There is only one Tango


Previous posts have reviewed stylistic differences in dancing tango, classified at times as tango de salon, tango estilo milonguero, tango estilo Villa Urquiza, tango estilo del barrio, tango estilo del centro, tango nuevo, tango escenario, tango orillero, and canyengue. This classification is meaningful in that it recognizes some of the dimensions along which tango differs (in its characteristic movements and in its environment) and it is useful to both the teacher and student of tango in that these classificatory labels provide information on what to expect in tango instruction. If the teacher advertises classes as ‘tango nuevo’ or ‘tango milonguero’, the student at least will have a general idea of  what the instructor intends to teach. These labels also serve a useful purpose in communicating about what kind of dancing predominates at a particular tango venue, for example that Practica X is where tango nuevo is danced or El Beso is where tango milonguero is danced.

As has been stated previously(Tango Voice post 1) (Tango Voice post 2), different manifestations of tango are adapted for different environments – tango escenario for the stage, tango de salon for the milonga, and tango nuevo for the practica; their differences in space utilization (in particular), in the observance of codes for interaction at the milongas, and (to some degree) the music used for dancing make coexistence in the same venue problematic. In Buenos Aires, conflict among dancers is minimized by (mostly voluntary) segregation of the genres of tango into different venues. Tango escenario is danced by professional dancers on the stage. Tango de salon is danced primarily at traditional milongas and tango nuevo is danced at practicas and, more recently, at selected non-traditional tango events labeled as ‘milongas’ (e.g., ‘El Motivo’ at Villa Malcolm).

In North America, these distinctions among genres of tango have been less clear. During the 1990s, as Tango Argentino (double entendre intended) became popular in North America, many dancers learned a modified version of stage tango, typically from dancers in tango stage productions, and it was typical at events advertised as ‘milongas’ to see dancers employ ganchos and high boleos or use dramatic pauses with elaborate adornments blocking the progression of the ronda (assuming a defined ronda existed). This variant of tango eventually became known in North America as ‘salon style tango’, even though it was a gross misrepresentation of the ‘tango de salon’ of the milongas of Buenos Aires, where elements characteristic of stage tango were not used. Nevertheless, despite this cultural inaccuracy in what was accepted as ‘Argentine Tango’ in North America, there was little conflict among tango styles at this time because there was little stylistic variation among tango dancers. However, this changed in the late 1990s when Susana Miller and her North American students who taught tango introduced ‘milonguero style tango’, a representation of some part of the stylistic variation that is utilized by some dancers in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Followers of ‘milonguero style tango’ criticized dancers of ‘salon style tango’ for not being authentic and ‘salon style’ dancers criticized ‘milonguero style’ dancers as being naïve in believing their tango was the only ‘true tango’. There was truth in both sides of this argument. Whereas ‘milonguero style tango’, as marketed by Miller and her students represented some part of the stylistic variation danced in the crowded milongas in downtown Buenos Aires in the 1950s, this differed to some degree with the tango danced in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires (‘tango estilo del barrio’), where there was more space on the dance floor. Tango estilo del barrio, in a modified form, is currently being marketed as ‘tango estilo Villa Urquiza’, named after one outer barrio of Buenos Aires where this stylistic variation of tango existed. Today in Buenos Aires, stylistic variation is not well differentiated by geographic region, with ‘tango estilo del barrio’ existing only to a limited degree and a more or less continuous variation along several dimensions (e.g., orientation of partners in the embrace, points of contact in the embrace, orientation of the partners’ heads, angle of the dancers’ axes, angle of placement of feet on the floor) subsumed under the inclusive label of ‘tango de salon’.

In North America, the conflict among tango dancers of different styles has increased over the last 5 years with the introduction of tango nuevo onto the milonga dance floor. One need only read the posts in Tango-L to realize that this conflict has often become bitter. Perhaps because of its extensive exploration of the space between and around partners in improvisation, tango nuevo has been criticized (mostly by dancers of milonguero-style tango) for the navigational hazards it creates on the dance floor at a milonga. On the other hand, tango nuevo dancers have criticized ‘milonguero style’ dancers as being intolerant in not accepting the inevitable evolution of tango.

Attempts at resolution of this conflict between genres of tango have rallied around the phrase ‘There is only one tango’. A good example of this philosophy is in the following quotation:

Why do we say ‘hay sólo un tango’? Because there IS only one tango – one without divisions of ‘styles’; one which does not enforce a ‘close embrace’, ‘open embrace’, ‘apilado’, ‘salon’, ‘milonguero’, ‘Villa Urquiza’ or whatever ’embrace’ or ‘style’ that may be marketed to students around the world as being somehow different and better than the others. We believe that tango is tango, and to subdivide the dance into categories is harmful to the enjoyment of the dance and confusing to the dancers- because after all, this dance is about love and acceptance- not exclusion.

(Probably what is more confusing to dancers is to believe the myth that these different genres are all adapted for the same tango environment.)

This statement is consistent with a more general sociopolitical philosophy of freedom of expression and acceptance of cultural diversity within North American culture. However, although tolerance and acceptance of diversity are admirable qualities for humans to practice, the mixture of tango genres within the same venue is not only impractical, but it is culturally inaccurate. Also, at its philosophical core this perspective is in conflict with another aspect of liberal sociopolitical philosophy, the recognition that each minority culture has the right to freedom of expression without interference and imposition upon it of the values of the majority culture. Within the so-called ‘milonga’ environment of North America, the infusion of drama and the practice of multi-directional exploration of space marginalize those dancers who actually attempt to replicate the practices of the milongas of Buenos Aires, i.e., maintenance of a ronda in a dance that is a shared experience with a partner rather than a space-exploring exposition for the audience.

Another reflection of this philosophy that ‘there is only one tango’ is the hesitance or outright refusal to classify one’s expression of tango as distinctly different from other expressions of tango. This can be seen in the following statements of Pablo Veron:

Speaking of tango nuevo as a dance is difficult because the name proposes a division with the past and that is very debatable, relative and deceitful.… In that case: What was danced before? Tango is tango and has always been transforming itself since its origins and if each renewal was a new tango, today we would have many new tangos. Tango was made by all of us dancers of all generations who contributed something, and this has been happening for more than 100 years! They thought that tango was no man’s land and they planted the “nuevo” flag but what is new is not inevitably better than the old and I do not believe that you can go far if you start by denying or opposing the past. … The fact is that those who believe that they dance “nuevo” are mostly using the same old elements. The movements already existed, it is a shame that they do not say so: turns, ganchos, boleos, sacadas of the man and of the woman to all sides, changes of direction, arrastres (dragging), paradas (stops), corridas, leaps, crossed steps, etc.

There is truth in Veron’s statements, in that, with the possible exception of the volcada and colgada, tango nuevo has not introduced any new movements into tango. However, tango nuevo is different from stage tango in that improvisation (vs. choreography) is essential to the former and dramatic elements are characteristic of the latter (Is Tango Nuevo a Form of Stage Tango?). Tango nuevo is also different from tango milonguero in that it emphasizes exploration of space in improvisation whereas tango milonguero emphasizes exploration of music (Tango Nuevo versus Tango Milonguero: A Comparison).  

A similar perspective on the unity of tango is presented by Homer Ladas, who nevertheless classifies his expression of tango as ‘organic tango’ (cf: Organic Tango):

Organic Tango is more of a philosophy and approach to learning and dancing tango then it is a structure or a style of dance. … What really got to me is how a few members of the tango community (teachers and dancers alike) negatively influenced the growth and interpretation of this dance in the United States. Out of my desire to discover my own tango – several key points kept making themselves more and more apparent. To this day, there is no clear distinction between “structure” and “style.” Furthermore, some folks try hard to contain tango in a box and enforce their views on others. And lastly, the lines between stage & social dancing, past & present, and the Argentine vs. non-Argentine way are not very clear and, unfortunately, on more than a few occasions – have been abused. My reasons for using such a title (Organic Tango) will one day, hopefully, not exist and new students will just simply learn the “Tango” – or whatever our society is calling this social dance at that point.

According to this ‘organic tango’ perspective, the recognition that distinctive expressions of tango are adapted to different environments and that maintenance of tango tradition has value, as practiced in Buenos Aires, both negatively influence ‘growth and interpretation of this dance’. Those who wish to dance tango within a niche that is similar to the social environment of tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires are seen as ‘containing tango within a box’.

In advocating new standards for tango and criticizing advocates of the old standards as intolerant, many of the proponents of this new tango philosophy are equally or even more intolerant in not recognizing the need for traditional tango to have its own culturally accurate niche in which its practitioners can express their legitimate version of tango, dancing in the maintained closed embrace to classic tango music (Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace), without the spatial and aural disruption imposed by the forces of the tango guardia nueva.

One could argue that the stylistic distinctions between stage and social tango and between Argentine and non-Argentine tango have been blurred because the instructors of the ‘new tango’ have failed to communicate to their students (both inside and outside Argentina) how their manner of dancing differs from the tango de salon of the milongas of Buenos Aires and how each variant optimally requires its own atmosphere for its uninhibited expression. Instead of respecting cultural diversity, the propagators of tango nuevo obfuscate it under the banner of homogeneity, when in fact, the invasion of space-expanding outward directed tango nuevo into the milongas results in cultural domination and sometimes obliteration of the traditional space-conserving inward directed tango milonguero of Buenos Aires.

Reconciliation of Tango Unity and Diversity

Reconciliation between the devotees of traditional tango and tango nuevo can be achieved by agreeing to certain principles:

(1) Tango Evolution

Argentine tango has evolved in the 100+ years of its existence. Some of this evolution has occurred on the social dance floor (i.e., the tango de salon of the milonga), some has occurred in tango for shows or exhibition (i.e., tango escenario), and some has occurred within the discipline of academic-oriented experimentation (i.e., tango nuevo). All of these forms of tango share a common ancestry, reflected in shared movements and music, linked to the proto-tango of the late nineteenth century. In its history, some forms of tango (e.g., canyengue and tango orillero) have essentially become extinct and other forms (tango escenario, tango nuevo, tango milonguero) have evolved from the mainstem of tango evolution, the social tango of the milongas. This is the sense in which there is ‘one tango’, in that each variant has descended from a common ancestral Argentine Tango and thus share some common traits derived from ancestral forms of tango.

(2) Tango Niche Adaptation and Separation

As each genre of tango evolved, it adapted to its niche (e.g., differences between tango estilo del centro and tango estilo del barrio were related to milonga floor density) or created a niche that allowed optimal expression of its inherent characteristics (e.g., the stage for dramatic presentation of tango escenario, the ‘practica nueva’ for experimentation in space utilization). Recognition, maintenance, and respect for these separate niches will allow all evolutionary branches to thrive in their own environment. Segregation of tango venues by genre of tango is not ostracization, nor does it necessarily lead to marginalization of a minority subculture; in fact, it is this niche segregation that allows tango cultural diversity to be maintained.

By understanding these principles, aficionados of tango from different culture streams can be understanding of each others’ interests and respect them, and leave each other in peace to pursue them. One need not like what another branch of tango evolution is expressing, but this need not be a source of conflict if dancers do not impose their interpretation of tango upon others. Thus, just as practitioners of tango nuevo should not impose their concept of use of space and music upon tango milonguero, practitioners of tango milongeuro should not impose their concept of use of space and music upon tango nuevo. History, as determined by successful niche utilization, will determine the future evolution of tango.

However, for this segregation in celebration of tango cultural diversity to be successful, there also needs to be accurate labeling in advertising tango events. Thus, although labeling of stylistic differences can be misleading in subsuming some degree of variation under a common heading (e.g., as occurs with ‘tango de salon’), without this semantic differentiation (e.g., as is reflected in the statement ‘there is only one tango’), only the most aggressive or the most culturally accommodating variant(s) will survive.

11 Responses to There is only one Tango

  1. jantango says:

    I have been reading your blog from the beginning. Each post has presented background information for readers to come to their own conclusions. The supporting references and videos have made each post complete. This is required reading for tango dancers.

    You are highly qualified to present your research at a tango conference, if one were being held. Fortunately, there will be one in Paris next year, and you should be there to make a presentation. There is time to submit a proposal.

    International conference
    Tango : Creation, Identification, Circulation
    October 27-28, 2011, Paris, France
    Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales(EHESS)
    Scientific Committee: Christophe Apprill (Centre Norbert Elias), Carmen Bernand
    (Paris X), Denis Constant-Martin (Science Po Bordeaux), Didier Francfort
    (Université Nancy 2), Julien Mallet (IRD), Rafael Mandressi (CNRS-Centre Koyré),
    Emmanuelle Olivier (CNRS-CRAL), Michel Plisson
    Organized by: Marina Cañardo (EHESS-UBA), Sophie Jacotot (Université Blaise
    Pascal CRAL), Esteban Buch (EHESS-CRAL)
    This international conference held in Paris will gather together researchers
    from diverse disciplinary orientations (historical, sociological,
    anthropological, musicological) working on the tango and its various aspects
    (music, dance, poetry). This interdisciplinary conference, organized by the
    Center for Research in Arts and Language (CRAL, EHESS-CNRS) and affiliated with
    the ANR GLOBALMUS research program, takes place after UNESCO’s official
    recognition of the tango as international Intangible Cultural Heritage.
    The conference will focus on three contemporary scientific themes concerning
    – Creation: aesthetic trends of current tango; a history of creative
    initiatives; links with means of expression and techniques of the body; tensions
    between creation and tradition, invention and homogenization;
    – Identification: national identities; nomadism and diaspora; black origins of
    the tango and the question of metissage; political uses and claims of autonomy;
    questions of gender and sexuality;
    – Circulation: technological resources in the context of globalization; new
    means of broadcasting and their effects on the pedagogy and interpretation of
    tango; commercial strategies and alternative networks; the impact of naming
    tango as cultural heritage.
    The languages of the conference will be French, English and Spanish.
    All proposals (350 words max.) should also include your name, surname, phone
    number, email address and a brief presentation of the author. Please submit your
    proposal by email to:
    Deadline for proposals: March 31, 2011

  2. tangovoice says:

    Thank you for the information about the conference. It is about time a research oriented conference on tango was organized. Hopefully the presenters know something about the dance in the real world in which tango is danced. Too bad the conference won’t be held in Buenos Aires, where conference attendees can see the tango culture firsthand.

  3. jantango says:

    I’d like to know if you are interested in submitting a paper for presentation.

  4. tangovoice says:

    Interested – yes! Able to attend – unlikely, due to daytime job scheduling.

  5. jantango says:

    Why not submit a 350-word proposal to the committee and then see how things go? You may find later than you can attend.

  6. Chris says:

    “Why do we say ‘hay sólo un tango’?”

    I’ve noticed that the people saying this are almost always ones to who whom “tango” first means dancing. Looking at the promotion of this idea on I see not one mention of what tango first means to the majority of people the world over – music.

    • tangovoice says:

      Tango is a dance, it is music, and it is a culture. All three aspects are integral to the understanding of tango.

      With respect to music, just as with the dance, there are different niches for different kinds of music. There is tango music for dancing, created by the great tango orquestas from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. There is the tango cancion (e.g., Carlos Gardel), tango songs, not for dancing, that have permeated the daily lives of porteños. There is tango concert music (e.g., Piazzolla) that is also not for dancing, but for listening in the concert hall. There is also music identified as ‘tango’, e.g., ‘electrotango’ that lacks the rhythm of tango and thus is not designed for dancing tango. However, there is enough material to discuss here for one or more future posts.

  7. Chris, UK says:

    “Tango is a dance, it is music…”

    To the typical milonguera/o tango is the music. Saying “dancing tango”, “dancing” is what you do and “tango” is what you do it to. “Dancing tango” does not refer to a form of dance. Consider also that to call oneself a tanguero/a does not imply one has an interest in dancing at all, and indeed most don’t.

    I’ve noticed the majority who consider tango to be as much a dance form as a music form are those from cultures where tango is rarely heard, and whose first encounter is through so-called tango classes. Being actually just tango dance classes. Taught by people having much less interest in music than dance.

    “…and it is a culture. All three aspects are integral to the understanding of tango.”

    They aren’t aspects. The culture of tango is the culture of the music. Without tango the music, the other two don’t exist. Without dancing tango, tango would still exist. Much tango has nothing to do with dancing.

    • jantango says:

      There are many more tangueros — one who loves tango music — in Buenos Aires than dancers or milongueros.

      Thanks, Chris, for making excellent points as always.

    • tangovoice says:

      Yes, the origin of the dance is the music.

      Then, to understand the dance, one also needs to understand the music and the culture in which it originated and lives today.


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