Tango Estilo del Centro (Tango Downtown Style): Reclaiming the Term as a Replacement for Tango Milonguero

  • In the early 1950s, during latter part of the Golden Age of Tango, there were two distinct styles of tango that were commonly danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.
    • In the outer barrios, where there was more room on the dance floor, dancers progressed in a more-or-less linear manner, maintaining an embrace, interspersing this movement with turns and forward ochos when space was restricted, opening the embrace somewhat to execute these movements; this style of dancing also incorporated some decorative movements. In the 21st century this style of dancing has been labeled ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, after the barrio where it was common, although the term ‘Tango Estilo del Barrio’, reflecting its widespread occurrence in the Milongas del Barrio (i.e., in the outer barrios) of that era, is a more appropriate term.
  • During the latter part of the Golden Age, a different stylistic variant was evolving in the milongas in downtown Buenos Aires (‘El Centro’), where the floor density was higher. Movements were smaller, with progression more likely to be incorporated into turns; in this style of dancing the embrace was maintained throughout the dance; there were fewer decorative movements and improvisation focused on the rhythm of the music. Since the 1990s the label ‘Tango (Estilo) Milonguero’ commonly has been attached to this style of dancing.
  • The aim of the discussion here is to dispute the validity of the label ‘Tango Estilo Milonguero’ for the style of tango dancing that evolved in the milongas in downtown Buenos Aires near the end of the Golden Age. It is argued that a more appropriate terminology to be applied to this style of dancing is ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’.
    • The primary problem with the Tango Milonguero label is that not all milongueros have danced the style of tango to which this name is attached. Many milongueros have danced some variation of Tango Estilo del Barrio.
    • A more appropriate label for the compact, maintained embrace style of dancing tango is Tango Estilo del Centro which, similar to Tango Estilo del Barrio, identifies the geographic area of Buenos Aires where this style of dancing evolved. However, this terminology has been appropriated by Daniel Lapadula in promoting a style of tango that has some characteristics of the downtown Golden Age style, but differs in having a partially open (‘V’) embrace and the orientation of the woman’s head inward toward the midline rather than over the man’s right shoulder. An examination of Lapadula’s dance demonstrations indicates that his style of dancing incorporates conspicuous movements and decorations that are absent from the dance of milongueros who have danced primarily in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires.
    • A review of the terminology used to classify stylistic variations in tango dancing indicates that the term ‘club style tango’ has been used to identify a style of dancing similar to that portrayed by Lapadula, but there is evidence suggesting that club style tango actually developed in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires in the 1950s.
  • The terms ‘milonguero style’, ‘apilado’, ‘club style’ et al. have been used to describe the maintained embrace rhythmic style of dancing with limited ornamentation have been used interchangeably to describe the stylistic variations of dancing tango that were common in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires during the 1950s.
  • Given that Lapadula has not generated a large following of dancers who attach the label ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’ to his or similar styles of dancing tango, it is appropriate to reclaim this term as a classificatory label for the stylistic variations of tango actually danced commonly by milongueros in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires at the end of the Golden Age. The main obstacle to promoting this terminology is that the misleading term Tango Estilo Milonguero is the terminology primarily attached to the predominant representative of this style of dancing today.

During the early 1950s, at the end of the Golden Age of Tango, two somewhat distinct styles of tango were being danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires [Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)]. The tango danced in the outer barrios, particularly those in the northern and western parts of the city where the floor density at milongas was lower, as well as its descendant form today, are characterized by linear walking interspersed with turns when space is limited. Movement is smooth, with few changes in tempo, except that there may be pauses between movements. This style of tango is typically danced in an upright posture in a closed embrace that may be opened slightly for forward ochos and turns. Turns can be accented with elaborate footwork including such elements as sacadas, arrastres, boleos, dibujos, toe taps and touches, and the sandwich. An example of this style of tango is given in this demonstration by Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen. During the Golden Age this style of tango was simply referred to as ‘Tango (de) Salon’. It is currently being promoted as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, although this style of dancing was neither unique to the barrio of Villa Urquiza during the Golden Age, nor is it the predominant style of tango danced in Villa Urquiza today (Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza). Given that this style of dancing tango was prevalent throughout the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the latter part of the Golden Age, the term ‘Tango Estilo del Barrio’ is recommended as a more appropriate term than ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ [Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)]. Although Tango Estilo del Barrio is not very common in the milongas of Buenos Aires today, an idealized portrayal of this stylistic variation is portrayed in a staged milonga setting from the film ‘Tango: Baile Nuestro’.

During the latter part of the Golden Age, a different style of tango was evolving in the milongas in the central (“downtown”) part of the Buenos Aires. In the smaller and more crowded confiterias and night clubs where tango was danced, a more compact tango evolved. In this style of tango and its descendant forms, the embrace is maintained in the closed position throughout the dance, usually in a posture with a slight forward lean. Movements are smaller, with less ornamentation, and although turns are used, they are often interrupted with a change of direction, thus, the widespread use of the ocho cortado that serves this purpose. Movement is also varied with the rhythmic variation of the music by the alternation of slower and rapid movements (‘slows’ and ‘quicks’). In the 1950s this style of tango was referred to as petitero, caquero, confiteria style, or tango del centro. Today this style of tango is most commonly referred to as ‘tango (estilo) milonguero’ in Buenos Aires and ‘milonguero style tango’ outside Buenos Aires (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America), terminology attributed to tango instructor Susana Miller (Denniston), who has popularized her interpretation of this style of tango in Buenos Aires and throughout the world. The terminology ‘estilo milonguero’ refers to the milongueros who created this style of tango dancing in the milongas in downtown Buenos Aires. There is also an occasional reference to this style of tango as ‘Almagro style’, referencing the club where Miller taught tango in the early 1990s. At times the term ‘tango apilado’, referring to the forward postural lean of this style, is used as a synonym for Tango Milonguero, although the fallacy in the focus upon this characteristic of the dance has been discussed previously (Is Tango Apilado equivalent to Tango Milonguero?). An example of this style of tango is shown in this demonstration by Osvaldo Centeno & Ana Maria Shapira. An example of a milonga where almost everyone is dancing Tango Milonguero is shown in this recording of ‘La milonga del los consagrados’ at El Centro Region Leonesa in the barrio of Constitucion, near downtown Buenos Aires.

The Primary Problem with the Tango Milonguero Label

One problem with applying the Tango Milonguero label is that not all milongueros (people who have devoted a significant part of their lives to dancing tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires) dance a similar style of tango. This is certainly true at the individual level in that each milonguero has his own characteristic way of dancing, his own individual expression of tango. Nevertheless, there are certain traits that many dancers in the milongas of Buenos Aires have in common, and it is the existence of distinct clusters of dancers with similar definable traits that identify a style of tango (Tango Styles, Genres, and Individual Expression). The label Tango Milonguero has been applied to one cluster of stylistic variation of tango, the style of tango that evolved in the milongas in downtown Buenos Aires in the early 1950s. However, what the term ‘milonguero’ attached to this label implies is that the style of tango represented (taught, demonstrated, or identified) by this term defines the way milongueros as a group dance. This objection has been raised previously by Christine Denniston. What Tango Milonguero as a defined style of tango does not include as its practitioners are men who have devoted a significant part of their lives to tango (thus, milongueros) who dance the style of tango that developed in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the Golden Age (i.e., Tango Estilo del Barrio). Thus, the term Tango Milonguero is exclusionary in failing to include within its definition the style of tango danced by milongueros such as Gerardo Portalea, Ricardo Ponce (El Chino Perico), Miguel Balmaceda, and Puppy Castello, whose styles of tango are representative of Tango Estilo del Barrio. In addition, as will be discussed below, what has generally been defined as Tango Milonguero does not encompass the entire range of stylistic variation danced by milongueros in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires in the 1950s. The fact that there have existed milongueros whose style of dancing does not fit within the range of characteristics defined for Tango Milonguero brings into question the validity of the label for the defined style of tango it represents and terminology less misleading than Tango Milonguero needs to be sought.

Tango Estilo del Centro as an Alternative Label for the Downtown Style of Tango

Although high milonga floor density was a primary determinant in the development of the compact maintained close embrace stylistic variant of tango that has been labeled as Tango Milonguero (with the anonymity of the singles scene in downtown Buenos Aires milongas being a contributing factor) (Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga), in the 1950s stylistic differences in dancing tango were largely associated with geography. The term Tango Estilo del Barrio reflects the fact that the more ‘open’ style of tango of the 1950s (embrace may open, movements more spacious) developed in the neighborhood clubs. Likewise it would seem logical to label the style of tango that developed in downtown Buenos Aires in the 1950s as ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’. This name was used to some degree historically to label this style of tango (Tango-L post). In a recent YouTube video (no longer available) of Horacio Godoy teaching in Moscow, he also used the term ‘tango del centro’ to describe this tango style.

One obstacle in using ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’ as an alternative term for ‘Tango Milonguero’ is that performer and tango instructor Daniel Lapadula already has been using this label for marketing his interpretation of the downtown style of tango. Lapadula’s website offers video clips of segments from his ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’ instructional DVD as well as some exhibitions he has given at various venues. A more intensive examination of the DVD reveals that the style of tango taught is not what is usually defined as Tango Milonguero. There is a forward postural lean and an extended arm position in the embrace that is characteristic of Tango Milonguero, but there is a ‘V-form’ to the embrace with the open side (man’s left) opened somewhat and contact maintained only on the closed side of the embrace (man’s right); the woman is offset to the man’s right and faces inward towards his face, unlike the orientation of the woman’s face over the man’s right shoulder with cheek-to-cheek contact characteristic of Tango Milonguero. The dance itself improvises on the rhythm of the music with frequent use of rock steps and alternation of quicks and slows, which is similar to Tango Milonguero.

Lapadula’s perspective on his version of Tango Estilo del Centro vis-à-vis Tango Milonguero is evident from the following interview posted on his website:

(A. F.):¿Cuál sería la diferencia entre el “del centro” y el “milonguero”?

(D. L.) : En realidad, quien lo llamó estilo milonguero, lo hizo mal. Porque el milonguero, es el tipo que va a las milongas. El estilo que quisieron imponer como milonguero, si recorrés y sos de conocer la noche, te vas a dar cuenta de que, de mil personas que estamos reciclando todas las milongas, quizás un cinco por ciento baila milonguero, si llega. Se globalizó el nombre. A distintas formas de enseñar se las llamó milonguero. Milonguero es lo que en un principio hizo Cacho Dante, Teté y Susana Miller. Buscaron un cierre plano de hombre y mujer apilados, pero totalmente apilados. Entonces al no tener espacios no espacios de salida laterales, o caminatas por fuera. Entonces buscaban pasos, lineales, pero en base a esa figura. A no tener espacios para el movimiento. Entonces no hay pivote, porque el pivote no permitiría mantener la línea paralela. Sin juzgar, juzgar no me interesa, yo soy quién soy y llegué a dónde llegué, no me interesa lo que hagan los demás; poniendo eso como pauta, por lógica te diría que, primero, el abrazo es desigual, porque un lado está abrazado y el otro está abierto o en resistencia. Entonces, si hay algo que no está cuadrado, como simétrico, no se puede bailar simétrico.

This is translated as follows:

Interviewer: What would be the difference between ‘el centro’ and ‘milonguero’?

Lapadula: In reality, whoever called it ‘milonguero style’, made a mistake, because the milonguero is the guy who goes to the milongas. The style that they want to impose as ‘milonguero’, if you go around at night and count, of 1000 people cycling through all the milongas, perhaps 5 percent dance milonguero, if it’s even there. The name has been globalized. There were different forms of teaching that were called milonguero. Milonguero is that which Cacho Dante, Tete, and Susana Miller did in the beginning. They sought to include men and women dancing apilado, but totally apilado, with no space to go to the side or walk outside. Then they were looking for linear steps but, at its foundations, a figure. But not having space for movement, there is no pivot, because the pivot would not permit maintaining the parallel alignment. Without judging (I am not interested in judging), I am who I am and I have arrived at where I have arrived, I am not interested in what the others may do; with that standard, logically I would like to say that, first, the embrace is asymmetric, because one side is closed and the other is open, or in opposition. Then, if there is something that is not aligned, as in symmetric, it is not possible to dance symmetrically.

Thus, Lapadula argues against the validity of the ‘milonguero style’ on two main grounds – first, that is not prevalent in the downtown milongas. However, an examination of a recording of dancing in Lo de Celia, a traditional milonga where the downtown style of tango predominates, will reveal that the embrace that characterizes Tango Milonguero predominates. Only one couple (at around 1:55, identifiable by the woman wearing the red blouse) has an embrace similar to that used by Lapadula & co-instructor Dolores de Amo in their instructional DVD. Lapadula’s second reason for dismissing Tango Estilo Milonguero is that the embrace is symmetric. Certainly thousands of dancers have not found this to be illogical and it is indeed the preferred embrace among dancers at milongas in Buenos Aires today. This does not negate the validity of dancing with a partially opened embrace; it is a stylistic preference that can be functional. However, Lapadula’s arguments against the Tango Milonguero embrace are no more than a personal opinion.

A different opinion on the degree of offset of the embrace is provided by Denniston:

The thing that makes this style exciting is the connection within the couple and the musicality of the dancers. Quite quickly I started to notice people finding ways of manipulating the close embrace in order to maintain an emotional distance from their partners. Most particularly I noticed people not dancing directly in front of each other, but with the follower away to the leader’s right. This was certainly not my experience of dancing with people who had danced this style in the 1950s. They always were directly in front of me, as were almost all the dancers I danced with who had been dancing in the Golden Age, whatever the style.

demonstration by Lapadula & de Amo from the instructional DVD is a reasonable representation of a type of tango that could occur in a crowded milonga in Buenos Aires today. However, in some respects the movements demonstrated in this DVD do not appear to be adapted to navigation in crowded downtown Buenos Aires milongas. Although the relatively compact movements and frequent changes of direction, including liberal use of the ocho cortado, would appear to function in this respect, most movements are demonstrated with an assumed linear forward progression of couple in the ronda, which is not characteristic of crowded (or even not so crowded) downtown Buenos Aires milongas, where the man basically navigates much of the time keeping the woman’s back to the outer edge of the floor, with progression in the direction of movement of the counterclockwise circulating ronda occurring primarily due to sideways left movements of the man and only occasional forward movement in the direction of the ronda (Milongueros Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires). Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro also violates milonga codes at times in the inclusion of such movements as quebradas, ganchos, and puentes (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics), which are more characteristic of Tango Escenario (Stage Tango / Show Tango / Exhibition Tango / Tango Fantasia / Tango for Export). Another demonstration from the instructional DVD incorporates these fantasia elements while also opening the embrace during turns, in contradiction to the claim in the first instructional segment of the DVD that the embrace is never opened in Tango Estilo del Centro. Thus, Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro at times represents the tango danced in the crowded milongas of downtown Buenos Aires and at times does not. Lapadula appears to be the only tango instructor using Tango Estilo del Centro as a label for this style of tango.

The Relationship of Club-Style Tango to Tango Estilo del Centro

Given the characteristic traits of Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro, Stephen Brown’s commentary on ‘club style tango’ is interesting:

Club-Style Tango.
Club-style tango has the rhythmic sensibilities of milonguero-style tango, but it uses a more upright posture, separate axes and close embrace of the Villa Urquiza style of tango. Club-style tango is danced with an upright posture with the two dancers maintaining separate axes while embracing closely in an offset V. The couple loosens their embrace slightly on their turns to allow the woman to rotate more freely and pivot without requiring much independent movement between her hips and torso. If the woman rotates her hips through the turns independently of her upper torso, the embrace need not be loosened as much.… Club-style tango uses the ocho cortado and other rhythmic figures that are found in milonguero-style tango. Possibly a rhythmic variation of the Villa Urquiza style of tango, some people regard club-style tango as a mish mash of styles rather than a separate style. Club style tango can also identified as Tango Estilo del Centro, referring to its current use in the central area of Buenos Aires….

How Are the Milonguero and Club Styles Related?
As described above, the styles are very similar. Club-style tango was danced in some of the clubs de barrios during the 1950s, while milongueros were dancing somewhat different styles in central Buenos Aires. These facts suggest that milonguero- and club-style tango may have developed at about the same time. Eduardo Arquimbau, a leading dancer of club-style tango, claims that several of the better-known milonguero-style dancers took lessons in club-style tango from him during the 1950s. His claim has led some to raise the possibility that club-style tango may have played an important role in the development of milonguero-style tango.

Except for the element of upright posture, Brown’s description of ‘club style tango’ is similar in many respects to the Tango Estilo del Centro portrayed by Lapadula. Brown implies that ‘club-style tango’ developed in los clubes de barrio (i.e., in the outer barrios) and that Tango Estilo del Centro (and possibly Tango Milonguero) may be derivatives that developed in downtown Buenos Aires.

Eduardo Arquimbau’s perspective as someone who danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires during the 1950s is significant here. Linda Valentino of Los Angeles reports that:

… Eduardo is also one of the great milongueros of his generation – the guys who grew up dancing in the milongas of the early-mid 1950s. He is one of the teachers most responsible for the worldwide popularity of the “club” style tango (or milonguero style, confiteria style, close embrace, apilado – whatever your preferred term is).… This style is very rhythmic, very close, and VERY FUN.

This web page continues with Valentino’s report (and translation) of Arquimbau’s words:

Tango of the ‘50s (what we variously refer to as club, milonguero, apilado, close embrace, etc.) is danced without separation, using the “contra-tiempos” and lots of “playing” with the rhythms. It does not pause and does not use a lot of complicated figures and adornos.

A demonstration given by Gloria & Eduardo Arquimbau after a workshop on ‘club-style tango’ (from a privately circulated recording) reveals that with its maintained closed embrace in a forward leaning posture, and compact movements improvising on rhythmic variation in the music and employing rocks steps and the ocho cortado, the style of tango demonstrated falls within the range of variation typically described for Tango Milonguero (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America). A recording of a similar demonstration of tango (without mention of style represented) at another workshop shows similar characteristics. (Note that in the milonga demonstration in this recording Gloria turns her head inward towards Eduardo’s face, which is not characteristic of Tango Milonguero, as usually defined.) These recordings of tango demonstrations by Gloria & Eduardo, specifically referred to in the first demonstration as ‘club-style tango’ are somewhat different from the club-style tango described by Brown and different from the Tango Estilo del Centro danced by Lapadula.

Tango Estilo del Centro as an Umbrella Term for all Downtown Tango Styles

The high floor density in downtown Buenos Aires milongas during the early 1950s was highly influential in the evolution of tango stylistic variations where movement was compact with rapid, rhythm based changes of direction (i.e., rock steps and the ocho cortado), and the embrace was maintained in the closed position throughout the dance. In the milongas of Buenos Aires today, most dancers have these traits as the foundation of their dance, as is evident in the recordings of La Milonga del Los Consagrados and Lo de Celia Tango Club referenced above. Yet there is still variation around this core set of traits, particularly in the nature of the embrace, in that there is a range of variation in the degree of postural lean (from upright to balanced forward), degree of offset (from centrally aligned to offset to the right), the angle of the contact (shoulders parallel to a ‘V-frame), the orientation of the woman’s head (from over the man’s right shoulder to directed inward towards his face), the degree of extension of arms around the partner (e.g., from woman’s arm on man’s biceps to draping over his right shoulder to cross the midline of his back), and the height of the man’s arms reaching around the woman’s back (from at the shoulder level to below the shoulder level).

Tango Milonguero (as it is usually defined by its promoters and adherents) occupies a particular sector in this range of variation – forward lean, centrally aligned, shoulders parallel, woman’s head oriented over the man’s right shoulder with her left arm draped over the top of his shoulders, man’s arms reaching across the woman’s back at the height of her shoulder blades. This is the most common stylistic variant of tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires today, as is seen in this video of a milonga at Lo de Celia Tango Club, a traditional milonga near downtown Buenos Aires.

In another sector of this range of stylistic variation is a second set of traits seen at times in the milongas of Buenos Aires today – upright posture, offset to the right, V-frame, woman’s head directed inward toward the mans’ face with her left arm contacting the man’s upper arm or extending slightly beyond to contact the right side of his back below the shoulder blade, and the man’s arm holding the woman’s back below the shoulders. This second point on the range of stylistic variation is close to Brown’s description of ‘club-style tango’. Add a forward lean to the posture and a more complete and higher extension of the arms around the partner and this is Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro (assuming the ganchos, puentes, and quebradas are dropped).

Given that there are small differences between these points on the continuum, as well as dancers whose traits fill in the space in between these points, these minor stylistic variations are still part of a cluster of related traits, one that is distinctly different from the smoother style (i.e., accenting rhythmic variations less), with more pauses and liberal use of adornments, that opens the embrace for turns, that is labeled here as Tango Estilo del Barrio. The question raised here is what is an appropriate name for this style of tango that evolved in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires during the 1950s? The Tango Milonguero label is misleading because not all milongueros have danced this way, and also because as usually promoted, Tango Milonguero includes only a part (albeit the most common contemporary variant) of the range of variation in the downtown-derived style. Brown’s description of ‘club-style tango’ is another less common part of contemporary variation, and it is different from Arquimbau’s ‘club-style tango’ (which appears to be essentially Tango Milonguero), so ‘club-style tango’ is not a good choice as a label for this cluster of related stylistic traits.

It is suggested here that the entire cluster of tango stylistic variation characterized by compact, rhythm-based movements in a maintained closed embrace, an evolutionary descendent (with perhaps some undetectable and unverifiable changes) from the style of tango that developed in the milongas of downtown Buenos Aires in the 1950s be called, very simply, Tango Estilo del Centro. This label pays tribute to its origins and complements the labeling of the style of the outer barrios in the 1950s as Tango Estilo del Barrio. This is a distinction made, perhaps only informally, by porteños in differentiating between these distinctly different styles of Tango de Salon by their geographic origin. Labels such as Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza and Tango Milonguero are terms coined later, in the Tango Renaissance period of the 1990s, and have been shown above to be inaccurate and misleading.

There are several obstacles to the proposition that Tango Estilo del Centro replace Tango Milonguero as a label for the compact, rhythmic, maintained closed embrace style of Tango de Salon. Perhaps the least formidable is that Lapadula has been using this label for some years. Since his appropriation of this term has not led to a propagation of other instructors teaching the Lapadula syllabus using this label, there is not a long and widespread tradition of use of this terminology with which to contend. The expansion of the term Tango Estilo del Centro to include the entire cluster of related downtown-derived tango stylistic variation (at the very least the variations demonstrated and/or described by Lapadula, Brown, Arquimbau, and Miller) seems to be both fair and logical.

The greatest obstacle to replacing the terminology Tango Milonguero with Tango Estilo del Centro is the widespread use of the label Tango Milonguero. The term Tango Milonguero has expanded beyond the disciples of Susana Miller and La Academia Tango Milonguero to include numerous other instructors, as a perusal of Buenos Aires tango periodicals Buenos Aires Tango, El Tanguata, and Diostango will reveal. Perhaps it is not that important what name is used, as long as people understand what stylistic variation is included under a label. However, as long as styles of tango danced by some milongueros from the past and present eras do not fall into the cluster of stylistic variation defined as Tango Milonguero, the appropriateness of this label needs to be questioned. Perhaps with repeated use Tango Estilo del Centro will become a preferred alternative to Tango Milonguero.

Future Tango Voice posts will continue to use the label Tango Milonguero to refer specifically to the sector of related stylistic traits that are characteristic of this variant, as defined above. Henceforth, the label Tango Estilo del Centro will refer to the larger cluster of stylistic variation that characterizes the tango that developed in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires in the early 1950s and its contemporary descendants, including Tango Milonguero.


15 Responses to Tango Estilo del Centro (Tango Downtown Style): Reclaiming the Term as a Replacement for Tango Milonguero

  1. gyb says:

    My primary problem with your “primary problem with the tango milonguero label” (which is frequently repeated by others as well, i.e. by Horacio Godoy in the linked, now-defunct video) is that it relies on the assumption that the term “milonguero” refers to “people who have devoted a significant part of their lives to dancing tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires”.

    Indeed this is how the term “milonguero” is used by practically everyone #nowadays. However this has not always been the case, and in particular was not in the case in the early ’90s when Susana Miller coined the term “tango milonguero”. As far as I know back then the term “milonguero” did not merely refer to a person who devoted a significant part of his life to dancing tango, which in itself sounds as a fairly neutral description of a hobby (even though this also formed a part of its meaning). “Milonguero” was also a diminiutive term with strong negative connotations, in particular strong negative connotations regarding how the person handled his affairs with women. An archetypical “milonguero” would be a man who hangs out every night in the milongas and basically does nothing during the day, and who makes his “living” by leeching on some (maybe several) women, typically widowers, whom he seduces in the milongas. To call someone of decent standing a “milonguero” could have been perceived as an insult, which was part of the reason why Tete refused to have anything to do with “tango milonguero”.

    Hence the historical meaning of “milonguero” was more narrow than it is today. Milongueros, understood in this narrower sense, were more likely to visit the downtown singles scenes where anonymity was more of the rule than the exception and where they had much better chance to prey on their victims – in contrast with the barrios which were more family-oriented, where people knew each other better, where women would be more likely to refuse an invitation of a stranger, and where such inappropriate behavior would be swiftly punished by social isolation. It is quite reasonable to assume that ulterior motives were more widespread in the downtown locations than in the barrios. Hence it does seem to be more reasonable to identify the dancing style of the downtown milonga-frequenters with the lifestyle which (more) often accompanies their type of dancing, hence the term “milonguero” does seem to be more appropriate. The milonga-frequenters of the barrios would not fall under this “milonguero” category since they would be less likely to be fairy subjects of the negative connotations the term carries.

    The meaning of the term “milonguero” changed, and on the basis of the way it is used today the criticism of the label “tango milonguero” is indeed apt. But one cannot fairly criticise the appropriateness of the label “tango milonguero” on the basis of how one of its component’s meaning changed, one needs to evaluate it on the basis of what this component meant when the term was coined. Hence, if I’m right about the change of the meaning of “milonguero”, these criticisms about the appropriateness of use of the label are misguided.

    • tangovoice says:

      It is true that the meaning of milonguero has changed over time, so that what was once considered a derogatory appellation has indeed changed to become almost a term of reverence today. What is not clear is when this change occurred, although the long period of the tango recession (mid-1950s to mid-1980s) could have allowed attitudes to change, because in the early tango renaissance, it was the milongueros from the golden age who had kept tango alive. It is doubtful that Susana Miller would have coined the term ‘tango estilo milonguero’ at a time when ‘milonguero’ had a widespread negative connotation; this would have been counterproductive to her business. Also, it was Christine Denniston who was cited above in bringing up this issue of the term ‘tango milonguero’ as not including the tango styles of all men recognized as milongueros, and Denniston was active in research on tango culture during the mid-1990s, at the time Miller was promoting her newly coined terminology. The following comment by Denniston (http://www.history-of-tango.com/tango-renaissance.html) indicates that ‘milonguero’ had already gained a positive rather than a negative connotation by this time:

      “One of the saddest things I ever saw in Buenos Aires was a dear friend of mine who started dancing in 1945, in the style of the north of Buenos Aires, which is the most elegant and also the most difficult style of the Golden Age, on the point of tears – and elderly Argentine men do not cry in public – because a young dancer had said that he was not a milonguero because he danced with steps. He was being accused of lying about an important part of his whole identity, because this young dancer had misunderstood the term “Estilo Milonguero” and thought that this was the only true style.”

      If ‘milonguero’ still had negative connotation today, that would be another reason not to use the label ‘Tango Milonguero’. However, that appears to be a moot point.

      • gyb says:

        You are now arguing on the basis of how good marketing choice would have been to label a style on the basis of a term with negative connotation, and not on the basis of how apt such choice would be to identify a certain style, which was your original point. These are not the same issues. Your criticism was directed towards the latter, and I argued against that criticism.

        But even as far as connotations go it would amount to the logical fallacy “affirming the consequent” to extend the negative connotations of the term “milonguero” to the “tango milonguero” style defined by it. Even if it were the case that most lowlife milonga-frequenter womanizers (milongueros in the old sense) tended to dance in a way that is labeled today as “tango milonguero” it would not follow that every leader who chooses to dance this way is a lowlife womenizer. Indeed many of us choose to dance this way for different reasons. But this does not make the identification of the style on the basis of a certain group the majority of whom dances in this style less apt or less prone to conflation, which is the original criticism you mount against using the label. It seems to make sense to say “you know, the way those womenizers (also) tended to dance”, because it is informative in identifying a way of dancing with particular characteristics (such as a maintained close embrace and an emphasis on relatively simple steps, on the more trance-conducive rhythmical elements of tango music, and on the emotional contact and comfort between the partners).

        Incidentally I don’t think lowlife milonga-frequenter womenizers of today dance in milonguero style. From what I read and hear it seems that today the desired victim of tangueros in Buenos Aires with ulterior motive is no longer the local portena with relatively little training in technique, but rather the foreign more experienced tango-pilgrim tanguera who, with important exceptions of course, is typically more impressed by well-lead, traditional, but more flashy and aesthetically appealing style with a more Western-compatible emotional distance, such as VU. But I admit this is pure speculation on my part (and it is not relevant to the discussion we are having).

        I do not in fact know what was the motivation of Susana to choose this particular label, but I think we should rather suspend judgment until someone with actual knowledge sheds light on the change of the meaning of the term, as opposed to draw vague conclusions from blog-posts by visiting foreigners which don’t actually directly address the issue. I did hear (I can’t recall the source) that Tete was actually bothered by the negative connotation. We can’t assume that Susana, in her early days of teaching, was a marketing genius who wouldn’t have committed marketing mistakes. Her teaching did prove to be quite successful which, a posteriori, might be interpreted as an indication of marketing talent, but her success might very well be due to reasons other than how well she chose to label the style she was trying to reconstruct in her teaching; she might have been successful despite of making marketing mistakes, not because of them. Not every market success is determined by how good the marketing is.

  2. jantango says:

    I have a workshop flier for Susana Miller’s June 1998 visit to Washington, DC (her 4th tour in the USA). It reads: “Susana is the best teacher we know of the milonguero style of tango. The milonguero or “close embrace” style is danced in the crowded clubs of Buenos Aires. It evolved to compensate for large numbers of couples dancing in limited space.”

    I believe the term “tango milonguero” developed many years later when dancers wanted to distinguish between the styles. I understand that Susana began teaching in Club Almagro with Tete and Osvaldo Zotto. Later she moved to Club Bailable Juvenil where Cacho Dante and Luis Ferraris assisted her with classes. Tete got started in teaching with Susana Miller. A friend who danced with Tete for many years related a conversat ion. She tried dancing with Tete during his teaching years and couldn’t. She told him so. He said that he had to change his style in order to teach classes in Europe.

    I used the term “milonguero style” until I realized that all milongueros have individual styles. The milongueros just call it tango. The close embrace wasn’t danced in clubs, but in the confiterias. When they closed, Club Almagro on Medrano was the place to dance in 1960s. The original Club Almagro was located on Gascon between Sarmiento and Peron.

  3. jantango says:

    I had many interesting conversations with Miguel Angel Balbi. He told me that certain orquestas were the most popular downtown while others were more popular in the neighborhoods. I finally realized that decades ago the city limit was Puerreydon; all the neighborhoods past that were considered arrabals. The city center or what we would call downtown today was very small. It ran from Av. Leandro N. Alem to Puerreydon and from Av. Rivadavia to Av. Cordoba. Within those 200 blocks were cabarets, confiterias, cafes, and salones where tango was heard and danced during the Golden Age. And the dancing was different in each type of place.

  4. jantango says:

    I saved various tango magazines over the years and use them as reference. When Miller and Schapira opened at Riobamba 416, it was called La Academia according to advertising in Aug 2000. There was also Escuela de Tango Salon Estilo Milonguero run by Cacho Dante and Alicia Pons. An article in the same issue on milonguero style quoted Tete: “There is no milonguero style, the tango I teach is tango salon. My friend Susana Miller named it milonguero.”

  5. tangovoice says:

    In response to gyb:
    July 13, 2011 at 3:34 AM:

    The argument has not changed. Tango Milonguero is a misleading label for the tango style it represents because there are many men regarded as milongueros who have not danced that style, particularly those whose style falls under Tango Estilo del Barrio. It was commented post hoc that, in any case, a marketing label should not have negative connotations. Imagine if Miller had selected the label Tango Gigilo, if indeed the practitioners of this style in the Golden Age were men who seduced woman and lived off their money. No reputable person would want to learn it.

    It certainly appears to be true that the most likely contemporary targets of seduction by Argentine men in the milongas of Buenos Aires are foreign women, whether the motive is sex or money or both. What style of tango these women prefer to dance in Buenos Aires is a matter for investigation. There is certainly a lot of seduction and seduction attempts occurring in the traditional milongas. As far as foreign women with close embrace angst traveling to Buenos Aires for tango, there is an entire world where tango sin abrazo can be danced.

    Finally, Denniston lived in Buenos Aires for a year specifically to study tango and is a credible source on tango matters. She is not the only person to remark that there are people considered milongueros who do not dance Tango Milonguero. Godoy also made a comment to that effect in the now removed YouTube video. Consider also these comments from Sergio Vandkier, who grew up and learned tango in Buenos Aires (http://limestone.uoregon.edu/~llynch/Tango-L/2005/msg01740.html):

    “In Argentina a “Milonguero” is somebody who goes regularly to the milongas, a person with many years of experience and expertise in dancing tango, a man that has gained respect for all those attributes. When Janis speaks (she will correct me if I am wrong) about “the old milongueros” she is referring to that type of dancer. She has had the beautiful idea of bringing them together with the visiting tangueros, a unique experience indeed. Those milongueros (many are in Rick’s pictures) dance traditional salon tango, they do not dance “Milonguero Style”. So one has to distinguish between ” a milonguero” ( a person with certain attributes) and one of many tango styles. Tango milonguero (tango apilado – tango de confiteria – Club tango – Caquero, etc, are different names that have been applied to this style of dancing tango). This style probably developed in the 1940s and 50s in closely packed dance halls and “confiterias”, so it is danced in close embrace, chest-to chest, with the partners leaning – or appearing to lean – slightly towards each other to allow space for the feet to move. Although the rhythmic, close-embrace style of dancing has existed for decades, the term “Milonguero Style” only surfaced in the mid- ’90s. As you know there are many styles to dance tango, every person eventually develops his own. Tete and other few dancers isolated a form that it was called with different names (as stated above) and started to teach it.

    Summary: Milonguero is a person that dances well and goes regularly to the milongas, but there are some milongueros that do not dance well but live the life of a milonguero (goes to the milongas, listens to tango music , etc). Milonguero style also called, club, confiteria, caquero, etc, is a well defined dancing form that has its own characteristics.”

    • gyb says:

      In the following interview Cacho Dante (who, together with Susana Miller, coined the term “tango milonguero”) explains that the reason they adopted the term to separate their style from tango salon (exemplified ie by Mingo Pugliese) was exactly the negative connotations of “milonguero”. Mingo Pugliese and other barrio dancers were also great and frequent dancers but would refuse being called a milonguero, for these were also of men of bad reputation, men who danced in downtown milongas, men who mothers would forbid their daugthers to dance with if they showed up in the clubs.

      See especially from 19:35 and on, but for the context the whole interview is worthwhile to watch.

      • tangovoice says:

        Yes, this is a very interesting interview. It emphasizes further the stylistic distinction (in the embrace, in the repertoire of movements) between the tango of the downtown milongas and the tango of the neighborhood milongas.

        Yes, the term milonguero had a negative connotation, although this was fading in the tango renaissance period, with a transition towards a connotation of reverence and even endearment occurring. In the early 1990’s, when Miller (and apparently Dante, to some degree), coined the term ‘estilo milonguero’, there was less of a negative connotation than existed in the 1950s, when milongas were more prominent in the social life of Argentines, and milongas were a common meeting ground for young men and women. Denniston even indicates (see comment above) that in the 1990s some lifelong tango dancers were offended if there were not regarded as ‘milongueros’.

        In the PractiMilonguero interview, Dante confirms that milongueros had had a poor public image, but this is not claimed as the reason he and Miller coined their tango ‘estilo milonguero’. Perhaps they employed the term despite the reputation, but the bad reputation is not indicated as causal. What Dante actually states (20:50) is he and Miller called their tango ‘estilo miloguero’ because people called men who danced that way ‘milongueros’. No statement is made that they used the ‘milonguero’ label because it had negative connotations.

      • Chris, UK says:

        TV wrote: “In the early 1990’s … there was less of a negative connotation than existed in the 1950s

        Yvonne (Meissner) told me of the occasion around that time when Cacho visited to teach her dance class in the Netherlands, and she introduced him as a milonguero. Cacho protested: “I am not a milonguero! I have a job!”. 🙂

      • tangovoice says:

        There was less of a negative connotation to the term ‘milonguero’ in the early 1990s due to unfamiliarity with tango culture and history, because there had been 30 years of tango being less prominent, at times marginalized and driven underground in Argentine culture. During this period there had been few milongueros because there had been few milongas. The culture of tango that had given rise to the terminology was almost absent from Argentine in the early 1990s. Men who had been milongueros in the 1950s were still aware of the negative connotations of the term. Dante’s response to Meissner reflects his own perception of the term at the time. The connotation of term was (already had been) changing for newcomers to tango.

  6. jantango says:

    This is Miguel Angel Balbi’s definition of a milonguero: a self-taught tango dancer with his own style who dances with any woman and makes her happy dancing elegantly and accompanied. The styles are not learned in different tango schools. They are different ways of feeling and demonstrating it in the dance. [Sept 2002]

    Alito was born in 1929 and lived in San Telmo. Miguel Angel was born in 1937 and grew up in Almagro. Rodolfo Indegno was born in 1931 and grew up in Villa Urquiza. osvaldo Centeno was born in 1937 and grew up in Mataderos. What they all have in common is they danced every day of the week in the downtown confiterias during the 1950s to recordings. The venues were not large. I danced at Montecarlo where the floor space was long and narrow. They had to dance well or be shamed off the floor. Bumping was not allowed.

    What distinguishes a dancer from a milonguero for me is his respect for the codes, not only on the floor but his conduct at a milonga. The codes are ingrained in the milongueros after 60 years in the milongas.

    There are many new teachers giving classes in “tango milonguero,” but what they can’t impart is the personal experience and respect for tango that only the milongueros have to offer.

  7. I wish to note that my knowledge of “club style” tango comes directly from my recollection of what I learned from Eduardo Arquimbau. I took classes in this style from Eduardo at the Stanford Tango Week, heard him make a translated presentation about the style and saw him demonstrate his club style with someone other than Gloria. Gloria wasn’t at Stanford with him.

    As I recall now (many years later), Eduardo and his partner were relatively upright in a close embrace with separate axes, she looked toward his face rather than over his shoulder, and they separated slightly in the turns (hence the similarity to the embrace for Villa Urquiza). Personally, I would consider this to be within the normal variation of what is now taught as milonguero-style tango. In the mid-1990s, however, milonguero-style tango was taught with a heavy lean.

    The fact that you find Eduardo’s dancing club style tango with Gloria different than I describe owes to two possibilities. One, my description may not have been clear to you. (In this regard, it would be useful for you to describe the characteristics of the club style tango that Gloria and Eduardo danced in on the video you watched.) Alternatively, Eduardo makes adjustments for different partners and we have fallen into Igor Polk’s trap of overly interpreting these variations as somewhat different styles.

    Eduardo called the style “club,” and said it had been danced in “clubs de barrios.” He never used the term, “Tango Estilo del Centro.” Eduardo also dismissed the idea that there was such a thing as milonguero-style tango. He claimed to have taught Tete how to dance club-style tango and said that what was being taught as milonguero-style tango is not much more than Tete’s personal variation of what Eduardo had taught him with bad posture.

    In some sense what is now called milonguero-style tango in North America might just be Susana Miller’s interpretation of Tete’s style. But even here, it should be noted that not all of Tete’s partners used the piled on embrace and heavy lean that Susana Miller once taught people to associate with milonguero style tango. (I don’t know what she teaches now.)

    Of course, we must recognize that the history of naming tango styles is a bit different than the history of the styles themselves. From the point of view of learning how to dance tango, probably the most important distinctions are separating exhibition dancing from social dancing and recognizing three different sensibilities in social tango: nuevo-style tango, a smooth social style tango that now seems to be called Villa Urquiza, and a more rhythmic style of tango that seems to have many names but is most frequently called milonguero-style tango in North America.

    See http://www.tejastango.com/inside_2011archive.html#0004

    • tangovoice says:

      Eduardo Arquimbau’s ‘club style tango’ (name of workshop) demonstrated in the uncirculated recording is nearly identical (the music was also Rodriguez) to the publically available video cited (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyKhkeVF9uw). In the latter video particularly Eduardo, but also to some degree Gloria, both have a slight forward lean in their posture, as needed to have lateral face-to-face contact. However, both Eduardo and Gloria appear to be balanced on their own axes. With regard to Miller and her Academia de Tango Milonguero and what they teach, at least currently they insist there is not dependency of partners on each other to maintain their balance. If one views recordings of Tete’s demonstrations (e.g., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alcBFsaRoPQ), there is no apparent partner balance dependency. With regard to whether Eduardo “taught Tete how to dance club-style tango and said that what was being taught as milonguero-style tango is not much more than Tete’s personal variation of what Eduardo had taught him with bad posture”, unfortunately Tete is no longer available to respond to Eduardo’s perspective. However, to his defense, it is apparent that Tete’s style of dancing is much smoother (less accent on rhythm) than what is seen in Eduardo’s ‘club style tango’ demonstrations. Concerning the comment that “what is now called milonguero-style tango in North America might just be Susana Miller’s interpretation of Tete’s style”, this is giving Miller too much credit. No one to date has (or should be expected) to replicate Tete’s style; there was a smoothness and complexity in Tete’s movement that was truly unique. What Miller and her Academia teach are some fundamental elements of the way some milongueros have danced. (This is not a criticism.) The complexity and uniqueness of any milongueros’ dance develops with many hours and kilometers on the milonga dance floor. In Buenos Aires milongas where Tango Milonguero (or Tango Estilo del Centro) is danced women dance only as followers, so no woman, instructor or not, will be able to achieve the uniqueness or complexity of a milonguero’s dance; nor will any man until he has dedicated his hours and kilometers to developing his own style. This, off course, supports the viewpoint that stylistic variation is a core characteristic of Tango de Salon, yet observation still will identify distinctive differences between Tango Estilo del Barrio and Tango Estilo del Centro derived stylistic variation. Within that framework, Eduardo Arquimbau’s ‘club-style tango’, by virtue of its characteristics of maintained closed embrace and emphasis on rhythmic variation, is more clearly associated with Tango Estilo del Centro, regardless of the origins of Eduardo’s development of his own style of dancing.

  8. gyb says:

    In response to tangovoice:
    April 1, 2012 at 1:43 PM :

    I have no reason to doubt Christine Denniston’s expertise on tango, although I need to point out that according to her own biography she only started dancing tango in 1992, around of after the time the term “estilo milonguero” got coined. Of course she could have been very perceptive of subtleties despite of being a complete beginner and despite of having pursued her early tango career as a stage tango dancer, but I think it is more plausible to assume that by the time she got acquainted with the inner workings of social tango the shift in the meaning already happened. Cacho Dante and Susana Miller became quite popular during the time they taught in Almagro, and based on Cacho’s story (of him telling about the label “milonguero” to Susana) it now seems to me likely that most beginners actually met the term “milonguero” through the label “estilo milonguero”. As this latter was pitched as a positive term signaling authenticity it’s no surprise that the negative connotations of “milonguero” got stripped off pretty quickly in the general usage of the term, even for those who were, as long time dancers, familiar with its original meaning. But then this happened post facto coining the term “estilo milonguero”, not before that.

    My more serious problem with you reliance on Denniston’s anecdotal stories is that on the linked website there is no indication whatsoever when the anecdote you quote took place. It could have happened well into the late ’90s or even in the 2000s, by the time the shift in meaning already occurred.

    Maybe what I wrote was not sufficiently clear (although in the light of our discussion above it should have been). I didn’t mean to suggest that they came up with the “estilo milonguero” term because the connotations of “milonguero” were negative. I suggested that they came up with the term because, albeit the connotations were negative, these negative connotations were also indicative of a specific way of dancing. It is the distinctiveness, not the negativity, which was interesting in the negative connotation. As I ventured above, being a nightlifer correlated with dancing downtown, and dancing downtown correlated with dancing in close embrace. If the correlation is strong that gives sufficient reason to apply the label, as everyone familiar with the original, loaded meaning of the term will know what to think of when [s]he hears someone described as “dancing like a milonguero”. I think the interview does support this interpretation.

    I think it is pretty clear from Cacho’s reply that, contrary to what you suggest in your comment, this connotation of “milongueros” was not casual in applying the term. This is the very first element of his reply to the question. But I let the readers judge this themselves; I don’t see the point of continuing this debate, as I feel you are not conceding even the most obvious points.

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