A Framework for Analyzing the Evolution of Tango Social Dancing

September 14, 2022
  • Tango social dancing is a cultural phenomenon with a specified set of beliefs (codes) and practices (customs), represented in a community of practitioners.
    • These codes and customs have evolved over the course of the history of tango.
      • A critical factor in determining the cultural practices of a tango community is the influence of the larger culture (macroculture), typically a national culture, in which a tango community resides.
  • Tango social dance communities function and persist because they provide certain life benefits to individuals.
    • The community of practitioners gathers in the milonga, the social dance event.
    • The milonga is the environment in which social relationships are formed and reinforced. These relationships confer certain life benefits.
      •  Of primary importance is the formation of romantic and sexual relationships, which provide immediate gratification as well as long term stability to the individual and the community in the generation of marriages and children.
        • In Buenos Aires during the Golden Age (1930s, 40s, early 50s) the local community social dance gathering (Milonga del Barrio) was an environment in which younger single dancers could pursue romantic relationships under the supervision of elders in the community.During the early 1950s the Milonga del Centro was a more liberal environment in which the pursuit of both casual and long term sexual and romantic relationships were primary motivations for attendance.
      • Milongas have provided economic rewards to organizers, music providers (musicians and DJs) and attending staff.
        • Some economic relationships could also be formed during social interaction among dancers at the milongas, particularly at Milongas del Barrio.
  • Social status relationships among members of the tango social dance community are evident at the milongas.
    • High social status is indicated by influence on the course of activities, including control over deviance from accepted practices, as well as by the degree to which individuals are the center of attention and are imitated.
    • High status individuals also have priority of access to life benefits such as material wealth and romantic and sexual partners.
    • At the milonga, the best dancers are preferred dance partners. High dance skill is associated with high social status and its benefits.
  • The basis for cultural change is variation in cultural practices within a community. A certain amount of variation in practices is tolerated as long as it does not disturb community equilibrium, e.g., social status relationships and the distribution of life benefits. Cultural evolution has occurred when the distribution of cultural practices changes in a consistent direction over time.
    • An important factor determining cultural evolution is a change in the macrocultural environment in which a microcultural community (such as tango social dancing) resides.Community leaders (i.e., high status individuals) are often responsible for responding to evolutionary changes in the macroculture by initiating changes in microcultural practices.
      • In tango social dancing, this was evident in the early 20th century as first Italian immigrants, and later the middle and upper classes adopted the practices of tango social dancing and removed the more aggressive and sexually suggestive elements of Canyengue, evolving the dance to the more dignified upright posture and smooth walking style of Tango de Salon.
      Cultural evolution can also occur when a deviant group is banished from a community or chooses voluntary exile, in the process establishing a separate community with a set of modified practices.
      • In the 1990s in Buenos Aires, Tango Nuevo was developed as an extrapolation of Tango de Salon to new spatial dimensions of spatial extension, rendering it incompatible with the environment of the Traditional Milonga. This led to the formation of Practicas Nuevas that had different codes of belief and behavioral customs.
    • Another significant cause of cultural evolution is when a set of cultural practices is transplanted in a different macrocultural environment. In this case, microcultural community survival is dependent in part on adaptation to the new macrocultural milieu, resulting in some practices being modified to be consistent with the beliefs and customs of the new environment.
      • In the 1910s, European and North American macrocultures were introduced to Argentine Tango by Argentines in theatrical performances. With the assistance of Argentine and later local instructors Europeans and Americans developed a tamer version of tango social dancing that had most of its aggressive and sexually suggestive elements removed. These versions eventually became (International and American) Ballroom Tango as the sanitized and desexualized versions of tango were incorporated into ballroom dance communities. Subsequent independent evolution of tango social dancing microcultures in Argentina, Europe, and North America was facilitated by the lack of significant travel and communication between these cultural environments.
      • In the late 1980s and early 1990s, traveling Argentine Tango stage productions exposed Europeans and North Americans to the Tango Escenario that had evolved from the Tango de Salon of the milongas in Argentina. The desire for imitation led to instruction in a modified version of Stage Tango that became the most salient form of tango social dancing in the tango social dances advertised as ‘milongas’ appearing across Europe and North America at that time. Subsequent maintained migration and communication between Argentine and Euro-American tango social dance cultures resulted in greater similarity in customs than had existed after the first cultural diffusion in the 1910s, as is evident in the adoption of Tango de Salon and Tango Nuevo practices in Europe and North America.
  • In general, the codes and customs of tango social dance communities need to be consistent with local macrocultural practices in order to remain viable and proliferate.
  • Most of all, tango social dance culture needs to provide life benefits of a stable social community, opportunities for sex and romance, and financial rewards in order to survive and propagate.


Tango as a dance and as a musical form, along with its associated codes and customs, has undergone several major changes in its character throughout its approximately 150 year history. There was the adoption, fusion, and modification of various forms of dancing and music of primarily foreign origin (the habanera from Cuba, the polka, mazurka, and waltz from Europe, and the African influenced candombe) that gave birth to embryonic forms such as the proto-milonga and the canyengue in the late 19th century [Collier, 1995: pp. 40-46; Benzecry Saba, 2015: pp. 25-31; Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?], the transformation of tango in Buenos Aires into a more socially acceptable Tango de Salon in the early decades of the 20th century, the adaptation of Argentine tango to Euro-American cultural norms in the 1910s [Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation of Tango Argentino in the 20th Century] to eventually give rise to Ballroom Tango and Finnish Tango, the translation of Tango Escenario to the social dance floor in North America and Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s [Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation of Tango Argentino in the 20th Century]. the expansion of the dimensions and sequencing of tango movements with Tango Nuevo in the 1990s, and the diversification of tango social dance environments in the early 21st century to accommodate Tango Tourism and concomitant cosmopolitan cultural trends. Each of these major transformations is readily understood as an adaptation of an existing form of tango to a different sociocultural environment. Likewise, sociocultural environments themselves change over time.

Although the changes in tango music, dancing, and associated practices have been most dramatic when introduced into virgin cultural territory, more gradual modifications over time within existing tango communities can sometimes persist and ultimately transform the overall character of the tango dance and its associated customs.   

This post develops a framework for analyzing major and minor evolutionary changes in tango history, concentrating on the social dance (milonga) culture, but also taking into account changes in music and customs associated with milonga culture. The factors responsible for change and the mechanisms for transforming tango culture are addressed. Examples from major transformational periods in tango history are selected to elucidate these processes.

Definition of Culture

In order to understand the evolution of tango dancing, it is important to define the domain that is under examination, i.e., what comprises the culture of tango social dancing.

Anthropologists often define culture in words similar to those stated here:

Culture is a set of beliefs, practices, and symbols that are learned and shared. Together, they form an all-encompassing, integrated whole that binds people together and shapes their worldview and lifeways.

It is important to recognize that culture is learned within a social context, and in this process it is passed on from participants to other individuals who enter a cultural group.

There are several layers of culture for individuals in contemporary societies. This is due to the structure of human social groupings, which are both transitory and hierarchical in nature. Human beings are members of numerous groups – households, extended families, employment groups, religious congregations, recreational groups, etc., most of which are temporary formations that aggregate and disperse, often on a somewhat regular basis. These are the primary groupings in which individuals gather. An individual’s association with primary groups is often based on demographic characteristics such as familial ties, location of residence, age, sex, marital / relationship status, socioeconomic status, education, ethnicity, religion and political affiliation. Nevertheless, the composition of each primary group with which a person associates differs.

Each primary group has its own set of norms of behavior, beliefs, and most likely symbols and possibly artefacts identifying the group and representing its beliefs and practices. Individuals have different identities as they transit from group to group, based to a significant degree on the standard practices and beliefs of each group.

Superimposed upon this proximate association with temporary primary groups is a higher sociopolitical structure within which most or all of these groups function. At one level there is the immediate geographic region (e.g., city or county) within which an individual usually circulates from day to day. This is the area that encompasses most or all of the primary groups with which an individual associates. This geographic region may have its own cultural traits (e.g., political and religious attitudes, entertainment preferences, food and drink preferences; etc.; e.g., compare New York City to a rural area in the American South) that differentiate it from other geographic regions, and these regional cultural differences influence the practices of the primary level groupings.

At a higher level there is a somewhat impermeable (political) boundary that is usually identified as a nation. A nation has a set of cultural traits that are unique to it [e.g., language(s), a flag, a national anthem, a governmental organization with written rules (laws) and agencies organized to enforce these rules (police and courts) as well as to manage economic activities, etc.]; these generate a national identity.

Therefore, there exists a microculture for each primary group to which an individual belongs, as well as several levels of macroculture for the sociopolitical environments within which the primary group resides. The cultural characteristics of the primary group are the cause and consequence of the activities of that group, yet by residing within a larger sociopolitical environment the microculture is influenced by and may influence to some degree the macroculture encompassing it.    

Tango social dancing has certain practices (customs) that are based on certain beliefs (reflected in stated codes), which constitute a microculture, contained within a larger macroculture, which originally was that of the Rio de la Plata region but in the 21st century the local tango social dance microculture varies for tango social dance communities across the globe as each macroculture has its own unique influence on local tango microculture.

Social Structure and the Distribution of Life Benefits

The focus here is on microcultures, in particular the tango social dance culture, although the principles stated apply as well to macrocultures to varying degrees. An important difference is that membership in a microcultural community is more likely to be voluntary, although social, economic, and political forces can induce or compel membership in a microcultural community (e.g., religious communities in some macrocultures). Macrocultures have greater stability and longevity than microcultures, the latter often being born and dying at rapid rates (as in fads in contemporary Western societies). To certain degrees, microcultures also exist and flourish with the consent of the macroculture within which it exists, or struggle to exist in the face of suppression (e.g., milonga culture in Buenos Aires was severely restricted during the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s [Benzecry Saba 2015: pp. 186-187]).    

Due to the precarious existence of many microcultural communities, whose survival is challenged both from external and internal forces, cultural practices need to meet the life needs of community members in order to persevere. Basic human needs include economic security and improvement (resource acquisition), protection against internal and external threats to physical and psychological well-being (health / survival), and mate acquisition (proximately sexual fulfillment, ultimately reproduction). Microcultural communities usually contain the social structure to meet these human needs directly or indirectly, through engagement in cultural practices that solidify social relationships within the community in which one has attained membership. Particular cultural practices may or may not appear to meet these needs directly, but do contribute to incremental improvement or, at the very least, are neutral with respect to these needs. For example, the long term benefits of deriving pleasure from social interaction may not be obvious immediately; however, upon closer examination it becomes apparent that pleasant social interaction reduces stress, thereby improving physical and mental well-being. Social interaction also contributes to the formation and maintenance of relationships that may improve economic standing and, perhaps most obviously, social interaction initiates the formation of short term and long term sexual and romantic relationships, which are a pre-requisite for procreation.

The social structure within a cultural community provides the framework for the distribution of life benefits to participants. Human social structure is hierarchical, with some high status individuals (by definition) having greater influence than others over the activities and destiny of a community. High status individuals accomplish this due to other individuals focusing their attention upon them and looking to them for direction, as well as modeling their behavior. High status individuals may also influence the character and destiny of a community through the establishment of rules of conduct, through the issuance of directives, and through the punishment of deviancy. The rewards of high social status usually consist of greater material wealth acquisition, better access to health care, greater safety from physical harm, and preferential reception in sexual and romantic pursuits. Although this perspective may appear to be androcentric, these conditions apply as well to women, particularly in modern industrialized societies, where wealth acquisition, control of community activities, and personal choice in romantic and sexual matters is also exercised by women.

In microcultural communities, maintaining high social status is dependent to a significant degree upon satisfying the needs of lower social status individuals; i.e., it is usually with the tacit consent of community members that high status and its privileges are realized and maintained. Lower status individuals (by definition), denied access to the full benefits accorded to higher status individuals, acquiesce to the strictures of the social structure because relative to non-participation in community affairs, they still derive some life benefits (e.g., pleasure from social interaction, herd security) and they may anticipate a future rise in status. (Younger community members in particular may strategize to rise in social status through support of and alliance with higher status individuals.) Given the disadvantages of non-involvement in community activities (diminished access to material resources, threats to health and survival, limited opportunities for sex and reproduction) one cannot preclude the possibility that some degree of coercion (or at the very least, manipulation, perhaps through deception) may play a role in maintaining the compliance of low status individuals in perpetuating the existing social structure and its associated inequality in the distribution of life benefits. It is typically a characteristic of cultural systems that deviancy from established norms of behavior is chastised and even punished to the point of marginalization and ostracization.

The Traditional Milonga as a Co-adapted Cultural Complex

The benchmark against which variations in tango social dance microcultural communities usually are compared is the Traditional Milonga in Buenos Aires during the 1940s and early 1950s, at the height of the Golden Age of tango. The cultural standards of the Tradtional Milonga are still evident to a significant degree in many milongas in Buenos Aires today.

The exact timing of the evolution of the codes of the Traditional Milonga and the transformations that occurred in behavioral practices, as well as the variation that existed at various times, are difficult to document, due mainly to the predominantly oral mode of transmission of tango social dance culture. Nevertheless, a general picture of the characteristics of milongas during the latter part of the Golden Age (mostly the early 1950s) is apparent from interviews and conversations conducted in recent decades with tango dancers who participated in milonga culture during the latter part of the Golden Age (video interviews; reports of conversations: Christine Dennison, 2007, also The History of Tango Dance; Tango Chamuyo). There have been numerous discussions of the specific codes of behavior and associated practices evident in the Traditional Milongas of the late 20th century, prior to the onset of a significant tango tourist industry (which has modified practices somewhat) [Tango Voice: Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics; Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited); Tango Chamuyo; Siempre Milonguero). What is presented here primarily is a perspective on the social structure and function of Traditional Milongas, as was evident in these milongas of Buenos Aires during the early and mid 1950s, prior to the decline of milonga participation that occurred for several decades thereafter. The relevance of certain behavioral standards (codes) and practices (customs) to the distribution of life benefits is discussed. This perspective is integral to the interpretation of the adaptive value of participation in the milonga culture.   

The Traditional Milonga has consisted of a set of behavioral standards (codes) and cultural practices (customs) that fit together to form a functioning system that has provided several life benefits. One needs to distinguish between the Milonga del Barrio and the Milonga del Centro [Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’)], which to some degree have addressed different social needs. As their names indicate, in the Golden Age the Milonga del Barrio was held in the residential neighborhoods away from the center of the city, and the Milonga del Centro was held in the business and entertainment district of the city center (El Centro).

The Milonga del Barrio was typically held in a Club de Barrio, and was frequented primarily by residents of the barrio; often family members of multiple generations attended. It usually occurred on a weekend, possibly even in the afternoon and, if so, usually on a Sunday. The pace of the milonga was somewhat leisurely, with people often having a meal before dancing. There was considerable socializing and public announcement and celebration of important life events such as birthdays and anniversaries. This assisted in the solidification of social relationships within the community, as well as to affirm social status.

The general tendency was for couples to dance only with their partners, although opportunities were provided for younger single people to meet and dance with each other. Young single people were under the watchful eye of (usually) older family members. It was expected that dancing would be ‘respectful’ (i.e., the sensuality of the dance was somewhat subdued) and, in part in accordance with this precept, the more formal Tango Estilo del Barrio evolved, with its upright posture and more relaxed embrace, which could be opened for ochos and giros; in some cases, even a minimal distance (a few centimeters) between the torsos of partners was maintained. The more relaxed and occasional opened embrace was possible because the venues in which the Milongas del Barrio were held could accommodate larger dance floors and consequently the density of dancers on the floor was lower.

During the Golden Age, the Milonga del Barrio was a major social event that established and reinforced social and sometimes economic relationships among barrio residents; for many families it was their primary recurring social event beyond family gatherings. It was also important in creating a supervised environment for young men and women to meet each other, with the potential of providing continuity in social integration (marriage and children) into the next generation.  

The Milonga del Centro was typically held in a smaller venue, often a confiteria (coffee house / pastry shop). This was a setting in which unattached men and women (either single or straying from marital fidelity) could meet to explore varying degrees of romantic and/or sexual involvement with the opposite sex. This involvement may have spanned the gamut from just enjoying the embrace to expectations of sexual intimacy. In this environment men and women were seated in separate sections, usually facing the dance floor. Invitation to dance by means of the cabeceo allowed discriminative selection of partners. Dancing tended to be more intimate than in the Milonga del Barrio, with a maintained more inclusive embrace (arms extended more completely around the partner) and likely cheek-to-cheek contact [Variations in the Tango Embrace – ‘Open Embrace’ and ‘Close Embrace’ Styles of Tango: The Evidence from Buenos Aires Milongas]; the smaller dance floor and therefore high floor density necessitated the closer embrace, and the closer embrace was reinforced by the romantic and sexual motivations of the dancers. These are characteristics of the Tango Estilo del Centro that evolved in this environment [see also Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)]. Despite the more intimate embrace, there remained standards defining limits in the invasion of personal space. For example, too tight an embrace was considered improper and couples exited from the embrace between songs of the tanda (usually) to engage in brief conversation, designed to familiarize themselves with each other, before embracing again to dance about 30 seconds after the start of the next song. During this brief conversation men would sometimes give (somewhat exaggerated) compliments to women (piropos). Dancing multiple tandas with the same partner was an indication of a higher level of romantic / sexual interest. A man’s invitation to a woman to have coffee after the milonga during the conversational interlude was a more direct communication of interest in sexual activity and acceptance of this invitation was, to some degree, an indication of consent to this greater intimacy. Overall, the Milonga del Centro was designed as a playing field for investigating romantic and sexual opportunities within defined boundaries for behavior.

The hierarchical social structure of the Traditional Milonga was readily apparent. Milonga hosts were cultural community leaders in control of the flow of activities, which was evidenced in their announcements and introductions. Music providers (musicians and DJs) created the aural environment for dancing, and those proficient in these activities gained not only economic benefits, but also social status. The hierarchy among dancers was apparent in their desirability as dance partners (negotiated by means of the cabeceo), which reflected to a significant degree their perceived dance ability. Dancers recognized (often by community consensus) as having greater dance expertise were observed as role models for dancers developing their skills. Preferred dance partners were also more likely to be preferred partners for romantic and sexual relationships.  

Control over deviation from accepted norms of behavior (e.g., hazardous navigation, extensions of movements into the personal space of other dancers, inebriation and lasciviousness) was exercised by milonga hosts or their representatives. Punishment for repeat offenders could include debarment from participation in milonga activities.

At all milongas during the Golden Age, it was expected that attendees would be properly attired. For men, this meant wearing a suit and tie; for women, it meant wearing a dress considered appropriate for social functions.

In the Golden Age, the social structure of the community was also reflected in preparation for the milonga. Young women were protected by their elders, whereas young men had more freedom of association. Young women were usually taught how to dance tango by a family member at home. The supervision of young women continued at the Milonga del Barrio, where an older female family member served as a chaperone, to a significant degree guiding the choices the young woman made in responding to dance invitations. Therefore, in the case of young women, the family was the primary vehicle for inculcation into tango culture, as well as having the primary power of control over the sphere of social relationships. In contrast, young men learned to dance tango in the association of other men in the practica. More highly skilled older men served as guides for the younger men learning to dance. These instructors were the primary transmitters of tango culture to men. When the older man or men of the practica group decided a young man was prepared to dance at the milonga, he was told to put on a suit and come to the milonga; i.e., the young man’s admittance to the milonga was under the guidance of the older, more experienced dancers. The conversation among men at the practica was that dancing at the milonga was a primary route for meeting young women.

The education of initiates into tango social dance culture continued after initially being exposed to the milonga. Particularly for men, identification and observation of the more highly skilled dancers provided a model for developing one’s own dance style

The codes of the Traditional Milonga, were designed to maintain social equilibrium within the microcultural community. They regulated social activity and the development of interpersonal relationships while creating opportunities to meet some basic life needs of individuals in a structured environment. In both the Milonga del Barrio and the Milonga del Centro, it was possible to derive pleasure from physical contact with a person of the opposite sex, although the nature and degree of emotions associated with that contact varied depending on the interactants and the environment. To some degree, the Milonga del Barrio environment was able to provide supervised introduction of single people to each other. In contrast, the Milonga del Centro permitted less restricted opportunities for romantic and sexual relationships. In both types of milonga, it was possible to derive pleasure from connecting movement to music. In the Milonga del Barrio, conversation was more likely conducted with familiar neighbors while seated at large tables, perhaps while sharing a meal, which in itself was pleasurable. For many couples, the Milonga del Barrio was the center of their social lives outside the family.

The bonds formed from social interactions at the Milonga del Barrio may have initiated and reinforced economic relationships. The milonga itself provided financial benefits directly to some individuals, e.g., the organizer, the property owner, and the providers of music (musicians and DJs). Within the current milonga scene in Buenos Aires, economic opportunities also exist for taxi dancers and instructors recruiting students. Instructors also can gain social status and income if they are given the spotlight of attention in performances.

Although time spent in a milonga may have accounted for only a small proportion of one’s life, the benefits could be extensive. The value of belonging to a community (herd security) within which pleasant social interaction could be realized, also cannot be underestimated. Estrangement from a social network can have a negative impact on an individual’s emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Although during the Golden Age the asado and athletic clubs also provided social benefits of camaraderie and the formation and reinforcement of long term relationships, these were limited to male – male relationships; the milonga was a primary locale for the development of male – female relationships.

Prerequisites for the Evolution of Culture

In order for cultural evolution to occur, as a prerequisite, there needs to be variation in cultural practices within a community or set of communities that adhere to the codes prescribing cultural practices. However, although variation in cultural practices is necessary for evolution to occur, it is not in itself a sufficient condition for evolution.

There are many forms of variation in behavior within a community that are not a source for change, but rather are part of the social structure that maintains equilibrium. Within a community there are different roles for different individuals. There are leaders who direct activities and make decisions regarding the distribution of life benefits. There are leaders who create and enforce the codes of behavior. There are leaders who serve as role models for imitation. There are often multiple leaders who share these functions, with some hierarchical relationship among them in the distribution of influence. There are additional roles for other members of the community that contribute to the enactment and maintenance of stability in cultural practices.

Although there are idealized standards for behavior in a cultural community, there are numerous sources of error in the execution into behavioral expression of these standards. Unless the codes for behavior are clearly delineated in writing (e.g., as they may be in government or in religious organizations), there may not be a uniform and reliable reference for the set of rules, which will result in some variation in interpretation of the (orally transmitted) standards. Additional sources of variation include differences in instruction received, as well as variation among participants in comprehension of the instruction. When behavioral norms are learned through emulation of role models, differences in role model performance and variation among observers in stimulus filtering of the information presented by role models adds to variation in understanding of the standards. Imperfect translation of cognitive based rules into action results in additional deviation of behavior from the ideal, with this deviation varying along different dimensions among participants in cultural activities. Most notably, under conditions where codes of behavior are prescribed to control the actions of others, those who make the rules often have the liberty of not abiding by them. All of these factors contribute to some degree of variation in cultural practices within a community, yet none of these are necessarily prerequisites for cultural change.

Some degree of societal tolerance is exercised with respect to deviation from the cultural ideals, particularly when there is inadvertent misunderstanding of the rules or imperfect concordance with standards due to skill limitations; these may be attributed to naïveté or inexperience, and often are expected to be corrected to some degree through continued practice. It is also recognized that individuals have different capacities for competence in performance of cultural practices, which in part form the basis for social status. Differences in behavior due to inexperience and skill are normally tolerated within a community, primarily because they do not disturb equilibrium and therefore normally do not lead to evolution in practices.

There are sometimes even conditions under which variation in cultural practices is encouraged, e.g., through reward of competition and experimentation, because the accompanying increased engagement with cultural practices tends to solidify community cohesiveness; this accounts in part for the existence of sport and other recreational activities that give recognition to talent and creativity.

Variation in cultural practices within a community that is less likely to be tolerated is behavior perceived to be a conscious attempt to defy community standards, or any behavior that disrupts the equilibrium of the functioning coordinated cultural system, regardless of its motivation. Individuals of high social status, recognizing threats to their privileged status in the receipt of life benefits, usually respond to significant challenges to community equilibrium with action designed to suppress deviancy, including reprimand, marginalization, or even banishment of nonconformists.

Processes in Cultural Evolution

Much of the variation in cultural practices described above can be considered as error, i.e., (possibly random) fluctuations around the ideal. These are unlikely to result in directional changes in the central tendencies of cultural practices, or in their distribution. Evolution consists of a sustained directional change in the relative frequency of variants within a population (as compared to random fluctuations around a set point).

Despite the tendency of cultural practices to remain relatively unchanged over short periods of time, due largely to the efforts of high status individuals to maintain an equilibrium that favors them in the distribution of life benefits, at times it may be necessary for the perpetuation of the community to initiate changes in cultural practices. Cultural communities that fail to continue to provide life benefits for its members face extinction. Dominant among the human needs to be satisfied are resource acquisition, health and safety, and sex and reproduction.

A microcultural system may fail to continue providing satisfaction of human needs when there is change in the external social, political, economic or ecological conditions in the macroculture in which it is imbedded. At these times astute high status individuals may initiate transformations in cultural practices that reduce the discordance between micro- and macro-culture. This type of change is directional and therefore evolutionary.  

Change in cultural practices initiated by community leaders in response to external environmental conditions is an important mechanism of cultural evolution, one that usually maintains the cohesiveness and stability of cultural communities. The process of change under these conditions is usually gradual and rarely leads to a radical transformation, i.e., a redefinition of the rationale upon which the codes of behavior are premised. Radical change in cultural practices is more likely to be introduced by those disaffected with some of the basic principles underlying codes of behavior. These individuals are often those who benefit less than desired from the distribution of life benefits within the community, or those whose creativity is frustrated by the limitations imposed by the existing codes. In recent and contemporary societies, these often have been younger individuals seeking a new and different identity defined by an alternative set of norms, desiring to create a system under which they can exert their influence and receive a greater share of life benefits.

At times it is possible for a group of disaffected individuals to supplant the authority of community leaders and replace the system of cultural practices with a different set of standards in which some of the practices (and the belied system upon which they are based) have changed. This supplantation could be violent (as in a coup d’état) or it could be accomplished by a (more or less) democratic process. The risk in this process is loss of loyalty to the cultural community for those whose beliefs were wedded to the previous status quo.

However, most attempts by lower status individuals to modify codes of behavior are unsuccessful. Higher status individuals and their supporters typically exert influence to bring deviants back within the tolerated limits of behavior, sometimes with some elements of compromise. Dissidents have several choices available to them – comply with social pressure and cease deviant activities, continue to push for cultural change, or remove themselves from the community if, in fact, they have not already been banished. Exodus of dissidents from a community is particularly important for cultural evolution. Whether forced into exile directly by action of the community, or choosing exodus prior to expulsion, a deviant social group can fission from the community of origin and found a new cultural community with a new set of codes of behavior. This can be a significant event in cultural evolution, i.e., if the exiting group survives and flourishes. However, exile can often lead to extinction for the dissident group.

The geographic region to which a departing group relocates has implications for the evolution of its newly evolved microculture. If the deviant group establishes a new community within the same geographic region, it has the potential to compete with the community of origin, particularly if it retains the symbols of the microculture (e.g., names, references to origins, symbols), thereby challenging the identity of the microcultural brand. Notably, in the initial separation the behavioral standards of the separated communities are usually more distinct than the beliefs and practices of members of each community; i.e., the participants in the community of origin and the departed community are overlapping sets. Thus, individuals may traverse between communities and decide upon their degree of involvement in each community based on their popularity or their fit with its ideals and/or practices or, basically, their ability to provide life benefits. The movement of individuals between communities provides an opportunity for information exchange, which may result in some convergence in practices and perhaps resolution of differences. However, if the communities create barriers to communication, the effective size of each community is diminished. Therefore, with little or no overlap in membership, the survival of one or both communities may be threatened due to the inability to maintain a critical population size. Usually the community of origin has a survival advantage due to larger membership, more reliable access to material resources, and a system of practices that has been tested over time to establish equilibrium. However, this is not always the case, particularly if the community of origin has failed to adapt to changes in the encompassing macroculture, and major evolutionary change can result if the departed community displaces the community of origin in their competition.

The prospects for cultural evolution are likely to be different if the departing group migrates to a different geographic region. Migration is a normal aspect of human activity; an important determinant of the degree of difference after fission is whether the departing group is a representative (i.e., unbiased) sample from the community of origin (e.g., in terms of demographic composition, but definitely in terms of beliefs and practice). Deviant groups may seek consciously to establish a new identity in a different geographic region where the flow of individuals and information from the community of origin is minimized, thereby assisting in the maintenance of its integrity. Regardless, in many cases the departing group needs to adapt its cultural practices in varying degrees to survive in the different environmental conditions of the new location; this is particularly important if the macroculture is significantly different in the region of relocation. If successful, the establishment of a new community in a different geographic region represents the spread of the culture, albeit often with a somewhat different character (beliefs and practices), which is an evolutionary event. If the environmental conditions in the region of origin and the region of relocation are different enough and isolation from communication is maintained, the beliefs and practices may diverge to the point that adherents to each community may no longer be able to transition readily between communities; i.e., there then exist barriers to intermingling and the exchange of information as well. This rarely occurs immediately, i.e., it usually takes time for the practices to diverge.

An additional factor that affects the evolution of a culture, if it occurs, is the integration of the resident population at the site of relocation into the cultural system of the migrant community. Changes in cultural practices may result from this contact, either because the leaders of the migrant community, in an effort to achieve stability, recruit members of the local population and, recognizing the discrepancies in cultural practices between the vestigial cultural heritage of the community of origin and the macroculture of the new environment, attempt to adapt cultural practices to the new environment to a greater extent than if they had remained isolated from the new macroculture. Likewise, by residing within a new and different macrocultural environment, members of the migrant community acquire characteristics of the dominant macroculture, whether consciously or not. Over time, if local residents admitted to the micrcultural community gain sufficient influence, perhaps even leadership, they are likely to be able to modify cultural practices and beliefs further so that some semblance of the culture of origin remains, sufficient to label it as a version of the original culture (i.e., maintain a symbolic connection), but in reality the practices and beliefs have been transformed to a degree that an uninformed but objective observer may not recognize their common origin.

It is apparent that cultural evolution occurs not only by changes in cultural practices within a community, but also by the proliferation of the culture in the establishment of new communities. Therefore, a final and highly significant manner in which cultural evolution can occur is through the establishment of new cultural communities through proselytization. This occurs when representatives of a microculture introduce their culture and its practices to a culturally virgin region, usually as itinerant instructors.

Another possible means of introduction of new cultural practices into virgin territory is for residents of the unexposed region to travel to a different area where a cultural community exists, acquire the knowledge and skills of practice of the distant microculture and returned to their native community to attempt to establish a cultural practice group therein. Under both of these conditions, the course of development of the new established community is almost entirely under the influence of the local residents, and the influences of the local macroculture are substantial and likely to result eventually in a set of cultural practices that are very different from that of the community of cultural origin. In many cases these differences in cultural practices can become great enough to create barriers against integration and communication with the community of cultural origin.

Not taken into account here is information flow from a distant culture via the internet or other electronic means (i.e., prerecorded material), which excludes direct participation and therefore provides minimal exposure to cultural beliefs and practices, but does allow the partial translation of a remote culture into virgin territory. Concordance with the culture of origin is diminished significantly in these cases, with consequences for communication and integration thereby usually severely diminished. This has been primarily a 21st century phenomenon and is beyond the scope of the current post.     

In summary, there are several mechanisms by which cultural evolution may occur:         

  •    (1) Within community transformation
  •          (a) Transformation by leaders
  •          (b) By supplantation of leadership by dissidents
  •     (2) Community fission
  •           (a) Within the same geographic region
  •           (b) Emigration to new geographic region
  •                 (i) Immigrant adaptation to new macroculture
  •                 (ii) Co-option and modification by residents in new region
  •     (3) Proselytization in virgin territory
  •           (a) itinerant instructors
  •           (b) local residents who travel to existing cultural community

Population Structure and Cultural Evolution

Rarely (arguably never) does a unique microculture develop de novo, i.e., without an identifiable cultural ancestor. Usually at any point in time there is an identifiable patchwork of communities distributed over space, possibly with obscure origins. Nevertheless, there is often a significant event, perhaps centered around a specific individual, that leads to major cultural evolution, creating a new community with practices that are incompatible with the community from within which this change originated. (An example of this would be the development of Christianity from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, which evolved fairly rapidly into a new religion that was incompatible with its origins in Judaism.) However, for many cultural communities, the evolution of a unique cultural identity may be difficult to trace, as some communities may develop gradually in tandem (i.e., with intercommunication) so that distinct lines of philosophical or ideological descent from the ancestral communities to their only moderately changed descendants may be unclear.

Nevertheless, at a specific point in time it is often possible to identify a set of cultural communities that, by their related beliefs, practices, and symbols, can be considered to be descended from a common origin. These communities are distributed geographically, often with several in the same region and others separated by barren areas in which no communities representing this common cultural origin can be identified.

Geographic barriers (such as distance and unnavigable space) reduce communication between communities and this, as well as adaptation to local environmental conditions, result in cultural differences between separated communities. At some point in time, these differences may become so great that individuals from separated communities cannot participate readily in each other’s cultural practices (language difference may be a barrier but it is not the only one); i.e., these microcultures have become incompatible and although they may identify as related due to the retention of symbols (sometimes mainly linguistic) from their common community of origin, there indeed exist barriers to comingling and exchange of information. Although cultural diffusion between communities with these barriers is theoretically not insurmountable, for all practical purposes the communities become culturally isolated and can be considered to be distinct microcultures, despite retaining some manifestations of their common origin, e.g., in retention of symbols from the common ancestor.

For communities with a common origin that develop simultaneously in the same geographic region, there still exists a higher probability of intercommunication and intermingling due to proximity. The degree of information flow and intermingling between these communities depends largely upon the conditions of separation. If fission in a community occurs primarily because of expanding community size, without significant disagreement regarding beliefs and practices, although these communities may develop somewhat different practices due to, for example, demographic differences in membership, the high probability of communication and intermingling drives these communities towards homogenization or, at least, mutual accommodation. However, if fission occurs because of initial differences in beliefs and practices, then some enmity may remain that reinforces separation. In such cases, it is possible that community leaders, particularly of the departed group, will emphasize their differences from the community of origin, and use these as a rallying cry of solidarity against the other community. Multiple communities stemming from a common origin can coexist in the same environment if they appeal to different beliefs, which often equates with appealing to different demographic segments of the larger population. In essence, under these conditions, the segregated communities of common origin establish different ideological and physical niches within the same geographic region.

For a set of microcultural communities of common origin spread over a wide geographic and sometimes even ideological range, there are usually differences in rates of growth and survival. Some communities and belief systems and practices will flourish and others will struggle for survival or even become extinct. In all likelihood, propagation of a specific microculture will be due to its ability to continue to provide life benefits, adapting to environmental changes if necessary, and extinction will be due to the inability to continue to provide life benefits to its practitioners. In practical terms, communities will become extinct if they fail to provide economic benefits, benefits to (physical and emotional) health and safety, or access to sex and reproduction.

Due to cultural evolution within communities and the differential survival and growth of communities, over time the set of communities tracing by lineage and by symbolic identity to a common origin are likely to differ considerably among themselves in beliefs and practices, as well as differ significantly in this regard from the (historical) community of origin.

Relevance of Model of Cultural Evolution for Tango Social Dancing

There have been several major transition points in the history of tango that have involved the incorporation or attempt at incorporation of significant changes in tango social dance culture. These will be examined here with respect to the principles developed above. The analyses will be rudimentary at this time, although to some degree these evolutionary transitions have been discussed previously (as indicated in citations below) and will be discussed in greater detail with respect to this evolutionary model in future posts.  

The early history of tango, during the late 19th century, is obscured by the lack of accurate accounts of the practices and beliefs associated with the music and dance that was to become recognized as tango. One can assume, without strongly documented proof, that the dance met at least some of the basic needs of its practitioners. Numerous (mostly popular) accounts of the origin of tango have declared that ‘tango was born in the brothels  [BBC; Sun Sentinel; Trio Garufa], indicating that the dance provided an outlet for meeting sexual needs. Although this historical interpretation has been challenged repeatedly [e.g., Todotango; History of Tango], some refuters of the claim of the brothel origin of tango nevertheless acknowledge the presence of tango dancing in venues where sexual encounters with women could be negotiated by men (e.g., academias / pirigundines), during the late 19th and early 20th century in Buenos Aires [cf. Collier, 1995: p. 47; Benzecry Saba, 2015, pp. 41, 48]. Limited sexual access was a critical circumstance for men in Buenos Aires around the turn of the 20th century because men greatly outnumbered women in this period due to a greater proportion of male immigrants [Guy 1990: p. 40-41; Collier, 1995: p. 38]. 

In contrast, tango social dancing also has been reported as commonplace during social gatherings in the patios of conventillos (high density, low income residences) during the late 19th and early 20th century [Collier, 1995: p. 55; Denniston, 2007: p. 60; Benzecry Saba, 2015: p. 43], thereby serving a social cohesive function among families in a neighborhood, perhaps similar to that provided later by the Milonga del Barrio.

However, because of the scarcity and potential inaccuracy of the sources of information, strong conclusions regarding the adaptiveness of tango dancing (i.e., in providing significant life benefits) during this formative period will be avoided here. It also appears unlikely that universal (i.e., shared) codes of behavior were established or even specifically stated locally during this era, with the possibility that propriety was established by individual force of action rather than by consensus. Therefore, it is unlikely that tango social dancing (or its predecessor) was a homogeneous cultural system during the 19th century.

The evolution of tango social dancing from its origins into a more widely practiced set of customs during the 20th century is better documented, and will be discussed here for several major transition points, within the evolutionary framework developed above .

(1) Tango Social Dancing Exported to Europe and North America (1910s)

During the 1910s, in the years prior to World War I, Argentine itinerant travelers (wealthy young men) gave exhibitions of tango dancing in night clubs in Paris. The dance was of great interest to Parisians, although it was considered scandalous because of its overt sensuality. However, it was precisely the sensuality of the dance that appealed to the repressed desires of Europeans and later Americans who viewed it. Argentine instructors profited financially from teaching to local residents a version of tango lacking the more sexually provocative and aggressive elements of the dance, but nevertheless retaining the close embrace. (See illustrations of European and American tango dancers of that era [Cooper, 1995].) The sensuality of tango dancing provided opportunities for Europeans to transgress with some degree of titillation the puritanical moral boundaries of European macrocultures at that time (most likely more in imagination than in fulfillment), and thus the dance became widely popular with some segments of society. It is also likely that tango dancing served as a catalyst for romantic adventures, particularly for young singles. Nevertheless, there was strong opposition to the dance from guardians of the macrocultures (e.g., religious and government leaders).

The introduction and spread of tango dancing in Europe and North America, as well as societal reactions to this cultural infusion, are discussed in greater detail in Cooper (1995), Groppa (2004), and Knowles (2009).

Although initially independent (e.g., as ‘tango teas’) of the predominant social dance culture of the era, after World War I tango dancing was soon coopted by the ballroom dance establishments of Europe and North America (creating International and American versions of Ballroom Tango, respectively), thereby losing most of its sensuality (and specifically, the embrace) in the process, and consequently acquiescing to the moral standards of the dominant European and North American macrocultures. Ballroom Tango music added drums and a marching beat, shifting the emotional tone toward aloofness and away from sensuality, as Euro-American cultures continued to struggle with the sexuality of tango. A similar version of tango developed in Finland, resulting in its own unique microculture [Finnish Tango]. Greater details on this evolutionary transition were provided in a previous post.

The evolutionary processes involved in exportation of tango social dancing to a new sociocultural niche are the introduction of tango into a virgin cultural environment by itinerant travelers who, in teaching it to local residents, adapted the dance to the local macroculture by eliminating the most aggressive and sexual elements, nevertheless retaining a degree of sensuality (e.g., the close embrace) that made it attractive to Europeans and Americans. Local social dance entrepreneurs recognized the market value of tango social dancing and, in order to gain broader appeal and acceptability, further sanitized the dance (e.g., opening the embrace) in its incorporation into ballroom dance culture. A desexualized version of tango dancing was propagated throughout Europe and North America. Subsequent Argentine influence upon the development of Ballroom Tango was severely curtailed by the limitations in transportation and information technology of the early and mid 20th century, as well as by the additional burdens placed upon migration and communication due to the political and economic instability caused by the Great Depression and World War II.

Despite the removal of most of its sensual character, Ballroom Tango nevertheless retained a mystique associated with its disreputable origins that attracted people to the dance. There were life benefits accrued to Europeans and Americans who engaged with the dance. The incorporation of an enticing dance within an existing social dance culture likely increased participation in ballroom dance microculture, creating additional opportunities for the development of social relationships. Increased interest in social dancing also provided additional income for community entrepreneurs. 

(2) Tango Gains Middle Class Acceptance in Buenos Aires

It has been claimed by some [Dance of the Heart; Don Quixote; Tangology; Knowles, 2009: pp. 110, 217] that tango social dancing gained a more favorable reception by the middle class in Buenos Aires as a result of its acceptance by Europeans in the years prior to World War I. However, interest in tango dancing by middle and upper class young men had already been evident in Buenos Aires in the last decade of the 19th century [Collier, 1995; pp. 50; Todotango], although this investigation was often clandestine, i.e., at least not acknowledged to their elders. There is also evidence that by the first decade of the 20th century, there was some incorporation of tango into social dance events in middle class neighborhoods [Collier, 1995: pp. 55-57]. Upper class acceptance, although not as widespread initially, soon followed, and was already evident during the 1910s as tango dancing was spreading across Europe; at the same time tango music was becoming part of the popular music repertoire in Buenos Aires [Collier, 1995: p. 61-62].  

In the course of acceptance of tango social dancing by the middle class in Buenos Aires, there was a process of refining the movements, eliminating the rougher (or roughest) elements. The image of the primordial tango (milonga) in the last half of the 19th century that persists through oral history portrays a number of unrefined elements, such as cortes and quebradas, heel tapping (taconeos), dancing short choppy steps with bent knees, with the woman held to the man’s right side and the outstretched hands held at the level of the waist [Thompson, 2005: p. 127]. The process of refinement that coincided with acceptance by the middle class included a straightening of the posture, a lengthening of the stride, with the woman facing the man frontally and the rougher movements (cortes, quebradas, taconeos) eliminated or ameliorated. The process of refinement of the early tango transpired over several decades. As early as the 1880s, Italian immigrants had begun to transform the proto-tango dance into what became known as ‘tango liso’, characterized by an upright posture and smooth walking. This taming of the tango became more widespread in the first decade of the 20th century [Benzecry Saba, 2015: pp. 58-59], with some separation between the chests of dance partners appearing in some venues [ibid., p. 69]. According to Thompson [2005: p. 242] a codification of the transformation of tango into a smoother dance began in the late 1910s, with the publication of a manual on dancing ‘tango de salon’ in 1916. For some time, canyengue and other less refined forms of tango dancing coexisted [Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?] although separated in part by social class [Benzecry Saba, 2015: p. 59]; Tango de Salon had replaced canyengue as the stylistic variant most commonly accepted in middle class dance salons by the 1930s, at the latest [History of Tango; Thompson 2005: p. 156; Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?]. It is apparent that the transition from Canyengue to Tango de Salon was a relatively slow process that occurred at uneven rates in different environments, determined to a significant degree by social class. Undoubtedly this transformation in style of dancing was led by community leaders, individuals whose dancing served as models for imitation, and that owners of dance venues played a significant role in prescribing the boundaries for acceptable behavior in the tango social dance environment. It appears that the refinement of tango social dancing was an element in the process of migration of tango social dancing from one (lower class) social environment to another (middle class environment), i.e., as new communities were formed; however, this transformation eventually diffused back into lower class barrios as tango social dancing became more homogenized across neighborhoods in the Golden Age.

The refinement of tango, specifically the elimination of rough and sexually suggestive elements was an adaptation to the mores of the middle class macroculture in Buenos Aires. There was a tradition of social dancing in the immigrant Italian culture and tango dancing was a catalyst for social gatherings. The incorporation of waltz (vals) into the tango musical repertoire was influenced by Italian and other European immigrants retaining some of their musical heritage in a tango dance environment. The social dance gatherings, eventually known as milongas, served an important community function in allowing elder supervision of opportunities for young singles to socialize and eventually form marital and family relationships, as well as to solidify social relationships within the barrio, which had positive social and economic consequences. The greater civility of these social gatherings also eventually became apparent in the adoption of more formal attire at the milonga [Azzi, 1995: photos]. 

There were several processes involved in the evolution of Tango de Salon, the tango of the milongas. There was the foundation of new tango social dance communities as tango gained a foothold in middle class culture. There was the refinement of movements and attire in the translocation of tango to this new cultural environment in the same geographic region. There was cultural diffusion of European dance and music elements (notably waltz) into the tango musical repertoire. Finally, there was the dissemination of this more refined tango environment across all social classes, including the lower classes from which tango social dancing originated.

(3) Tango Nuevo (1990s and thereafter)

In the early 1990s Gustavo Naveira and Fabian Salas began the Tango Investigation Group in Buenos Aires (Wikipedia). This endeavor, which eventually became known as Tango Nuevo, embarked on a thorough analysis of the structure of movements in the tango dance. The result was an expansion of the existing tango dance movement repertoire, as well as creating new possibilities in the magnitude, orientation, and sequencing of movements. [See Tango Nuevo: Definition of the Dance]

There were several characteristics of this newly evolved Tango Nuevo dancing that made it incompatible with dancing in the Traditional Milongas of Buenos Aires [Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?]. The size of the movements could create hazards for other dancers on the crowded pista of the milonga. Extension of the legs away from the center of the body (e.g., linear boleo) is a clear navigational hazard. Breaking the embrace (soltadas) also consumes space and therefore creates these hazards, as well as being antithetical to a characteristic feature of tango, the embrace. Off-axis movements (e.g., volcada, colgada) create some axial instability that could interfere with the momentum of the ronda, as do other momentum breakers such as the piernazo and the back sacada. These conspicuous movements and others (e.g., ganchos, enganches) attract attention and violate the principle of avoiding exhibitionism in the Traditional Milonga [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited) ].

The attempted entry of Tango Nuevo into Traditional Milongas in Buenos Aires was met with resistance by Tango Traditionalists, most notably milonga organizers and older experienced tango dancers (i.e., milongueros). Social pressure from the defenders of Traditional Tango culture led to departure of Tango Nuevo dancers to form a new kind of environment – the Practica Nueva (e.g., El Motivo et al, in Club Villa Malcolm, Praktika X) that supported not only their manner of dancing, but also their discarding of Traditional Tango customs such as gender segregated seating, using the cabeceo for dance invitation, playing only Classic Tango music structured into tandas with cortinas, and formal and semi-formal dress codes [Merritt 2012: 74-76; see also: The Tango Practica, the Practica Nueva and the Tango Dance Party in Buenos Aires ; Milongas and Practicas: Cultural Tradition and Evolution in Buenos Aires Tango Social Dance Venues].  

Most of the members of this new microcultural tango community were younger dancers, who found the exploratory and athletic nature of Tango Nuevo dancing more attractive, and who were more comfortable with relaxation of many of the Traditional Milonga codes. The Practica Nueva provided a social environment in which members of this new community of tango dancers could mingle, allowing singles to meet without the strictures and expectations of Traditional Milonga customs, thereby mirroring more closely the customs of relationships and romance initiation to which the younger generation was accustomed outside the tango dance environment. (If one accepts the narrative in ‘Kiss and Tango’ [Palmer, 2005] as truth rather than fiction, one can imagine how tango social dance culture among youth in Buenos Aires may be associated with sexual adventure.)  Thus, Tango Nuevo created a distinct separate niche that met the needs of younger dancers, i.e., the Practica Nueva was an adaptation to a larger macroculture for a specific segment of the population.

The process of the evolution of Tango Nuevo was a radical transformation of the existing Traditional Milonga microculture, enabled by partially forced, partially voluntary fission from the parent community and segregation into a new environmental niche in the same geographic region. Communication with the parent community still existed to the extent that some members of the Tango Nuevo community could (and would at times) enter the environment of the Traditional Milonga, and were accepted as long as they comported themselves in accordance with Traditional Milonga codes. Practicas Nuevas provided event organizers and Tango Nuevo instructors associated with the practicas opportunities for income.   

(4) Modification of Stage Tango for Euro-American cultures (late 1980s and 1990s)

After World War I tango dancing in Buenos Aires and Europe / North America evolved along different paths due to a sparsity of communication. The European and American pathways integrated a sanitized version of tango into the structure of the ballroom dance microculture, whereas in Buenos Aires an intricate integrated tango culture of dance, music, theatre, and milonga customs developed.

In the mid 1980s, after the collapse of the repressive military regime in Argentina, tango dancing had a revival in popularity. One element of the revival was the reappearance of traveling stage tango productions. The show Tango Argentino debuted in Paris in 1983 and in New York in 1985 [Gazenbeek, 2008: pp. 26, 56; Wikipedia], as well as in other major European and North American cities during the 1980s and 1990s. The appeal of this show resulted in demand by members of the audiences to learn to dance Argentine Tango as it was portrayed on the stage, i.e., Tango Escenario. This led to instruction in tango dancing in numerous European and American cities, often by members of Tango Argentino, as well as by members of subsequent traveling tango stage productions. In response to the demand, Europeans and Americans were taught a version of Stage Tango, which is what they had seen, with some of the more athletic movements removed for practicality. Social dance events advertised as ‘milongas’ were organized, and on the floor one could see a myriad of movements displayed on the stage such as arrastres, boleos, calesitas, ganchos, lustradas, patadas, planeos, sacadas, sentadas, etc. [for definitions see Benzecry Saba, 2010; Tejastango], performed in a so-called ‘open embrace’ (i.e., no chest-to-chest contact), often accompanied by the absence of a distinct line-of-dance (ronda); at times the music played was not Classic Tango and was not always arranged in tandas with cortinas. These elements were in sharp contrast to the characteristics of tango dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires. This modified version of tango dancing spread rapidly throughout western Europe and North America during the 1990s, generating tango communities with local instructors, practicas, milongas, and visiting instructors, forming a new microculture of tango social dancing with its own participants; i.e., this cultural movement was largely independent of ballroom dancing or, at most, an appendage to the central focus of the ballroom dance instructional curriculum that maintained an emphasis on Ballroom Tango compared to Argentine Tango.

The exhibitionist elements of Stage Tango transposed onto the social dance floor was compatible with Euro-American conceptions of dance as an exhibitionist exercise, and the modification of Stage Tango for average dancers allowed many people to engage in fantasy, often of a flirtatious nature, that was previously not readily available to them, and something the previously created and tamed Ballroom Tango had not provided. Accompanying the culture of the dance was the adoption of Stage Tango attire – women in black or red slit dresses and fishnet stockings and men in black suits and fedora hats, with both men and women sporting decorative ‘tango shoes sold to them by traveling tango merchants. All this added to the exciting atmosphere of fantasy created by this new ‘Argentine Tango’, which bore little resemblance to tango danced socially in Argentina.

The process of evolution of tango social dancing described here consisted of translocation (of Tango Escenario) to a new macroculture, and its adaptation to the social dance floor as desired by European and American dancers. This fulfilled certain needs for romantic and sexual fantasy play that was rewarding to participants, and event organizers profited economically from providing this environment to dancers. Dancing tango in this form also created new communities of dancers, satisfying the need for socializing for many dancers.

Other Evolutionary Trends in Tango

The evolutionary movements in tango social dancing that have been discussed here were prominent in the 20th century. There certainly have been other changes in tango social dance microculture that have accompanied these movements, such as evolutionary changes in tango music, changes in the varieties of venues in which tango social dancing was hosted, and changes in the social status and role of women in tango social dancing that were significant evolutionary events or reflected significant macrocultural evolutionary trends that necessarily infiltrated the milonga environment. Not covered in this post, although discussed in detail in some previous posts, were predominantly 21st century evolutionary movements associated with tango social dancing that originated or were driven by cultural influences outside Argentina, such as Queer Tango [Queer Tango, Gay Tango, Gender Neutral Tango: Alternatives to Traditional Gender Roles in Tango], Tango Alternative Music [The Alternative Milonga (Neolonga): The Social Environment for Dancing to Tango Alternative Music], and the One Tango Philosophy [There is only one Tango], all of which, in conjunction with Tango Nuevo, can be assumed under the umbrella of Evolutionary Tango. Some of these trends will be examined again in future posts, within the perspective provided by the cultural evolution framework presented here. 

One significant difference between the first diffusion of tango social dance culture from Argentina to Europe and North America in the 1910s and the second diffusion in the 1980s and 90s is that in the latter period migration and communication continued, actually in both directions, as tango dancers from Europe and North America became tango tourists in Buenos Aires. The repeated influx of Argentine instructors and performers into Euro-American tango communities created a greater degree of homogenization of tango practices across international boundaries, although significant differences among the national / regional microcultures were retained. Difficulties in creating a unified tango social dance microculture have been discussed extensively in previous posts [e.g., Evolutionary Tango versus Traditional Tango – Part I: The Nature of the Tango Culture War; The One Tango Philosophy: Truths and Consequences; Tango Manifesto: A Declaration of the Rights of First World Tango Dancers to Have a Tango Environment Supporting Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions].

Discussion and Summary

Throughout its history, tango social dancing has provided life benefits to participants in its cultural activities. At its most basic level, the gathering of dancers, the milonga, has served as an environment for socializing among members of the community. This socializing provides a sense of belonging that is beneficial for psychological well-being, but can be extended to more salient benefits. There is the obvious economic benefit to organizers of tango social dance activities and their supporting staff (e.g., music providers, wait staff, security personnel), but economic benefits can also accrue to event attendees, independent of organizers and their support staff, when economic relationships are formed among community members within the context of socializing at tango social dance events (particularly at the Milonga del Barrio); the milonga is a place for conducting business. Indeed, prostitution in overt or subtle forms was associated with tango social dancing in Buenos Aires during its early history. There have also been economic aspects to sexual relationships that have developed out of dance relationships that would not be classified legally as prostitution, but nevertheless have involved one person providing economic support to another within the context of receiving sexual benefits in exchange. These economically based sexual relationships may not be sanctioned by community leaders, i.e., they are not incorporated into community standards, but nevertheless may exist.

More in accordance with tango community standards is the recognition that the milonga is the playing field for the formation of romantic and sexual relationships without an overt economic motive. Within the Milonga del Barrio this has been under greater community supervision and thus has been less likely to result in casual sexual encounters, but has been designed instead to foster long term romantic relationships that become part of the fabric of the community social structure (i.e., marriage and children). In contrast, the Milonga del Centro is specifically designed for the opportunity for romantic and sexual relationships of many kinds to develop. There even have evolved codes of behavior, nearly universally understood by regular participants, that signal stages in seduction, e.g., piropos (flirtation through flattery), repeat tandas of dancing with the same partner (romantic or sexual interest), and invitations for coffee after a milonga (invitations to engage in sexual activity outside of the milonga).

The implications of tango social dancing for fulfilling sexual desires are central to the understanding of the dance. Sexual fulfillment may not result in procreation, the biological basis for this drive, nor necessarily does a sexual encounter outside the milonga ensue from dancing at a milonga. The pleasure of sensuous connection with another person, or the drama of flirtation alone, may be sufficient to provide positive reinforcement for milonga attendance. Particularly with respect to Euro-American macroculture, although sexual relationships developing from dancing tango at the milonga are not as transparent as in the Milonga del Centro in Buenos Aires, in particular the motivations for engaging in tango social dance culture and the (seductive and often provocative) clothing selected by women in attending milongas indicate a desire to form romantic and sexual relationships, much as it does in Buenos Aires. With respect to Euro-American social dance culture, perhaps only the Tropical Latin social dance culture provides similar opportunities, whereas other social dance cultures such as ballroom dance and swing dancing are much more conservative in allowances towards overt sexual expression, giving tango social dancing an advantage in recruitment of those seeking romantic and sexual fulfillment.

Therefore, the worldwide success of tango social dancing is primarily due to the ability of its environment to offer opportunities for the development of romantic and sexual relationships, a basic human need. Tango communities survive because of the ability of entrepreneurs to profit from this desire. Certainly Euro-American culture has capitalized on this relationship with sexual innuendo in its tango social dance event advertising, featuring dancers in provocative garb and seductive poses.

The continued success of any tango social dance community is dependent upon maintained economic profitability of community activities, or at least the lack of economic losses, and this is dependent on continuing to meet the basic needs of participants in community activities. This requires maintaining sufficient community membership, including a balanced gender ratio with suitable demographics, in addition to providing a pleasant and rewarding dance environment. The ability to maintain community membership depends to some degree on the ability of the tango microcultural environment to find a suitable niche within the macrocultural environment and maintain it, particularly if the latter changes.

It is usually higher status individuals who initiate changes in a microculture, and these changes are gradual. This is exemplified in the evolution of tango social dancing in the first decades of the 20th century, as the more refined Tango de Salon suitable to middle class porteños evolved from the rougher Canyengue that originated in the lower classes.  

When desire for change arises among lower status individuals, there is usually resistance to change from higher status individuals, and often from the community at large. Usually the most viable option for bringing about change under these conditions is segregation, which may occur either through banishment or self-initiated exile. The formation and survival of a separate community with somewhat different cultural practices is an evolutionary event. This occurred in Buenos Aires in the 1990s with the evolution of Tango Nuevo, a space-consuming form of tango dancing that was incompatible with the Traditional Milongas where Tango de Salon was danced; aficionados of Tango Nuevo began congregating in Practicas Nuevas where many of the behavioral customs of the Traditional Milonga were abandoned. Although the newly created dance elements of the Tango Nuevo revolution eventually did not achieve widespread adoption in the tango social dance repertoire, the more relaxed social customs and styles of attire accepted by this cultural movement have been incorporated into the numerous youth milongas in Buenos Aires today.      

Another process by which cultural change often occurs is when a microculture is transplanted into a different macroculture, either by immigration or by itinerant instructors of the microculture. This has been apparent in Europe and North America, where there have been two major integrations of Argentine Tango into social dance culture that emanated from Argentine travelers who became instructors of the dance. The first, initiated in the 1910s, resulted in a sanitized, eventually desexualized Ballroom Tango. The exposure of Euro-American culture to Stage Tango, beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, provided Europeans and Americans once again a view of a more sensual form of tango dancing. This genre of Stage Tango was modified for the social dance floor and spread rapidly and widely throughout North America and Europe, mostly separate from ballroom dance culture. This Euro-American tango social dance culture subsequently evolved in many directions, incorporating several aspects of both Euro-American culture (Alternative Milonga, One Tango, Queer Tango), as well as some additional aspects of Argentine tango social dance culture (Tango Nuevo, Tango de Salon). This cultural diffusion has expanded worldwide in the 21st century, with some aspects of local macroculture influencing the specific characteristics of tango social dance customs in each geographic region. These adaptations to local culture are major determinant factors in the evolution and acceptance of tango social dance practices.

Tango social dancing is a microculture, variable across and sometimes within different macrocultures. It has survived over 120 years and has spread throughout much of the world because it meets basic human needs for forming a social community providing herd security (mostly psychosocial in today’s world) and in particular, the opportunity for romantic and sexual relationships. Because of its ability to satisfy basic some human needs, the marketing of tango social dancing is economically profitable and this permits the persistence of activities that meet other basic human needs.

References in Print

Azzi, M.S. (1995) – The Golden Age and after; pp. 114-160, in Collier, S. et al., eds.

Benzecry Saba, G. (2015) – The Quest for the Embrace: The History of Tango Dance 1800 – 1983. Abrazos, Buenos Aires.

Benzecry Saba, G. (2010) – New Glossary of Tango Dance. Abrazos, Buenos Aires.

Collier, S. (1995) – The tango is born: 1880s – 1920s; pp. 18-64, in Collier, S. et al., eds.

Collier, S., Cooper, A., Azzi, M.S., Martin, R., eds. (1995) – ¡Tango! Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

Cooper, A. (1995) – Tangomania in Europe and North America: 1913 – 1914, pp. 67-104, in Collier S. et al., eds.

Denniston, C. (2007) – The Meaning of Tango. Portico, London.

Gazenbeek, A. (2008) – Inside Tango Argentino. Published by the author.

Groppa, C.G. (2004) – The Tango in the United States. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, North Carolina.

Guy, D.J. (1990) – Sex and Danger in Buenos Aires. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Knowles, M. (2009) – The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, North Carolina.

Merritt, C. (2016) – Tango Nuevo. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Palmer, M. (2005) – Kiss and Tango: Looking for Love in Buenos Aires. Harper Collins, New York.

Thompson, R.F. (2005) – Tango: The Art History of Love. Pantheon, New York.