparently earlier) the downtown milongas have been somewhat of a ‘singles’ scene, where men and women went to meet each other (Trenner). Many dancers did not know each other. Although the closer embrace and smaller movements have been attributed to the smaller size of the dance salons, the somewhat anonymous singles atmosphere may have also contributed to the closer contact between man and woman.
In contrast, in the milongas in the barrios, most people knew each other. There were more married couples. Several generations of the same family might be present, and sometimes even children were present. Although single men and women had the opportunity to meet each other, it was under the supervision of older adults, often family members. Thus, the social customs in these clubes del barrio were different. A more upright posture, a more flexible and sometimes even slightly open embrace were more common. Although a lower floor density, due in part to the larger size of the dance floors, undoubtedly played a role in the larger movements, which were facilitated in part by opening the embrace for turns, the more ‘respectable’ atmosphere (a neighborhood community center versus a downtown confiteria) also undoubtedly had an influence on the character of the dance. Thus, in the Golden Age one could, with some degree of accurcy, classify milongas into two types – the Downtown Milonga and the Milonga del Club del Barrio. To some degree this distinction even still exists today (Variation in Traditional Tango Venues in Buenos Aires), although greater movement of dancers due to improved means of transportation, less neighborhood xenophobia, and the influx of tourists has reduced the differentiation of milongas by neighborhood to a considerable degree.
Since what has been labeled as ‘Estilo Villa Urquiza’ was once common (even characteristic of dancing) throughout the outer barrios of Buenos Aires, in the clubes del barrio, a more appropriate terminology for this stylistic variation of tango de salon would be ‘tango estilo del club del barrio’ or preferably shortened to ‘tango estilo del barrio’. This terminology would not elevate Villa Urquiza above other barrios, thus giving recognition to the multiple geographic locations in which this stylistic variation developed.
Likewise, one could propose that instead of using ‘tango estilo milonguero’ to designate the ‘downtown style’ of tango, one could classify this style as ‘tango estilo del centro’, which would complement ‘tango estilo del barrio’ in reflecting the geographic origins of these stylistic differences. The terminology ‘tango estilo milonguero’, as used by Susana Miller and her disciples, has been criticized frequently as reflecting too narrow a range of tango stylistic variation to be labeled the ‘style of the milongueros’ (Denniston). Certainly men dedicated to tango dancing in the outer barrios with a different style would not be represented in this ‘style of the milongueros’.
One factor arguing against making this replacement is that the term ‘tango estilo del centro’ has been appropriated by tango dancer and teacher Daniel Lapadula, who has a website and a set of instructional DVDs that are labeled ‘Tango estilo del centro’. Paradoxically, if one examines Lapadula’s dancing, it only partially reflects the downtown tango style of the 1950s. The instructional DVD contains many elements of the maintained close embrace, rhythmic style with compact movements danced in downtown milongas (and thus is similar to ‘tango estilo milonguero’). This demonstration by Daniel Lapadula and instructional partner Delores del Amo is stylistically within the range of variation of what is generally considered to be ‘tango milonguero’. However, their instructional DVD also contains elements that are uncharacteristic of Golden Age and contemporary social tango dancing in general, such as high boleos, ganchos, and quebradas. This demonstration, although having some of the rhythmic characteristics of ‘tango estilo milonguero’, is actually more representative of ‘tango estilo del barrio’ (offset embrace, opening embrace for turns), and includes some elements (e.g., ganchos and an ending quebrada) that are considered unacceptable for dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Thus, a potentially useful tango stylistic label – ‘tango estilo del centro’ – has been applied inappropriately.
Although Lapadula has laid claim to ‘tango estilo del centro’, this hold may have no more (or even less) endurance than Miller’s claim to ‘tango estilo milonguero’. One consequence of Miller’s commercial success over the last 2 decades is that in the absence of a trademark, the terminology ‘tango milonguero’ is being used widely by tango instructors in Buenos Aires today to represent tango social dancing characterized by a maintained close embrace and compact movements that are characteristic of milongas with crowed floors, yet also represents some stylistic variation within this genre (Ruben Aybar & Cherie Magnus; Cacho Dante; Monica Paz; Alicia Pons) [Listing of instructors here is not intended as an endorsement, but only a reflection of high visibility in advertising using the ‘tango milonguero’ label. Instructors are listed in alphabetical order.]. A rush to replace ‘tango estilo milonguero’ with ‘tango estilo del centro’ is not likely to occur because the former is so deeply entrenched although ‘tango estilo del centro’ is more accurate, at least from a historical perspective
However, the historical perspective is important. Today in Buenos Aires there is little differentiation of tango stylistic variation by geography. The historically important ‘tango estilo del barrio’ (erroneously labeled as ‘tango estilo Villa Urquiza’) is rarely seen on the social dance floor today, at least not in its highly developed form of elaborately crafted turns with embellishments achieved after opening a closed embrace. Of course, the masters of this style were few and far between even in the Golden Age. This idealized milonga scene from the film ‘Tango Baile Nuestro’ has only the most highly skilled dancers. Even though direct evidence (film recording of real milongas) is unavailable, most likely most of the dancers in the milongas of the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the peak of its popularity in the 1940s danced a simple ‘tango liso’. In contrast, the less elaborate and more accessible ‘tango (estilo) milonguero’ (historically ‘tango estilo del centro’), broadly defined, appears to be the predominant tango stylistic variation observed in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. It is because of the widespread success of tango milonguero throughout Buenos Aires that labels such as ‘tango estilo del centro’ and ‘tango estilo del barrio’ primarily have meaning only within a historical context.
In reality, ‘tango de salon’, although having evolved over time, is still the simplest terminology to label the tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Its precise definition may be elusive, because there is considerable stylistic variation and this stylistic variation has itself varied over time. Nevertheless, there are some features which define it as the tango of the milongas – in its construction it respects the space of dancers on the pista and in its movement it is connected to tango music.