Women’s Adornments for Tango Social Dancing

One characteristic of tango that differentiates it from most other contemporary social dances is the use of adornments. Adornments (Spanish: adornos), also called ‘embellishments’, are movements of the feet in tango that decorate the dance, often used to accent the music, that are not involved in locomotion and do not result in a complete change of weight to the foot performing the adornment. Adornments are inserted into the dance between the movements of the woman that are led by the man, or are amplifications of led movements. Adornments can be used while a couple is moving across the dance floor, or they can be used when there is a pause in such movement. In contemporary tango, adornments are more characteristic of the dance of women than of men. This is reflected in the frequent offering of instruction on the use of adornments for women at tango weekends and festivals.

Adornments are a characteristic element of Exhibition Tango, as can be seen in the following performances by renowned tango stage performers Juan Carlos Copes & Maria Nieves and Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran.

Adornments also are considered by many tango dancers to be an integral part of tango as a social dance. This perspective is exemplified in the following statements by tango instructor Daniel Trenner (Massachusetts):

So let us observe something fundamental about Argentine social dance improvisation. The Argentine Tango is built by leader and follower in three intertwined and overlapping parts:
1. The skeleton of the dance is a walk of the follower that is designed by the leader.
2. The leader creates the next layer by building a step of his (traditionally his, that is) or hers (I like that!) in the spaces between the followers confidently laid out pattern.
3. The follower, and the leader, now decorate these two interwoven steps with a layer of adornments.

Catalog of Adornments

Online video libraries demonstrating the characteristics of some adornments used by women in dancing tango are provided by Jennifer Bratt (New York) and by Eran Braverman (Australia). Pictorial representations) of adornments have also been provided in an online catalog. Included in these libraries are the adornments listed below, classified by the spatial positioning of their usage. The source of the terminology (not always consistent) is indicated, with the ‘New Glossary of Tango Terms’ (2nd ed., by Gustavo Benzecry Sabá, Abrazos Books, Stuttgart, Germany, 2010; English translation by Laura Nicastro) generally relied upon here as the authoritative source for nomenclature and definition. Direct quotes from sources are indicated by italics.

(1) Adornments of women maintained on the floor

These are adornments that generally satisfy the milonga code of maintaining feet on the floor while dancing; to further satisfy milonga codes, they must not have the potential to invade the space of other couples on the floor. [Do Milongas exist outside Argentina (The milonga codes revisited) #47].

(a) Golpecitos (little taps): Repeated short taps on the floor with the metatarsus or the toe during a pause or move [Benzecry Sabá]. (See Braverman: Golpeteo by Alp & Paula; see Bratt).

(b) Dibujo (drawing) / Rulo (curl): Movement of the feet on the floor, generally in the form of small circles or other tiny embellishments [Benzecry Sabá], either as part of a movement or during a pause… [Braverman]. [See Braverman: 2nd Alp & Paula video.]

(c) Voleo Bajo Atrás / Low (Back) Boleo: A sharp movement by one leg behind the other, tracing a semi-circle on the floor, while keeping both knees in contact. Voleos bajos by the woman are generally led by the man no more than twice in a row and are the only safe Voleos at Milongas…. It is an interrupted half Ocho Atrás, with sudden change of direction and no change of weight. [Benzecry Sabá]. [See Bratt]

(d) Amague: A flick of one foot in front of the other leg’s ankle or shin (definition & photo) [For a rapid version, see Bratt]; may be performed by the woman in conjunction with forward ochos and back ochos. It should be noted that the term ‘amague’ is used differently by Braverman, who reserves this term for the ‘feint’, a definition that is supported by Benzecry Sabá. Some dancers call this movement a (low) ‘front boleo’.

(e) Toque (touch): Brief touch with the front of the foot of the instep of the partner’s stationary foot without weight change, as part of another movement; e.g., for a woman, prior to stepping over a man’s foot (pasada), as may follow a parada created by the man.

(2) Adornments above the floor, inside the couple’s frame

These are adornments that are raised above the floor but remain within the horizontal space defined by the circumference of the dancing couple’s frame.

(f) Caricias (Caresses): To stroke part of the partner’s body with the leg or the foot, either subtly or extravagantly [Benzecry Sabá]. The caricia is executed by stroking the foot against the leg. There are two variations of the caricia: the lustrada and the castigada. The lustrada is…executed by the follower lifting her free leg and caressing the supporting leg of the lead – either in an upward action, downwards, or very commonly both. The inside or outside of any part of the lead’s leg, including his foot, may be caressed. The castigada is executed by the follower lifting her free leg and caressing her own supporting leg. …This may take the form of an upward action, downwards, or the follower stroking both the inside and outside of her supporting leg [Braverman: See Lustrada under Gavito & Gerladine]. [See Bratt demonstrating castigadas performed both inside and outside the frame of the partnership.]

(3) Adornments executed above the floor

There are adornments that are executed above the floor and either extend outside the circumference of the frame formed by the couple or are ostentatious and thus violate the milonga code prohibiting ostentatious movements [Do Milongas exist outside Argentina (The milonga codes revisited) #48].

(g) Voleo alto / High (back) boleo: A sharp upward movement by one leg behind the other, followed by a circular movement, while both knees remain in contact. Generally, Voleos altos by the woman are led by the man no more than twice in a row, unless they are intended as Adornos. Not advisable in tango dance halls as it is dangerous to those nearby. [See Bratt]

(h) Voleo adelante / High Front boleo: A sharp upward movement by one leg crossing in front of the other. It is generally done by the woman, around her axis, and requires the man’s lead. The woman’s active leg has to be relaxed while both knees remain in contact. With no lead, the movement is an adorno. [Benzecry Sabá]. [See Bratt; see Braverman: David & Mariana – Front boleo.]

(i) Voleo en linea / Linear boleo: Sharp lineal tracing done with one leg when a movement is interrupted. The Voleo en Linea may be done forwards, backwards or sideways. Every alternative requires a man’s lead [Benzecry Sabá]. [See video]

(j) Gancho (hook): …consists of raising the leg and briefly bending it around a partner’s leg…. Precise movement, normally exaggerated, used in Fantasia style. Ganchos may be internal or external, may be performed with the right or left leg…. Although the woman may do a Gancho spontaneously, as an embellishment, this movement requires the man’s lead…. Enganche: When one dancer wraps his/her leg around the other’s, or catches his/her foot, without letting go [Benzecry Sabá]. [See Braverman: Multiple ganchos (2nd video).]

(k) Piernazo (leg embrace): …induced movement by which the woman encircles with her leg the man’s back and waist…. Movement belonging to the so-called “Tango Nuevo” [Benzecry Sabá]. [See video].

(l) Patada / Patadita (kick): Introduction of the man’s toe between the woman’s legs, kicking the air…. May also be done by the woman [Benzecry Sabá]. [See Braverman: Intrusión: Alp y Paula Tango.]

(m) Cuatro: Figure in which the woman crosses her active leg in front of her supporting leg, forming the number four. The woman may be led to this figure via a Sacada, a Voleo, Ganchos, or may use it at will [Benzecry Sabá]. The cuatro is executed by flicking the lower part of the free leg backwards and up, keeping the knees together. Its name derives from the fact that in profile, the embellishment creates the numeral 4. The cuatro is a follower-only embellishment. [Braverman]. [See Braverman: Multiple Cuatros – Geraldine & Javier.]

There is some inconsistency as to whether a movement by a woman needs to be performed independently of the man’s lead to be considered an adornment, as suggested by some of Benzecry Sabá’s language (see Voleo alto, voleo adelante, gancho above). This is complicated by the possibility that the woman may amplify the intensity communicated in the man’s lead (e.g., for boleos, ganchos, and piernazos) or perform some normally led movements independently of the man’s lead; also, the woman may have several options in responding to a specific lead (e.g., boleos, ganchos, and piernazos as alternative responses). In observing tango dancing, it may not be possible to discern whether some movements are led or not (or amplified or not, if led) and thus, in practice, some led movements that are decorative need to be considered as adornments. What differentiates adornments from other movements in tango is not whether or not they are led, but that they are decorative elements that do not result in a complete weight change to the adorning foot.

Origins of Adornments in Tango Social Dancing

It is difficult to determine when in the history of tango adornments were first used to decorate the dance. It is plausible that the use of adornments has been a part of the evolution of tango as a dance since its inception. Although definitive documentation is sketchy, especially since the first half century or so of tango history preceded the birth of motion picture making and few film clips of tango dancing from even the 30s and 40s survive to this day; however, some of the existing film clips from the 1930s and 40s indicate that adornment of the dance had already existed at this time. For example, these film clips of El Cachafaz (Ovidio José Bianquet) dancing tango with Carmencita Calderón in ‘Tango’ (1933) and with Sofía Bozán in ‘Carnaval de Antaño’ (1940) show that adornments had already been incorporated into the dance, at least at the level of exhibition. Modern interpretations of Canyengue, a style of social tango popular in the first 3 decades of the 20th century (Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?), as performed by contemporary Canyengue practitioners and instructors Rodolfo & Maria Cieri, and Martha Anton & Manolo ‘El Gallego’ Salvador suggest that adornments may have been part of the tango dance since at least the early 20th century.

However, the most influential model for the incorporation of adornments into contemporary tango dancing appears to be the style of social tango danced in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires in the 1950s – Tango Estilo del Barrio; its contemporary manifestation is commonly marketed as the more geographically restrictive ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ [See Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza; and Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)].

Tango instructor Andres Amarilla from Buenos Aires states:

Villa Urquiza is one of the most beautiful styles within the overarching label of “traditional tango.” It gets its name from the Villa Urquiza neighborhood in Buenos Aires. The style is characterized by its elegance, with an emphasis on clean lines, exquisite adornments, and soulful musicality. Common elements in this style include enrosques, lapices, agujas, the reloj, corridas, adornments and complex turns.

Likewise, Ney Melo, a tango instructor in New York, and a proponent of ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, states ‘The salon Villa Urquiza style is a very elegant style that gives a lot of space for the woman to adorn.’ Maria del Carmen Romero & Jorge Dispari, who danced tango in the barrio of Villa Urquiza in the 1950s, have been described as belonging to ‘… the very few teachers of the Villa Urquiza style, that is characterized by elegant and pure walk, musical adornments and spry movements with abundance of giros, enrosques, lapices, arujas.’ Thus, in contemporary tango, instruction in the use of adornments, particularly for women, is frequently marketed under the label of ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’.

Review of Tango Demonstrations with Respect to Use of Adornments

Given the importance placed on Tango Estilo del Barrio (sometimes classified as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’) as a point of origin for the use of adornments in contemporary social tango, tango demonstrations by dancers active in dancing tango during the 1950s in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires may serve as models for the application of adornments in the social context of the milonga. Examples of tango demonstrations classified (in Ney Melo’s YouTube Tango Television channel) as ‘Origins of Villa Urquiza Style’ include the following demonstrations given by Gerardo Portalea & Susana (notably devoid of adornments), and by Alberto & Ester (includes several adornments by Alberto, but more limited decoration by Ester). Moderate but subtle use of adornments is shown in this demonstration by Carlos Perez & Rosa Forte, tango instructors who currently host the weekly practica at the Sunderland Club in the barrio of Villa Urquiza. More liberal employment of adornments is demonstrated in this performance by Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen Romero. Note that in the demonstrations given by these older representatives of Tango Estilo del Barrio the dancers maintain their feet on the floor or within the space defined by the hold of the partners (for the most part). Also note that no ostentatious movements sometimes classified as adornments (ganchos, enganches, piernazos, high and linear boleos) were used by these dancers. These demonstrations represent tango dancing that is considered acceptable at milongas (taking into account, in some cases, that space is available for some of the larger movements).

Among the modern generation of tango dancers identified as representatives of ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ (see also Ney Melo’s YouTube Tango Television channel), adherence to milonga codes of maintaining feet on the floor, or at least within the space defined by the partnership, has been inconsistent in public exhibitions.

In this demonstration by Gabriel Misse & Natalia Hills, Hills demonstrates limited use of adornments (amagues, taps), with only one high front boleo that might present a hazard on the social dance floor. This is noteworthy because Hills has had a career in Stage Tango, yet demonstrates a socially appropriate tango here. In this demonstration by Sebastián Achaval & Roxana Suarez (Estilo Villa Urquiza attribution), there are a few stray cuatros and high boleos, but otherwise Suarez displays moderate use of adornments on the floor (dibujos, taps, toques) or raised above the floor but within the space defined by the partnership (castigada). The use of adornments in these demonstrations is more or less consistent with milonga codes for the more spacious outer barrio milongas in Buenos Aires and thus appears to be a reasonably accurate contemporary representation of the Tango Estilo del Barrio of the 1950s.

In contrast, in this demonstration by Javier Rodriguez & Geraldin Rojas, although there is some milonga acceptable use of adornments by Rojas (dibujos, amagues, taps), there is also extensive use of high boleos and cuatros, which could threaten the space of other couples on the dance floor. Likewise, in this demonstration by Octavio Fernandez & Samantha Dispari (Estilo Villa Urquiza attribution), Dispari employs adornments liberally, some of which are milonga acceptable (taps, amagues), but her dance is peppered throughout with rapid high boleos and cuatros. Geraldin Rojas and Samantha Dispari are the daughters of Maria del Carmen Romero & Jorge Dispari, so these demonstrations are a departure from the social tango dance style of their parents. It should be noted that Rojas, in conjunction with her husband and tango partner Ezequiel Paludi, identify themselves primarily with Stage Tango and not with ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, either directly or indirectly.

When examining some demonstrations by tango instructors associated with Tango Nuevo [Tango Nuevo: Definition of the Dance] it is not surprising that adornments play a different role than in Tango Estilo del Barrio. In this demonstration given by Fabian Salas & Carolina del Rivero there are some subtle adornments used by del Rivero (moderate use of taps, a few amagues), but these are overshadowed by the overall grandiosity of the dance, replete with back sacadas, volcadas and colgadas, as well as ample use of large ‘decorative’ elements such as high front and back boleos, cuatros and a repeated display of piernazos. Likewise, in this demonstration by Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli & Eugenia Parrilla, Parrilla’s sparse use of subtle on-the-floor adornments such as taps, dibujos, and amagues is barely noticeable amidst the rapid fire of high boleos, cuatros, and ganchos. Tango Nuevo is not a dance of subtlety, and subtle on-the-floor adornments are of low priority in this dance that is designed for visual impact.

Examination of demonstrations of Tango Estilo del Barrio provides insight on the use of adornments within the environment of the milonga, particularly when sufficient space is available. However, in Buenos Aires milongas today, the most common stylistic variation among dancers is Tango Milonguero [Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’)] or, more broadly, Tango Estilo del Centro [Tango Estilo del Centro (Tango Downtown Style): Reclaiming the Term as a Replacement for Tango Milonguero]. Thus, a more accurate perspective on the contemporary use of adornments in Buenos Aires milongas, which provides insight and guidance for the use of adornments in crowded (and non-crowded) milongas worldwide, can be obtained from observation of practitioners and instructors of Tango Estilo Milonguero. In this demonstration by Ricardo Vidort & Myriam Pincen, Pincen employs adornments to a limited degree, consisting mostly of taps, a small number of dibujos, one amague, and one castigada. In this demonstration by Osvaldo Centeno & Ana Maria Shapira, Shapira uses taps to a moderate degree, but they all at a level of low visibility. In this demonstration by Beto Ayala & Amanda Lucero, Lucero uses only about a half dozen very, very subtle taps in a two-and-a-half minute tango; these taps are so subtle they might go unnoticed by the untrained eye. This is certainly adornment for the enjoyment of the adorner, not for the audience. These demonstrations of Tango Milonguero indicate that women dancing this style of tango use relatively inconspicuous adornments (certainly compared to Tango Nuevo, but also compared to Tango Estilo del Barrio), with the adornments maintained almost entirely close to the floor (with limited lateral extent) as would be necessary on a crowded milonga dance floor.

Although the demonstrations of Tango Milonguero referenced above show use of adornments that is acceptable in Buenos Aires milongas, some instructors who self-identify as promoting Tango Milonguero or Tango de Salon do not always illustrate judicious use of adornments. In this demonstration by Ray Barbosa & Susana Miller, Miller, director of La Academia Tango Milonguero in Buenos Aires, considered by many a primary promoter and thus role model for Tango Milonguero, employs only adornments (taps, dibujos) that individually are considered acceptable for social dancing, but their nearly incessant use is disruptive to the flow of the dance and brings into question whether the dance is structured around the adornments rather than around the basic tango characteristics of walking in an embrace to the rhythm of tango music (The Essence of Tango Argentino). Another demonstration that appears to be designed around display of elaborate footwork is that given by Gustavo Benzecry Sabá & Maria Olivera, who promote themselves as instructors of Tango de Salon. Since these instructors self-identify as teaching Tango de Salon / Tango Milonguero, students of tango viewing these demonstrations easily can be misinformed regarding the appropriate use of adornments in tango social dancing.

It should be noted that tango instructors typically have numerous video recordings of public demonstrations. Thus, the demonstrations selected for review here may not be representative of all recorded demonstrations of these dancers. Nevertheless, a specific action taken by a particular instructor in any given demonstration may be perceived by the naïve viewing public as providing consent with regard to what is permissible in the social environment of the milonga, particularly if that instructor is closely associated with a tango classification label that is identified as a variant of Tango de Salon (e.g., Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza, Tango Estilo Milonguero).

A Necessary Tangent: Tango Style Attribution

The association of particular tango instructors with a specific named style may not be a decision made by the instructors, who may wish to be recognized for their unique stylistic interpretations of tango. The attribution of instructors to a style is typically made by promoters to provide a marketable image to attract customers to tango, or by tango pundits such as bloggers who simplify tango complexity in order to communicate a digestible message to the less learned reader. Previously it has been noted here (Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression: Part I – A Rationale for Classification by Niche Adaptation) that whereas nearly continuous stylistic variation along various dimensions exists among accomplished tango dancers, there are distinct clusters of traits that identify dancers whose style evolved from a common heritage and therein the existence of distinct tango styles is logically valid; notable within this variation is the clustering of Tango de Salon into two primary stylistic groups with some within group variation – Tango Estilo del Centro (of which Tango Estilo Milonguero is the most prominent contemporary representative) and Tango Estilo del Barrio (from which the Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza label has been extracted). [See Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression)].

Although differentiation of tango styles may exist more prominently in the minds of tango promoters and pundits than in the mind of tango instructors, the constant barrage of stylistic labels directed at the tango consumer typically results in a classification of tango instructors into specific stylistic categories. In this respect, the association of individual instructors with stylistic categories such as Tango de Salon, Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza and Tango Estilo Milonguero, by definition or by perception believed to be tango stylistic variations appropriate for the milonga environment, provides the impression that a public demonstration given by instructors associated with a social style of tango is a model for social tango dancing at a milonga. Although tango instructors may dispute classificatory labels, they would be naïve in assuming that most members of the audience viewing a demonstration at a tango festival or weekend where instruction is provided are knowledgeable regarding the differences between socially acceptable and unacceptable characteristics of their demonstrations. Thus, tango instructors share the responsibility and indeed are the ultimate source for proliferation of tango elements unacceptable for social dancing onto milonga dance floors around the world. Notable, the neglect of this responsibility is most egregious for those who self-identify as proponents of a social tango style, even (or perhaps especially) if the violations of milonga codes are less apparent.

Review of Buenos Aires Milonga Recordings with Respect to Use of Adornments

With the use of expansive above-the-floor adornments (high boleos and cuatros) by some tango instructors identified with Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza, a stylistic classification descended from the traditional Tango Estilo del Barrio danced in the milongas of the outer barrios of Buenos Aires in the 1959s, and the demonstration of dances structured around the expression of adornments by instructors identified with Tango de Salon / Tango Estilo Milonguero, there is provided a confusing mixed message regarding appropriate application of adornments in the social setting of the milonga. Therefore, definitive guidance as to the employment of adornments in the milonga setting can be achieved by examination of recordings of tango social dancing in Buenos Aires milongas. Although high floor density and presence of tables may impede unobstructed viewing of dancers footwork, the presence and type of adornments can be documented. In this recording of a milonga at Lo de Celia under high floor density, among several dozen women dancing it was possible to identify only a handful of adornments (only about 2 or 3 each of dibujos, amagues, and taps, plus 2 incompletely formed cuatros). In this recording of a milonga at Club Gricel under low floor density, there was similar limited use of adornments (a few dibujos, amagues, and taps, plus a stray cuatro). Perhaps more adornments would be used at milongas in the barrio of Villa Urquiza, given the connection of the contemporary marketed ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ with this barrio. In this recording at the Sin Rumbo, the unique floor level camera view provides a clear perspective on the use of adornments; the frequency of use of adornments was somewhat higher than in the ‘downtown’ milongas (Lo de Celia, Club Gricel) referenced above but, with very few exceptions, all adornments were either kept close to the floor (mostly taps and amagues) or raised but close to the body (a few castigadas). In this recording at the Sunderland Club milonga, there was a rate of adornment use approximately the same or slightly higher than at Sin Rumbo, with most adornments kept close to the floor (taps, toques, amagues, low back boleos, dibujos), although there were several uses of adornments above the floor (high boleos and cuatros) plus one gancho characteristic of exhibition tango; in all cases, the milonga inappropriate adornments were used by younger women (under 40). This suggests that use of adornments is more common among younger women in Buenos Aires milongas. This recording of Milonga 10 at Club Fulgor de Villa Crespo, a popular milonga for young people in Buenos Aires, supports this observation; the adornments are used at approximately the same rate as in Sunderland Club, but the ratio of adornments above the floor (high front and back boleos) to those close to the floor (low back boleos, dibujos, taps and toques) is higher and overall, the adornments are less subtle. Perhaps some of the younger dancers still have not learned the danger of using above-the-floor adornments.

Definition of Appropriate Use Adornments by Women in Tango

The public tango demonstrations referenced above by Geraldin Rojas and by Samantha Dispari, instructors identified as associated with the variant of Tango de Salon marketed as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, are inappropriate models for dancing tango at the milonga because they included numerous adornments that would be a hazard to other dancers on the milonga dance floor, and also because they comprised too much of the dance. Although nearly all adornments used by Maria Olivera in the demonstration referenced above were maintained on the floor, the speed, quantity, and conspicuousness of the adornment use also make them inappropriate for the milonga. Although the demonstration given by Susana Miller used only adornments that individually would be acceptable for social tango dancing, the nearly incessant use of taps is not be considered to be a good example for social tango dancing. Caution against the overexpression of adornments is indicated in the following comments by tango bloggers.

Tango blogger Rick McGarrey (Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires) states:

Milongueros sometimes pause to allow time for the woman to do adornments… but don’t overdo it. Excessive adornments are sometimes called “verduras”. Verdura means “vegetable”, and lots of boleos, kicks, and ankle movements interfere with the music. They also llaman la atención. But it’s not the kind of attention you want…. The best milongueras limit their adornments to a few small circles with the foot, or an occasional light toe tap. There are no “elaborate features to catch attention.” They know how to resist the “natural preference for whatever looks difficult… everything is carefully executed… with a reservation to its style”.

Blogger Irene Yung from Toronto, a frequent visitor to Buenos Aires, states:

I used to be a bit of an amazing adornista myself. I would scan YouTube everyday for videos with Samantha, Geraldine and Andrea for new inspiration. That is, until I went to Buenos Aires and took classes with Alberto Dassieu. He was the first person to tell me to only do adornments where the music and the lead permits. One should not clutter the dancing or the communication between the leader and follower with unnecessary adornments – FOLLOWING comes first. Only then can the leader and the follower dance in serene harmony. A lot of the hard core milongueras would say the same thing – I got the same advice from Eva Garlez (one of the teachers at Susana Miller’s school and Alberto’s student and assistant), Susy Tilbe (from Milonguisimo) and Nina Balbuena (organizer of the thursday Milonga at Viejo Correo). It is true, there are amazing portenas who can adorn every step twice over and back again – there is no doubt about their extraordinary skill level. But it doesn’t mean that the milongueros think they are a pleasure to dance with. … Adornments (and especially over-adornment) looks exciting but they take away from the feeling of the dance and are disruptive. Dance with a woman who doesn’t adorn and who follows you like a lover who will follow you to hell and back and you will know what I mean.

Melina Sedo, a tango instructor from Germany who self-identifies as teaching Tango de Salon, states:

Unfortunately, active participation in the dance is very often mistaken as doing lots of decorations. But WOW, is this wrong! How often do I see women, who can barely stand, and have to lean on their partners for support, moving their feet frenetically, because they want to express their personality. That‘s bad on so many levels. Not only that it is totally annoying and prevents your partner from improvising, mostly it just looks nasty. But the most severe outcome from doing too many Adornos is that you have to shift the attention from the embrace to your feet.

From these evaluations and taking into account the codes for acceptable dance expression in the social environment of the milonga [Do Milongas exist outside Argentina (The milonga codes revisited)], the following guidelines are apparent for the use of adornments by women (most apply to men as well) in the milonga setting:

  • (1) Adornments should be used in moderation, so as not to disrupt the flow of the dance or the balance of your partner.
  • (2) Adornments should be maintained within the space defined by the outer reach of the embrace of the couple, either on or close to the floor, or within the vertical space defined by the embrace.
  • (3) Adornments should not attract attention from milonga attendees due to their conspicuousness as a result of excessive speed, frequency of use, or spatial expansiveness.

Thus, in contrast to Daniel Trenner’s view that suggests that use of adornments is an integral part of tango as a social dance, a perusal of dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires indicates that adornments are an optional part of the dance, secondary to the essential features of tango – an embrace between a man and a woman walking in unison connected to classic tango music (The Essence of Tango Argentino).

Summary and Conclusions

Decoration of the dance with movements of the feet not involved in locomotion (‘adornments’ or ‘embellishments’) is a recognizable feature of tango dancing. Although exhibition forms of tango such as Stage Tango and Tango Nuevo incorporate adornments to a significant degree, adornment of the tango dance by both men and women also has been a part of Tango de Salon, particularly as has been evident in Tango Estilo del Barrio, the stylistic variation of tango common in the milongas of the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the 1950s, at the end of the Golden Age. In fact, as marketed currently as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, the use of adornments has been identified (e.g., by Andres Amarilla and by Nelo Melo) as a characteristic feature of this style of tango. However, a review of recordings of tango social dancing at several milongas in Buenos Aires reveals that rather than being a characteristic feature of Tango de Salon, the use of adornments is an optional element employed to a limited degree by relatively few women, even at milongas in the barrio of Villa Urquiza.

Nevertheless, in contemporary tango the display of adornments has received increased attention, as is evident in public demonstrations of tango dancing, as well as in the offering of specialized instruction for women in the use of adornments (often assumed under the label of “women’s technique”). Thus, this post has focused on the use of adornments by women, particularly with respect to incorporation into social tango. In order to be adapted for use in the social environment of the milonga, decorative movements of the feet need to maintained within the space encompassed by the circumference of the couples’ frame; i.e., they do not threaten to invade the space of other couples on the dance floor. Women’s adornments that typically satisfy these constraints include taps (golpecitos), dibujos (rulos), toques (touches of the partner’s feet), amagues, low back boleos, and caricias (caresses) such as lustradas and castigadas. Adornments also need to be used sparingly and without dramatic display, so as not to attract attention or disrupt the flow of the dance.

However, a review of (recorded) public demonstrations of tango dancing by female tango instructors, who serve as role models for women learning tango, reveals that, in many cases, the use of adornments does not meet the conditions for safety to other dancers in the milonga setting. This is not unexpected for instructors of Tango Nuevo, because this stylistic variation of tango is not adapted for use in the milonga setting (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?). However, the demonstration of expansive off-the-floor adornments, particularly in the form of cuatros and high front and back boleos, is also common among younger female tango instructors who have been identified with the stylistic variation marketed as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ (considered by many as a contemporary representation of the milonga appropriate Tango Estilo del Barrio). Female instructors of Tango Nuevo and Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza typically fail to communicate this limitation in their dance demonstrations, which has contributed to the proliferation of off-the-floor and away-from-the-body adornments (in particular – high front and back boleos, and cuatros) used by women in milongas around the world, including by tango tourists in Buenos Aires. The inappropriate employment of adornments in public tango demonstrations, due to ostentatiousness and/or excessive usage, has also been practiced by female tango instructors who self-identify specifically with Tango de Salon or Tango Estilo Milonguero. Thus, women learning tango today are confronted with inappropriate role models for tango social dancing. Only in observing the practices of experienced porteñas who dance tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires can women learning tango understand that the use of adornments is not a characteristic and conspicuous part of Tango de Salon, but rather an option available to be used sparingly, respecting the space of other couples on the dance floor, the flow of the dance created by the man, and the social norms of not becoming a spectacle at a milonga.

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11 Responses to Women’s Adornments for Tango Social Dancing

  1. jantango says:

    Where do I begin? First, by saying this is the post I only dreamed of writing and couldn’t, so thanks for accomplishing the task.

    Which came first, the enhancement of the feet with Comme il faut shoes, or the enhancement of tango with all these excessive adornos? Perhaps women who invest in those glitzy stilletos want to justify the cost and also make certain someone notices their feet. I hope they realize someday their partners never see what they are doing, especially on a crowded dance floor.

    One milonguero told me that men used to circle the foot on the floor as a way of finding the woman’s foot. Today you won’t find a salon couple in any exhibition or competition who doesn’t begin doing large circular movements with the free leg at the start of every dance.

    When I viewed the Miller video months ago, I, too, was struck by the incessant lifting and tapping of feet. I don’t know if she has been watching too many Alicia Pons’ videos or has gone to ballet classes. If she did that with the late El Tano Guillermo, he stopped dancing.

    • tangovoice says:

      “Which came first, the enhancement of the feet with Comme il faut shoes, or the enhancement of tango with all these excessive adornos? Perhaps women who invest in those glitzy stilletos want to justify the cost and also make certain someone notices their feet. I hope they realize someday their partners never see what they are doing, especially on a crowded dance floor.”

      – This is an interesting observation. A few things have changed in Buenos Aires since the Golden Age that may account for women using adornments more today than in the past. Fancier shoes are available and women have money to buy them (supply and demand). There are more women than men at milongas (the reverse was true in the Golden Age) and they feel the need to attract attention to get dances (although one could argue the adornments are a display to other women as much if not more than to men). Finally, and undoubtedly not least important is that there is ample instruction available on the use of adornments. However, the use of adornments in Buenos Aires milongas, much of which may be attributed to tango tourists and younger dancers, is considerably less than that seen in milongas outside Buenos Aires, where one often gets the impression that women focus more on adornments than they do on their partners. It is the commonly held misbelief that tango is a dance characterized by visual display that contributes significantly to excessive use of adornments.

      “One milonguero told me that men used to circle the foot on the floor as a way of finding the woman’s foot. Today you won’t find a salon couple in any exhibition or competition who doesn’t begin doing large circular movements with the free leg at the start of every dance.”

      – That certainly seems to be the norm. It has spawned its share of imitators on the milonga dance floor.

      • Chris, UK says:

        What I find most disturbing about those Suzana Miller decorations is that they are marking rhythms that are just not there in the music. Everyone is of course free to express their own interpretation of the music, and different dancers hear various elements with different importance, but the kind of dancing that expresses musical elements which are simply not present at all and keeps this up for the entire duration of a song says only one thing. Fake.

  2. jantango says:

    I no longer have their CV with dates of birth when they taught for the Academia de Estilos de Tango Argentino, but Maria del Carmen Romero and Jorge Dispari hadn’t reached the age of 18 in the 1950s to be dancing except in a neighborhood club on a Saturday night accompanied by their parents. Maria’s uncle was Gerardo Portalea. They were the first to use the marketing hook “Estilo de Villa Urquiza” when they began teaching in 2002. Their El Tangauta ad reads “clases de tango salon y fantasia con lo mejor del estilo de Villa Urquiza.”

    Years ago when she was in Chicago, I read an interview with Geraldin (Maria’s oldest daughter) who said “there is no Villa Urquiza style.” She was taken to the clubs at an early age by her mother and didn’t finish high school because she wanted to dance tango.

    Who does more embellishments in tango than Geraldin?

    • tangovoice says:

      “I no longer have their CV with dates of birth when they taught for the Academia de Estilos de Tango Argentino, but Maria del Carmen Romero and Jorge Dispari hadn’t reached the age of 18 in the 1950s to be dancing except in a neighborhood club on a Saturday night accompanied by their parents. Maria’s uncle was Gerardo Portalea. They were the first to use the marketing hook “Estilo de Villa Urquiza” when they began teaching in 2002. Their El Tangauta ad reads “clases de tango salon y fantasia con lo mejor del estilo de Villa Urquiza”.”

      – Even if Jorge Dispari and Maria del Carmen Romero were not part of the adult tango scene in the barrio of Villa Urquiza during the 1950s, they were certainly influenced by it.
      – The labeling of Estilo Villa Urquiza dates back to at least 1999, when the Clarin article on ‘tango styles’ was published (http://neymelo.com/bio/tangostyles/). Horacio Godoy is mentioned as associated with Estilo Villa Urquiza but it is not clear from the article who first used this nomenclature.

      “Years ago when she was in Chicago, I read an interview with Geraldin (Maria’s oldest daughter) who said “there is no Villa Urquiza style.” She was taken to the clubs at an early age by her mother and didn’t finish high school because she wanted to dance tango. Who does more embellishments in tango than Geraldin?”

      – Perhaps her sister Samantha.

  3. jantango says:

    A few weeks ago, a male visitor at Lo de Celia began every tango by taking a long sidestep with a voleo adelante. I had never seen a man do this in tango. Fortunately, he didn’t kick anyone with his foot at knee height.

    I don’t know the ballet terminology that describes the “cuatro” but classically trained tango professionals use it all the time on stage. Monkey see, monkey do. Women copy it in social tango. I noticed milongueros discussing it one night in Gricel. One got up from the table and demonstrated it for the others who laughed. If the rule of keeping the feet on the floor was respected, the milongas would be much safer.

  4. jantango says:

    Passé: Passé refers to both a position and a movement. As a position, one leg is turned out and bent at the knee with the foot placed in front or in back of the other knee. As a movement, the working foot—the foot that is moving—slides up the front of the standing leg until the toe reaches the knee and then the foot passes to the back of the knee and slides back down to fifth position.

  5. jantango says:

    I did a random review of Melina & Detlef’s videos. She talks about appropriate use on the dance floor, yet does a leg wrap, high back voleo/cuatro combination in exhibitions. This leaves a lasting visual impression in the minds of social dancers. Is she telling dancers, “do as I say, not as I do?”

    • tangovoice says:

      Many instructors claiming to teach Tango de Salon (in some form or another) speak of milonga codes and violate them in their teaching and demonstrations. There is an economic incentive to do so.

      • Chris, UK says:

        What’s seen in those promo videos isn’t tango de salon. It’s tango de workshop. What Janis is saying is tango de workshop’s commercial aspects don’t work in the salon. What Tango Voice is saying is tango de salon’s social aspects don’t work in the workshop. I agree with both.

        Let’s note though that this couple is no worse than most of the many other Gustavo Naviera students that likewise adopted his business and teaching model. If they weren’t selling tango de workshop, they’d probably not be in business. One can’t make a living teaching what comes naturally.

  6. tangovoice says:

    In order to be fair, when attributing specific traits to individual dancers or other tango representatives, a link to the video or other website providing evidence for that attribution should be provided if it has not been done so previously within the context of the post. This will be the policy applied for future comments. Compliance to this request is appreciated.

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