Use and Abuse of Tango Terminology

Tango Voice has focused on precise definition of tango terminology, in particular the labeling of tango styles and genres (Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression: Part I – A Rationale for Classification by Niche Adaptation). Perhaps the following blog post by TangoCherie is a response to this, or perhaps it is not:

Lots of time is spent discussing and arguing in English over various terminology in tango–especially by Americans, and especially on the internet via tango blogs or tango mailing lists.

What style is danced: nuevo, apilado, orillero, Villa Urquiza, del centro, club, milonguero, de salon? To me it’s like the monks in the Middle Ages arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

When students are learning a new move, the men often ask, what is the name for this? The tangueros of Buenos Aires don’t worry about the names of things–is it ocho cortado, ocho milonguero, or ocho arrepentido? What is important is only how you dance the movement, call it what you like.

Indeed, tangueros porteños do not spend any significant amount of time talking about the named movements when discussing tango. It is because the focus in the social dance (Tango de Salon) is not in the a priori construction of specific sequences of named steps, but in the connection with one’s partner, the music, and moving in harmony with other dancers on the pista. Thus, discussion about tango at the milonga often focuses on the partner, the music, and the dancers on the pista.

Nevertheless, terms for tango movements such as salida, cruzada, ocho adelante, ocho atras, giro, boleo, etc., have been used by tangueros in Buenos Aires for decades, perhaps some terms for even a century. Sometimes there are equivalent terms for the same movement [e.g., giro (turn) = molinete (pinwheel), arrastre (drag) = barrida (sweep), ocho cortado = ocho milonguero]. Tangueros porteños understand and are capable of using this terminology when needed, even if the need is rare.

In genres of tango different from Tango de Salon, such as Tango Escenario and Tango Nuevo, where there is more focus on specific movements and specific sequence building, using the vocabulary of tango movements becomes more important.

Terminology has a specific purpose – to communicate precisely and concisely regarding a phenomenon discussed. Thus, tango terminology has its place, and the experienced tanguero is competent in using the terminology when needed, even if it is not needed often. There are times when the labeling of movements is important, particularly when learning to dance; once one is a competent dancer, this terminology is rarely necessary, unless one is a tango teacher. Although tangueros outside Argentina are more likely to retain tango terminology in their tango discussions, it is because there are a higher proportion of people involved in tango who are in the beginning stages of learning, where clear and concise terminology is beneficial for communication. Terminology, definition, and classification are not inherently bad; it is a natural part of organizing and communicating information. A problem occurs when there is an obsession with terminology for its own sake and an inability to move beyond definition and classification and apply this language within a broader context, e.g., the context of the physical and sociocultural environment, i.e., the niche in which tango is danced.

Specifically with respect to tango stylistic variation, tangueros porteños generally do not label tango by its style; the only distinction that has been made for decades, when necessary for clarity, is that between Tango de Salon and Tango Escenario (Stage Tango / Show Tango / Exhibition Tango / Tango Fantasia / Tango for Export). However, when choosing a venue for tango social dancing, tangueros porteños know what tango stylistic variations and what codes of behavior are acceptable and characteristic of each tango venue (i.e., the characteristics of the environmental niche). If one wishes to dance a style of tango that is generally labeled as Tango Nuevo, one would not go to a milonga at Lo de Celia Tango Club, for example, with the expectation of finding others who dance in a way that is characteristic of Tango Nuevo; instead a porteño with those interests would go to Villa Malcolm (except for Cachirulo on Saturdays) or to Practica X (now at Viejo Correo). If one wanted to dance with a partner of the same sex, one would not expect to find that accepted at Club Gricel; instead a porteño with that interest would go to the Tango Queer or La Marshall milongas (Gay Friendly / Gender Neutral Tango Social Dancing in Buenos Aires). If one looks in Buenos Aires Tango magazine (probably the most extensive Buenos Aires milonga listing), milongas are not listed as ‘nuevo’ or ‘gay’ or ‘traditional’. However, given that there is variation among tango social dance venues in styles of dancing tango and in the codes of behavior practiced at different venues, some precise vocabulary is needed to communicate concisely to those without specific knowledge (e.g., tango tourists) the characteristics of an environment or the manner in which people dance. It is verbose to say that “If one wishes to dance a maintained closed embrace with the feet kept on the floor, with only tango music from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s designed for dancing grouped into tandas of rhythmically similar music, in a location where men and women have different seating sections and invite a partner to dance using the cabeceo, and where the floor is cleared during the cortina, one should go to a milonga at El Beso”. It would strain the patience of the listener less to say that “If one wishes to dance Tango Milonguero at a traditional milonga, go to El Beso”.

Whereas tangueros porteños are generally aware of the tango stylistic differences at different tango venues in Buenos Aires, outside Argentina there is considerable confusion created by a tango landscape generally free of classificatory labels. In the advertisement of tango events, there is typically no attempt made to differentiate tango along stylistic dimensions. The result is that the types of tango demonstrated in this first video, in this second video, and in this third video are often labeled only as ‘tango’, without any specific frame of reference (i.e., stylistic or genre label). Likewise, tango social dance venues are rarely identified with respect to the kind of music played for dancing tango, so that no distinction is made between events where this kind of music is played versus this other kind of music. The failure to make distinctions is in part a reflection of the One Tango philosophy, which fails to recognize that different variants of tango are reflections of adaptation to different physical and sociocultural environments (Tango Styles, Genres, and Individual Expression: Part I – A Rational for Classification by Niche Adaptation).

For the person with extensive tango experience, the failure to define and label an event or locale by its position within the range of tango stylistic variation may typically result only in the loss of a little bit of time and money in attending an (unlabelled) event that fails to meet the dancer’s (informed) expectations. However, for the naïve newcomer to tango, sometimes years of dedication to tango and thousands of dollars can be invested in learning and participating in something called ‘Argentine Tango’ without the participant becoming informed of how different styles of tango are learned and practiced at the cultural source, i.e., Buenos Aires. Thus, without the use of precise and concise tango terminology, the tango danced and the music danced to are often devoid of its cultural and historical context. To some, this divorce from its cultural roots is not important, but to those from foreign cultures who have dedicated time and money to understand the cultural milieu in which tango is danced in Buenos Aires, the conflation of tango styles and musical genres in the heterogeneous mix (or perhaps even biased representation) that is characteristic of tango events outside Argentina, a reflection of the often promoted One Tango philosophy, limits or even prohibits the enjoyment of events organized under the banner of ‘tango’.

When viewed without this context, tango terminology, rather than being a distraction, becomes a conduit to a better understanding of tango.

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One Response to Use and Abuse of Tango Terminology

  1. Totally agreed! Terminology has its place, provided one does not get obsessed about it and place it above the dance itself. Also, starting thinking about terminology is a natural consequence for any dance that starts popularly and, as time goes by, gains the search for technique, which calls for a better understanding of movements, and entails a terminology need. It’s part of human knowledge building to name what we want to understand.

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