Is Tango Apilado Equivalent to Tango Milonguero?

The term ‘milonguero style tango’ (‘tango estilo milonguero’) was coined by Susana Miller in the early 1990s to describe the style of dancing tango that was prevalent in the milongas of downtown Buenos Aires in the 1950s. This stylistic variant of tango is commonly called simply ‘tango milonguero’ in Buneos Aires today, although the term ‘milonguero style tango’ still appears to predominate in English-speaking countries.

Tango Milonguero is characterized by a maintained close embrace, a forward lean in the posture, smaller steps, and improvisation on the rhythmic variation of tango music (Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace). The forward lean typically has been interpreted as an identifying characteristic of Tango Milonguero (or ‘milonguero style tango’). For example, Stephen Brown begins his description of ‘milonguero-style tango’ with:

Milonguero-style tango is typically danced with a slightly leaning posture that typically joins the torsos of the two dancers from the tummy through the solar plexus (in an embrace that Argentines call apilado) to create a merged axis while allowing a little bit of distance between the couple’s feet.  The embrace is also typically closed with the woman’s right shoulder as close to her partner’s left shoulder as her left shoulder is to his right, and the woman’s left arm is often draped behind the man’s neck.  Some practitioners of this style suggest that each dancer lean against their partner.  Others say that the lean is more of an illusion in which each partner maintains their own balance, but leans forward just enough to complete the embrace.

Emphasizing the postural lean characteristic of Tango Milonguero, the term ‘tango apilado’ has often been used as a synonym for Tango (Estilo) Milonguero. [See also Braverman.] ‘Apilado’ is the past participle of the verb ‘apilar’ which is translated as meaning ‘to pile up; … to put into a pile’. The application in tango is that one person’s body is ‘piled up’ on another person’s body.

As an example of this equation, Yvonne Meissner, a tango instructor in the Netherlands with extensive experience in dancing Tango Milonguero, treats ‘milonguero style’ and ‘tango salon in the apilado manner’ as equivalent terms (link):

In 1993, a performing group of authentic milongueros came to Holland and taught what they called the Milonguero Style, which, for them, was just a general term for Tango Salon, but because they danced with a close embrace, Milonguero Style became the term for this ‘Buenos Aires’ way of dancing. Tango Salon in the Apilado manner is the same as Milonguero Style i.e. with the couple dancing in a close embrace. The term Apilado can be interpreted loosely as “put yourself forward” for the leader or “lean towards the leader” for the follower, which describes the kind of close embrace used by the milongueros from the centre of Buenos Aires. As the dancers lean towards each other (more or less according to preference) they share a third axis, creating, vertically from the heels, a /\ formation in which the apex of the /\ corresponds to the upper part of both bodies where the couple are in contact. In addition the follower embraces the leader by putting her left arm around his neck towards his left shoulder.

The equivalence of tango apilado to Tango Milonguero also has been attributed to Susana Miller:

Susana Miller is the preeminent teacher of Argentine Tango in the Milonguero Style, a term she coined to introduce tango apilado to students around the world. Milonguero Style is a synthesis of Susana’s studies over the years of the unique dancing styles of the older milongueros…. Tango Milonguero/Apilado is a rich and complex form of subtle body signals that profoundly respects tango’s rhythms while emphasizing musicality, the connection between partners, and a compact choreography that creatively employs the limited space of the social dance floor.… Susana’s exploration of apilado dancing is a huge contribution to passing on this popular form of social tango.

This attribution is supported in the translated interview of Miller from El Tanguata:

In the salon the couple dances for their own enjoyment, and not for show…. The man offers his musical consciousness to the woman, and she follows him as if she was his shirt. Her creativity flows through her interpretation of the manner of enjoying in her body, and giving back what the man proposes…. The vocabulary that this dancing elite communicates with permits a view, a gaze at the meaning of this dance: “to walk the tango”. “apilarse”, “to sleep the woman”, “to move her”, “to dance her”.

However, the term ‘apilado’ to describe the postural orientation in Tango Milonguero is traceable further to milonguero Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi, whom Miller assisted in teaching tango:

‘Tete’ referred to his method of embrace as apilado, (piled up, or pressed together) because of this, milonguero style is sometimes called apilado.

Inconsistencies in the Application of the Term ‘Apilado’

Maria Plazaola, with Susana Miller one of the co-directors of La Academia Tango Milonguero in Buenos Aires states:

When we speak of the “milonguero style” we’re speaking about a particular “apilado” type of social dancing in which the axes are projected slightly forward but in which each person maintains his or her own axis and there’s not a shared axis. Only occasionally is there an option for the man to create a situation in which the lean is deepened, generating a shared axis. The embrace is never modified during the dance.

Janis Kenyon, an American tanguera who has resided in Buenos Aires since 1999 also comments:

Milonguero style is danced in a close embrace that is not altered during the dance. You both have your weight over your feet and maintain your own balance. There is body contact from the head to the waist area. I don’t agree that a woman has to lean on her partner in this style. Perhaps some have come to this conclusion after observing men with extra weight around the middle dancing with slender women who need to change their body position to adjust to his shape. In order for her to maintain a straight back, she needs to bring her feet away from her partner and change the angle of her body position. But for the majority of men I dance with in Buenos Aires, this is not necessary. In fact, if you lean on some men, they may ask you to stand up and dance on your own two feet rather than leaning forward on them.

Since the term ‘apilado’ has been attributed to milonguero Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi, an examination of his dancing with his last partner Silvia Ceriani will indicate the degree of lean in his posture (Video 1) (Video 2) (Video 3); although there are a few moments where Tete creates a situation where Silvia leans forward and he supports her axis, Tete and Silvia each maintain their own axis throughout the dances. The same can be said for the demonstrations given by milongueros Ricardo Vidort & Myriam Pincen, ‘El Flaco’ Dany Garcia & Silvina Valz, Pedro Sanchez & Eva Garlez, and Ruben Harymbat & Enriqueta Kleinman, all representatives of the downtown style Tango Milonguero. This postural orientation (maintaining one’s own axis) also characterizes the demonstration of Eduardo Aguirre & Yvonne Meissner that is specifically labeled as ‘Tango Apilado’. Even though the forward-leaning ‘apilado’ posture characteristic of Tango Milonuero is claimed to function to allow space between partners’ feet while dancing in a closed embrace, it is remarkable that throughout these demonstrations, the feet of the partners are rarely more than one foot length apart. It is the man’s movement of the chest prior to moving the feet forward and the woman’s extension backward that provide the space for walking.

A contrasting view of the ‘apilado’ posture in Tango Milonguero is presented by Eran Braverman:

Apilado (sometimes called Milonguero, Almagro, Cafe or Confiteria) means piled up in Spanish, in which the dancers have an especially strong lean against each other. It is a style beautifully crafted by the maestro Carlos Gavito. Apilado / Milonguero has the following attributes:

 The lead and follower lean against each much more than usual.
 Both dancers are leaning forward with their axes on the edge of balance, particularly the follower – there is variation allowed in the strength of the lean, but it is sufficient such that if one partner is removed, the other will fall. The lean is preserved throughout the dance, with constant contact.
 The apilado is a prerequisite for the volcada.
 Both lead and follower are highly responsible for maintaining their own axis and balance.

It should be noted that ‘if one partner is removed, the other will fall’ versus ‘both leader and follower are highly responsible for maintaining their own axis and balance’ are contradictory statements. Also, although the apilado posture is a prerequisite for the volcada, the volcada is not a characteristic movement of Tango Milonguero [Tango Estilo Milonguero Nuevo (Nuevo Milonguero)].

Igor Polk also defines the apilado posture as one where partners do not support their own axis:

What is Apilado? Apilado is the position in Argentine Tango where partners lean against each other. The amount of lean can vary, it can be very large and small, but lean is always present in such a way that if a partner is removed, another one will fall down. Apilado position is used in several close embrace styles, and in elements in other Argentine Tango styles.… Apilado is one of the styles of Close Embrace Tango.… There are other close embrace styles of Argentine Tango which do not use Apilado.

Thus, Polk differentiates Tango Apilado, in which each dancer supports the other’s balance, from other stylistic variations of tango utilizing a maintained closed embrace. It is not clear which of Polk’s ‘6 close embrace styles’ most resembles the Tango Milonguero (with a self-supported axis) danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires, but a Tango Voice reader has noted that Polk considers ‘milonguero-style’ a simplified form of the ‘nuevo close embrace’ style. It would be interesting to learn what milongueros dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires would think of this classification.

Polk provides an example of Tango Apilado in this video. Note that the distance between partners’ feet (an indication of the degree of lean) tends to be greater that in the videos of milongueros dancing referenced above.

Tango Apilado as a Product of the Stage

Braverman identifies Carlos Gavito as a major influence in the development of the ‘Apilado / Milonguero’ style of tango. Although Gavito was a more than competent social tango dancer, it is his creative developments in the genre of Tango Escenario for which he is most remembered. One of the characteristic movements used by Gavito in his stage performances was the puente (‘bridge’), in which he created an off-balance forward lean of the woman, whose weight he supported. This was often done as part of the calesita (‘carousel’), in which the woman is pivoted while stationary. (See also comment by Charles Roques). These movements are demonstrated in the following performance in a tango show by Carlos Gavito & Maria Plazaola. The apilado posture is readily apparent in the degree of lean (there is no doubt that Gavito is supporting Plazaola’s axis), and reinforced by the large distance between their feet. In another performance by Gavito & Plazaola it is noteworthy although the puente is created several times during the demonstration, an extended closed embrace (with arm positions characteristic of Tango Milonguero) is maintained throughout the dance. The maintained close embrace might lead some to consider this performance a representation of social tango (Tango de Salon). What one needs to consider is that Gavito was in this case in the role of a performer of Tango Escenario, the tango for the stage, and what is represented in this performance is a dramatization and thus exaggeration (albeit appropriate for the context) of Tango Milonguero. However, it is not Tango Milonguero as danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. In the videos of milongueros dancing Tango Milonguero referenced above, the extreme off-axis lean demonstrated by Gavito is not seen. The demonstration of Gavito & Plazaola is also not Tango Milonguero (or more generally, Tango de Salon) because the extended pauses can create a stoppage of the flow of the ronda in the milonga, thus violating the codes of the milonga; although some pauses may be used even in Tango Milonguero, they are typically momentary (one or two beats) and not expansive in use of space. (See Milongueros Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires).

Failure to differentiate Tango Milonguero from a dramatized version of Tango Milonguero that may be portrayed on the stage can lead to miscommunication by tango instructors to their students. This can be seen readily in the description provided by San Francisco Bay area tango instructors Jonathan Yamauchi & Olivia Levitt, who teach “slow and sensual tango movements in the Gavito’s salon milonguero apilado style — which is the most sensual and intimate style of close embrace Argentine tango.” A video of one of their performances, labeled as ‘Nuevo Milonguero-Apilado style tango’, rich with off axis postures and movements, is clearly neither Tango Milonguero in the narrow sense nor Tango de Salon in the broader sense. [See also: Tango Estilo Milonguero Nuevo (Nuevo Milonguero)].

Tango Apilado is NOT Equivalent to Tango Milonguero

Apilado describes the forward lean that exists between partners while dancing in an enclosed embrace. This lean is characteristic of Tango Milonguero, the stylistic variant of Tango de Salon that is adapted to the milonga environment (Tango de Salon: the Tango of the Milonga). In Tango Milonguero, each dancer maintains his or her own balance; i.e., each is ‘balanced forward’, with the center of gravity typically located vertically over the metatarsals, the bones directly posterior to the toes. This balance is consistent with the need for maintained stability in implementing the ad hoc moment-to-moment improvisation often required under crowded floor conditions in Buenos Aires milongas. A stable balance between partners is also consistent with a man providing a woman a sense of security in dancing at the milonga. A dance at a milonga is not a carnival ride that challenges the balance; at its best it is a moment of peaceful shared intimacy.

In contrast, balance dependency between partners such as the puente con calesita characteristic of Carlos Gavito’s stage performances provides entertainment for tango shows. This is a representative of Tango Escenario, a different genre of tango adapted for a different environmental niche.

Thus, there is inconsistency (i.e., in degree of lean and balance maintenance) in the use of the term ‘apilado’ in describing tango stylistic variation. A forward leaning posture with each partner maintaining his or her own axis is characteristic of Tango Milonguero, but a strong forward lean creating a dependency upon the partner for maintaining balance is not. The term ‘apilado’ itself may serve as a useful adjective to differentiate the postural characteristics of,  for example, Tango Milonguero from Tango Estilo del Barrio (Tango de Salon: the Tango of the Milonga), and indeed this terminology has been used as such by Tete and others dancing this style. However, Tango Milonguero comprises more than a postural lean; it is a stylistic variant of Tango de Salon characterized by, at the very least, an enclosed embrace maintained in a balanced forward leaning (‘apilado’) posture that uses compact movements while paying close attention to the rhythmic variation in classic tango music. Labeling Tango Milonguero as ‘tango apilado’ draws attention to only one characteristic of the dance and may provide a misleading representation of the numerous features of the dance, just as a label such as ‘tango volcado’ would provide a misleading representation of Tango Nuevo.

Thus, because various degrees of forward lean have been associated with the term ‘apilado’ in several different styles and genres of tango (Tango Milonguero, Tango Escenario, certainly Tango Nuevo, even Tango Canyengue), the term ‘tango apilado’ represents at best a heterogeneous classification or at worst a different kind of tango to different people. For these reasons, ‘tango apilado’ is not a useful category label for the classification of tango stylistic variation.

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8 Responses to Is Tango Apilado Equivalent to Tango Milonguero?

  1. jantango says:

    Every post has been informative, but this is the question I’ve been waiting to have answered. Foreigners seem to use the term apilado more than Argentines. As a matter of fact, I had never hear any milonguero or milonguera use that term in any class or conversation with me until last night when milonguera Amanda Lucero and I talked by phone. She was telling me about a time when she danced with a certain man who was too tall for her and and had to “pile up” to dance with him; not her usual way of dancing.

    Years after writing the article in which you quoted me, I began dancing with Roberto Angel Pujol. He used his knees and feet to “mark” his partner. He taught his students to bend every so slightly forward from the waist to embrace without putting any weight on one’s partner; the same as when we hug another. We don’t hang, but we have full upper body contact. It’s not necessary to step back to make space for the feet when a milonguero knows exactly where they are.

    • tangovoice says:

      That milongueros do not use the term ‘apilado’ is interesting and revealing. Even more instructive is that they do not dance ‘piled on’. Although words often change their meaning somewhat when applied in a different context, it is clear that the terminology ‘apilado’, translated as ‘piled up’ is an inaccurate description of the posture in Tango Milonguero. It would be best to cease using this terminology because it conveys an inaccurate image. That there is a slight forward lean – yes – but not a dependence on the partner for balance.

      • Dieudonne Dang says:

        “It would be best to cease using this terminology because it conveys an inaccurate image. That there is a slight forward lean – yes – but not a dependence on the partner for balance.”
        Absolutely, no one can maintain that lean for a long time, while leading one’s partner, the strain on the body would be too much. If we follow the reasoning of the likes of Igor Polk, we will end up extracting every little aspect of Tango and calling it a style, such as “open foot style”, “bended knees style”…or whatever our imagination way create.
        In dancing, sometimes, we may lean more or less, depending on the mood, music, feeling or whatever inspires us, but to make a style out of that is silly to say the least.
        An instructor mentioned to me recently that they teach a style of “heart to heart alignment”, and that anything else was not their style….what next?
        I know that everyone can have an opinion, and that is good, but I think that those who have been dancing for decades, and have kept this dance alive to offer it to us must have an idea of what they are doing. Who are we to try to tell them what we think they are doing and argue with them?
        Let’s wait and see where we are after 30 or 40 years of dancing Tango, then we can talk from the perspective of having been there and done it, in the meantime, let’s learn and dance.

  2. gyb says:

    It is unfortunate that there very few videos showing Gavito dancing in a milonga environment with a non-performance partner. Couple of months ago I ran across a milonga shot like that on youtube, it was very clear that he didn’t lean on his partner in the way he would in an exhibition video, although he danced with her in a maintained close embrace. Unfortunately I can’t find the link anymore, although I’d very much like to have it; this is the only video I know of which does not show him in a show/exhibition/class setting. Many people draw inferences from these latter, although they are indeed not good indications of what he would have promoted for social dancing.

    • tangovoice says:

      Yes, even though Gavito was a social tango dancer, many people fail to make the distinction that when he was performing, he was not displaying a social form of dancing, even if his dancing resembled social dancing. It would be very interesting indeed to see that video of Gavito dancing in a milonga if it is still available.

  3. jantango says:

    My video in the milonga Buenos Aires Tango (Milonguero) organized by Alito Candamil and Miguel Angel Balbi in 2001 at Mundo Latino contains a few seconds of Gavito dancing socially.

    • gyb says:

      Thanks. Yours is not the same video I’m talking about, but it is a very-very nice one with many remarkable dancers, ie Ricardo Vidort and Miguel Angel Balbi. I’m not totally sure which dancer is Gavito, though; is he the gentleman who enters from the right at 6:10 and can be seen until 7:07?

      • Dieudonne Dang says:

        Gavito comes in at around 4:16 bottom left corner of the scree, in black/dark pants and polo shirt. Beautiful way of moving. Great video.

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