Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or Non-existent Tango Styles?

March 19, 2010

It is common for reviews of variation in tango dancing to identify specific named styles of dancing tango, either contemporary or historical, for social dancing or for the stage (Stephen Brown) (Wikipedia) (Igor Polk). Contemporary stylistic variation in tango social dancing, which has been given such labels as ‘milonguero style tango’, ‘salon style tango’, and ‘tango estilo Villa Urquiza’ has been addressed previously (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North AmericaTango Estilo Villa Urquiza). The focus here is on identified historical styles of tango and the extent to which they are represented in contemporary social tango dancing.

Canyengue

‘Canyengue’ is the term often used to describe the first dance recognized as ‘tango’. Canyengue first appeared in the slums at the outskirts of Buenos Aires around the turn of the 20th century and is considered to have lost its popularity by the late 1930s, when ‘tango de salon’ primarily replaced it as the predominant manner of social tango dancing. There are no historical recordings of canyengue dancing and there has been no one who danced this style in the 1930s who has been able to demonstrate it since the Tango Renaissance of the mid-1980s. Thus, all that exists to allow reconstruction of the characteristics of canyengue are oral history, some photographs and vague recollections from childhood of how some adult members of the family danced tango. Nevertheless, despite this, there is a considerable degree of agreement among those attempting to revive this historical tango style as to what characteristics define canyengue.

The recreation of the canyengue style of tango is characterized by a close embrace, but with the woman offset far to the man’s right side, facing inward towards the man’s face, typically with the man’s right and the woman’s left cheek in contact (in contrast to tango milonguero, where there is direct frontal alignment with right cheek to right cheek contact). The man’s right arm reaches around the woman’s lower back, generally just above the waist, and the woman drapes her left arm over the man’s shoulder. The man and woman lean towards each other in chest-to-chest contact, to the extent that each partner assists the balance of the other (i.e., they are not maintaining their own axis). Rather than the spine being straight (as in contemporary variations within tango de salon), the body may be bent slightly at the waist. The embrace is generally not opened, except temporarily for zig-zag corridas to the side and some turning movements. The hand to hand connection may be low, at the level of the man’s waist and there may be a pumping motion of the hand toward and away from the partner while walking, sometimes to lead pivots, although the hand position can also vary in height, even to the point of being raised high above the couple’s heads. Walking can be either with the man walking forward and the woman walking backward (or vice versa), or the man and woman both walking forward (or occasionally backward for short distances) side by side. Steps are short, with the feet generally kept close to the floor, and are typically taken with the knees bent slightly; the feet may be occasionally lifted off the floor for decoration. Vertical movement accomplished by varying the degree of bending of the knees, even to the point of bouncing somewhat, may be part of the dance. It is believed the short steps are a consequence of the long and tight dresses worn by women in the early 20th century.

The movements characteristic of canyengue are simple walks that are closely connected to rhythmic variations in the music, thus a mix of ‘slow’ and ‘quick’ steps, including corridas (runs of quick steps) progressing forward, backward, and to the side; generally there is a lot of playing with the rhythm of the music, including decorative movements with the feet, such as tapping. There are numerous stationary rocking movements (e.g., ‘la hamaca’) and other partial weight changes with forward and back movement. The shoulders may be rotated in the vertical plane so that they are not always parallel to the floor. A characteristic of canyengue is the corte – quebrada sequence, the corte being a ‘cut’ or pause in a movement (i.e., a partial weight change), and the quebrada (literally ‘break’) being a strong jerking movement that bends the woman’s spine, typically backwards, sometimes accompanied by rotation at the waist. Continuous pivoting forward and back ochos may occur at times. Absent are the cruzada, the ocho cortado, and molinetes.

The music to which canyengue is danced today is the faster 2/4 time signature tango music from the ‘Guardia Vieja’ period, which is represented by the music of such tango orchestras as Canaro’s Quinteto Pirincho (as well as some music from the earlier Canaro orquestas tipicas of the late 20s and early 30s), Firpo, and Orquesta Tipica Victor, as well as some modern orchestras recreating canyengue music such as Los Tubatango and Los Muchachos de Antes.

The characteristic of practitioners and instructors of canyengue can be seen in the following exhibitions by Rodolfo and Maria Cieri, and Marta Anton with Luis Grondona and with Manolo “El Gallego” Salvador. Pocho Pizarro and Stella Barba dance canyengue in this stage production. Contemporary promoters and instructors of canyengue include Roxina Villegas and & Adrian Griffero (website).

In its earliest years canyengue was danced on outdoor patios, probably even on dirt substrates, as well as indoors in brothels. As tango made its way into downtown Buenos Aires, canyengue was eventually danced also in cafes and night clubs.

Candombe

During the first half of the 19th century, candombe was a dance typically performed to a group of drummers in large outdoor gatherings of African-Argentines who lived mostly in the impoverished barrios in the southern part of the city of Buenos Aires at that time. Candombe represented a fusion of musical and dance traditions from the various parts of Africa from which blacks were brought to the Rio Plata region as slaves. Dancers danced separately, with no or occasional minimal contact. A detailed account of the history of candombe is available from the website of La Cuerda Trio. There is also considerable information on the history of candombe in the writings of Robert Farris Thompson’s “Tango: The Art History of Love” and Simon Collier’s “The Birth of Tango” (complete references at the end of this blog), with some of the written sources summarized here.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the compadritos (mostly white young street hoodlums) living in the outskirts (arrabales) of Buenos Aires, who had observed African-Argentines dancing candombe and other dances, began incorporating some of the movements of candombe into the developing milonga dance (itself a fusion derived to a significant degree from the polka of central Europe and the habanera from Cuba), out of which tango (in the form of canyengue) developed. Canyengue characteristics and movements attributed to candombe include walking with bent knees, bending the knees further to move closer to the ground, separation of the upper and lower body in movement, weight changes (with or without stepping) that utilize secondary accented beats or syncopations in the music, as well as cortes and quebradas, all movements of individuals that were incorporated into the couple’s dance.

From the 1940s to the present, after the canyengue style of tango virtually disappeared and tango evolved into a dance walked with a straight posture and little vertical movement (which was the predominant stylistic variation of Golden Age tango de salon), some movements of candombe transmitted through canyengue survived in the milonga of some dancers. The ‘stumble step’ characteristic of milonga danced to both primary and secondary accented beats, i.e., milonga con traspie, retained some of the rhythmic play inherited from the culture of African-Argentines. There also appeared in some milonga music composed and performed during this period either a more emphatic variation in rhythmic characteristic of the drums (although the orquestas tipicas rarely incorporated drums) – such as on Pena Mulatta & La Mulateada (Di Sarli), Carnalavera (D’Arienzo), Negrito (Canaro), Papa Baltazar (Troilo), and Flor de Montserrat (Biagi) – or some milongas that even incorporated drums into the orchestra – such as Azabache & La Negra Quiere Bailar (Calo), Carnavalito (Demare), and Candombe, Candombe Criollo, La Rumbita Candombe & Estampa de 800 (Canaro). The lyrics in these milongas often reflect on the life of African-Argentines. From the late 1940s to the late 1950s Alberto Castillo, previously a singer with the orchestra of Ricardo Tanturi, led his own orchestra which at times incorporated drums and played music with a candombe sound. A contemporary Argentine musician incorporating the rhythms of tango, milonga and candombe, as well as having jazz influences is that of Juan Carlos Caceres, whose compositions ‘Tango Negro’ and ‘Toca Tango’ are even occasionally played currently for dancing milonga at traditional milongas in Buenos Aires.

The music and movements of African-Argentine candombe have been represented in tango (particularly in canyengue) or, more specifically, mostly currently in the dance and music of milonga, but candombe is not itself an evolutionary predecessor of milonga or tango. Tango is a couple’s dance, candombe is not. The rhythm of milonga is primarily derived from the habanera, so that any candombe rhythm achieved by drumming or similar sound effects that may be added is an overlay, but does not change the underlying rhythm of milonga. Nevertheless, there is an evident African-Argentine influence upon the evolution of the tango dance and music.

In this video, African-Argentines Facundo & Kely Posadas demonstrate dancing to a milonga with a candombe rhythmic overlay provided by drums, recorded by the Alberto Castillo orchestra. This style of dancing milonga has been called milonga candombe or, in a more grammatically correct manner, milonga candombeada or milonga candombera. The dance Facundo & Kely create progresses around the floor using movements characteristic of milonga, but frequently steps to the secondary accented beats. This is considered an influence of candombe upon milonga. There are also a few breaks in the embrace and use of movements characteristic of swing and, at the end, a separation and rotation in place that may be attributable to candombe.

Many characteristics of Facundo & Kelly Posadas’ dance are similar to the milonga danced by ‘El Flaco’ Dany Garcia, from the same generation as Facundo Posadas, recorded here in an exhibition with Silvina Valz dancing to ‘Tango Negro’ by Juan Carlos Caceres. Dany Garcia is considered to be one of the most proficient contemporary dancers in the style of ‘milonga con traspie’. It appears that the stepping to secondary beats and perhaps the incomplete weight changes sometimes accompanying these steps characteristic of ‘milonga con traspie’ can be traced to influences from candombe upon milonga as early as the formative stage of tango in the late nineteenth century.

Tango Orillero

Tango orillero refers to the tango danced in the outskirts (‘orillas’ or ‘arrabales’) of Buenos Aires that developed during the 1920s or 1930s (depending on the source) and had ceased to be practiced to any great extent by the end of the 1940s. Most tango scholars consider that tango orillero evolved from canyengue; however, in contrast to canyengue, the knees are straightened, the arms are raised, and the embrace is opened for varying degrees of time. Nevertheless, tango orillero retains the high level of energy as well as the cortes and quebradas of canyengue. Also, similar to canyengue, in tango orillero the axis of the dancers is not always maintained as vertical, with forward and backward and sideways angling of the spine incorporated as movements into the dance. However, in tango orillero the feet may be lifted higher off the floor than in canyengue. Tango orillero extends upon the rapid foot movements of cangengue and more commonly uses kicks and other off-floor foot movements and thus tango orillero may have been the evolutionary path in tango in which ganchos and boleos were first developed or, if not, at least responsible for their proliferation. In some cases tango orillero incorporated lifts and may also be the point of origin of the sentada.

Tango orillero was danced outdoors in relatively large spaces and its movements did not necessarily follow a line of dance. For this and other (socioeconomic) reasons, tango orillero was banned from the indoor tango dance salons, or milongas. However certain features of tango orillero, such as embellishments of the feet, were eventually incorporated into the tango de salon of the 1940s, at least in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires where there was more space on the dance floor. It appears that some of the more exaggerated movements of tango orillero were later incorporated into stage tango.

It is difficult to find a video representation of tango orillero that most tango scholars would agree is within that genre. The best example appears to be the exhibitions of tango and milonga in this style by Virulazo and Elvira.

Canyengue, Candombe, and Tango Orillero as Tango Social Dancing in Buenos Aires and in North America

Canyengue style tango is very rarely observed in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. In some sense there is a small revival of interest in canyengue, due in part to canyengue instruction in Buenos Aires by Marta Anton and Manolo Salvador and others at MoCCA (Movimiento Cultural Canyengue Argentino). MoCCA also has sponsored an annual ‘tango roots festival’ – CaMiCando – which includes instruction in canyengue and candombe. This event is attended mostly by tango tourists. Canyengue has been taught, although infrequently, in North America by Argentine instructors Marta Anton and Manolo Salvador (and occasionally others), as well as by some North American tango instructors. Canyengue is rarely seen on the milonga dance floors in North America.

It appears that tango orillero was never, strictly speaking, a social style of tango (i.e., danced in the formal dance salons or milongas) and except for violations of milonga codes, has not and does not occur in the milongas of Buenos Aires. It does not appear that tango orillero as practiced in the 1930s is currently taught in Buenos Aires or elsewhere in the world. As such, it appears to be an extinct tango style, although its influence persists in stage tango.

Candombe per se, was never social tango or, strictly speaking, tango itself, although movements from candombe dancing were incorporated into milonga and canyengue, and the rhythmic elements of candombe have been incorporated into some music to which milonga is danced. There is instruction in candombe associated with tango workshops in both Buenos Aires (e.g., CaMiCando festival) and in North America, although it is not clear what is taught. Some workshops taught by Facundo Posadas in North America may be identified as ‘Milonga candombe’. To the degree that milonga candombeada is similar to milonga con traspie, one may commonly see milonga danced with these characteristics today in the milongas of Buenos Aires and North America.

Labeling of historical tango stylistic variation such as canyengue may serve a cultural purpose, to the degree that the resurrection of canyengue is culturally accurate, or it may serve an economic purpose for attraction of tango tourist money. The advertisement of candombe within the tango genre as a medium for instruction appears to be genuinely misleading, although one could make a case for cultural accuracy for instruction in candombe-influence milonga. Nevertheless, the tango student having knowledge of the history and cultural transmission of candombe and canyengue can with free will spend money for instruction in these areas and learn an enjoyable dance. This may not be very different from the purchase of instruction in ballroom tango, a dance manufactured by the ballroom dance academies outside Argentina that has very little resemblance to tango argentino or, for that matter, the purchase of instruction in a style of ‘Argentine Tango’ that is taught as a social dance but is not danced socially in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

References in Print

Collier, Simon. The Tango is Born: 1880s – 1920s; pgs 18-64 in: Simon Collier, Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi, and Richard Martin – Tango: The Dance, the Song, the Story. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. 1995.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Tango: The Art History of Love. Pantheon Books, New York. 2005.

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