The previous post postulated that some significant proportion of tango stylistic variation is due to adaptation to the environmental niche in which it is danced. Three genres of Tango Argentino were identified – Tango (de) Salon, Tango (de) Practica, and Tango (de) Escenario – with each genre encompassing a range of stylistic variation that functions effectively in the environments of the Milonga, the Practica, and the Stage, respectively.
In this post the identifying characteristics of the Milonga environment are discussed, as well as the adaptations and acceptable stylistic variations of the tango dance necessary for successful functioning in this environment. The subsequent post will address adaptations of the tango dance to the environment of the Practica. Tango for the Stage (Tango Escenario) has been addressed in detail previously.
Identifying Characteristics of the Milonga Environment
The milonga is the social environment in which tango is danced, although not every social environment in which tango is danced is a milonga. What identifies the milonga environment (and the event called a ‘milonga’ that occurs there) is a set of cultural traditions that are followed. These traditions include the physical layout of the milonga, the music played for dancing, and the codes of social behavior on and off the dance floor.
(1) The Aural Environment: Music Played at the Milonga
Tango music is the raison d’etre for the milonga; it provides the energy and atmosphere for the tango dance. Without tango music, there is no milonga.
In contemporary Buenos Aires milongas, almost all of the music played is the classic tango music recorded in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; occasionally music is played from some orchestras after the Golden Age that play in the style of the Golden Age (Music Played at Milongas / Tango Social Dance Venues). Except for the infrequently played music of Pugliese from the 1950s, this music has a clear and regular rhythm conducive for dancing. Tango music also has an emotive quality, an ability to evoke strong emotions from the listener.
A program of tango music at the milonga is structured into tandas, a set of 4 tangos (or typically 4 valses or 3 milongas) from the same orchestra (sometimes different orchestras if vals or milonga) with the same tempo and energy. The sequence of tandas usually follows a TTV TTM sequence (T=tango, V=vals, M=milonga), with some minor deviations such as sometimes 3 tandas of tango in sequence; more commonly sets of tropical music (cumbia, salsa, merengue), jazz, rock & roll, Argentine folklore (e.g., chacarera, paso doble) in various combinations are interspersed at varying intervals. After each tanda, a cortina of (supposedly) non-danceable music is played, announcing a change in the genre of music for dancing.
The characteristics of tango music and the structure of the program of music have an impact on social interaction at the milonga.
(2) The Physical and Sociocultural Environment of the Milonga
Historically, during the Golden Age (mid-1930s to mid-1950s), there were two somewhat distinct types of social environment in which tango was danced in Buenos Aires – ‘la milonga del centro’ (the Downtown Milonga) and ‘la milonga del barrio’ (the Neighborhood Milonga) (Variation in Traditional Tango Venues in Buenos Aires). La milonga del barrio was typically located in a neighborhood social club (club de barrio) that served some other purpose during most of the week (e.g., an athletic club) but on a Friday or Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon was transformed into a place where friends and family gathered over a meal and danced tango (and other dances). La milonga del centro was more likely located in a confiteria (‘coffee house’) or cabaret (night club) in downtown Buenos Aires, where tango may have been danced several times throughout the week and where tango dancing was primarily a singles’ activity in which men and women might meet to explore romantic possibilities. (Some attendees may have been married but came without their spouses.)
Today there are few milongas actually in the ‘city center’ (parts of the barrios of San Nicolas, Monserrat and Balvanera) and the differentiation of milongas by location is somewhat less distinct (although still very real in many respects). Nevertheless, while understanding both that these differences are not absolute and that there is variation among milongas of each type, this differentiation serves as a convenient dichotomy for classifying different types of milongas, and also has significance for understanding tango stylistic variation.
(a) La Milonga del Centro (The Downtown Milonga)
This is the milonga where men and women meet, perhaps just to dance, to enjoy the warmth of the embrace of someone of the opposite sex while dancing tango, or perhaps to develop a romantic and/or sexual relationship. Many people at the milonga do not know each other, or only know each other from meeting at the milonga.
There are three seating sections at the milonga. Separate sections for men and for women are located in a ring nearest the dance floor. There is also a section that accommodates couples and groups of friends of both sexes that is usually located away from the dance floor. The chairs are placed around the table so that sitting in the chair orients one directly towards the dance floor without needing to turn (National Geographic Magazine photo, Dec, 2003); the tables are often small and permit only two or three people to sit at the same table. The location of the men’s and women’s sections close to the dance floor is to allow the use of the cabeceo, the visual invitation to dance from a distance that involves eye contact and a nod of the head to indicate mutual consent to dance. Invitation and acceptance to dance is based in part on perceived dance skill (based on observation at the milonga), in part on personal attraction. Upon reaching this agreement to dance, the man approaches the table of the woman and she rises to embrace and dance with him. The embrace is a ‘close embrace’, with contact from the upper chest to the abdomen. Partners extend their arms around each other to maintain the embrace. If the man and the woman (in heels) are of similar height, there is often cheek-to-cheek contact.
A man invites a woman to dance at the beginning of one of the songs of the tanda, and dances with her until the end of the tanda. At the beginning of each song in the tanda except the first, there is a period of about 30 seconds when couples separate from the embrace and engage in casual conversation; it is not unusual during this conversation for the man to include ‘piropos’ (flirtatious poetic compliments). This is also the time when a man may invite a woman to meet outside the milonga. At the end of the tanda, during the cortina, the man escorts the woman back to her table. Dancing until the end of the tanda is expected, but may be interrupted if one partner finds the dancing unpleasant, either because of skill level or because the nature of the contact made the partner feel uncomfortable. The latter may occur if a man extends contact to something beyond a socially acceptable embrace or is intoxicated or both.
At the end of the tanda, when the cortina is played, the floor is cleared so that men and women may have a clear view across the open floor in order to be able to use the cabeceo to invite someone to dance at the beginning of the next tanda. The beginning of the tanda can be a moment of tension, needing to find someone to invite to dance before the floor becomes too crowded to have an unobstructed view across it.
More details on the customs of the milonga are available from a previous Tango Voice post (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics).
The Downtown Milonga tends to be crowded, either because the dance floor is small or because the attendance is high, or both. The dance proceeds counterclockwise around the dance floor in a clearly defined ronda. Navigational skill is of paramount importance. (See video of Milonga de los Consagrados at Centro Region Leonesa). There is no room for large and conspicuous movements to attract attention and, besides, the person to impress while dancing is the partner of the moment sharing the embrace, not the audience that has dozens of dancers to observe.
The Downtown Milonga is a meeting ground, as well as a proving ground for skill in both dance and romance. In the contemporary Downtown Milonga, some women dress provocatively, which attracts attention and may increase their chances of being invited to dance and perhaps to be invited for coffee after the milonga. There is tension in the Downtown Milonga (very evident in the ubiquitous smoking prior to the public smoking ban in Buenos Aires in 2006). This tension may be resolved in connecting with a partner in a comfortable, perhaps sensuous embrace, facilitated by classic tango music, which evokes and induces the sharing of emotions.
Contemporary examples of the ‘downtown milonga’ are ‘El Arranque’ in Nuevo Salon La Argentina, ‘Nuevo Chique’ in Casa Galicia, milongas held at La Nacional and at El Beso (except the gay-friendly milonga La Marshall, now located at El Beso). Most milongas at the recently closed Plaza Bohenia in the barrio of San Nicolas also had these characteristics. Although technically outside downtown Buenos Aires, most milongas held at Lo de Celia Tango Club and at Centro Region Leonesa in the nearby barrio of Constitucion have the characteristics described here for downtown milongas.
(b) La Milonga del Barrio (The Neighborhood Milonga)
La milonga del barrio is a milonga held in the residential neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, most commonly on a Friday or Saturday night, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon. The people attending are couples or groups of friends. Extended family may be present. People are mostly from the neighborhood and many people know each other from outside the milonga. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries may be announced. There is an overall sense of community at the Neighborhood Milonga.
At the typical weekend Neighborhood Milonga, there is little or no separate seating of men and women. Tables typically have a different orientation than in the Downtown Milonga. Chairs are oriented so that patrons face each other on opposite sides of the table rather than facing the dance floor; this is not a set-up designed for the cabeceo but rather for socializing with people at the same table. There are often long tables so that large groups can sit together. (see: Glorias Argentinas, Sunderland Club.)
People usually dance only with the partner that accompanied them to the milonga. These milongas usually have full kitchens and people tend to gather to share a meal and conversation before dancing begins. The atmosphere in the Neighborhood Milonga is more relaxed, more casual than in the Downtown Milonga. This is an environment for couples and familiar friends to socialize; it is not an environment conducive to singles meeting. Contemporary examples of the ‘neighborhood milonga’ are Sin Rumbo and Sunderland Club in Villa Urquiza, and Glorias Argentinas in Mataderos.
There is some variation in the music played at neighborhood milongas. The milongas mentioned above have a more or less traditional music format (at least 70% tango, milonga & vals, required by current law to be advertised as a ‘milonga’), but there are also numerous ‘bailes’, also held in clubes de barrio, where the proportion of tango music may be 50% or less. At neighborhood milongas in general there is a tendency to play more non-tango music, such as jazz and rock ‘n roll, cumbia, paso doble, and chacarera. This less emotionally intense music is consistent with the more casual social environment of the neighborhood milonga.
It is not unusual to have an exhibition during a break from social dancing at the Neighborhood Milonga. Exhibitions are much less common at the Downtown Milonga, except for those oriented towards tourists (e.g., night time milongas at Confiteria Ideal and at Porteño y Bailarin). Exhibitions are consistent with the shared community experience of the Neighborhood Milonga but are an interruption to the experience of personal agenda implementation characteristic of the Downtown Milonga.
The Milonga del Centro versus Milonga del Barrio dichotomy represents a contrast between two traditional archetypes for the milonga in Buenos Aires. In contemporary Buenos Aires there is more movement of people between barrios and between the outer barrios and downtown, as well as an the influx of tourists. Although some contemporary milongas (those mentioned above) resemble closely the traditional Milonga del Centro and Milonga del Barrio, it needs to be stated there are variations along several dimensions in physical environment and adherence to social customs which have varying degrees of impact upon the style of tango dancing. Nevertheless, the contrast between Downtown and Neighborhood Milongas accounts for stylistic variation to a significant degree.
Tango (de) Salon: Tango Adapted for the Milonga Environment
(1) Requirements for Dancing at a Milonga
The tango adapted for the milonga is Tango de Salon. In order to function effectively at a milonga, tango must be adapted to the physical environment, the sociocultural environment, and the musical environment.
Adaptation to the musical environment is simply making movements that fit the rhythm of the music. It would be more important to state that the music played at a milonga should have the rhythmic characteristics of tango music (tango, milonga & vals) that allows the dancers to connect with the rhythm and also has the tempo (speed and constancy) that is conducive to fluid movement in walking and making turns; i.e., the music should be adapted to the tango dance that is appropriate for the sociocultural environment of the milonga, a requirement that is not always satisfied.
With respect to the physical environment, the tango dance must fit within the available space that is shared with other couples on the pista. This implies the establishment and respect for the ronda, the counterclockwise flow of couples around the dance floor, without colliding or in movement threatening to collide with other couples. This demands competence of leaders in navigation, which requires not only the ability to make movements compact when necessary, but also to have sufficient improvisational skills to be able to change a sequence of movements depending upon the available space. A closed embrace between partners facilitates the space conservation needed for sharing the pista with other couples. Also, dancers need to keep their feet on the floor and within the space defined on the floor by their connected frames, because lifting feet off the floor may threaten the safety of other dancers on the pista (and in a crowded milonga may even present a hazard for the beverages on the tables nearest the floor).
Also part of the milieu of the milonga is the social and cultural environment that prescribes behavioral norms. Although tango is an intimate dance, its intimacy emanating from the embrace, there are also limitations in movement prescribed by respect for personal space. Movements invasive of personal space such as ganchos (or, by extension, all leg and body wraps) or movements that compromise the balance of one’s partner (such as quebradas, volcadas, and colgadas) are considered inappropriate for the milonga. The milonga also is not a place for exhibition of physical prowess, for the demonstration of complicated patterns that draw the attention of the audience. Instead the milonga is the place for couples to communicate (perhaps strong emotions) in a shared embrace, connecting to the music, and harmonizing with the flow of other dancers on the pista.
Thus, social expectations of respect for the space of other couples on the floor, respect for the personal space of the partner, and respect for the social atmosphere of the milonga influence the stylistic expression of dancers at the milongas in Buenos Aires.
(2) Stylistic Variation in Tango de Salon
Within Tango de Salon, two primary clusters of stylistic variation, or tango styles, have been identified – Tango (Estilo) Milonguero and Tango Estilo del Barrio:
(a) Tango (Estilo) Milonguero: also known as ‘milonguero-style tango’ (e.g., Brown) or ‘tango apilado’ (e.g., Polk). Susana Miller reportedly is the initiator of the terminology ‘milonguero-style tango’, although the terminology ‘tango milonguero’ appears to have eclipsed it, particularly in Buenos Aires (i.e., versus ‘tango estilo milonguero’).
The defining characteristics of Tango Milonguero are a maintained closed embrace in which placement of the arms is at the shoulder level (man’s right arm at height of woman’s shoulder, woman’s left arm draped over man’s shoulder), with direct frontal alignment and right side of face (cheek-to-cheek) contact, and a slight forward but balanced postural lean (apilado). The steps are usually smaller and typically there is greater accentuation of the rhythmic components of music, i.e., weight changes on the minor accented beats in addition to the major accented beats (‘quick-quick’ and ‘slow’ rhythmic interpretation). Back ochos are not pivoted when walking in a straight line, and forward ochos are generally limited to a single pivot into the cruzada. Turns are common and typically begin from back ochos or rock steps. Clockwise turns usually terminate with the ocho cortado, which changes direction. Counterclockwise turns usually terminate with the cruzada. Series of back ochos may also be sharply turned (and thus pivoted). Continued series of forward ochos are rarely used, but when they occur they are also turned sharply. All of these movements are adaptations to crowded spaces. Adornments are infrequent and subtle when they occur, and are used primarily to accent the rhythm, less often to play during pauses. Sacadas and low boleos may be used, but sandwiches, calesitas and arrastres are rare. Off-axis movements such as volcadas and colgadas are not employed (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America).
This variant of Tango Salon developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the milongas of downtown Buenos Aires. At that time it was known as ‘petitero’, ‘caquero’, or ‘confiteria’ style. It could also be called ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’, except that this nomenclature has been appropriated and misrepresented by Daniel Lapadula. [See Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Tango Estilo Milonguero)].
It should be noted that there is a considerable degree of personal stylistic variation that can be classified under the name of Tango Milonguero. Two contrasting personal expressions within this general category of stylistic variation can be seen in these videos of exhibitions by Ricardo Vidort & Miriam Pyncen and by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani.
(b) Tango Estilo del Barrio: developed in the outer (mostly northern) barrios of Buenos Aires during the 1940s, also currently promoted as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ because many of the prominent dancers of the time congregated in the barrio of Villa Urquiza, although this stylistic variant was not unique to the barrio of Villa Uruiza and is not the predominant stylistic variant danced in Villa Urquiza today. [Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza; See also: Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Tango Estilo del Centro)]. Stephen Brown lists ‘Villa Urquiza’ as one of his tango styles; Igor Polk’s ‘Salon of 50s Open or Close’ seems to be the same as or similar to Tango Estilo del Barrio here.
In Tango Estilo del Barrio, walking comprises a significant part of the dance. Steps tend to be long and are maintained close to the ground. The embrace is still maintained in a closed position most of the time, but may be opened for forward ochos and turns. In the embrace the woman’s left arm may rest on the man’s upper right arm or may extend somewhat across to the shoulder, but rarely beyond the midline (i.e., spine). The man may sometimes place his right arm below the shoulder, closer to the woman’s waist. The posture is upright. There may be direct frontal body alignment of partners or the woman may be offset somewhat to the man’s right. The woman’s head may look over the man’s shoulder or she may turn her head inward towards the man’s face. Back ochos may pivot in a linear progression or they may lack a pivot. The sandwich may sometimes terminate a series of back ochos. Forward ochos typically form a series. Rock steps and the ocho cortado may occur, but are not typical of this style of dancing tango. Turns typically emanate from forward and back ocho series and from the cruzada. Sacadas are common elements of turns, as are enrosques and dibujos. Compared to Tango Milonguero, employment of quick time steps (i.e., rhythmic variation in walking) is less common, whereas pauses are more common. Embellishments are more common and tend to be more conspicuous, and are often associated with pauses, particularly when the sandwich is used.
Although Tango Milonguero and Tango Estilo del Barrio are distinctly different styles of tango, particularly in the angle of the axis, the extension and durability of the embrace, and the relative frequency of use of quick-time steps, pauses, embellishments, rock steps and the ocho cortado, it should be noted that the descriptions for them given above are tango stylistic ‘archetypes’ (‘an original model or type after which other similar things are patterned’). A visit to a milonga in Buenos Aires today will reveal a considerable amount of almost continuous stylistic variation or ‘individual expression’, although there still is a significantly large cluster of stylistic variation around the archetype of Tango Milonguero (even in the barrio of Villa Urquiza), which has been the predominant stylistic model for Tango de Salon for at least the last decade.
Here is a video of la milongas del barrio Sin Rumbo in Villa Urquiza during the 1990s, when Tango Estilo del Barrio was relatively common. However, note the following contemporary video of the same milonga, where Tango Estilo del Barrio is less common, although still more common than in las miongas del centro.
(3) Adaptation of Tango Stylistic Variation to the Environment of the Milonga
What is currently known as Tango (Estilo) Milonguero evolved during the late 1940s and early 1950s in the small downtown Buenos Aires night clubs and confiterias where space was limited and floor density was high. The milongas there were meeting places for single adults (or married adults seeking varying degrees of contact with the opposite sex). Tango Milonguero is adapted for high floor density in utilizing small steps, incorporating mechanisms of movement allowing frequent changes of direction in a small space (e.g., rock steps, ocho cortado). A maintained close embrace also minimizes the space used by couples in moving around the floor. A maintained close embrace with full arm extension (men reaching around and women reaching over the shoulder), cheek-to-cheek contact, and an apilado posture also increase the intimacy of the shared embrace, and therefore may serve as a catalyst for romantic and sexual exploration. Thus, the maintained close contact is adapted to two characteristics of the environment of the Milonga del Centro – the high floor density and the exploration of romantic and sexual relationships.
In contrast, Tango Estilo del Barrio is adapted to the lower floor density of the Milonga del Barrio. In the outer barrios of Buenos Aires the buildings in which milongas are held have larger floors (Sunderland Club and Salon El Pial are two clubes de barrio hosting milongas with very large floors). It is noteworthy that porteños are naturally comfortable in the embrace (embracing during greetings and farewells is standard between friends and close acquaintances) and even when space is available on larger dance floors, tango is still danced primarily in an enclosed embrace. Lacking in Tango Estilo del Barrio is the extended embrace and apilado posture that increases the intimacy between partners. (This is consistent with some boundaries on physical intimacy in the community and family atmosphere of the club de barrio.) Present in Tango Estilo del Barrio is a more flexible hold (woman’s arm on upper arm or closer rather than more distant part of shoulder), which allows for ready opening of the embrace for ochos and turns. On a lower density floor, opening the embrace is less likely to cause collisions with other dancers and turns are more likely to be completed without necessitating a change of direction (i.e., culminating the turn with the ocho cortado). With lower floor density it is also possible to engage in a more leisurely dance with longer steps, fewer quicktime steps and allowing more pauses, which also permits more time for adornments. However, any opening of the embrace, pauses, and longer steps are contingent upon the space available on the pista, and although las milongas del barrio typically have lower floor density than las milongas del centro, the liberty of larger slower movements is till dependent upon floor density, which varies even at a relatively low density milonga.
Both Tango Milonguero and Tango Estilo del Barrio are similarly adapted to the environment of the milonga in the following ways. Both are danced so as to follow the circulating ronda. Both respect the space of other dancers on the floor by maintaining feet close to the floor at all times. Both are improvised dances that allow for changes in movement direction dependent upon the locations of other couples on the pista. Both structure the dance around the music, the classic tango music played in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Given sufficient space (a requirement for Tango Estilo del Barrio) they can co-exist within the same milonga. They are both, in principle, adapted to the milonga environment and thus both are suitable stylistic variants of Tango de Salon.