Tango Community Growth and Development: Tango Sociology, Politics, and Economics

 

  • A tango community is a geographically based voluntary association of tango dancers that exists for the purpose of hosting regularly scheduled tango social dance events, i.e., milongas.
  • A tango community has a social, political, and economic structure. It exists independently of other social dance communities and therefore is not subordinate to or a cohort within another social organization.
    • The best measure of tango community size is the total attendance over all milongas in a specified time interval. This is an important, but not the only indicator of community health.
    • Instruction in tango dancing is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for the existence of a tango community, but some mechanism for acquisition of tango dancing skills, whether in the home community or elsewhere, is required for dancers to function on the social dance floor. Nevertheless, in North America it is rare for a tango community to exist without resident tango instructors, who play a critical role in the recruitment of new members and the development of the community.
  • There are two primary means by which tango communities have originated in North America.
    • Many tango communities originate from within other social dance communities, most often salsa or ballroom dance communities.
      • Instruction in Argentine Tango is initiated within an existing social dance curriculum. If interest exists, music for dancing Argentine Tango is added to social dances, but social dances for which tango music forms the majority of the music program are rarely originated within this environment.
      • The advantage of this Internal Origin of a tango community is that a population of experienced social dancers exists from which tango dancers can be recruited. The infrastructure (facilities and management) needed for development of a group of tango dancers is provided by the larger community, but opportunities for development of an independent tango instructional and social dance program are limited.
    • Some tango communities originate independently of an existing social dance community, for example, by an instructor initiating tango classes in a supportive environment that can provide free or low cost space and some degree of free advertising, such as a community center or university.
      • The advantage of this External Origin of a tango community is that the supporting organization exercises little control over the course of development of tango activities. It is usually easier to initiate tango social dance events within this environment that has less administrative control. The disadvantage of this method is that it is usually more difficult to recruit dancers to build a tango community.
    • As defined here, a tango community is only established when regularly scheduled tango social dance events are organized. This is labeled here as the Foundation Stage.
      • During the Foundation Stage, there is almost always only one tango instructor (or instructor couple) who organizes classes and social dance events.
      • Additional common characteristics of tango communities during the Foundation Stage are small community size, low dance skill level, and classes undifferentiated by skill level. There is usually a high level of enthusiasm for tango among community members. Considerable effort is expended towards recruitment of new dancers. There is usually an egalitarian social structure below the level of the instructors, with most dancers dancing with many other community members at social dance events.
      • Social dance events may be somewhat unstructured, without music played in tandas with cortinas, and tolerance of teaching on the social dance floor. Dance invitation is by Direct Approach to the table.
      • During the Foundation Stage, tango communities may fail due to the inability to recruit and retain a sufficient number of dancers.
    • If recruitment and retention of dancers is successful, at some point tango communities advance to the Diversification Stage.
      • The range of tango activities grows rapidly during the Diversification Stage.
      • The Diversification Stage is characterized by an increasing range of dancing skills. This is accompanied by instructors offering a wider range of classes and workshops at different skill levels.
      • Often additional tango instructors offer classes and additional organizers host milongas during this stage; i.e., there are multiple leaders to develop the direction of community development. Nonprofit Tango Societies may also form during this stage of development.
      • Tango social dance events during this stage develop more formal characteristics such as playing Classic Tango music for dancing tango, organized into tandas with cortinas, with dancers leaving the dance floor during the cortina and forming new partnerships in a subsequent tanda.
      • During this stage dancers develop preferences for partners at milongas based on skill level, familiarity, age, and instructor identification. These partner preferences may lead to some dancers feeling peripheralized and therefore lose interest in tango.
      • During the Diversification Stage, most dancers become more interested in their own social dancing than in recruitment and retention of new dancers, leaving these concerns primarily with the community leaders.
      • As more instructional options become available, dancers become more selective in their participation in classes and workshops, with some dancers no longer seeking instruction locally, or even at all.
      • As tango dance skills increase, more dancers travel to other tango communities for instruction and socializing, and thereby become exposed to a greater diversity of opinions regarding expression of tango, in particular musical preferences and styles of dancing.
      • One critical consequence of community diversification is that some dancers do not feel integrated into the community and leave, so retention of dancers may become a problem during this stage.
    • After diversification, some tango communities enter a Period of Stability, an extended period where community size and membership remains relatively constant. Community size and diversity of activities may be smaller than during the Diversification Stage because there may have been an unsustainable overexpansion during diversification.
    • Community stability may be threatened by any of a number of factors either external or internal to the community.
      • Demographic factors causing a decrease in community size include dancers leaving the community due to changes in employment, education, or family responsibilities.
      • Community size can also be impacted negatively by local and widespread economic conditions.
      • Factors internal to a tango community that can cause decreased participation of members in community events include competitiveness, eliteness, and marginalization of dancers.
      • Segregation of dancers into subgroups is harmful to community unity and, as a consequence, community size. This segregation includes the formation of socially privileged cliques, as well the development of competing factions. Community fractionalization can be difficult to repair if divisions are based on philosophical differences such as music appropriate for dancing or whether or not certain styles of dancing are appropriate for the social dance floor.
      • Inability to counteract forces decreasing community size can lead to tango community decline.
    • A Period of Decline may occur in a tango community when milonga attendance decreases and this leads to decreased enthusiasm and further decreased participation in community events. Decreased community enthusiasm has a negative impact on recruitment and retention of new dancers.
    • Maintaining a healthy tango community with a relatively constant size and membership requires creating an atmosphere where all dancers feel welcome in the community and have an enjoyable social dance experience.
    • Statement of the factors promoting and detracting from tango community growth and development identifies the challenges faced in the creation of a Traditional Tango community, because Traditional Tango culture expects adherence to certain codes and customs that not all dancers may agree to, as well as allowing the formation of a social hierarchy in the milonga by supporting free choice in partner selection.

 

There are numerous tango communities worldwide, varying in size, duration of existence, number of resident instructors, quality of dancing, and number of milongas, among other things. These tango communities are in different stages of development, from recently established communities primarily concerned with recruitment of new members, to well established communities with regular events, to communities decreasing in size, perhaps in danger of extinction.

A previous post has examined the organization of tango communities according to a profit (business) versus non-profit (democratic) model, with a focus on promoting and retaining Traditional Tango culture (Strategies for Tango Community Development: Profit and Non-Profit Models and the Perspective of Maintaining the Cultural Integrity of Tango). This post examines in general the characteristics of tango communities in different stages of development, as well as the factors affecting transition between these stages, with an emphasis on those factors that lead to tango community growth and stability. Personal knowledge of North American tango communities and, to a limited degree, the Buenos Aires tango community, is used as the basis for causal inferences. The implications for the establishment and maintenance of Traditional Tango communities, particularly the paradoxes these conclusions raise, are identified. Strategies for dealing with these contradictions are addressed in a subsequent post.

 

Definition of Community

In order to identify the realm within which the phenomena discussed here exist, it is necessary to define the term ‘community’ and identify the parameters for assessing its status.

A tango community is a social unit comprised of tango dancers who voluntarily associate with the community. As a social unit, there are social dance events that occur on a regular basis. These social dance events need not be advertised or identifiable as ‘milongas’ [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)], although this is usually the case. In these social dance events the focus is on tango dancing, i.e., the majority of the music program is designed for dancing tango, and dancers attend these events for the purpose of dancing tango (even if music is played for other dances); the inclusion of tango music for dancing within a social dance event where the majority of music played for dancing is not tango music is not a tango social dance event [e.g., ‘el baile’ in Buenos Aires, Tropical Latin dance including some tango music]. The music played for dancing tango need not be Classic Tango music; what matters is that in the minds of the dancers, they are dancing to music they consider to be tango music, or that they are dancing tango to the music played. [For an alternative perspective, see Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)].

Community size is an objective measure of community health, although other subjective measures can be revealing prognostic indicators of community development. Because a tango community is a voluntary social aggregation of tango dancers, the most direct and objective measure of community health is attendance at tango social dance events (i.e., milongas). What is important in evaluating community status is total attendance, summed over all milongas, during a specified time interval (e.g., one year). However, it is the stability of attendance, rather than the actual number, that is the best measure of community health, because communities differ in size. Likewise, there is no specific number of dancers required for a tango community to exist, although a sufficient number must attend social dance events regularly (a critical size) for them to be successful financially and socially.

Instruction in tango dancing is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for the existence of a tango community. Dancers could have learned their dance skills elsewhere. In addition, participation in tango instructional activities (classes, workshops, practicas) is not a direct measure of tango community health, although it may be a correlate. Nevertheless, tango instruction is almost inevitably present in a tango community because dancers need to have a means of acquiring tango dance skills. Tango instruction is the gateway for recruitment of new community members. Dance instruction need not be formal, as was the situation for the tango dancers in Buenos Aires in its earliest days of existence (circa 1900).

A tango community is not a loose association of dancers; it has a social, political, and economic structure. There is almost always an identifiable leader, a set of leaders working together, or several leaders with individual initiatives who create events, drive energy in the community, and manage the economic activity surrounding community events. The remaining members of the community take direction from the community leader(s). There is also a social cohesiveness among followers in the community in that they interact with each other in a (more or less) amicable manner as they take direction from the community leader(s).

A tango community is an independent association of tango dancers; it is not subordinate to or a subset of another social dance community. It almost always has its own independent political and economic structure, certainly at the level of interaction between community members and their leader(s). It usually has its own space (facilities for instruction and social events), although it may share space with other dance communities and certainly with other social organizations, e.g., as in a community center.

Obviously, a tango community is a geographically based association of tango dancers, wherein contact between members of the community is significantly greater than contact between members of other communities. It is possible to have distinct aggregations of dancers in areas that overlap geographically yet do not interact to a significant degree, or only to a limited degree; these will be referred to here as “subcommunities”, due to the existence of the potential for interaction due to geographic proximity. This separation exists in contemporary Buenos Aires where tango subcommunities are segregated by age and, to some degree, by adherence (or lack thereof) to specific aspects of tango culture, e.g., as contrasted by Traditional Milongas with gender defined lead and follow roles and gender segregated seating versus the Tango Queer community that practices flexibility in gender based partner role selection. In large First World tango communities, a Traditional Tango versus Nuevo Tango / Neotango subcommunity segregation (or partial segregation) also may exist. Designation of a subcommunity implies a degree of cohesivenss and allegiance that aids in subcommunity persistence, with the recognition that geographic overlap allows some degree of interaction between subcommunities that can challenge their integrity and even existence.

 

The Origins of Tango Communities

Contemporary tango communities usually evolve by a gradual process. Prior to the development of a social structure that is identifiable as a community, an environment previously unexposed to tango is seeded with the concept of tango dancing, followed by a developmental period which may or may not lead to the birth of a tango community. There are several ways in which the origins of a tango community can be seeded.

In the first case (Internal Origin), the idea of tango dancing originates within an existing dance community (most commonly within a ballroom dance or salsa or salsa/swing dance environment), commonly due to the economic motivation of a proprietor of a social dance enterprise. A social dance instructor may visit a tango instructor in another community or even invite a tango instructor to the local community (typically with accompanying workshops) to learn Argentine Tango. Argentine Tango classes are then added to the existing instructional curriculum of the social dance enterprise. The advantage of Internal Origin is that a population of social dancers is readily available for recruitment to tango dancing. However, within this environment tango dancing usually does not acquire an independent identity (i.e., have separate social dance events), at least at first. If tango instruction is well received, Argentine Tango music played for dancing may be added to existing social dance events, interspersed among the music selections designed for the social dances that are the predominant focus of instruction within this enterprise. In some cases, depending upon the interest of the instructors, a set of Argentine Tango activities may develop, including tango practice sessions and sometimes even tango-specific social dance events (perhaps even labeled as ‘milongas’), although these are usually rare, at least at first. The development of a tango community from within another social dance community is facilitated if there exists a dance instructor whose primary interest is in tango dancing and instruction. In some cases, a dance instructor with tango teaching experience may move into a tango naïve community (often due to circumstances other than the desire to teach tango, e.g., daytime employment or university studies or even relocation due to retirement) and associate with an existing social dance enterprise, either by renting space from a dance studio, or by becoming an officially recognized member of the instructional team at the dance studio.

In the second case (External Origin), the seed of tango dancing is planted by someone desiring to create a tango community independent of an existing dance community, whether or not another (appropriate) social dance community exists locally. This person (or persons) could be an existing tango instructor who has moved into a community, or someone who is not a dance instructor who has learned tango dancing in another community and may either begin to teach tango or invite a visiting instructor to teach, or both. Recruitment is usually more difficult under these conditions because there may not exist a population readily available as a source for recruitment. The financial challenges are also greater under these conditions because space for instruction usually needs to be found and rented. These conditions can be ameliorated somewhat by association with an existing organization where facilities for instruction are readily available, such as a community center or a university. A community center has certain advantages in that it may offer free space (with the consequence of reduced remuneration) and online or printed advertising of classes that assist in attracting students to tango classes; however, efforts along these lines may fail, in part because tango instruction under these circumstances is competing with fitness classes, hobby pursuits, etc. Teaching under the umbrella of a university (e.g., extracurricular courses) usually has the advantage of having a large population of students (and some faculty and staff) available for recruitment, but without necessarily providing advertising for the tango instructional program under the auspices of the university, although formation of student or university-wide social clubs may assist in gaining access to some degree of advertising. In any case, in promoting a tango enterprise of External Origin, supplementary advertisement through independent websites and social media such as Facebook may be necessary to improve recruitment.

A Hybrid Origin may occur if, for example, a tango enterprise is initiated within a larger community organization where there are existing social dance enterprises; e.g., tango classes could be added to a program at a community center already including ballroom dance, salsa or swing classes. Under these conditions, tango students could be recruited from the population of dancers who have learned other dances, without the overall administration being a social dance enterprise that would favor the existing dance program.

Initiation of a tango dance instructional program provides the opportunity for recruitment of dancers for social tango dance events, but the instructor and students in an instructional program do not by themselves constitute a community, as defined here. Often lacking in a dance instructional program is a level of social interaction among the participants that provides cohesiveness and persistence to their association, as well as a sense of belonging to a social unit. The focus of interaction is between instructor(s) and students, with brief interaction between students, and any interaction that exists is dyadic rather than as a group. There may be more interaction among students if they already know each other, which is more likely if the tango instruction is embedded within a larger social dance community, but this interaction rarely creates a sense of identity as tango dancers, much less as being part of a community of tango dancers. Cohesiveness and identification with a tango dance community develops with the initiation of tango social dance events. Preliminary tango community building may arise in the form of tango students, perhaps at the encouragement and/or accompaniment of the instructor(s), going as a group to socialize after tango class, e.g., to have pizza or to a bar, but this is not a tango social dance event, even if lays the foundation of social identification with a tango oriented group.

The duration of this pre-community Origin Period could be as brief as a single workshop that was poorly attended, but even with some degree of maintained instructional success, it normally takes 6 months to 2 years before regularly scheduled tango social events occur, thereby assuring the establishment of a tango community as defined here. It is not known what the success rate of transition from seeding to the establishment of a tango community is. Offering of classes in Argentine Tango within, for example, a ballroom dance studio, without the creation of specific and regular tango social dance events, can continue indefinitely, or at least as long as there are enough students willing to take these courses.

Failure to establish a tango instructional program from which a tango community may develop is due to the inability to recruit and retain a sufficient number of tango dance students. This failure may be due to a low population density in the local area, poor advertising, ineffective teaching, or nonreceptivity to tango dancing in the local community, i.e., its local culture. Obstacles to recruiting a tango student population also include absence of a local social dance community, area residents lacking disposable income, and the presence of religious prohibitions against social dancing in general, or a religious based reluctance to engage in tango dancing based on its perceived sensuality. Therefore, the most fertile ground for planting the seed of tango dancing is a geographic area that is urban, suburban or a university community, having a significant proportion of the population that is middle class or higher in socioeconomic status, religiously liberal or moderate, and currently supporting a social dance community.

 

Stages of Tango Community Development

As outlined here, there are four identifiable developmental stages through which tango communities may pass during their lifespan. Not all communities experience all four stages. These stages are not discrete (i.e., some characteristics of each stage may appear before others), nor are they necessarily realized in full (i.e., not all characteristics of each stage become manifest in all tango communities). Nevertheless, specification of these stages of community development can identify some of the markers of success and the challenges facing tango communities, particularly with respect to their growth and survival.

 

Stage One: Foundation

A tango community is born when a regular schedule of successfully attended tango social events is established. Practicas held after a regularly scheduled class, with opportunities to socialize, can be effective in creating social bonds, especially if food and beverages are provided as a catalyst for socializing; however, this is not in itself a marker of community development that has advanced to the Foundation Stage. Eventually the benchmark of community existence, the hosting of tango social dance events on a regular basis, independent of instruction, may be reached.

If the origins of a tango community are within an existing dance community (Internal Origin), in order to determine its own destiny the tango enterprise needs to develop its own identity, with members whose sole or primary dance interest is tango. Usually a salsa or ballroom dance enterprise has its own priorities and is unlikely to support tango social dance events to the extent that a separate identifiable tango community can coexist within its boundaries. Therefore, although an existing social dance community may serve as fertile ground onto which a tango seed is planted, and an embryonic tango community can be nurtured within this environment that provides financial and facility support, for continued growth of the tango community this umbilical cord to the supportive social dance community almost always needs to be severed and a separate organization with its own administration and its own space needs to be developed. (A notable exception to this pathway to independence was the former Dance Manhattan in New York City, where a vibrant tango community with milongas existed for more than 2 decades inside the larger structure of a more inclusive social dance community.) A movement toward independence outside the origin social dance community may be as simple as a tango organizer establishing a tango social dance event outside the administration of the origin social dance community, or an orgnizer may be more enterprising in establishing an independent tango instructional program, whether by direct instruction or by inviting visiting instructors, with the concurrent or future establishment of an independent regularly occurring tango social dance event.

Tango entrepreneurs who originate a tango instructional program outside of an existing dance community (External Origin), e.g., at a university or community center, despite possibly facing greater challenges in recruiting tango students, may have an advantage in establishing an independent social dance community due to having the space and administrative resources necessary for independent operation more readily available.

One nearly universal characteristic of Foundation Stage tango communities is the presence of a single leader (or leader couple) that plans, organizes, and directs tango related events, including regular classes, social events, invitation of visiting instructors, and perhaps even travel to nearby communities. This is manageable for one person or couple because at this stage community size is small. The remainder of the community of dancers usually retains a non-hierarchical social and political structure, with attention for guidance focused on the community leader(s). Although Foundation tango communities are almost always led by an instructor or instructor couple, a feeling by dancers of membership in the community, something achieved through active participation and contribution to the development of the community, increases the probability of successful establishment and growth of a tango community.

With respect to tango dancing and its social environment, Foundation Stage communities have certain characteristics in common. Community size is small; even a group of 15-20 dancers dancing tango socially on a regular basis can comprise a Foundation Stage community initially. The average dancing skill level is almost always low. (Skill level may progress faster if the community is built out of an existing social dance community.) Community energy is directed towards recruitment and teaching; social dance events (particularly an event that can be advertised as a ‘milonga’) are a lower priority. When tango social dance events are hosted, they usually focus on teaching beginner level lessons, used for the purposes of recruitment, and some degree of informal teaching typically extends into the social dance period, onto the social dance floor. A considerable amount of effort often is directed towards making newcomers feel socially comfortable in the tango environment.

In Foundation tango communities, traditional milonga customs (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics) are unlikely to be practiced. Music selected for dancing may not be all or even mainly Classic Tango music (Music Played at Milongas / Tango Social Dance Venues), and this music may not be organized into tandas with cortinas. Dancers usually do not embrace while dancing. A circulating ronda may not be clearly established. Teaching on the dance floor is likely to be tolerated. It is highly unlikely that the cabeceo (Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Milongas in Buenos Aires and Elsewhere in the World) is used at all as a method of dance invitation. Social dance events usually resemble practicas, not milongas in the traditional sense.

Despite the naïveté of most of the dancers in a Foundation Stage tango community, there is often a great deal of enthusiasm about this tango that is only partially understood. In fact, this enthusiasm is necessary for the growth and development of a tango community beyond the Foundation Stage. There is typically a desire for learning, an excitement about recruitment, and an attitude of openness and acceptance towards other group members. Most dancers dance with other members of the community regardless of skill level, or perhaps because there is little variation in skill level. Absence of these desirable characteristics is likely to doom a Foundation Stage tango community to early extinction.

There are numerous requirements for success in the establishment and maintenance of an independent tango community. Functional dance space in an accessible location must be acquired for instruction and hosting social dances. Advertising, whether by printed material, internet placement, or word of mouth, needs to attract students. Recruitment and retention of new dancers both need to be successful; an equal or nearly equal number of men and women needs to be recruited and retained. Tango instruction needs to be effective in producing acceptable social tango dance skills, for both men and women. Social dance events need to be enjoyable for all attendees, which means that all attendees are able to dance and are comfortable with their partners. Dancers need to develop a sense of belonging to the community; competitiveness and strife among dancers and the perception of a hierarchical structure of status and influence [beyond the recognized leader(s)] can create a sense of alienation of dancers from the community. Failure to achieve one or more of the favorable characteristics outlined here could lead a Foundation tango community to an early demise, or perhaps a prolonged inability to advance to the next stage of tango community development.

 

Stage Two. Diversification

Once a tango community has established itself as an independent entity in the Foundation Stage, if successful it grows in size by continued recruitment and retention of dancers. At some point the community begins to diversify along several dimensions.

As tango dancers gain experience, some dancers improve their dance skills faster than others, so that there develops a range of dance abilities. The Foundation instructors respond to this diversification of dance skills by offering classes at multiple levels, either by themselves and/or by inviting visiting instructors (who may be mentors for the Foundation instructors) to do likewise. In some cases the Foundation instructors may enlist more advanced dancers as instructional assistants for beginner level students and, if the demand is great enough, deputize one or more of them to teach the Foundation instructor’s curriculum (typically at the beginner level, perhaps adding classes, sometimes even at new locations, to increase recruitment opportunities).

As dance skills improve, there also is an increased demand for more formalized tango social events, and the first social dances that have some characteristics of milongas (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics) typically appear. Music selected for dancing begins to consist mostly or entirely of Classic Tango music (Music Played at Milongas / Tango Social Dance Venues), and it is more likely this music will be organized into tandas with cortinas. In the overwhelming majority of cases, couples will leave the floor during the cortina and new partnerships will form with a new tanda. As teaching on the dance floor diminishes and may be frowned upon, these social dance events advertised as milongas will be differentiated from practicas, which lack the aforementioned characteristics. However, the use of the cabeceo (Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Milongas in Buenos Aires and Elsewhere in the World) as a means of dance invitation usually is still absent from milongas at this stage of community development. Embracing one’s partner while dancing may appear during the Diversification Stage, depending on the type of instruction given to dancers.

As a tango community grows in size and diversifies in dance abilities, it becomes almost inevitable that other tango dance instructors and event organizers will arise from within the community, adding additional tango instructional programs and social dance events. (In some cases, new tango instructors will appear as a result of their moving into the community.) The secondary instructors and organizers may initiate their operations solely out of enthusiasm to contribute to community growth, or a desire to create a dance environment with their own preferences (e.g., instructional curriculum, music played for dancing, floor and lighting characteristics, food and beverage preferences), or perhaps embark on their enterprise anticipating economic or social status benefits. In some communities, particularly larger ones, tango festivals (i.e., with multiple visiting instructors and milongas) will be organized.

In some cases, the characteristics of dancers who associate with different tango events may differ, e.g., there may occur some degree of segregation of dancers based on age, depending on the age of the organizers or the environment in which events are held (e.g., casual vs. more formal environment). Therefore, in contrast to the Foundation Stage, where there is a single leader who is the focus of community attention for guidance, in the Diversification Stage a multifocal social attention structure usually arises in the tango community.

An alternative sociopolitical structure that may develop in the Diversification Stage is the Tango Society, usually a nonprofit [501(c)3] organization with a rotating elected or appointed board of officers (e.g., Austin TX; Boston; Minnesota; Madison WI). These Tango Societies appear to be designed to promote all tango activities within a community, including the activities organized by the Tango Society, creating an impression of community cooperation. To some degree this type of organization may reduce the competition for attention and direction that individual organizers attempt to impose on the community, although the impact of a Tango Society varies across communities, depending in part upon the degree of influence it exerts in favor of its own activities.

As the community social and political structure becomes diversified, the pattern of mostly nondiscriminatory partner preference characteristic of the Foundation Stage typically evolves into a partner preference pattern at milongas that is based on skill set similarity, social familiarity, age, attractiveness, instructor identification, and perhaps even ethnic identity or marital/relationship status.

The preference to choose partners of the same or similar skill level may develop to some degree as a result of familiarity with other dancers due to participation in the same level of tango classes or taking classes from the same instructor. At some point it may become apparent at the milongas that beginner level dancers tend to be ignored by more advanced dancers, although more advanced men often seek out attractive beginner level women as dance partners, perhaps in an attempt to impress them with their prowess at dancing tango. Beginner level dancers may be intimidated by the skill level expressed by more advanced dancers and be hesitant to enter onto the milonga dance floor, adding to their feelings of social isolation.

If more advanced dancers are less welcoming to beginner level dancers, the retention rate of new dancers may decrease. If more advanced dancers are content with their status at milongas (i.e., being able to readily find a sufficient number of suitable partners), they may lose their interest in recruitment of new dancers. Therefore, typically during the Diversification Stage, recruitment energy becomes more concentrated in the set of community organizers, particularly the instructors, who have financial or personal prestige investments in the process.

As communities grow in size, partner preferences may also develop with respect to age, i.e., dancers will tend to dance with partners of similar age. The exception to this is that older men, particularly those with more advanced dance skills, often will seek out younger women as partners.

Gender disparity usually becomes evident during the Diversification Stage. Learning to lead is more difficult than learning to follow, particularly as tango is taught in most North American tango communities (i.e., as a catalogue of steps), with the result that the dropout rate is higher for men than for women. (In most cases, the recruitment rate is also lower for men than women at all stages of community development, although this is primarily a culturally based gender distinction in North America.) Men may also wait longer before feeling prepared to participate in dancing at a milonga. This results in a greater number of women than men in most tango communities. Given the shortage of men at milongas and the preference of men in partner selection for more highly skilled or younger or more attractive women, this creates a differential among women in their participation in dancing at the milongas, with older and less highly skilled women often participating significantly less in social dancing at milongas.  Dance invitation by Direct Approach of men to the table contributes to this differential participation among women in dancing at milongas.

Partner preferences at milongas may also be determined by relationship status. Unaffiliated single dancers tend to dance with each other and couples tend to dance only or primarily with their partners.

As tango dance skills become more diverse and more tango instructional opportunities appear (including with visiting instructors), dancers become more discriminating in their instructional decisions. Some dancers take classes only from their first instructor (and possibly visiting instructors invited by this instructor), others from multiple instructors, and others only from some visiting instructors. Some dancers only participate in workshops when they travel to tango weekends and festivals (perhaps more for a social than an instructional purpose). A few seek instruction only in Buenos Aires. In some communities there may even be some dancers who no longer seek tango instruction. This latter category tends to increase in size with the age of a community, as more dancers reach a state of satisfaction with (or perhaps a state of frustration with advancing beyond) their level of dancing.

As tango dance skills increase, there is usually a concomitant increase in knowledge of tango culture and history among some members of the community. More dancers travel to other tango communities to attend tango weekends and festivals, often independently of the accompaniment or even encouragement of the leaders of their home community. There they come into contact with other instructors and dancers with different perspectives on dancing tango and the music appropriate for dancing tango. Some community members even travel to Buenos Aires and attend milongas there, as well as study with tango instructors there. This increased contact with different tango instructors and dancers motivates some community members, particularly local instructors and event organizers, to invite tango instructors with different perspectives on dancing tango to their home community. This often leads to increased diversity in styles of dancing tango within the community, as well as a broader (or sometimes narrower) range of music deemed acceptable for dancing tango.

The most critical problems to be faced during the Diversification Stage are recruitment and retention of new community members. If deficiencies occur and persist in these areas, community size will decrease and the community will descend directly into a Period of Decline, rather than enter into a Period of Stability (stages described below). In order for a community to remain viable, new dancers need to feel welcomed and included in an increasingly complex community social structure. It is more difficult for newcomers to become integrated into larger communities because new dancers are not as visible, as well as often not deemed as essential to community maintenance.

During the Diversification Stage, community leaders need to work together for the benefit of the community rather than entering into competition that is destructive to the community.

The duration of the Diversification Stage varies widely among communities. Diversification usually persists a minimum of 2 years (beyond the Foundation Stage), but can endure for many years until a Period of Stability is achieved.

 

Stage Three. Period of Stability

The Period of Stability is the phase of community development where community size and membership remains relatively constant, usually for several (or even many) years. The Period of Stability develops out of the Diversification Stage, with the transferred characteristics being a range of dance abilities and a set of instructional opportunities to accommodate this range of skills. It is also highly likely that tango communities in the Period of Stability have multiple instructors, but it is possible that a community, particularly a small one, may not have developed this characteristic. It is very likely, but not essential, that a tango community in this stage has multiple regularly scheduled milongas, usually with each hosted by a different organizer.

The Period of Stability may be the time where community size is at its largest, but this is not necessarily so; constancy in community size is what characterizes this period. Often during the expansion that occurs during the Diversification Stage there are many newcomers to tango, but many also discover that either tango does not find a place in their lives, or that participation in the community is not sufficiently rewarding to motivate continued involvement in its activities. The Period of Stability may be the period of maximum growth in community activities (instructional offerings and social activities), but more likely by this stage there will have been a weeding out of some activities, i.e., those that are not successful in attracting dancers. Every tango community has its carrying capacity, a level of activity that can be supported in a state of relative equilibrium. During the Diversification Stage, the number of tango offerings often exceeds this carrying capacity, and only those activities that can be sustained continue to exist. Milongas that have fewer attendees cease operation. Visiting instructors who are less successful in attracting students are no longer invited. If tango festivals are organized and do not attract a sufficient number of attendees, these are either eliminated or hosted less frequently. Resident instructors who cannot attract a sufficient number of students to meet expenses discontinue teaching. Even resident instructors who are successful in attracting students may decrease the number of classes offered if they do not attract a sufficient number of students in some classes, perhaps eliminating classes at some locations. In most tango communities, during the Period of Stability, as more and more dancers become comfortable with their dance skill level, many dancers curtail or even discontinue their participation in instructional activities. This is not necessarily a sign of community decline, but rather may be a sign of community maturity.

What remains relatively constant during the Period of Stability is the total number of milonga attendees, so that some of the more successful milongas may actually experience a slight increase in attendance, while classes and workshops offered may actually decrease in number and attendance.

As the diversity in number of instructors and organizers and their events decreases, the remaining activities, organizers and their participants begin to define the character of the community as it persists. The character of the community is determined by community size, the distribution of skill levels, its demographic composition (age distribution, gender ratio, ethnic diversity, married/coupled vs. single composition, distribution of incomes and education), its relative focus on instruction versus social dancing, its willingness to travel to other communities (including Buenos Aires), its musical preferences, and its range of preferences for different styles of dancing tango, as well as the incorporation of specific tango customs (e.g., use of the cabeceo for dance invitation, inclusion of exhibitions at milongas, code of dress, deviation from heteronormative partner formation). With respect to tango customs, embracing while dancing and use of the cabeceo usually become more common during this period.

A tango community can remain in the Period of Stability for an indefinite period, which is a goal in community development. There may be some variation in levels of participation over time, but with recovery from any temporary perturbations that may occur. What disrupts the stability of a tango community is confrontation with external and internal forces that destabilize a community, and how the community responds to these perturbations.

 

Causes of Tango Community Destabilization

Tango community stability, i.e., maintenance of a relatively constant community size, can be threatened by a number of factors.

It is useful to differentiate between external and internal causes of tango community destabilization. External factors are causes of decreased participation that are unrelated to community properties. Internal factors are causes of decreased participation that emanate from activities occurring within the tango community.

External factors can be classified into two categories, demographic factors and economic factors, although the two are not independent.

Demographic factors contributing to decreased participation in community activities include the following. Dancers may move out of a community. Dancers may attend social dance events less frequently (or not at all) because of deteriorating health and fitness, which is often associated with increasing age. Social commitments arising from marriage (or pair bonding in general) and/or child rearing or elder care may change a dancer’s priorities in life. Changing demands of education and employment may cause some dancers to reduce or discontinue their participation in tango events. The influence of these factors is ongoing but variable over time, and is unlikely to have a significant impact on large communities, but short term increases in the effects of these demographic factors can have a significant detrimental impact on small tango communities. For example, in university based tango communities, there will be a relatively large proportion of dancers moving out of the area at the same time each year because of graduation, and there will be a need to replenish the population annually; one year of low recruitment can send a university based tango community into decline. For all tango communities at any stage of development, decreased recruitment and retention success, i.e., that which fails to replenish losses due to external factors, can contribute significantly to community decline.

Economic factors affecting community participation can be specific or general. Loss of sites for activity can occur because businesses or public agencies providing space for tango events change their priorities for space allocation, or go out of business (e.g., a restaurant hosting tango social events). Loss of a popular space for milongas, particularly if events are held there regularly, can decrease participation significantly and reduce community enthusiasm. Failure to find a suitable replacement site can be responsible for community decline, particularly in small communities. Generalized conditions of the economy, such as recession, unemployment, or inflation can reduce the disposable income of the tango population, thereby decreasing event participation rates. Recruitment of new members also will be hindered during times of economic recession. However, a recovering economy can reverse the effects of recession.

Internal factors causing reduced attendance at community events are characteristics of dancers and the community as a whole (i.e., community culture) that influence dancers’ participation in community activities.

At any stage of tango community development, dancers can lose their enthusiasm for participation in community events if they feel disenfranchised from the community. This can occur if the character of the community develops in a direction that is not satisfying for these dancers.

To feel comfortable in the social environment of a tango community, dancers need to be amicable towards each other on and off the dance floor. A community culture tolerant of competitiveness, eliteness, gossiping, criticism, scapegoating, and marginalization is disruptive to community harmony. Sexual objectification and predatory behavior depersonalize and threaten the security and self-esteem of women. Toleration of disregard for the safety of dancers on the dance floor can also cause some dancers to stop attending milongas. The presence of any of the aforementioned disruptive factors within a community can contribute to a loss of enthusiasm for participation in community activities.

One factor that is likely to contribute to community decline is the loss of the feeling of unity within the community. There are two types of community fragmentation that can occur – the development of a social hierarchy and segregation into competing subgroups, although these are not completely independent.

Although the lines of division are not always distinct, in some tango communities a subgroup of privileged individuals may develop, usually around a community leader. Members of this clique have elevated social status, often due to their support of the community leader’s agenda. Clique members are repeatedly rewarded publicly for their cooperation with the community leader by being given positions of power and prestige, e.g., selected as recruiters or administrators for community events (e.g., tango weekends), as instructional assistants for classes, or as DJs for milongas, even if they are not the most qualified persons for such positions. Partner selection in dancing is also likely to be influenced by membership in or acceptance by clique members. Exclusion from the clique may cause peripheralized dancers to feel disenfranchised and therefore lose interest in participation in the community, or perhaps support another community leader whose following lacks this hierarchical structure, i.e., clique formation may facilitate community segregation, which is detrimental to community growth.

Probably the greatest threat to tango community size and possibly even survival is community fission. This begins with the formation of subgroups of dancers that become somewhat or, in some cases, completely independent of each other. This is indicated by differential support of activities by different subgroups of dancers. It is natural for tango students to support the activities organized by their instructors, but community fissure is in progress if dancers participate primarily or only in instructional offerings and social events hosted by their instructor and rarely or not at all in the events offered by other instructors. This results in lower average attendance for community events, possibly with some events failing.

Community segregation is most harmful to community harmony when it is manipulated consciously by community leaders. This can be as simple as disparaging other community leaders or their followers, or it can be more publicly antagonistic as indicated by actions such as scheduling a milonga at the same time as a pre-existing milonga (most disruptive in small communities) or inviting a visiting instructor at the same time another organizer has already scheduled workshops for a visiting instructor. Even large tango communities can feel the tension generated by the latter.

Community fissure can be particularly pernicious if segregation is based on philosophical grounds, because philosophical differences are difficult to resolve. This may take the form of differences in musical preferences, as exemplified by the music played at Traditional Milongas (only Classic Tango music) versus Alternative Milongas (Tango Alternative music played), particularly if dancers have limited options in milonga attendance based on their musical preferences. Those who have danced tango in North American tango communities throughout the 21st century are well aware that often the greatest tension that has been created within tango communities has been caused by philosophical differences regarding styles (or technically, genres) of dancing acceptable at milongas, basically a conflict between the acceptability only of Tango de Salon (or more narrowly, Tango Estilo Milonguero) versus tolerance for Exhibition Tango (Tango Escencario, Tango Nuevo or, more recently, Tango Campeonato).  Dancers can become very emotional in their advocacy and defense of their philosophical positions, with differences often leading to open verbal conflict, which is the manifestation of a much deeper conflict within the community.

Given some degree of segregation and even fission within a tango community, the future of the community depends on how these differences are resolved. In large communities, multiple subgroups can operate somewhat independently indefinitely, particularly if each subgroup is successful in recruitment and has sufficient attendance at its events. This is the situation in Buenos Aires. However, in most tango communities, due to competition, one or more of the subcommunities loses sufficient membership and becomes extinct, and the community at large continues with reduced size, competition and conflict, and may even recover and expand thereafter. However, this is a more precarious position for community survival than reaching a state of peaceful coexistence between competing enterprises, with respect and possibly even support given to each subcommunity.

 

Stage Four. Period of Decline

The causes of community decline have been addressed in the previous section. The indicators and correlates of community decline are identified in this section.

The only relevant and objective measure of community stability is community size, as measured by the total attendance over all milongas during a specified time interval. Nevertheless, there are several other indicators of community instability, because they are frequently associated with an imminent or concurrent decline in community size (listed in apparent decreasing order of correlation with overall milonga attendance):

  • decreased number of milongas
  • decreased visits by traveling tango instructors
  • decreased attendance in beginner level classes and practicas
  • fewer resident instructors teaching tango

These decreases are beyond the failed experiments that occur after the Diversification Stage; these are the decreases that occur after a Period of Stability. A clear indicator of a Period of Decline is entry into a positive feedback loop, where decreased participation leads to decreased enthusiasm, which leads to further decreased participation.

Some additional signs of a community descending into period of decline are moving milongas to smaller locations, and replacement of formal tango social events (milongas) with more casual ones (e.g., tango house parties). Sometimes during the Period of Decline additional recruitment events (introductory tango lessons, sometimes accompanied by a social event) are initiated. To a significant degree, the schedule of events in a tango community that is in a Period of Decline resembles that of a community in the Foundation Stage. What differs is the social atmosphere in the community. During a Period of Decline, remaining experienced dancers usually hold on to their attachment to tango, but lack the enthusiasm for recruitment that existed in the Foundation Stage. Motivation for recruitment becomes concentrated in the community leaders, and their demeanor may exhibit more of an air of desperation that one of enthusiasm; potential recruits can sense this. New recruits are few and the retention rate of new dancers is low. Milongas fail due to economic inviability; substandard replacements may be found, but attendance is lower. Soon the community is comprised of a small number of only the most dedicated dancers, who can continue indefinitely having tango social dance events in rent free or low cost publicly accessible facilities, or in someone’s home.

It is difficult to determine the mortality rate for tango communities because no public obituaries are posted. There is some evidence that the most frequent failure with respect to tango communities is the inability to progress from offering instruction to establishing a regular schedule of milongas, i.e., to enter the Foundation Stage, although it appears that at least some communities that have reached the Foundation Stage have failed. However, it is not apparent whether any North American tango community that has reached the Diversification Stage has ever become extinct. Nevertheless, in traveling around North America in has become apparent that, in many communities, attendance at milongas and the number of milongas hosted has declined during the last 10-15 years. Tango festivals are fewer and smaller, and these have been replaced in part by tango marathons and Encuentros Milongueros, which are increasing in number; it is possible that this trend is due to decreased interest in tango instruction, a sign of maturity. Some of the decrease in community activities may be that which normally occurs after expansion in the Diversification Stage, although there are some tango communities that are obviously in a Period of Decline. On the other hand, new but smaller tango communities are arising in parts of North America where none had existed previously. Without a well-designed survey, it is difficult to assess accurately the health status of tango communities as a whole in North America, although in 2020 some signs of decline are apparent. One of the aims of this essay is to identify the challenges that face tango communities in different stages of their development, in order to pinpoint foci for intervention and recovery.

 

Summary: Characteristics of a Healthy Tango Community

Tango communities reach a state of stability if successful recruitment and retention of new dancers is greater than or equal to the departure of dancers from the community. Ideally, the rate of loss of community members is low, so social relationships can become solidified and dancers achieve a high skill level through experience dancing at milongas. There is no guarantee that a tango community with a long stable history has a high average skill level, but each community strives to fulfill its potential given its exposure to instruction and the composition of its membership.

There are several desirable characteristics of a healthy, stable tango community. There is a feeling of belonging to a community that is experienced by members who regularly attend social dance events. Competitiveness, eliteness, peripheralization, criticism, disparaging of community members, and development of a social hierarchy and segregation into subgroups are minimized. Dancers should feel satisfied with their dancing experience, with rewarding partners available for dancing. The physical environment of the milongas should be pleasant. Dancers will continue to attend social dance events if these conditions are met. Community leaders should strive towards shaping the development of their tango communities with these principles in mind.

 

Relevance of Tango Community Development Principles for Traditional Tango 

Some tango dancers may wish to establish a Traditional Tango environment, one that is modeled after the environment of the milongas of Buenos Aires, rather than modifying tango practices to accommodate to the indigenous culture into which it is transplanted. There are several aspects of Traditional Tango culture that are at odds with the desired goals for tango community growth and development stated here. Most likely, foremost among these characteristics is the principle of free choice in partner selection, as exercised through the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation. The cabeceo is a mechanism that allows dancers to choose the partners they wish to dance with rather than compelling them to feel obligated to accept invitations to dance initiated through the Direct Approach. Most dancers will choose to dance with other dancers who have better or similar dance skills, or whom they like or are attracted to. This practice is in contrast to the principle stated above that nondiscriminatory partner selection is beneficial to community building. Discrimination in partner selection can create a hierarchy of desirability of dancer partners. Within this hierarchy infrequently selected dance partners can feel marginalized and their motivation to return to milongas can decrease. Lack of opportunities to dance is probably the main reason dancers stop attending milongas.

In addition, some Tango Traditionalists can be notably intolerant of deviations from Traditional Tango practices. Intolerance towards dancing to Tango Alternative music, towards exhibitionism on the dance floor, towards deviations from heteronormative partner formation, and towards very casual dress (e.g., t-shirts, baggy pants, athletic shoes and hats) are sentiments commonly held by Tango Traditionalists. Thus, a Traditional Tango purist may have attitudes that are antagonistic towards some community members and therefore disruptive to community harmony. This is in contrast to the One Tango Philosophy, which embraces many different expressions of tango.

Nevertheless, Tango Traditionalists have the right to establish a community that has certain standards, in this case cultural norms formulated in the milongas of Buenos Aires (Tango Manifesto: A Declaration of the Rights of First World Tango Dancers to have a Tango Environment Supporting Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions) . Membership in the community is granted to those who willingly accept these defined cultural practices. However, when viewed from the perspective of desirable traits for a tango community as established above, there will be certain challenges and limitations to be overcome in recruiting and retaining members from a society in which different cultural norms exist.

Providing guidelines for Traditional Tango community growth and development in a foreign cultural environment is a somewhat complicated task. A future post will be dedicated specifically to the development of a Traditional Tango community. The purpose of the current post is to identify some of the challenges faced in tango community development in general, which forms the background for formulating a strategy for building a Traditional Tango community.

 

5 Responses to Tango Community Growth and Development: Tango Sociology, Politics, and Economics

  1. Julian says:

    Great article. Some community leaders do more harm than good to a community by causing the disharmony in the community when they care more about themselves than the community and its survival.. too many instructors and visiting instructors without the students and is the worst time to start teaching oneself. A teacher should be humble and never arrogant

  2. Tom says:

    To feel comfortable in the social environment of a tango community, dancers need to be amicable towards each other on and off the dance floor. A community culture tolerant of competitiveness, eliteness [sic], gossiping, criticism, scapegoating, and marginalization is disruptive to community harmony. Sexual objectification and predatory behavior depersonalize and threaten the security and self-esteem of women. Toleration of disregard for the safety of dancers on the dance floor can also cause some dancers to stop attending milongas. The presence of any of the aforementioned disruptive factors within a community can contribute to a loss of enthusiasm for participation in community activities.

    One factor that is likely to contribute to community decline is the loss of the feeling of unity within the community. There are two types of community fragmentation that can occur – the development of a social hierarchy and segregation into competing subgroups, although these are not completely independent.

    Although the lines of division are not always distinct, in some tango communities a subgroup of privileged individuals may develop, usually around a community leader. Members of this clique have elevated social status, often due to their support of the community leader’s agenda. Clique members are repeatedly rewarded publicly for their cooperation with the community leader by being given positions of power and prestige, e.g., selected as recruiters or administrators for community events (e.g., tango weekends), as instructional assistants for classes, or as DJs for milongas, even if they are not the most qualified persons for such positions. Partner selection in dancing is also likely to be influenced by membership in or acceptance by clique members. Exclusion from the clique may cause peripheralized dancers to feel disenfranchised and therefore lose interest in participation in the community, or perhaps support another community leader whose following lacks this hierarchical structure, i.e., clique formation may facilitate community segregation, which is detrimental to community growth.

    This is the essential set of points, and the whole article could be just reduced to this really. So what requires analysis is the causes of this. As a conservative/traditionalists in the tradition of the late Sir Roger Scruton I see these not as causes but rather as symptoms of deeper social malaise: leftism, materialism, individualism, feminism, and such like.

    If we consider the sort of traditional society that supported complex liberal communities they had certain identifiable features that are not only absent but that are actively being discouraged. You had relatively culturally homogenous communities that were religious, that were self-policing, adhering to relatively rigid social rules, and that promoted eugenics.

    Contemorary society discourages social homogeneity, relgiousness and traditional family and community values, and instead encourages individualism, materialism, hedonism, cultural diversity and dysgenics. People are taught at school that they should pursue their individual preferences, to be competitive, to pursue pleasure, to value material consumption. Highly educated people, esp. educated women have few or no children.

    I am currently in Salvador, Bahia. Once surely a beautiful city, it is now a chaotic and disconcerting collage of ugliness, most of the beautiful Portuguese architecture having been cleared away for egalitarian concrete blocks. It is a wonderful metaphor for the situation with tango, the product of the democratic system of government and egalitarianism. If living in a “community” means living in ugliness I’d rather live alone. Same for tango: until the current wave of traditionalist politics clears away all the progressivist chaos I’ll enjoy my tango at home.

    • tangovoice says:

      This leads to the question “Are citizens of democratic societies willing to give up their freedoms in order to achieve harmony?” History has shown that totalitarian states (e.g., most recently Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) create dissent, unrest, protest, rebellion, and flight. It is human nature to desire freedom of choice, even if there is some disharmony created from this freedom.

      The solution to creating harmony, at least in part, lies in voluntary acceptance of a set of rules that govern a social group. Individuals can choose to enter and leave the group as they see fit. For example, when a tango dancer attends an Encuentro Milongonguero, this person agrees to abide by certain rules – gender segregated seating, cabeceo for dance invitation, no exhibitionism on the dance floor, leaving the floor during the Cortina, etc. This choice is voluntary, not compelled. If one does not wish to abide by these rules, one does not participate. This temporary voluntary grouping that suspends some freedom of choice can exist comfortably within a society that allows free choice in many matters.

      • Tom says:

        I guess the religious monoculturalists who created tango were either Nazis or slaves or both, where the diverse people living in ugly cities under the tyranny of the democratic state are free because it’s “voluntary”. The 51 percent volunteer to redistribute the wealth of the 49%, freely! Also, the Japanese, being homogeneous and harmonious must ipso facto be Nazis, or Communists, or both.

  3. Bojan Tosic says:

    Great article. I agree completely. But, I think there is no danger for tango and milonga. Milonga rules are simply. Dress elegantly, use cabeceo, follow ronda and don’t kick anybody on the floor. That means no jeans and snickers, no direct approach and no tango nuevo on the floor. Every normal human being who love tango will see this sooner or later. But for that we need great instructors for creating good dancers.

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