Strategies for Tango Community Development: Profit and Non-Profit Models and the Perspective of Maintaining the Cultural Integrity of Tango

  • Tango communities differ in their organizing principles. These differences affect community development and persistence.
  • For a tango community for grow and survive, the needs of dancers to have an enjoyable dance experience and an enjoyable social environment must be satisfied.
  • A successful tango community requires leaders who recruit new dancers, provide tango instruction (either by being directly involved in teaching or by hiring or enlisting tango instructors), and organize social activities (specifically, the milonga). In the early stages of community development, there is usually only one person or couple or group who assumes the leadership role(s) in organizing tango activities. As a community grows, typically additional persons or groups become event organizers.
  • In tango community development, typically there are two guiding principles or models for organizing tango activities – the Profit (Business) Model and the Non-Profit (Democratic) Model.
    • Under the Profit Model, organization and execution of tango activities are motivated by a desire of the organizers to profit from their endeavors. Teaching is designed to attract as many students as possible in order to maximize income. Milongas are structured to maximize attendance. Tango weekends and festivals may also be organized to further increase profits.
    • Under the Non-profit model, a community organization based on democratic principles of participation is formed. Leaders are elected and (usually) rotate over time, with decision making involving the inclusion of input from group members. Leaders (including instructors) may receive little or no remuneration for their services. Income generated from activities is used to fund additional group activities rather than generate profits for individuals.
  • There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of community organization:
    • Profit Model:
      • Advantages:
        • Community leaders are motivated by profit to organize activities and maximize community growth.
      • Disadvantages:
        • Community development is designed to meet consumer demand, which often compromises tango cultural integrity with
          • Teaching focused on step acquisition, often including conspicuous displays
          • Milongas in which music other than the Classic Tango music of Buenos Aires milongas is played for dancing
          • Absence of the cabeceo for dance invitation
    • Non-profit Model:
      • Advantages:
        • Community growth and development need not be focused on income maximization, thereby allowing more opportunity for culturally valid tango activities to be sponsored.
      • Disadvantages
        • Democratic decision making allows input from a diversity of opinions within the organization, which may lead to representation of culturally invalid tango activities
        • Changing leadership may lead to instability in the direction of tango community development
  • Neither tango communities organized by Profit nor Non-profit motives guarantee nor deny the promotion and maintenance of a culturally valid tango environment.
    • Profit motivated tango organizers who promote tango activities only within the realm of maintaining the cultural integrity of tango can provide stability in the promotion of these activities, although they may be at a competitive disadvantage in communities where other organizers promote culturally invalid tango activities.
    • Given their inherent instability due to change of leadership, for non-profit tango organizations to succeed in maintaining tango cultural validity, they need to be organized around a constitution that specifically states principles by which tango instruction and milonga characteristics are organized in order to maintain tango cultural integrity.
  • In developing a tango community based upon the valid tango cultural practices, there needs to be education of dancers, including instruction in the characteristics of Tango de Salon (as danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires), the music played for dancing in these milongas, and the customs of social interaction in the milongas. During this process of education, the experience of learning and practicing tango must be made enjoyable, and dancers need to feel a sense of belonging to the group that inculcates valid tango cultural values. This can be accomplished within either a Profit based or Non-profit based community structure.


Basic Principles of Tango Community Development

A tango community is an association of tango dancers who congregate at milongas. The community has geographic boundaries that are usually defined primarily by human settlement patterns, i.e., a population cluster such as a city or a collection of cities and towns in geographic proximity. Members of a tango community regularly participate in that community’s activities such as milongas, practicas and tango classes; they usually know at least some other members of the community by name. Tango communities may range in number from a few dozen to several hundred or, in some cases, several thousand. It is also possible that within a defined contiguous geographic region, multiple tango sub-communities may exist and operate somewhat independently of one another, with differences defined by geography (e.g., neighborhood), demographics (e.g., age), or tango stylistic preferences.

Tango communities develop through various stages. There is a foundation stage during which there is typically only one organizer or group of organizers with a stated common purpose. If these efforts are successful, there is a stage of the establishment of this organization within a larger residential community, such that tango classes and milongas are held on a more or less predictable basis. In most of these cases, this coincides with one or more additional people organizing their own classes and milongas somewhat independently of the organizational structure of the founding members of the community. Not all tango organizational efforts are successful in the long run, including the original founding organization. In some cases, tango communities in a particular defined geographic region may cease to exist.

This post will examine different models for the growth of tango communities and the characteristics of the tango activities supported, as is relevant for First World tango communities, particularly in North America. The analysis primarily will examine two aspects of the orientation of tango communities, the economic perspective and the cultural perspective. The challenges involved in reconciling these two perspectives will be addressed.

Goals of Developing Tango Communities

A basic goal in the development of any tango community is the creation of a social environment in which tango is danced, i.e., the milonga. To be successful, a milonga needs enough dancers to satisfy the need for social interaction. Most tango dancers are interested in the milonga as an environment for associating with friends and building new friendships. Some people, presumably mostly single people, want to meet other people to explore the possibility of sexual and romantic relationships. Couples usually come to dance with their partners, but may also have a desire for social interaction with other dancers. Some people may come to milongas primarily to enjoy the music and to dance tango, but they need a good selection of partners with whom to dance. Within the milonga environment there needs to be a demographic balance, with a balanced gender ratio and a distribution of ages that provides a sufficient number of suitable and willing partners for all dancers attending the milonga. The social and physical environment of the milonga needs to be pleasant enough to encourage dancers to return and continue to support the enterprise. With respect to the dance, the dancers attending the milonga need to have sufficient ability to be desirable to dance with and to create a functioning system of movement on the dance floor. The music played for dancing needs to be both stimulating and pleasing to the dancers. (The standards for acceptable dance ability, navigation, and music are variable depending upon the community.)

In order to achieve a successful milonga, a tango community needs to recruit dancers to the community and it needs to retain them. A system of education is instrumental in helping dancers achieve the levels of expertise needed to function effectively in the milonga environment. The educational environment needs to be supportive of the learning process and make learning an enjoyable experience.

Recruitment of new dancers is a challenging task. Within First World societies, where tango music and dancing are not inherent in the culture, exposure to tango is unlikely to occur without targeted advertising of tango activities. The initial exposure to tango is most likely to be as a spectator of tango dancing at public events, either through professional tango shows or through public exhibitions organized by existing tango dancers in the community, although in recent years broadcast media (i.e., television shows), social media (e.g., YouTube) and, in some cases, motion pictures [e.g., The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango] have played a significant role as well in exposing the naïve public to Argentine Tango dancing.

The transition from spectator to tango dancer requires education in the art of dancing tango. In First World communities where there are few dancers who have acquired the skills necessary to dance tango at a milonga, the most effective means of adding a large number of new dancers to a community has been through group classes taught by instructors who are skilled dancers and who can communicate their knowledge to students of tango. Community based instructors are instrumental in providing a consistent learning environment. However, in the early stages of community development, when the resident instructors are less likely to have the skill and experience necessary for continued skill development, additional instructional input from traveling tango instructors at a higher skill level is often necessary. During the early stages of tango community development, when there is an insufficient number of dancers available for a successful milonga, practicas are particularly useful and almost mandatory to improve tango dancing skills. Practicas continue to be important in tango community development as a transition environment between studio classes and the milonga for beginner tango students. Practicas can also offer an informal environment in which social interaction can occur.

Economic Models for First World Tango Community Development

In the 21st century, tango activities are governed worldwide by economic necessities. At the very least, acquisition of space for hosting tango activities requires monetary payment by participants. There are structural and philosophical differences among tango organizations, depending upon the use of funds received in payment. The underlying principles governing tango organizations can be loosely classified into two categories, depending upon whether or not activities are organized for the purpose of personal profit, although this is not the only dimension along which tango organizations can be classified, as will be discussed below.

The Profit (Business) Model

As its most basic level, the Profit Model is represented by a tango instructor or teaching couple from the community who teach regularly scheduled tango classes. In rare cases, a school with more than one set of tango instructors may be formed, either as a tango-only school (e.g., Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Seattle), or as part of a dance school that teaches other dances (e.g., Dance Manhattan). There are a small number of community based tango instructors (as opposed to traveling tango instructors) who derive the majority of their income from promotion of tango, although there are perhaps a larger number of instructors who depend in part upon tango income to meet living expenses. Some of these instructors may spend some part of their time traveling to teach as well. In some cases, community based tango instructors also teach other dances (e.g., ballroom, swing, salsa) but, with rare exceptions, these are instructors for whom tango is not their primary interest or source of income, but rather provides supplementary income. Most community based tango instructors also host milongas, which typically provide some additional income.

Under the Profit Model, the instructional curriculum is designed to attract and maintain students. Student interests, for example in the learning of large repertoires of steps or in the learning of conspicuous or currently popular steps, determine to a significant degree the teaching syllabus. In many cases, profit driven tango instructors inculcate in students, either overtly or indirectly, a desire to focus on steps and patterns in the tango learning process, as this maintains their participation in tango classes, which are the primary source of income for tango instructors. Emphasis on partner connection, particularly the (close) embrace maintained between partners, and upon connection with classic tango music and upon navigation are given less emphasis or possibly even ignored because these areas of emphasis are typically less interesting to naïve dancers or, in the case of the embrace, challenge students to cross boundaries of physical contact that are often taboo in First World cultures [Factors Affecting the Survival of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments (The Dominance of Tango Extranjero)]. In general, there needs to sufficient teaching competence to generate interest in continuing to purchase the product offered, i.e., to create a desire for additional tango instruction. However, modes of interaction during instruction may be designed to give tango students a sense of satisfaction more than to increase competence; e.g., students may be given praise for less than satisfactory skill development rather than being gently but firmly guided towards improvement. For the profit driven instructor, reinforcement of class attendance is a primary goal, as this will increase the probability of continued participation in classes and thereby increase instructor income. Providing a fun environment and opportunities for social interaction (not in itself an undesirable goal) may take precedence over learning. This recognizes that for many dance students their primary motivation for taking dance classes is to meet other dancers and enjoy the in-class interaction, and thus this may be a wise economic decision.

Under the Profit Model, in many if not most cases, visiting tango instructors are also invited under the sponsorship of community based instructors. Tango weekends with visiting instructors, particularly popular Argentine instructors, are an important means of generating additional income because higher prices can be charged for instruction, and as well for the milongas associated with tango weekends. Tango weekends can also be a social magnet because they attract more dancers from within and beyond the community, thereby creating a financially successful social event.

The highest development of the tango weekend is the tango festival, which can last as long as 4 or 5 days. The tango festival, by definition, has multiple instructors with name recognition, with simultaneous workshops among which tango consumers can choose, as well as multiple milongas (sometimes more than one per day). During tango festivals, one or more milongas may have ensembles playing live music, which justifies charging higher milonga admission prices (sometimes as high as $30 per milonga in the United States); attendance at milongas with live music is usually higher than at milongas with only recorded music, which makes these high income generating events. Given that tango festivals often attract dancers whose self-evaluation is that they would not benefit from participation in instructional workshops, or whose motivation for attending tango festivals is primarily social rather than instructional, independent of their level of dancing skill, increasing the cost of milonga admission (which also may be accomplished by selling milonga ‘packages’ that require a minimum expenditure for any milonga attendance) assists organizers in maximizing festival income. Also typically associated with tango festivals are additional outlets for consumer spending such as the sale of tango shoes, clothing, and jewelry and sometimes even yoga classes; these enterprises usually are subcontracted to the operators of these businesses, with additional income provided to festival organizers. The organizers of tango festivals are typically community-based tango instructors, although they need not be so. Profits for hosting tango festivals can be as high as thousands of dollars per event, and some organizers host multiple festivals each year. Long-standing examples of this approach in North America are the Portland Tango Festival and the Denver Tango Festival. In general, tango festivals are designed to attract hundreds of dancers, who each pay a significant amount of money (typically several hundred dollars) to attend. These events are supported to a significant degree by the local community of dancers and these events contribute to the recruitment and retention of the local community of dancers; however, the largest proportion of income may be derived from dancers traveling from other communities.

This consumer oriented Profit Model employs marketing strategies designed to maximize income. Typical marketing tools used include web site development, Facebook page development, gaining exposure in traditional media through interviews broadcast on television and radio, and printed in newspapers. Appearances in public giving dance exhibitions also increase the potential consumer base.

The Non-profit (Democratic) Model

This model for tango community development involves the establishment of a group organization (typically a community or university social club) that focuses on sponsoring tango activities. Group members pay dues that in part fund the activities of the organization. The organization has elected officers who share responsibilities for planning and coordination of tango activities, including invitation of instructors for classes and workshops and DJs for milongas, as well as acquiring space for hosting events. Members volunteer time in the planning and execution of tango events and typically receive a discount for their participation. Income from sponsored activities needs to meet costs, but any profit is accumulated in the group treasury and is used to plan future events; i.e., this is a non-profit organization. If income generated from hosted tango activities does not meet expenses, the loss is absorbed by the group treasury.

In its purest form of organization in the United States, these organizations are classified by the US Internal Revenue Service as 501c(7) ‘non-profit social clubs’. According to federal guidelines, club activities should be limited to members:

Membership in a social club must be limited.… Evidence that a club’s facilities will be open to the general public (persons other than members, their dependents or guests) may cause denial of exemption. This does not mean, however, that any dealing with outsiders will automatically disqualify a club from exemption.

It requires a stretch of the imagination to think that so called ‘non-profit’ tango clubs are indeed closed to outsiders because the attendance at group sponsored tango activities such as classes and milongas, which are typically open to the public, most certainly exceeds the dues paying membership of the non-profit organization.

In the Non-profit organizational model, some tango dance instruction may be by group members who do not derive income from teaching; nominal costs such as rental can be recovered through tuition and any excess income from instruction can be added to the club treasury. In some cases, events such as introductory tango lessons, informal milongas and practicas may be offered without an admission charge, particularly if there is no rental fee, such as may occur for clubs affiliated with universities or community organizations. Non-profit tango clubs may also acquire access to rent-free public space for their activities in local businesses such as bars, restaurants and coffee houses, under the implicit or explicit expectation that in doing so the businesses will increase sales of food and beverages during the time of these activities, thus making the access to these spaces temporary and conditional. Under these conditions, there may be a reduced or free admission to the tango activities.

The Non-profit organization may sponsor individuals from the community who profit from tango enterprises by hiring instructors and DJs for their tango activities. These Non-profit organizations also typically maintain a website with a calendar of events for all tango activities in the community, regardless of whether or not proceeds from the events are accrued for profit.

Examples of tango clubs in the United Stares that advertise non-profit status include the Tango Society of Boston, Tango Colorado and the Tango Society of Minnesota. There are university student tango clubs in the United States in such places as Columbia University (New York), the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and the University of Washington (Seattle).

Realized Structure of First World Tango Communities

First World tango communities typically begin with a single organizational structure, e.g., as a business enterprise run by a single instructor or instructor couple; in many cases, this occurs when an instructor of another dance (e.g., salsa) or set of dances (e.g., ballroom dances) adds Argentine Tango to an existing teaching program. In some cases, a tango community may emanate from the formation of a non-profit group (community or university organizations) led by dancers who have learned tango in other communities and wish to establish a tango community in their area of residence.

However, eventually as a tango community grows, there are individuals who wish to establish their own tango enterprises outside the existing foundation structure. Students of profit oriented instructors may wish to establish their own independent tango businesses. Members within a non-profit organizational structure may wish to establish their own profit oriented tango enterprises (instructional or social dance events). Whereas non-profit tango organizations within a community rarely split to form additional non-profit groups, motivation for profit typically leads to the formation of several tango business enterprises within a community. This is almost inevitable, in that in the United States and other First World countries, there may not exist a tango community of any significant size in which the only tango organization is non-profit tango club that relies entirely on the volunteer work of members in teaching, DJ-ing and otherwise organizing milongas and practicas.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Profit and Non-profit Models for Tango Community Organization

A local tango community cannot survive without recruitment and retention of tango dancers. By definition, tango community status is not achieved until one or more successful milongas are established. Although quality tango dancing facilitates tango community development, it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the establishment and successful continuation of a tango community. The necessary condition for a successful tango community is the establishment of an enjoyable social environment (i.e., the milonga) that reinforces tango dancing.

Tango organizers operating under the Profit Model are driven by income expectation to recruit, train, and retain tango dancers in the community; it is advantageous for their business. Presumably this motivation is highest among organizers who derive a significant proportion of their income from tango activities. Profit motivated tango instructors are inclined to concentrate their efforts more on recruiting students to classes and workshops, which provide a higher income per unit time invested than does hosting social activities. An advantage to tango community development of having profit driven instructors is that they are motivated directly by monetary rewards and they will typically expend a considerable amount of time and energy in promoting their tango enterprise. The disadvantage to the community is that the influence of community members upon the direction of community development is limited to their economic input; in essence, the dollar (or other currency) becomes the vote for the future direction of the community. Another disadvantage is that payment is expected for tango activities, thus limiting the participation of community members with limited income.

In most developing tango communities, there will arise more than one tango business enterprise. Each will compete for dancers paying for instruction in regular classes and workshops, and for milonga attendance. In this competition, it is not unusual for multiple classes and milongas to be scheduled on the same evening, and visiting instructors may arrive and leave a community in rapid succession. In large metropolitan areas, the proliferation of tango enterprises may stimulate tango community growth, but in general, even in large cities, as the number of tango businesses increases, the average attendance in classes and workshops and at milongas decreases. Some of these tango enterprises will be unsuccessful due to the inability to maintain a critical mass. This is the nature of capitalism and it is not necessarily detrimental to community growth. On the other hand, if numerous tango event organizers persist in their efforts to host events despite low attendance, the community as a whole will have a collection of tango events with low attendance, which will have a negative impact on recruitment of new dancers. Some communities have dealt with the impact of competition by having explicit or implicit agreements not to schedule classes, workshops and milongas that overlap in time with other events. In the case of large metropolitan areas, geographic separation of activities may facilitate community growth without having a negative impact on other tango enterprises. However, the greatest threat to community growth in a competitive environment occurs when the competition between tango organizers descends to the personal level, with disparaging remarks made about other organizers. This situation is common among First World tango communities. This creates an overall hostile environment that can lead to intra-community strife, and this hostility may be perceived by new dancers, who may not want to enter into a hostile social environment.

However, the main disadvantage of the Profit Model for tango community development is that the character of tango activities is influenced primarily by consumer demand, which in First World cultures typically results in teaching repertoires of steps, with conspicuous steps in high demand and, due to cultural taboos, teaching partner connection without an embrace in order to make tango more accessible and thus more marketable [Factors Affecting the Survival of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments (The Dominance of Tango Extranjero)]. Thus, the importance of partner connection through the embrace and walking, connection with the music, and navigation within the progressing ronda (The Essence of Tango Argentino), are given little instructional emphasis, and perhaps are given only lip service.

The non-profit tango club has advantages in that the absence of income maximization as a guiding principle allows the sponsoring of activities that focus on members’ needs at other levels, e.g., to have an enjoyable tango dancing experience and an enjoyable social environment. Through the democratic process, club members can provide direct input into the planning of tango activities. Their participation in planning and execution of tango events gives them a sense of ownership, which is likely to result in a continued commitment to the club and its activities. This openness to direct participation may be attractive to new members seeking a social group to which they can belong. Costs of acquiring space and paying instructors cannot be ignored, but profits are returned to the group, which results in either lower costs or more activities or both. Lower cost for events allows dancers with limited income to participate more often in tango activities.

A disadvantage of tango community development by non-profit organizations is that it requires a core group of club leaders who are motivated to promote tango without receiving monetary rewards. The democratic process of electing club officers can create some instability in community development, particularly if in a succession of officers there are contrasting personal styles and different opinions about the character of tango promoted, which may threaten group cohesiveness. Competition for political power among group members can lead to dissension and deterioration of group harmony. However, the main disadvantage of the Non-profit Model for tango community development is that in the democratic process of surveying member opinions, equal weight may be given to members with different levels of knowledge and experience regarding tango. In such circumstances the cultural integrity of Argentine Tango is likely to be compromised. For example, in an attempt to satisfy varied opinions among group members, non-tango music for dancing tango (Music Played at Milongas / Tango Social Dance Venues) may be introduced into the milonga and possibly even ‘alternative milongas’ (playing primarily non-tango music for dancing tango) may be hosted. Instructors may be invited to teach based on their popularity, so that, for example, instructors of Tango Nuevo and Stage Tango may be invited to teach, whereas instructors of Tango de Salon may be ignored. It is not unusual and perhaps even typical for non-profit tango organizations to have volunteer DJs for milongas, with varying degrees of success in creating acceptable music programs for dancing tango. (Even if DJs select music for dancing only from Golden Age tango orchestras, this does not guarantee a good selection of music. However, there is also no guarantee of acceptable music for the milonga with paid DJs.) Some non-profit groups may even organize stage shows with local amateur tango dancers (this is best left to professionals), an activity that reinforces the image of tango as a performance art in a community attempting to build a social tango program. Amateurs may also be substituted for professionals in forming tango musical ensembles for public performances; without professional training by tango musicians, this is unlikely to produce tango music suitable for dancing tango, even if the amateur musicians are competent at performing in other musical genres (e.g., classical music, rock, country and folk music); in doing so, less recorded classic tango music, the best for dancing tango socially, is played at milongas, and the quality of the milonga dancing experience is compromised. The opportunity to perform tango publically, either as dancers or musicians, may be attractive in recruiting new members, but this type of recruitment usually blurs the distinction between social and performance tango and tango music for dancing versus listening, as well as the distinction between tango and non-tango music.

Since many First World tango communities are a mix of profit and non-profit enterprises, there is the advantage of having profit-motivated instructors recruiting and training dancers and the advantage of non-profit organizations in providing a social group to which members feel an affiliation. These enterprises can work in unison to sustain the growth of a tango community. On the other hand, there is the possibility that profit-based tango instructors can parasitize non-profit tango organizations, using their labor, access to facilities, and community visibility to subsidize their profit-based enterprise. In some cases, profit-oriented instructors can create a group name for their business that resembles a non-profit organization (‘Anytown Tangueros’), which may give tango dancers a sense of belonging by participation while the organizers alone are profiting; they may even sell symbols of group membership, such as T-shirts with the group name and some art work, in order to increase their income. Cunning profit-based organizers may even use these pseudo-organizations to elicit volunteer work from ‘members’ to support their profit-making activities, perhaps offering free admission to events as a reward. In extreme cases, profit-based tango organizers may operate surreptitiously under the umbrella of non-profit organizations, installing puppet officers into the organizational structure to create for public view a façade of non-profit status and democratic organization while generating profits through the non-profit façade.

Both profit based and non-profit community based organizations are susceptible to making recruitment and retention maximization the primary operating principle, while sacrificing the maintenance of Argentine tango cultural traditions as the primary operational goal. Given this, it becomes necessary to examine an alternative model for tango community development, one based on the goal of educating tango dancers regarding Argentine tango cultural traditions, and using these traditions as guidelines for the character of tango activities.

A Cultural Model for Tango Community Development

First World tango dancers who have been exposed to Tango de Salon in the milongas of Buenos Aires are inclined to want to replicate as much as possible the cultural environment of Buenos Aires milongas when returning to their home communities. This involves playing classic tango music for dancing tango at milongas (not nuevo tango or neo-tango music) (Music Played at Milongas / Tango Social Dance Venues), maintaining good navigation in a circulating ronda, eliminating socially inappropriate spectacular and dangerous movements (such as are characteristic of Stage Tango and Tango Nuevo), and implementation of the cabeceo as the method of dance invitation. [See also: Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited).] However, not all of these core characteristics of the Buenos Aires milonga environment are attractive to culturally naïve First World tango dancers. Thus, newly recruited tango dancers, as well as tango dancers who have not been exposed to Argentine tango cultural practices, need to be trained not only in acquiring the characteristics of Tango de Salon dancing (which concentrates on partner connection, musicality, and navigation), but also need to be educated regarding Argentine tango culture – the music appropriate for dancing tango, and the protocol for partner selection; i.e., it is important to understand the cultural environment of dancing tango, not just the available possibilities for movement through space.

In evaluating the possibilities for the development of a First World tango community that has as its goal the creation of an environment that incorporates as much as possible the tango cultural practices as observed in the milongas of Buenos Aires, it is helpful to recognize the advantages and disadvantages of the commonly adopted aforementioned Profit and Non-profit models for tango community development. The primary disadvantage of both models as presented above is that community growth is given priority over maintaining the cultural integrity of tango such that, as a result, tango becomes culturally adapted to First World environments, thereby losing many elements of its Argentine character. Nevertheless, there are characteristics of both models that can have a positive impact on tango community development.

In order to reinforce the connection with Argentine tango culture, it is important for dancers in a community to feel a connection with a social group that engages in tango activities that incorporate practices associated with this culture. Under the Non-profit Model for a tango community, there is an organizational structure that incorporates democratic principles of operation, which functions in part to give group members a sense of belonging to the group. The problem with democratic election of officers to represent group policy for tango organizations is not in the democracy itself, but rather in the lack of adherence to governing principles regarding policy formation. A democratically run non-profit tango organization is capable of promoting Argentine tango culture, instead of adapting tango to First World culture, if the group is committed in its organizational documents (i.e., constitution) to sustain and promote Argentine tango culture.

One means of implementing this culturally based democratic (possibly non-profit) model in a tango community is to institute a training period consisting of instruction in the characteristics of Tango de Salon as well as formal provision of information on Argentine tango culture, as mentioned above. Cultural education can be accomplished within the structure of dance classes, but focused instruction on the history and culture of tango dancing and music in a sedentary setting (e.g., classroom), including audio and video presentations, may be more effective in communicating the importance of learning about Argentine culture while learning to dance tango. Competence in dancing tango would be improved by participation in practicas with instructor guidance. It is important that these practicas have a social element that includes interaction with current group members both off and on the dance floor. Serving refreshments of food and beverages can enhance the social atmosphere. (The beverages should be non-alcoholic to maintain the educational atmosphere.) Upon achieving a level of dance competence appropriate for participation in a milonga, new dancers would be invited to attend the milonga sponsored by the group. This protocol is not unlike the training of young men in practicas before their participation in milongas that existed in the Golden Age of tango in Buenos Aires (See: The Tango Practica, the Practica Nueva and the Tango Dance Party in Buenos Aires). Incorporating this practice of training before achieving membership in contemporary First World cultures may be challenging in that it may given the impression of having an exclusionary group structure, which is contrary to the predominant political principles accepted in First World cultures. However, if participation in the educational process is a fun and rewarding experience, including interaction with current group members, then the transition to the milonga will be seen as a step in the process rather than as a prohibitive barrier.

Although there are obvious advantages in developing a tango community around a democratically based organization that adheres to basic principles supporting the maintenance of traditional Argentine tango culture, the advantages of incorporating profit motivated organizers into a developing tango community cannot be overlooked. Within a culturally based tango organization, it will often be advantageous to community development to provide monetary reward to individuals who have good skills in organizing milongas, i.e., providing basic management in acquiring space and hosting the event, as well as providing music for dancing. In some cases, there may be individuals within the tango club who have the knowledge and skills to teach tango dancing, at least at the beginner level. The advantage of paying group members to fill these positions is that in their group membership they have agreed to abide by the principles of providing a culturally valid tango experience. (Paying group members to perform organizing and teaching functions may disqualify these clubs from achieving tax-free status as a non-profit organization, so this needs to be taken into account if group income does not meet expenses.) However, it may often be advantageous to recruit profit-motivated instructors and milonga DJs from outside the cultural organization, provided these instructors teach a valid form of Tango de Salon and the DJs play classic tango music appropriate for the milonga. The advantage of hiring instructors who make a living from teaching tango is that they have experience in teaching and presumably their continued participation in teaching indicates they are successful in teaching tango dance skills. The power of a tango organization is that it can promise income to instructors through its membership, as well as motivate instructors to teach milonga appropriate tango dancing skills.

It is also possible that a First World tango community can develop along culturally valid lines while being led by a professional profit-motivated tango instructor who operates independently of a democratically based tango organization. The advantage of this top-down management is that the instructor can have direct and immediate control over the course of community development. The instructor would need to be educated in Argentine tango culture. Many Argentines may fit this requirement, but not all Argentines promote their own tango culture (or even have intimate knowledge of it), seeing greater profit potential in teaching a culturally modified version of tango palatable to First World dancers [Factors Affecting the Survival of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments (The Dominance of Tango Extranjero)]. Nevertheless, assuming some tango instructors exist who fit this requirement, they can create a business enterprise that teaches Tango de Salon and hosts milongas with Argentine tango cultural practices [See: Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)]. Often tango entrepreneurs can be successful in creating and sustaining a tango community not only because they are motivated by potential income, but also because their knowledge and experience gives them the skills to run the enterprise successfully. One possibility may be to run the business as an ‘academy’ in which students learn milonga appropriate Tango de Salon and tango history and culture as part of the curriculum, and to host practicas and milongas for students of the academy. A tango business restricting milonga attendance to those who have successfully completed a curriculum is likely to be perceived less negatively in First World culture than a democratically based organization implementing the same policy.

A challenge to a tango business enterprise in developing a tango community may be to provide participants with a sense of belonging to a group. However, in First World cultures it is common for dancers to be supportive of social dance business enterprises and feel a sense of belonging to the social group that forms around it. (Ballroom dance businesses may achieve this.) What needs to be provided to participants is an attractive positive social atmosphere. Education in tango culture and common acceptance of its values can also provide a sense of unity to a social group.

However, the greatest challenge to developing a culturally valid tango organization in any community is the prevalence of existing tango enterprises (usually profit based or dependent) that neglect making the distinction between milonga appropriate and inappropriate tango dancing and music. These enterprises often misrepresent tango to the naïve public (sometimes even while claiming to promote ‘traditional tango’), such that tango organizations that promote a version of tango based closely on Argentine tango cultural practices fight an uphill battle against public opinion that is shaped by First World cultural tastes. The One Tango Philosophy, a successful marketing tool, has been particularly influential in deceiving tango dancers that Tango Nuevo and Stage Tango are appropriate styles of dancing to share the pista of the milonga with Tango de Salon (Is Tango Nueveo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?). Thus, the cultural educational process in a culturally-based tango organization is important in counteracting these misperceptions.

Nevertheless, despite the shortcomings of both business oriented and democratically based approaches to tango community development, each community development model has positive aspects that can facilitate the creation of an environment in which culturally valid tango practices are incorporated. Which is better for a particular community depends largely upon the individuals involved in creating and managing the tango enterprise. Future posts will examine in greater detail some of the issues and strategies involved in developing a community of dancers who follow Argentine tango cultural practices.


15 Responses to Strategies for Tango Community Development: Profit and Non-Profit Models and the Perspective of Maintaining the Cultural Integrity of Tango

  1. jantango says:

    Happy 5th anniversary.

    • tangovoice says:

      The support for this blog is appreciated. Whether there is a cause for celebration 5 years after the initiation of this blog is uncertain. In the last 5 years certain aspects of tango in North America (and presumably in the First World in general) have improved and certain things have gotten worse. The music played at milongas has improved somewhat, with fewer alternative milongas and less non-tango music played for dancing tango. It is not unusual in 2014 to attend a milonga and all of the music played for dancing tango is music from the Golden Age. (However, the selection of music from the Golden Age orchestras still needs some improvement.) The cabeceo appears to be more widely understood and used for dance invitation. It is also apparent that Tango Nuevo is on the decline in both teaching and dancing at the milongas. However, there is still too much ‘dancing steps’ rather then ‘dancing to the music’ and many women still fail to keep their feet on the floor. The embrace still seems to be optional, certainly in teaching, but also in dancing at the milongas. Perhaps these aspects of dancing tango will also change over time. However, the greatest obstacle to the cultural transmission of Argentine Tango is the One Tango Philosophy, which markets all tango (salon, stage, and nuevo) as appropriate for the milonga. Time will tell if First World tango assimilates Argentine Tango or replicates early 20th century tango evolution by accepting Tango Extranjero as the predominant version of tango.

      • Chris, UK says:

        I’m surprised you view the reduction in the number of alternative event as an improvement. Here in the UK the number has risen over this period and I believe this has increased the standard of music and dancing at mainstream milongas. The more alternatives to mainstream milongas we have, the more people who don’t like the mainstream will stay away from them. That’s good for everyone.

      • tangovoice says:

        A well designed survey would be needed to determine definitively whether alternative milongas and playing non-tango music for dancing tango are increasing or decreasing in First World countries. Results undoubtedly vary with location. Subjectively, it appears that in North America more classic music is being played for dancing tango at milongas.

  2. John Morton says:

    You can call me pedantic if you like but dancing to non-tango music is not dancing tango. However tango-y (yuk) it looks like, the music you hear (and should dance to) doesn’t sound like tango.

    And do bear in mind that milongas in Buenos Aires play non-tango music tandas – rock, jazz, tropical including cumbia, and paso-doble, all of which can be and are danced in varous ways including in an (close) embrace.

    Argentines call that dancing whatever the music is, not dancing tango. And that applies to many foreign women including those regular visitors (and residents) from North America. The same applies to Vals and Milonga. Despite an embrace that is closer and more permanent than often found abroad, the feel of each dance for both both partners is quite different, or at least it is if you are genuinely dancing the music.

    • tangovoice says:

      Yes, dancing to non-tango music is not dancing tango. The music defines the dance, not the steps.

      There are several important points here:
      – In Buenos Aires milongas, the music played for dancing tango is almost always the classic tango music from (approximately) 1930 – 1955. Not played is the music of Piazzolla or even Pugliese or other tango orchestras after the Golden Age.
      – One does not hear so-called ‘neo-tango’ music such as ‘electro-tango’, except perhaps occasionally as a cortina.
      – Non-tango music is played regularly, but not for dancing tango. This includes jazz, rock ‘n roll, tropical (mostly cumbia, but also merengue and occasionally salsa), paso doble, and chacarera. The dancing done to these types of music does not resemble tango movements, with one exception; it is not unusual for dancers to use movements characteristic of milonga when paso doble music is played.

      • John Morton says:

        Broadly I agree but, as in your earlier comment, when writing about “tango movements” you are visually looking at the dance from the outside whereas I am on the inside. I suppose that it’s a rather inadequate explanation or comparison but words often are inadequate to express dance and what we actually feel.

        I once danced paso-doble with a Buenos Aires resident from New York and in some amazement she asked where I had learned to dance it. Clearly she felt she was dancing the music. I hadn’t learned it anywhere except for listening and dancing. What it looked like was unimportant, but what it felt like was very important. You cannot tell by looking, you have to dance it.

      • tangovoice says:

        Perhaps this is not what was intended in these comments, but there is a slippery slope in defining a dance subjectively. One might use some movements that disrupt the ronda, break partner connection, or are disconnected from the music and claim that ‘this is tango’ because ‘it feels like tango’. Not all tango dancers would agree. Tango dancing has certain rules. In addition, in Tango de Salon, although there are simple movements that comprise most of the dance, such as walking and changing direction, there are also some movements characteristically used when dancing to tango music and they are more or less unique to tango. Some of these movements have been named, such as: cruzada, ocho adelante, ocho atras, ocho cortado, giro, baldosa, vai-ven. Thus, tango dancing is defined by the music, but it is recognized by its movements as well.

  3. John Morton says:

    Mind your feet on your slippery slope!

    Talking about feeling or looking like tango is my objection. The dance comes from the music and the embrace of two people rather than any specific notion of what is tango. You can dance tango music without any pre-conception or use of so-called tango movement, it still is tango.

    “. . . . Tango dancing has certain rules. . . .”

    It has codes (codigos) which are more like dance etiquette. The dance is defined by an embrace, my partner, the music and co-existence with the conditions on the floor.

    “In addition, in Tango de Salon . . . movements . . more or less unique to tango.”

    Tango de Salon was originally used as a catchall for any dance of tango music in a salon de baile (dance hall), but times have changed.

    Further down your slippery slope you have now fallen over yourself!
    Naming “moves” was not by social dancers but by choreographers including the Nuevo Three. In the absence of explanations from milongueros about what they did (because they didn’t think about it) they invented the names. The worst was probably the ocho cortado – it is not a cut ocho – of which at least one of them has admitted their error and that they failed to capture the essence of tango.

    • tangovoice says:

      Regardless of who named certain tango movements, whether the names commonly used are appropriate or not, whether they were named and/or used by milongueros, and whether or not these movement are overused, the fact is that there are certain movements that are unique to tango and that they have been named, and this does not diminish their legitimacy, even if one need not use any of these movements to be dancing tango. Naming tango movements provides clarity and efficiency in communication. Regarding the essence of tango, see

  4. Anonymous says:

    You haven’t addressed what happens to a US tango community after a celebrity Argentine tango couple move there, take over everybody’s business, and then, perhaps move somewhere else after it’s clear they’re not making enough profit.

  5. Lioudmila Alexeenko says:

    What is tango milongero and how is it different from tango salon?

    • tangovoice says:

      Tango de Salon is the tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. It can be classified into two somewhat distinct stylistic variants – Tango Estilo Milonguero (or Tango Estilo del Centro), that originated in downtown milongas in Buenos Aires during the late 1940s, and Tango Estilo del Barrio, that originated in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires somewhat earlier. The most conspicuous difference between them is that in Tango Estilo Milonguero the embrace is maintained throughout the dance whereas in Tango Estilo del Barrio, the embrace is opened for ochos and turns. Tango Estilo MIlonguero tends to be more rhythmic and tends to use embellishments sparingly. Otherwise, both stylistic variants structure the dance around the music and movements are made in order to progress in the line of dance. For a more complete account of the similarities and differences between these stylistic variants, see Tango de Salon: the Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’).

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