Definition of Tango: Where are the Boundaries in Contemporary Tango (Stage Tango / Tango Nuevo / Contact Improvisation Tango)?

The Task of Defining Tango

Those who attempt to define tango walk through a political minefield, facing potential attack from those who consider themselves to be creative innovators forging the future evolution of tango, as well as those who consider themselves preservers of a cultural tradition with immutable core characteristics. This is a contemporary controversy, as several new directions in the evolution of dance and music are currently being explored, appropriating the name ‘tango’. The relevance of this controversy is that it determines to a significant degree the norms and ranges of variation in dancing and music that exist at events advertised as ‘tango’, and the freedom of expression of individuals who attend these events. This post concentrates on identifying the characteristics of the dance that define it as tango, as well as recognizing when a dance is not tango, even if it is labeled as such. In this light, contemporary evolutionary trends in dance labeled as ‘tango’ will be examined with respect to their adherence to the defining characteristics of the dance and thus the credibility of labeling these evolutionary developments as ‘tango’. The goal is to contribute to truth in advertising of events as ‘tango’.

What will not be examined here are historically extinct forms of dance that have been classified as tango, such as canyengue and tango orillero, which have been discussed previously (Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or non-existent Tango Styles?). Also not examined here are foreign derivatives of early 20th century Tango Argentino, in particular American and International Ballroom Tango and Finnish Tango, which have also been examined previously, as these are relatively stable descendants of tango with clearly defined niches that do not impinge upon the identity and integrity of Tango Argentino to any significant degree.

The Defining Characteristics of Tango as a Social Dance (Tango de Salon)

Tango has evolved in Buenos Aires as a social dance, and the unique characteristics of the tango social dance in Buenos Aires form the basis for definition of tango and thus its differentiation from non-tango forms of dance. What is danced today in the milongas of Buenos Aires – Tango de Salon – is universally recognized as tango. Although there are and have been historically stylistic variations due to individual proclivities and micro-geographical (i.e., neighborhood) differences, since the Golden Age there have been certain common characteristics of Tango de Salon (The Essence of Tango Argentino).

The foundations of Tango de Salon are a man embracing a woman and leading her in a linear walk connected to the rhythm of tango dance music from the golden age of tango (1930s – 1950s). The characteristic walk of tango is light and level, with smooth strides close to the floor, pulsating with the music, elegant in having clearly defined lines and collection of weight into a point. This walking can be inside or outside partner, in parallel or crossed feet. When walking inside partner in parallel feet, the man and woman share the same track, i.e., there is no offset to one side. This walking is done respecting the space of other dancers on the pista by participation in a progressive ronda. Where there is insufficient space to continue walking in a straight line, turns are employed, typically turns of the woman around the man whose spatial position changes little (i.e., the molinete). Walking, turning, and other optional movements (described below) are combined in unique sequences and varied with the music in an improvised manner. These are the unique, defining characteristics of contemporary tango as a social dance that differentiate it from other dances.

Thus, the defining characteristics of Tango de Salon are:

  • (1) a closed embrace between man and woman
  • (2) the man leading a woman in a smooth and level linear walk close to the floor,
  • (3) the man leading the woman to turns around his stationary position when space for linear walking is unavailable,
  • (4) the connection of the above characteristics to tango dance music from the golden age of tango (1930s – 1950s)
  • (5) improvisation with respect to varying timing and use of space in the creation of sequences of movements
  • (6) maintenance of the movements utilized within a progressive ronda

This is an operational definition, in that a particular dance can be viewed and evaluated reasonably objectively with respect to the degree to which it meets these criteria. These can be considered necessary and sufficient criteria for the definition of a dance as Tango de Salon or, at the very least, the characteristics of a mature Tango de Salon (with developing dancers in the process of acquiring these traits). In addition, there are characteristic movements – the forward ocho, the back ocho, the ocho cortado, the cruzada, the sacada, the boleo, the barrida, the sandwich, the calesita, as well as various decorative movements  (i.e., adornos) – that, with rare exception, differentiate tango from other dances. However, these movements are neither necessary nor sufficient to define a dance as tango.

Shown here are representative improvised demonstrations of the two most prevalent variants of Tango de Salon, the predominant contemporary variant usually classified as Tango Milonguero, and the mostly historically important Tango Estilo del Barrio.

This demonstration of Tango Milonguero by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani to the tango “El recodo” by the orchestra of Rodolfo Biagi shows the characteristic tango walk interspersed with turns that define Tango de Salon. Characteristic of Tango Milonguero, there is a maintained close embrace and minimal use of adornments.

This demonstration by Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen to the tango “Anselmo Acuña el resero” by the orchestra of Carlos Di Sarli is an example of a variation of Tango de Salon that was popular in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the 1950s (‘Tango Estilo del Barrio’, which is currently undergoing somewhat of a revival and reincarnation on the teaching circuit as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’). It also shows the alternation of linear walking with turns that characterizes Tango de Salon. It differs from Tango Milonguero in core characteristics in that the closed embrace is released for the execution of molinetes. There is also a tendency to utilize more embellishments in Tango Estilo del Barrio than in Tango Milonguero.

It should be noted that even under moderately crowded floor density at a milonga, it may be possible to move forward in the ronda only for short distances. Under these conditions, the molinete plays a more prominent role in the improvisation of tango sequences. An example of this is demonstrated in this video of Carlos Velino & Marta Frasia dancing at the Lo de Celia milonga in Buenos Aires. Additional videos of Tango de Salon danced in the milongas are referenced in the previous Tango Voice post ‘Milongueros Dancing in the Milongas of Buenos Aires’.

There are other contemporary genres of dance that are called ‘tango’ that are not Tango de Salon. They often incorporate elements and characteristics of other dance genres and to varying degrees lose the connection with the foundations of tango at its evolutionary point of divergence – the milongas of Buenos Aires. Several contemporary genres of dance labeled as ‘tango’ are examined below with respect to the degree to which the defining characteristics of Tango de Salon exist within representative dances of each genre. The argument is made here that another genre of dance is legitimately classifiable as ‘tango’ in the more general sense when it is built upon the defining characteristics of tango represented in Tango de Salon. All core characteristics of Tango de Salon need not be present, but there needs to be a clear incorporation of at least some of these core characteristics that is evident in observing the dance. The most important of these is the characteristic tango walk. Without the tango walk, a dance is not tango of any kind. Another important characteristic of tango is that it is danced to tango music, i.e., music with the identifiable rhythmic characteristics of tango. Thus, employment of movements characteristic of tango to music that is not tango music is not a tango dance. However, setting the minimum requirements of a characteristic tango walk danced to tango music as defining tango is considered restrictive and intolerant to some contemporary dancers who appropriate the term ‘tango’ to label their dance that has deviated from this core, as will be seen below.

Stage Tango as an Adaptation (or not) of Tango de Salon

Stage Tango (Tango Escenario) has taken the core characteristics of Tango de Salon of the milongas and modified and elaborated upon them, designing the dance to be outward directed and entertaining for an audience. Social tango movements have been expanded in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions, accelerated and often presented within a dramatic context. In doing so, predetermined choreography has replaced the improvisation of Tango de Salon, and the ronda, the counterclockwise line-of-dance, has been suspended. Although some elements not used in Tango de Salon are characteristically employed in Tango Escenario (e.g., breaking open the embrace and partner separation, ganchos, high boleos, quebradas, al reves position), and the prominence of the close physical connection between partners (i.e., el abrazo) is usually reduced in frequency, in Stage Tango there is still the recognizable tango walk and molinetes closely connected with tango music (albeit music sometimes not used for tango social dancing, such as Piazzolla or later Pugliese).

Examples of Stage Tango that primarily use movements derived from social tango are seen in the following performances by well-known Stage Tango dancers:

Osvaldo Zotto & Lorena Ermocida, in their first performance to “Gallo ciego”, represent for the most part Tango de Salon (specifically Estilo del Barrio), i.e., smooth walking interspersed with molinetes, modified for exhibition by an opened embrace, larger movements and adornments lifted off the floor; the second performance, to “Derecho Viejo”, although deviating further from Tango de Salon in adding ganchos, lifts and dips, and some breaks in partner hold, still has as its foundation linear walking interspersed with turns.

The performance of Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran to “A Evaristo Carriego” emphasizes heavily the drama and passion of man – woman interaction, yet the dance itself is largely linear walking and molinetes generously decorated with embellishments.

These stage performances are considered within the Argentine tango culture to represent tango, because the walking and turns that form the foundations of the dance are based on the movements utilized in Tango de Salon. Nevertheless, because of its enlarged movements, choreography, suspension of improvisation and the ronda, and emphasis on dramatic interaction, Tango Escenario is clearly recognized as a genre of tango with a different niche – the stage or other performance platform – from the Tango de Salon of the milonga.

As Stage Tango has evolved over the years, it has incorporated more and more movements from other dance genres – in particular, ballet, modern dance, and jazz. However, at some point the incorporated elements can dominate the tango elements to the point where the foundations of tango are no longer apparent. In this scene from the stage production ‘Tango Fire’, except for about 3 seconds of fragments of molinetes, there are no elements of Tango de Salon in the performance. The music – Astor Piazzolla’s “Verano porteño” – is recognized as tango music, albeit not music for social dancing, but it is tango music nonetheless. However, dance movements made to tango music are insufficient for classification of dance as ‘tango’; the movements need to be movements characteristic of Tango de Salon – the linear walking of man and woman in an embrace, interspersed with turns – something that is absent in this performance in Tango Fire.

Also consider this performance, labeled as ‘Tango-Danza-Teatro’ (tango dance theatre) and danced to music by ‘neotango’ ensemble Narcotango, in a production directed by Pablo Inza, a recognized instructor of Tango Nuevo. There are no movements of Tango de Salon in this scene and the music is unlike any music generally identified as ‘tango’, even the music of Astor Piazzolla. The director is associated with tango. The ensemble playing the music has ‘tango’ in its name. The music it plays may be classified by some as ‘neotango’ or, more specifically, ‘electrotango’. This performance is labeled as ‘tango’, but neither the dance nor the music has any features characteristic of the Tango de Salon of the milongas of Buenos Aires. It is not tango. It needs another name to differentiate it from tango.

Evidence (or lack thereof) of Tango de Salon within Tango Nuevo

Tango Nuevo is characterized by improvisation in the exploration of the spatial dimensions of the dance in and around partners. It is recognizable and differentiated from other genres of tango by movements that are more or less specific to Tango Nuevo, e.g., the volcada and the colgada. Nevertheless, despite these innovations, in its evolution Tango Nuevo has built upon the foundation of Tango de Salon, with walking and molinetes forming a major part of the exhibitions of the pioneers of Tango Nuevo. This can be seen in the following videos.

This demonstration by Pablo Inza & Moira Castellano, recognized instructors of Tango Nuevo, to the classic tango “Poema” by the orchestra of Francisco Canaro, relies to a significant degree on movements characteristic of Tango de Salon – walking inside and outside partner in both parallel and crossed feet along with some molinetes including sacadas. What is different from Tango de Salon is the changing embrace, from the closed embrace of Tango Milonguero to the shift to the side with mutual forward walking characteristic of Canyengue to the al reves position adopted from Tango Fantasia. Also borrowed from Tango Fantasia are planeos and high boleos. Lacking in this demonstrations are the lifts and drops and other elements from other genres of dance that have been incorporated into Stage Tango. Almost every movement used in this demonstration traces its evolutionary origins to various genres of tango that had already expressed themselves by the mid-1950s, the end of the Golden Age of tango. It is not Tango de Salon, but a convincing argument cannot be made that it is not tango.

This demonstration by Gustavo Naveira & Giselle Anne, recognized pioneers of Tango Nuevo, to the classic tango “El adios” by the orchestra of Edgardo Donato, consists primarily of movements from Tango de Salon – walking with molinetes with sacadas – but adds some ganchos, a few quebradas and more variability in the embrace, including partial (one hand) and complete release of the hold between partners. Nevertheless, just as in the Inza – Castellano demonstration, all movements used had appeared within accepted tango genres by the end of the Golden Age.

In this demonstration by Homer & Cristina Ladas, recognized North American instructors of Tango Nuevo / Organic Tango, to a live orchestra adaptation of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”, the foundations of Tango de Salon are abandoned in order to accommodate a cornucopia of movements commonly utilized in Tango Nuevo – colgadas, volcadas, boleos (contra boleos, linear boleos), sacadas (forward & back), ganchos and enganches, barridas, dibujos, and foot paradas, along with splits, lifts & carries, drags, underarm turns and other soltadas. Some of these movements are indeed incorporated on a few occasions into fragments of molinetes and one can even see a few segments where walking in both parallel and crossed feet is interspersed within the cascading display of Tango Nuevo movements. However, this is almost entirely a parade of Tango Nuevo elements rather than a demonstration building on the core characteristics of Tango de Salon. It is noteworthy that Homer’s walk has some characteristics inconsistent with the tango walk of Tango de Salon. There are times when he lands on his heel with his toes angled upward from the floor and there are other times when he lifts his foot off the floor and lands it straight downward onto a flat foot (i.e., heel and toe making contact simultaneously). Homer also spends a considerable portion of the dance with his knees bent and his feet apart, in contrast to the elegant walk landing on a straight leg and collecting feet characteristic of Tango de Salon, something that is maintained in the Stage Tango performances of Osvaldo Zotto and Carlos Gavito, and in the Tango Nuevo performances of Pablo Inza and Gustavo Naveira referenced above. This extensive collection of optional tango movements within a few fragments of walking and turning plus, in particular, the abandonment of the smooth elegant walk of Tango de Salon essentially disqualify this performance from classification as ‘tango’. It may be very creative and pleasing to the audience, but it is not tango.

The following demonstration by Nick Jones & Rebecca Shulman also stretches and transcends the boundaries of what is usually identified as tango. (Jones lists recognized Tango Nuevo instructors Norberto ‘El Pulpo’ Esbrez and Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli as his influences.) First, the music – by classical music composer Erik Satie – is clearly not tango, which would automatically disqualify it as a tango dance. Dancing in bare feet defies the traditions of Tango de Salon. With respect to the movements, there are some elements borrowed from the standard Tango Nuevo repertoire (e.g., the volcada, the calesita, the gancho, the sacada), but just as adding ballet movements to a tango show does not convert it into ballet, the insertion of movements associated with tango into a dance does not automatically qualify it as tango. The quality of tango most noticeably absent from this demonstration is the smooth and close to the floor tango walk. Jones’s bent knee, often lunging walk is uncharacteristic of tango. Shulman, also maintaining a bent knee position during much of her walking, keeps her feet elevated in a suspended position for much of the dance, also uncharacteristic of tango. There is also too much vertical motion in the walking movements, in contrast to the low vertical variation inherent in the tango walk. Although this is listed and described on You Tube as ‘tango’, it is not and clearly has been mislabeled. This labeling sends the wrong message to those naïve about tango.

Contact Improvisation Tango

Contact improvisation is defined by Daniel Trenner as:

CI is a form of partner dancing based upon the laws of physical motion. Dancers give and receive weight, fall and fly, and sharpen their intuitive powers, as they follow the energy phrases and flows of their dancing.

In recent years, there has been an intended fusion of contact improvisation dance with tango dance. Javier Cura is an Argentine-American living in Berlin who teaches workshops in contact improvisation tango. Cura claims to have

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO TANGO”- Contact and Tango are two dance forms that focus on the relation to the other and on the circulation of energy between them. Using the dynamics of fluids as an image metaphor for this dance (ascending and descending spirals round an axis or fulcrum) we will bring together elements of these two dances to create a richer and more liberating form of physical expression.

From tango we’ll borrow :
– The clarity of axis and the use of spirals – The interplay of balances and counter balances – Rhythm and melody

From Contact improvisation we’ll borrow:
– Falls, levels, grounding, lifts – The conscious use of centripetal and centrifugal forces – The free body relation to the earth.

A good tango walk has a clear axis, movement with balance, and connection to the rhythm and melodic phrasing of tango music. These are part of the core essentials defining a dance as tango. An examination of the videos referenced here will identify whether these core characteristics are retained when merged with contact improvisation.

A workshop on Contact Improvisation Tango by Cura is captured in this video. For those who are naïve about tango, The YouTube label ‘tango1’ informs the viewer that this is tango. This video may serve to negate anyone’s impression that tango is a serious dance. However, there are no elements of tango in the movements – no walking, no molinetes – and no tango embrace. The music is not tango, even by the most generously liberal classification. There is no rational justification for calling this dancing ‘tango’.

Javier Cura & Leilani Weiss give a performance labeled as ‘ContacTango’ in this video, which has the music of the Narcotango group played in the background. (It is not clear whether this music was being played when the dancing was occurring.) If one examines this video closely, one can see a few sacadas, enganches, back ochos, and fragments of molinetes, mostly in the early part of the demo, but the movements in general resemble a staged wrestling match like one would see on television in the United States more than they resemble anything else. It is unclear what rationale is being employed in attaching the label ‘tango’ to these movements.

Another performance of ‘contact tango’ is given by Erdal Atik & Ali Türkkan in this video, using the tango music “Milonga triste” played by the ensemble of Hugo Diaz. There is some walking in the first 30 seconds that is somewhat reminiscent of tango, but after that the movements are not identifiable as tango. The music may be tango, but the movements in this dance do not resemble tango. Perhaps the symbolic phallic imagery projected in this supposed improvisation can be deemed by some to capture the primordial sexuality attributed to tango.

What appears to be a ‘contact tango jam’ in Munich is recorded in this video. There are very few movements associated with tango in this dancing and the characteristic tango walk is absent; there is only ‘neotango’ music in the background. Perhaps this event represents the future evolution of the ‘alternative milonga’ worldwide.

It should be noted that in these videos the movement is only loosely connected to the music, at best, and thus the music appears almost irrelevant to the movement. One could improvise the same movements to jazz or the music of Erik Satie. Since the only connection tango has with any of these displays of movements is the music (using a broad, perhaps unduly heterogeneous classification for music as tango), the disconnection from the only tango element possibly present indicates this is a tango fusion in name only.

What Contact Improvisation Tango does offer is the opportunity to tumble barefoot in dance attire while under the illusion that one is expanding the creative boundaries of tango.

Summary and Conclusions

As stated at the outset, definition of dance as tango often invites controversy. However, for any form of dance to be classified legitimately as tango, there must be a connection to its evolutionary origin in social tango danced in Buenos Aires. When examined in its contemporary and recent historical manifestations, the Tango de Salon of the milongas of Buenos Aires has certain defining characteristics that differentiate it from other genres of dance – the close embrace, the level walk, the molinete, and improvisation of movement in the temporal and spatial dimensions in connection with classic tango music while maintaining the couple’s position in the circulating ronda. Other genres of dance classified as tango do not always adhere to these characteristics of Tango de Salon, but the expression of a characteristic tango walk connected to tango music are postulated here as essential for classification of any dance as tango.

Examined here are several contemporary evolutionary trends labeled as ‘tango’ that, in theory, involve the fusion of elements of Tango de Salon with other genres of dance – Stage Tango, Tango Nuevo, and Contact Improvisation Tango. It is seen within some performances of Stage Tango and Tango Nuevo that there is a foundation of tango walking interspersed with molinetes in connection with tango music (broadened to include the post golden age music of Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla). In having these characteristics, the criteria for classification of a dance as tango are satisfied in the Stage Tango performances of Osvaldo Zotto & Lorena Ermocida and of Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran, and in the Tango Nuevo performances of Pablo Inza & Moira Castellano and of Gustavo Naveira & Giselle Anne, although it also needs to be recognized that these represent different genres of tango, not designed as is Tango de Salon for the pista of the milonga. In contrast, the stage performance to “Verano Porteño” in the ‘Tango Fire’ production, the scene from the ‘tango-danza-teatro’ directed by Pablo Inza, and all of the Contact Improvisation Tango demonstrations clearly suffer from a lack of incorporation of any of the defining elements of tango, and most rational investigators of tango would have to conclude that classifying them as tango involves a near obliteration of the boundaries of tango such that almost any movement to music could be called ‘tango’, perhaps for lack of an alternative label for classification. Following such a path renders the classification of ‘tango’ for dance meaningless because it then becomes impossible objectively (but perhaps not by assumed authority) to classify a dance as tango.

Declaring the Nick Jones & Rebecca Shulman and the Homer & Cristina Ladas performances as not meeting the criteria for classification as tango is likely to be controversial in the tango political arena, mainly because the performers self-identify their instruction as tango, which to an admiring audience may be sufficient justification to label all products of their efforts as ‘tango’. However, these demonstrations (and many others by dancers self-identifying with tango) lack the core characteristics of tango. At some point in its evolution, creative exploration of the boundaries of tango crosses over into a territory that is no longer tango.

To some the objection to an ever broadening boundary for tango may be perceived as intolerant and stifling to creativity, but this misinterprets the rationale for this objection. The objection is to labeling and communication, not creativity. If creativity were the only factor involved in the fusion of elements of tango with other dances, the creators of tango fusions would apply the name of ‘tango’ to their activities honestly, with caution. However, there is another factor operating that provides greater motivation than creativity and that is economics.

Tango is the creation of Argentine culture and there are indeed aspects of this culture that are difficult to communicate to foreign cultures. Thus, in order to market tango, self-proclaimed tango artists modify their product so that it achieves wider acceptance within the foreign culture. For example, in general in North American and European cultures, learning to dance consists primarily of memorizing a sequence of steps. Therefore, marketing of the long list of labeled movements of Tango Nuevo is more likely to achieve economic success than teaching the foundations of Tango de Salon – walking elegantly in a close embrace to classic tango music and improvising in the temporal and spatial dimensions while navigating within the ronda in a milonga. Another route to acceptance of the exported product of tango to foreign cultures is to replace classic tango music, which takes time to appreciate, with the American culture derived electronic music labeled as ‘(electro)tango’, or even non-tango music blatantly mismarketed as ‘neotango’, as a vehicle for expression of movements associated with tango. Attach an impression of creative exploration to this dilution of tango character and its palatability to the targeted consumer increases. The motivation for marketing contact improvisation with tango music played somewhere in the background as ‘tango’ is that the former dance genre appeals to North American and European cultural ideals of free expression, which can be misapplied readily to corrupt the concept of improvisation that exists within Tango Argentino. By catering to the pre-existing cultural biases of foreign cultures, the purveyors of tango, both Argentine and non-Argentine, are more intent on maximizing profits than in accurate cultural transmission. Within this potpourri of marketed movements and sounds bearing a loose connection at best to the Tango de Salon of Buenos Aires, the probability of a foreigner being exposed to the authentic Argentine culture of tango is reduced significantly, thereby minimizing the possibility of a foreigner benefiting from understanding what Tango Argentino has to offer – close physical (and possibly emotional) connection (within defined boundaries) between man and woman to emotionally rich music, while having the opportunity to playfully improvise with the temporal and spatial dimensions provided in a milonga environment. Truth in advertising dance as ‘tango’ is necessary to allow those living outside the Argentine tango culture to benefit from what Tango Argentino really has to offer.

19 Responses to Definition of Tango: Where are the Boundaries in Contemporary Tango (Stage Tango / Tango Nuevo / Contact Improvisation Tango)?

  1. rontango says:

    The timeliness of your post is incredible! This weekend for the first time in our tango community, there will be ‘contact improvisation tango’ (CIT) workshops, advertised in conjunction with 2 milongas. I had some idea what this CIT was, but the videos you referenced provided a lot of insight into how ridiculous it is to call this ‘tango’. I can just imagine the workshop attendees bringing their CIT into a ‘milonga’ that is already on the fringe with playing mostly non-tango music. Perhaps it will look like the Munich video. I will miss this entertaining event because I am hosting a traditional milonga the same day.

  2. tangovoice says:

    It’s a good thing there is a traditional milonga available for those who enjoy Tango de Salon without being disrupted by dancing and music that is not part of the tradition of the milongas of Buenos Aires. The best way to isolate these disruptive trends is to have separate events that are available only for those who respect tango traditions. Keep up the good work and don’t worry about contact improvisation ‘tango’. It will find its own small separate niche for those who do not understand tango.

  3. AnA says:

    It is interesting to know that how tango salon is so facinated well we can see it while dancing in a milonga, there are some tandas but when canyjengue is playing few people dance it. What a pity it is loveable! As well as candombe and milonga it was just the beggining…. It is really good to understand a little more about tango: the infinity possibilities.

  4. tangovoice says:

    Take a look at the previous Tango Voice post:

    Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?

    Canyengue is the name given to the style of tango danced in the first 3 decades of the 20th century. It is not a type of tango music per se, although the music to which canyengue was danced was different from most golden age tango music for dancing; in particular in has the faster 2 x 4 time signature. Sometimes this music is labeled as ‘Guardia Vieja’. There is little of this kind of music played in Buenos Aires milongas today – some Canaro from the 30s, his later Quinteto Pirincho, rarely Los Tubatango (1970s) or the contemporary La Tubatango. The Firpo quartet (but not the orchestra) also captures this sound, but this is rarely if ever played in Buenos Aires milongas, although some Villasboas valses and milongas with a similar sound are sometimes played.

    The canyengue is no longer danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires, and no one alive today has seen canyengue danced in these milongas. There are some dancers, notably Marta Anton with either Luis Grondona or with Manolo “El Gallego” Salvador as a partner who have tried to recreate this style from childhood memory and verbal history, and they teach it and give demonstrations, but it is mainly of historical interest. That no one dances canyengue to Guardia Vieja music at a milonga is consistent with what is done in Buenos Aires today.

    There was never candombe per se associated with tango social dancing. Candombe is an African-Argentine, African-Uruguayan dance without partner contact, still danced at festivals in Uruguay, that influenced the music and some movements of the dance of tango in its formative years, but it is not in itself tango.

  5. eric crowder says:

    Love this article.I have danced Tango for 2.5yrs now and wondered where to start. So, like other I went to various classes. I have now firmly planted my allegiance to Salon tango. I get upset when “nuevos” come on to my dance floor. I dont want them there. For the obvious reasons. I think they dance great but after the inevitable stilettos the kicks etc I want them to dance at their own venues. I wish some Milonga organisers would take a leaf out of a venue I frequent and ban them. They are tapped on the shoulder and asked to refrain, leave with a refund, offered an alternative time to “strut their stuff”. Funnily enough they didnt take up the option for an alternative time but just went to other venues and imposed themselves there. I am really intolerant of them now and if it gets really bad leave and tell the Milonga organiser why. Another organiser and teacher has a sign No armas, No cuchillos No nuevo!”
    That I like.

    Can I ask what would be considered for example the total repertoire of Salon without its improvisation
    ie Salida, cross ochos molinete etc. Is there one?
    before its considered not to be Salon. ie does a volcada, or a gancho not feature in any Salon.
    if that is the case, then could we not define a syllabus that is all embracing Salon but all that is taught is subject to improvisation? Outside of thoses parameters it then becomes something else. The viennese waltz has if I remember only right turns ,left turns, change steps, fleckerls right and left. Thats it you can dance Viennese Waltz! WOuld appreciate comments as I feel perhaps arguments presented in this article hint at the possibility that a student only needs to learn perhaps six basic fundamental figures for want of a better phrase and then improvise on them to be a Salon TAngo? Therefore, I and others could stop going to many workshops except those that improve technique!
    It would follow from that teachers could spread the gospel, increase the Salon population and squeeze the Neos/nuevos out because the majority would be all doing Salon!

  6. tangovoice says:

    It is important to note that it is the responsibility of milonga organizers to enforce codes of conduct at milongas. It is possible to have milongas where at least the courtesy of respecting the space of other dancers on the floor can be expected and enforced. In Buenos Aires there are practicas designated for tango Nuevo (Practica X, several events at Villa Malcolm). There would be considerably less conflict between genres of tango (and possibly more respect of each other’s differences) if this segregation were implemented in other places around the world.

    Regarding movements associated with tango de salon, a distinction needs to be made between the defining characteristics of the dance, i.e., what is necessary and sufficient for a tango to be classified as tango de salon, and other characteristics unique to the dance. The characteristic walk defines a dance as tango (of any genre, including stage tango and tango Nuevo). Stationary turns (molinetes) are necessary to function in a milonga, specifically for the meeting the criterion of maintaining one’s place in the circulating ronda. Improvisation in the variations of walking and turns are sufficient in terms of movements. This is apparent in the videos presented in the previous Tango Voice post ‘Milongueros Dancing the Milongas of Buenos Aires’ ( Other movements (such as cruzadas, sacadas, boleos, arrastres, calesitas), may be unique to tango and part of the movement repertoire of tango de salon, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to identify the dance as tango de salon. With respect to ganchos, these have been considered inappropriate for use at milongas at least since the 1940s. Volcadas are currently not used as part of the tango de salon repertoire. One can investigate why this is so, but currently they are not and visitors to Buenos Aires milongas, or to milongas elsewhere that wish to have the same codes of behavior, should understand this and not impose their own interpretation of tango upon the environment that the milonga organizer wishes to create.

    • gyb says:

      A milonga organizer in my area frequently makes the point that it is not really the organizer who has the responsibility to maintain order on the dance floor but this should mostly fall on the advanced leaders. Legend has it that in the old times advanced leaders would “police” the dancefloor and punish offenders of milonga codes by surrounding them and effectively squeezing them into a corner / out of the dancefloor.

      I think it would be interesting to organize workshops where very advanced leaders of the local community could practice and develop the ability to coordinate their dance together and to achieve such an effect. This must be the hardest of all skills, being able to keep dancing in an enjoyable, musical way while policing the dancefloor, imperceptible to your partner, and to do that in a way which also does not risk harming your (or the offender’s) partner. At the very minimum this requires the ability to keep your own back to one direction (towards the offender) while also to make some progress in any direction you need to. You also need to dance pretty well to maintain plausible deniability; you don’t want to give a clear basis for aggression or retaliation, i.e. you certainly don’t want to bump into the offender with, say, a back step.

      I think if a community had five advanced leaders who are practiced in this skill, purging the community from milonga-inappropriate behavior would be quite effective. It is in their interest as well to maintain a safe dance-floor.

  7. tangovoice says:

    This boxing in of dancers may be a more recent phenomenon, since tourists without navigation skills have entered the milongas in Buenos Aires. If reports of the Golden Age are accurate, poor navigators would not be on the pista because women would not accept their invitations to dance.

    Using boxing in as a strategy to control poor navigators today detracts from the primary motivation of tango – to connect in a peaceful embrace with a woman and the music. Otherwise the woman becomes a tool for male competition acted out in an aggressive manner. It changes the atmosphere of the milonga. It is better for the milonga organizer to speak quietly with navigational offenders.

  8. carlos says:

    There are a lot of mistakes in this article, the main one: ‘what is danced today in milongas of buenos aires -tango de salon- is universally recognized as tango’.

    tango de salon is just a minumun part of tango, tango in the 40′ included also ganchos, giros, sacadas, voleos, volcadas … Nito and Elba made nice colgadas, Julio and Corina as well, Gavito very nice volcadas…
    and you all article is based on this mistake…

    when you talk about tango de salon the defining characteristics… well the 1st one is wrong, you can dance even salon in open embrace, the 3rd one is wrong too, you do turns whenever you want either if the floor is very crowded or not…
    ocho cortado is not a movement from tango de salon, it is pretty old, even the salon dancers don’t like to use it so much, it belongs to canyengue…

    The other mistake is to consider that an Artist can be jugde, i am very sorry, but you can not judge them just for what they do in their performances, they are artist, they can do whatever they want, you can like it or not, but you can’t say more. if they do an exhibition or a demostration then you can analize it and may be say something, but i saw all of these dancers dancing socialy and they can do it pretty well, just when it comes to perform they feel free to express them selves as many other argentinian tango dancers did in the past, do in the present and will do in the future. It is the artist who decide what to do, and it is the public who pays for that.

    You can see that today, Practica X just keep the name, but it became another milonga, why? because its dance floor got full and they couldn’t dance like in a practica anymore, which is reasonable if you want to behave well socially talking, but people will still practice their ganchos and boleos and some other crazy tango stuff in their house, other rooms or other practicas.

    By the other hand, nowaday you find people much more prepared to dance that in the 40′. This is one of the reasons why today clearly people dance different (beside of some really bad dancers). We can not just leave the tango as it was in the 40′, we just can’t. We live in a different time today. Even Lorena Hermocida, she is a ballet dancer dancing tango, Osvaldo was for sure much more a tango dancer than her, and what they dance is for sure completly different to what people in the 40′ danced, but still they have developed an unique style of dancing tango.

    Juan Carlos Copes was a dancer, but a dancer with strong formation, not just a tango dancer, he had a great training in other dances as well, and people say that in the practicas he was de best at his time, why? because due to his training he had much more to offer than other dancers.

    i say it again, too many mistakes. it seems that the writer had a very clear idea about he wanted to express in this his article, it is a shame because it seemed to be an interesting articles at the begining.

  9. tangovoice says:

    “There are a lot of mistakes in this article, the main one: ‘what is danced today in milongas of buenos aires -tango de salon- is universally recognized as tango’.”

    => Yes, the Tango de Salon of the milongas of Buenos Aires is recognized as tango by anyone who has a reasonable amount of knowledge about tango.

    “tango de salon is just a minumun part of tango, tango in the 40′ included also ganchos, giros, sacadas, voleos, volcadas … Nito and Elba made nice colgadas, Julio and Corina as well, Gavito very nice volcadas…
    and you all article is based on this mistake…”

    => Definition of tango involves stating its defining characteristics, the unique traits that identify it as tango as compared to some other dance, and without which it would not be tango. Ganchos, sacadas, boleos, volcadas, colgadas and the like are not essential movements of tango. One need not use these movements to be dancing tango. They are not essential. Some are not part of Tango de Salon (ganchos, volcadas, colgadas). They are just not used in the milongas of Buenos Aires and are considered vulgar or rude to other dancers on the floor. They may be used in exhibitions. One major problem with tango outside Argentina is that it is taught as a set of conspicuous movements, whereas the essence of the social dance is in the connection between man and woman in the embrace, their connection to the music, and the use of space so as to respect other dancers on the floor.

    “when you talk about tango de salon the defining characteristics… well the 1st one is wrong, you can dance even salon in open embrace, the 3rd one is wrong too, you do turns whenever you want either if the floor is very crowded or not…
    ocho cortado is not a movement from tango de salon, it is pretty old, even the salon dancers don’t like to use it so much, it belongs to canyengue…”

    => In the 1950s, dancers in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires would dance mostly in a close embrace and open the turns and forward ochos. They would still start and return to the ‘close embrace’. This opening and closing of the embrace is rare in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. Regarding turns, yes, one can do turns whenever space is available but if doing so blocks the progression of the ronda by doing turns when there is space in front and dancers approaching from behind, this is a violation of the codes of the milonga. Regarding the ocho cortado, although this is not an essential movement of tango, it is an integral part of the dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. Nearly every dancer uses it.

    “The other mistake is to consider that an Artist can be jugde, i am very sorry, but you can not judge them just for what they do in their performances, they are artist, they can do whatever they want, you can like it or not, but you can’t say more. if they do an exhibition or a demostration then you can analize it and may be say something, but i saw all of these dancers dancing socialy and they can do it pretty well, just when it comes to perform they feel free to express them selves as many other argentinian tango dancers did in the past, do in the present and will do in the future. It is the artist who decide what to do, and it is the public who pays for that.”

    => The problem with these exhibitions is that they are not preceded by a statement saying that what is to follow is not appropriate for the social dance floor. What is taught in tango workshops is often inappropriate for the milonga. This is evident in the imitation of exhibition tango that permeates milongas throughout the world. Tango de Salon is the minority of what is danced in milongas outside Argentina and that reflects what is taught and what is shown in demonstrations. It does not matter that the artists are capable of dancing Tango de Salon; they are not communicating that knowledge to students.

  10. carlos says:

    ‘what is danced today in milongas of buenos aires -tango de salon- is universally recognized as tango’.

    here you meant universally but that is not true, but i you talk about the tango universe then i can agree with you.

    ‘Ganchos, sacadas, boleos, volcadas, colgadas and the like are not essential movements of tango. One need not use these movements to be dancing tango.’

    sorry but you need them in tango. if you want to clean up the all tango thing, then you will arrive to the point that if you just hug to your partner nicely and kind of move on the dance floor following the beats then you are dancing Tango… or Bolero… Your mistake is to forget that Tango is also a DANCE no just about connection this is not enough… you need it, but it is not all.
    If socially you don’t want to do them or if you just can’t do them that’s ok, but this belongs to tango more to any other dance…

    ‘The problem with these exhibitions is that they are not preceded by a statement saying that what is to follow is not appropriate for the social dance floor. ‘

    what? do you want a sign or something like ‘dangerous, please don’t practice this in milongas with out the supervising of a maestro’ ? Of course they can what every they want, people have to learn, but the artist don’t have to teach them in their performances, they have classes if they want to learn and ask.

    ‘What is taught in tango workshops is often inappropriate for the milonga. This is evident in the imitation of exhibition tango that permeates milongas throughout the world. Tango de Salon is the minority of what is danced in milongas outside Argentina and that reflects what is taught and what is shown in demonstrations. It does not matter that the artists are capable of dancing Tango de Salon; they are not communicating that knowledge to students.’

    people need to learn everything, no just to be minimalistic, this they will learn with the time. If people join those classes do you think they are wrong? What do you know about what this teachers say in their classes?

    • tangovoice says:

      It is a common misconception that the steps define the dance. The music defines the dance. An embrace and walking (simple steps) connected to tango music are all that is needed to dance tango. If there is some movement that is a nearly essential part of the dance, it is the turns (molinetes); this pattern of alternation of forward-side-back-side steps is used when there is insufficient space to move in a linear manner. Ganchos, sacadas, boleos, volcadas and colgadas are not only NOT necessary, but with respect to Tango de Salon, at the very least ganchos, volcadas, colgadas, and (high) boleos are considered inappropriate and possibly even anti-social. Emphasis on movements such as these detracts from the primary focus of tango – connection of partners to each other and the music, and possibly the respect for other dancers on the pista.

      Regarding exhibitions, porteños with even a moderate degree of exposure to tango culture recognize the difference between exhibition tango and social tango. However, when taken outside its native culture, the naïve observer often fails to make this distinction. This is clearly evident in the common usage of exhibition elements on the social dance floor at events advertised as milongas outside Argentina. Thus, numerous people are not able to make this distinction.

      The high prevalence of exhibition elements on the tango social dance floor outside Argentina either indicates that the instructors are not telling their students these movements are inappropriate for the milonga or that the students are ignoring the instructors’ instructions. In either case, the instructors are responsible for the consequences of introducing the material.

  11. AnA says:

    Usualy I receive your subscription and apreciate it very much. We are always improving and learning about tango. Thank very much for your work. Any way I would like to ask why do not put on a line something special about canyengue and candombe? Is difficult to find a special book about history of tango, in some cases we find that who came first? very trully AnA!!

  12. Chris says:


    It is a common misconception that the steps define the dance. The music defines the dance.

    In my experience this is true of most who self-identify as social dancers of Argentine tango, whether in Argentina or elsewhere in the world, and I presume most of us here. When we say “dancing tango”, we refer to something we do – dancing – plus something to which we do it – music of the genre called tango.

    But there are others for whom “dancing tango” does indeed refer specifically to a kind of dancing, and to them tango is a dance defined by steps. This is the prevalent meaning here in the UK for example, where most classes advertised as teaching tango do not teach anything at all of what we call tango, but instead teach simply a pattern dance, for people who typically have never before heard tango and don’t much like to listen to it.

    Even when such people speak of “tango music”, they are not referring to what’s called tango in e.g. Argentina. They are referring to any music that is suitable accompaniment for their “tango dance” – music that includes tango itself and e.g. English pop music. One pupil recently told me her teacher had the class last week doing tango steps to Spanish rap music. Since this dance is not based on or specific to any type of music, it equally fits just about any kind of music with a regular beat.

    Who can say whether this is a misconception? Perhaps there was indeed a misunderstanding 100 years ago when an Argentine first set foot on English soil, gave a dance demonstration, and said “I am dancing tango”. And the English watching thought by “tango” he was referring to a genre of dance, not music. Perhaps today there is misconception amongst those in England that what they call dancing tango is what Argentines do in Argentina, but if fact there is little concept or concern for this, including amongst class teachers of “Argentine tango” who have not been to Argentina experience it for themselves and very often insist they have no need to do so.

    Regardless, I think it is important to recognise that “dancing tango” has two different and incompatible meanings in the UK, and I suspect in the US too. Important, not least because it helps explain the many of disagreements one sees about tango dancing. The two sides are actually talking about two entirely different things under the same name.

  13. Paul says:

    Like many others who read your posts, I am often extremely impressed by the thoroughness of your work, your responsiveness to comments and your openness to constructive debate. The foregoing post on the boundaries of Argentine tango is a valuable contribution to the discussion and, as is characteristic of your posts, is well-supported by documentary evidence in the form of links to illustrative YouTube video clips. These links are invaluable in several ways: they allow readers to check the accuracy and fairness of your observations; they enable them to form their own judgement; and they overcome, at least partially, the ambiguity often prevalent in purely text-based discussions.

    Regrettably, however, it would appear that some of the links in this post no longer function: specifically, those associated with Homer & Cristina Ladas. So, in the interests of preserving the integrity of your original work, could I perhaps suggest that you update the relevant link to their performance to a live orchestra adaptation of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” by using this reference?

    • tangovoice says:

      It is unfortunate that the original Homer & Cristina Ladas video of their performance to ‘Oblivion’ in Berlin is not longer available. It is remarkable in the display of many of the elements of Tango Nuevo (colagadas and leg wraps in particular) that are for exhibition and not for social dancing, and in the absence of elegant walking. At the end of the demonstration Homer lifts Cristina completely off of the floor and tilts her so that her feet are higher than her head. This video provided an excellent example of a poor role model for tango social dancing.

      It is also notable that their former web site defining ‘Organic Tango’ is no longer available. They have a new website ( lacking this definition, Fortunately, many of the statements identifying their philosophy of tango are still available in a previous Tango Voice post (

  14. Chris says:

    Regrettably, however, it would appear that some of the links in this post no longer function: specifically, those associated with Homer & Cristina Ladas

    It’s an increasing problem. A blog or forum makes a less than flattering observation on a dance instructor’s promo video, and almost immediately the video gets deleted, undermining the verifiability and value of the observation.

    I’ve noticed that flattering observations rarely have the same effect.

    TangoVoice, Well Done for detailing your video references, allowing readers to find an alternative source by web search.

  15. Anonymous says:

    not accurate, and although lengthy VERY incomplete, specially the description of Tango Salon.

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