Ballroom Tango (American and International)

December 30, 2010

In the previous Tango Voice post (There is only one Tango) the argument that there is only one tango and that distinctions between them are divisive was examined. One logical consequence of the One Tango philosophy is that Tango de Salon, Tango Nuevo and Tango Escenario are considered to have legitimate rights to coexist in the same environment (presumably the ‘milonga’). The fallacy inherent in this argument is the failure to recognize that each genre of tango is adapted for a specific niche – Tango de Salon for the milonga, Tango Escenario for the stage, and Tango Nuevo for the practica nueva. Thus, although there is unity in tango because each variant shares common traits (movements and music) due to evolution from a common ancestral tango, the different tango genres have different purposes and have been sufficiently differentiated in form and function as to be incompatible within the same environment. (See: Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga? Is Tango Nuevo a Form of Stage Tango?)

The One Tango philosophy of universal acceptance embracing all types of tango under the same roof is challenged further when one extends this consideration to other genres of tango. For example, one could argue that Ballroom Tango (including both American and International styles) is also ‘tango’ (broadly defined) and that an ecumenical philosophy of tango would also include Ballroom Tango in this catholic mix. The focus of this post is to examine Ballroom Tango and its chracteristics within the context of the evolution of tango and its adaptation to specific social and cultural environments.

The Introduction of Tango into European and American Societies

Tango as a dance was brought to Paris by Argentines around 1910. By 1913-1914, prior to the start of World War I, tango had become very popular in Paris, and had spread to other European capitals such as London, Berlin, Rome, and Saint Petersburg. Tango also spread from Paris to North America at this time, flourishing primarily in New York. In contrast to the tango danced at that time in Buenos Aires, which was mostly confined to the lower socioeconomic classes, in Europe and North America tango dancing made its first inroads at the upper socioeconomic strata. Although the sensuality of tango, defined in part by its maintained close body contact and sensuous movements, was a significant part of its appeal, in order to gain acceptance within the more conservative cultural environments into which it was transplanted, the dance was modified, adapted to local tastes, thereby losing much of its unique lower class Argentine character.

With the exception of Rudolph Valentino’s performance in the 1921 silent movie ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, there is little visual documentation of how tango may have been danced after its initial transplantation and transformation in foreign cultures. However, written accounts protesting against the overt sexuality displayed in early tango exhibitions (given by both Argentine and non-Argentine performers) led to a taming of the tango, removing a significant part of its sensuality. In North America, through their teaching Vernon & Irene Castle and Arthur Murray were largely responsible for the spread of the first Americanized version of tango, which was incorporated into a teaching curriculum with other ballroom dances; the contemporary descendent, whose syllabus for instruction was developed largely by the Arthur Murray Dance Studios, is known as American (Ballroom) Tango. In Europe, the English were primarily responsible for the codification of tango within their syllabus of ballroom dances, the contemporary version of which has become known as International (Ballroom) Tango, although there was also some input into the codification of International Tango in the 1930s from German dancers. International and American Tango have become both social dances and competition dances, although competition is stressed more in International Tango and social dancing is stressed more in American Tango. American Tango is confined mostly to North America, whereas International Tango is danced worldwide wherever ballroom dancing occurs, including in North America.

After the initial cultural transmission of tango from Argentina to Europe and North America that occurred in the 1910s, there was no additional contribution to American and European social tango dancing from Argentina with respect to the tango dance that was evolving in the culture of its origin until the mid 1980s, when the tango show Tango Argentino once again exposed Europeans and North Americans to another type of tango danced in Argentina (i.e., Stage Tango).

Characteristics of Ballroom Tango

The differences between each type of Ballroom Tango and their differences from Argentine Tango can be seen in these videos of International Ballroom Tango (Competition 1) (Competition 2) and American Ballroom Tango (Competition 1) (Competition 2).

It is immediately obvious that Ballroom Tango differs from Argentine Tango in several apparent ways:

  • Posture & Connection: In Ballroom Tango, the posture is balanced backwards, with the shoulders and head pulled back, making it similar in this respect to the other smooth / standard ballroom dances – waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, and Viennese waltz. This contrasts sharply with the upright head and shoulder positions of most forms of Argentine Tango and the characteristic forward lean of Tango (Estilo) Milonguero. With respect to partner connection, there is typically right hip to right hip contact in International (Ballroom) Tango, although in American (Ballroom) Tango usually the only contact is in the upper arms. The Ballroom Tango hold is maintained with the woman’s left forearm connected to the man’s upper arm with no contact at the level of the chest, in sharp contrast to the woman’s left arm extended over the man’s shoulder with maintained chest-of-chest contact characteristic of Tango Milonguero. In International Tango the couple maintains the standard partner hold (with the relative position of the partners varied in the promenade position, described below). In contrast, in American Tango the hold between partners can be released and extended with two-arm, one-arm, and no hold positions possible, as well as a side-by-side position similar to the ‘al reves’ position of Tango Fantasia; in this respect, American Tango is similar to Tango Nuevo.
  • Walking & Floor Progression: In International Tango walking is in long sharp strides, in contrast to the smooth walking characteristic of variants of Argentine Tango (Salon, Stage, or Nuevo), with the short smooth steps of Tango Milonguero providing the greatest contrast to International Tango; walking in American Tango is smoother than in International Tango, but still lacks the gliding smoothness of Argentine Tango. In Ballroom Tango, in walking forward weight is placed first on the heels, in contrast to some Argentine Tango dancers (particularly those classified as ‘Tango Estilo del Barrio’ or, alternatively, ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’) who transfer weight first onto the metatarsals. In all types of tango mentioned here, in walking the feet are maintained close to the floor with minimal changes in elevation (‘rise-and-fall’); however, the knees are flexed more in Ballroom Tango, often visibly, whereas in Argentine Tango it would be best to describe the knees as being straight but relaxed upon weight transfer. In Ballroom Tango walking is always in the parallel feet system, with the man placing his right foot between the feet of the woman in forward walking. In Argentine Tango both the parallel and crossed feet systems of walking are utilized; when in the parallel feet system, the man usually places his feet in the same tracks as the woman’s feet (‘inside partner position’, although the ‘outside partner position’ is also an integral part of the dance). Ballroom Tango at times uses the promenade position, which bears a superficial similarity to the side-by-side walking position used in the Canyengue (Tango) that was probably danced by Argentines in Paris in the 1910s, which may be the origin of this trait for Ballroom Tango, in contrast to contemporary Tango de Salon, which does not use the promenade walk, although a somewhat similar walk has been reintroduced in Tango Nuevo. In both the competition and the social setting, Ballroom Tango is danced progressing counterclockwise around the floor, with some reverse movements conducted when space is available, although the strict ronda observed by dancers of Tango de Salon at the milonga, with no passing of other couples, in a defined line-of-dance, is not particularly characteristic of Ballroom Tango.
  • Movement Repertoire & Musicality: There are, of course, some characteristic differences in the movement repertoire used in Ballroom Tango versus Argentine Tango. Compared to American Tango, International Tango has a more limited step repertoire, defined by the English governing body, the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), with division of the step catalog into levels labeled as ‘bronze’, ‘silver’, and ‘gold’, in increasing order of difficulty. There is also a standard syllabus for American Tango, defined by the National Dance Council of America (NDCA). In both variants of Ballroom Tango, step patterns have a defined sequence of ‘quick’ and ‘slow’ steps employed in execution. In general, International Tango uses more ‘quick’ steps than American Tango. There can be pauses between movements in Ballroom Tango, although in contrast to Tango Milonguero in particular, these pauses might be reached without the feet being collected. Whereas International Tango consists mainly of snappy walking (some in promenade position) with rapid angular progressive turns and pauses accented by characteristic sharp ‘head flicks’ and/or ‘lunges’, American Tango has a more diverse repertoire, permitted largely by the opening of the hold between partners. However, in contrast to International Tango, American Tango has retained some movements derived from the ancestral Canyengue that are similar to contemporary Argentine Tango (de Salon), for example, the forward ocho (‘fan’) and ‘la cunita’ (rock steps), as well as the ‘corte‘, the latter bearing a superficial resemblance to the corte and quebrada more characteristic of Canyengue (but also used in Stage Tango and Tango Nuevo, but not Tango de Salon). Neither variant of Ballroom Tango uses the cruzada, back ochos, the grapevine (giro), boleos, arrastres, and the sandwich characteristic of Tango de Salon, nor the ganchos, volcadas, and colgadas characteristic of Tango Nuevo. In terms of musicality, in contrast to the fixed rhythmic patterns prescribed for Ballroom Tango figures, all variants of Argentine Tango allow for different rhythmic interpretations of the same movement sequence. Thus, in contrast to limited possibilities for improvisation in Ballroom Tango, Argentine Tango (specifically Tango de Salon and Tango Nuevo) provides almost infinite possibilities for improvisation along both the dimensions of space utilization and interpretation of music, with changes in rhythm and direction of movement possible at every weight change.
  • Musicality & Music: The music used for dancing Ballroom Tango differs from that used for dancing Argentine Tango (de Salon); it has a sharper, staccato, march-like rhythm, typically accented by drums and occasionally other percussion instruments, and the bandoneon is usually replaced by an accordion, although even this latter instrument may be absent. Ballroom Tango has a strict invariable tempo (about 120 beats per minute), whereas the rhythm of Argentine Tango music played at a milonga may vary between orchestras, between songs played by an orchestra and, occasionally, some degree of variation in rhythm may occur within a tango (e.g, the music of the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese during the 1950s). Ballroom Tango has developed its own tango melodies for dancing (“Blue Tango” and “Hernando’s Hideaway” are two popular melodies used for American Tango) and lyrics may be in the native language of the location of dancing (e.g., English, German, French), in contrast to the omnipresent lyrics in Spanish (with some Lunfardo dialect) in Argentine Tango music. However, some Argentine Tango melodies (in particular ‘La cumparsita’ and ‘El choclo’) have also been adapted by ballroom dance orchestras.

Thus, although both International and American Tango were derived from the Argentine Tango (Canyengue) of the early part of the 20th century, they were modified to be more similar to other ballroom dances in several ways. The embrace was opened and the balance of the frame was moved backwards onto the heels. Step sequences became the framework for learning the dance. The music lost its Argentine Tango character in the replacement of the bandoneon and the addition of percussion instruments, as well as the transformation of the rhythm to have a march-like quality. Within this process most of the seductive emotional connection between partners in the dance was lost. In International Tango in particular, there is even the appearance of an antipathetic repulsion between partners. However, the removal of most of the sensuality from tango has also made it less offensive to cultures uncomfortable with overt expressions of sexuality.

Although American Tango has retained some movements that might be traceable to Argentine Tango, International Tango has not. In its posture, partner connection, manner of walking, the movement repertoire it utilizes, and the emotional connection between partners it expresses, International Tango has evolved to be so different from Argentine Tango that a porteño who regularly dances tango at milongas in Buenos Aires, but who has not been exposed to International Tango, would probably not recognize it as tango. In fact, a reasonable argument could be made that International Tango has lost all of the characteristics that identify a dance as tango and that it no longer deserves to be labeled as ‘tango’.

An amusing but not necessarily accurate description of the differences among the various versions of tango has been provided by Chris and Terri Cantrell:

“The forms of Tango are like stages of a marriage. The American Tango is like the beginning of a love affair, when you are both very romantic and on your best behavior. The Argentine Tango is the next stage when you are in the heat of passion and all kinds of emotions consume you. The International Tango is like the end of the marriage, when you are staying together for the sake of the children.”

Sources of Conflict between Ballroom and Argentine Tango and their Resolution

By the time tango became established as a ballroom dance and its syllabus codified in Europe and North America in the 1920s, it was essentially the only tango danced in these regions. For the most part, American Tango was the social tango danced in North America and International Tango was danced socially elsewhere in the ballroom dance world. Ballroom Tango has been danced socially in ballrooms and dance studios at ballroom dance events where tango, waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, rumba, cha-cha, swing (jive), samba, and sometimes (recently) other dances such as salsa (or mambo), merengue, and hustle are included on the same music program. With rare exceptions only one of these dances is danced to a particular piece of music. In some communities both International and American styles of a ballroom dance, including tango, can be danced on the same dance floor without any inherent conflict; i.e., they coexist peacefully on the same dance floor.

When Argentine Tango was reintroduced to North America during the late 1980s and 1990s, it was typically danced at tango practicas or at events labeled as ‘milongas’, which were separate from ballroom dances, although ballroom dance studios played some role in the proliferation of Argentine Tango, either serving as a location for instruction by Argentines and even some non-Argentines specializing in tango instruction; some ballroom dance studios eventually added courses in Argentine Tango taught by resident ballroom dance instructors. In a manner characteristic of ballroom dance instruction, step lists for Argentine Tango were provided, and some attempts have even been made by ballroom dance instructors and organizations to codify Argentine Tango steps into levels of ‘bronze’, ‘silver’, and ‘gold’, reflecting taught sequences of increasing difficulty, with examinations given to certify dancers as having achieved proficiency at each level. (It is not clear whether porteños who have danced tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires for several decades would pass these proficiency examinations.) However, despite the general naïveté of ballroom dance studios regarding Argentine Tango, it would to unfair to characterize all ballroom dance instructors as unfamiliar and lacking in competence in Tango de Salon, because some do travel to Buenos Aires on a regular basis and dance in traditional milongas, as well as receiving instruction from Argentines proficient in Tango de Salon. Ballroom dance studios have also made a positive contribution to Argentine Tango outside Argentina by providing opportunities, either through providing space or through advertisement, for ballroom dancers to be exposed to Argentine Tango and many good Argentine Tango dancers have come from a ballroom dance background. However, there are major obstacles to be overcome by ballroom dancers in learning Tango de Salon, including the need to change the body posture and balance to be oriented more towards the partner, to recognize that there are no fixed figures with a fixed rhythm in Tango de Salon (if taught properly), and perhaps to be considerably less cerebral and more intuitive and emotional in dancing tango. Unfortunately these demands place many ballroom dancers exposed to Argentine Tango outside their familiar comfort zone, and they will not explore it for very long.

The environment of the milonga may also be a challenge for ballroom dancers. For a ballroom dancer accustomed to dancing 10-12 different dances, each danced to its own fixed tempo music using a variety of defined figures, it can be challenging to attend a milonga where only three basic rhythms of music – tango, milonga, and vals – are played, and only a small number of basic movements are used in dancing to each. Unable to recognize that each tango musical rhythm can encompass a wide range of variation in tempo, that each orchestra has its own unique musical qualities, including the pattern of emphasis placed within a specific rhythm (e.g., contrast Biagi vs. D’agostino vs. Calo vs. Pugliese), and unable to recognize that the small set of tango movements provides a set of tools for nearly infinite variations in improvisation, the ballroom dancer may perceive Tango de Salon as a simple, limited and sometimes confusing way of dancing and classic tango music may be perceived as being unclear, unpredictable, and therefore unrewarding to dance to. In contrast, the experienced tanguero may find the fixed tempo and fixed sequences of ballroom tango a straightjacket for an expressive spirit. Given these different expectations for dancing, it is difficult to provide a dance environment that is amenable to both sets of proclivities. A so-called ‘milonga’ that plays a nearly equal distribution of tango, salsa, and swing music (and these exist in significant numbers), intended to satisfy the tastes of all dancers, will leave the true aficionado of tango feeling incomplete, and a ballroom dance with 10-12 rhythms and perhaps only 2 or 3 tangos in an evening of dancing will be severe deprivation. Also, given the space expansive characteristics of Ballroom Tango, in contrast to the space conservation of Tango de Salon, these variants cannot be mixed readily onto any dance floor with reasonably high density without increasing the risk of collision.

Fortunately, in general there has been little conflict between Ballroom Tango and Argentine Tango, primarily because Ballroom Tango is danced at ballroom dances and Argentine Tango is danced at events called ‘milongas’. This separation of niches is similar to the separation of social dance venues for Tango de Salon (milongas) and Tango Nuevo (practicas nuevas) in Buenos Aires, which also serves to minimize conflicts between these different dance genres that could exist if mixed on the social dance floor, due to different space utilization, as well as due to different preferences for music played for dancing.

Nevertheless, upon the introduction of Argentine Tango into a dance community where Ballroom Tango already exists, it has not been unusual for dancers of Argentine Tango to be critical of Ballroom Tango as being ‘inauthentic’, although this criticism often has come from people who danced a modified version of Stage Tango or Tango Nuevo at events called ‘milongas’, something which does not occur in Buenos Aires. Thus, except for some dancers who are involved in both Ballroom Dance and Argentine Tango, the two dance communities are mostly separate from each other in either space or time, i.e., they have each acquired their own niche, which minimizes conflict.


When Argentine Tango was introduced into Europe and North America in the 1910s, it was appealing to dancers, but immediately adapted to meet the cultural expectations of the recipient culture. This led to the development of two versions of Ballroom Tango – American and International – that had characteristics more similar to other ballroom dances that to the Argentine Tango from which they were derived. When Argentine Tango was reintroduced into Europe and North America in the mid 1980s, once again the cultural background attached to the more modern tango was also ignored and Stage Tango was incorporated into the milonga. Nevertheless, the common separation of milongas from ballroom dance events allows for further input of Argentine tango culture into tango communities without needing to make compromises to the culturally different expectation of ballroom dancers.


Cooper, Artemis (1995) – Tangomania in Europe and North America: 1913-1914; in Simon Collier, Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi and Richard Martin – Tango: the Dance, the Song, the Story. Thames & Hudson, London.

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

Groppa, Carlos G. (2004) – The Tango in the United States. MacFarland & Co.; Jefferson, North Carolina.

Stephenson, Richard M. & Iaccarino, Joseph (1980) – The Complete Book of Ballroom Dancing. Doubleday, New York.

General Web References:

Chris & Terri Cantrell: ‘A Tango is a Tango – Right??

Christine Denniston: ‘Couple Dancing Begins in Europe

Diana Geribaldi: ‘El Tango Extranjero: The International Role in Creating a National Symbol’; Duke University Thesis.

Round Dancing – Choreographed Ballroom: ‘International Tango

Wikipedia: ‘Ballroom Tango