Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation of Tango Argentino in the 20th Century

November 19, 2012
  • Tango dancing was first introduced to Europe and North America in a significant way in the early 1910s.
    • The tango of Argentine origin in the 1910s was characterized by a closed embrace, differentiating it from other social dances in Europe and North America in that period.
    • Due to its sensuality and sexuality, tango was considered to be scandalous, but its character also made it popular.
    • Ballroom dance instructors, seeing the opportunity to add tango to their repertoire of dances to teach, sanitized tango, removing its sensuous features (including the embrace), thereby creating a socially acceptable dance form (Ballroom Tango) for European and North American societies.
  • During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Europe and North America were reintroduced to a genre of tango from Argentina, this time the Stage Tango of Tango Argentino and other traveling stage productions.
    • Although the tango shows exhibited sensuality and sexuality, due to the refinement (i.e., loss of roughness) of tango in Argentina over the intervening decades, as well as cultural changes in Europe and North America, the sensuality and sexuality of tango were no longer considered to be shocking.
    • The popularity of tango shows led to a demand for instruction in tango. Stage performers, as well as some Argentine tango dancers with milonga experience, accommodated this demand by teaching a modified version of Stage Tango, retaining many of its exhibitionist characteristics (e.g., ganchos, high boleos), while sacrificing the embrace.
    • Direct instruction by stage tango dancers was supplemented by the creation of tango instructional videos. In this regard, Daniel Trenner created the ‘Bridge to the Tango’ instructional video series, which included instruction by stage performers as well as by milonga experienced dancers of Tango de Salon, as well as tango instructional videos with Trenner and his partner Rebecca Shulman, the latter couple representing a style of tango dancing that was predominant in North American in the 1990s – a modification of Tango de Salon Estilo del Barrio, with the embrace eliminated. Trenner also traveled widely throughout North America to seed the development of tango communities.
  • The absence of the embrace in tango social dancing in North America in the 1990s indicates that despite the sexual revolution of the 1960s, North Americans were still uncomfortable with promiscuous social dancing in a close embrace.
    • Thus, the cultural diffusion of tango to North American and Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s was a biased representation of tango as danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Almost entirely absent from milongas in North America and Europe during this period was tango danced in an embrace, in particular the Tango de Salon Estilo Milonguero that was predominant in the milongas of Buenos Aires.


Tango as a social dance was born in the Rio de Plata region of South America (specifically in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay) in the latter part of the 19th century. Today some evolutionary derivative bearing the name ‘tango’ exists as a social dance form in many countries around the world.

This post begins a series of articles on the trans-cultural diffusion of the tango dance, as practiced within Argentine culture, to foreign cultures, particularly those in Europe and North America.

The Initial Diffusion of Tango to Europe and North American prior to World War I

The first era of the diffusion of tango beyond the region of origin was in the years just prior to the onset of World War I (approximately 1910-14). It is commonly believed that the first infusion of tango into a foreign cultural environment was in Paris during this time, the result of young and wealthy Argentine men who were temporarily residing in Paris.

The overt sensuality and sexuality of the Argentine Tango of this era was both attractive and scandalous within the cultural context of European middle and upper class society. Along these lines, Mark Knowles (The Wicked Waltz and other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couples Dancing in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, McFarland & Company, Inc, London, 2009) states (p. 111):

When wealthy young men from Argentina introduced the dance to their Parisian hosts, the risqué, aggressive nature of the dance intrigued and titillated the more modern-thinking French. Unlike the acrobatic French Apache which had piqued earlier interest, but was too dangerous to actually attempt, the naughty tango was accessible. It was a dance even a socialite could do…. Although the dance was an instant hit in Paris and in other towns in France, the overtly sexual aspect of the dance, as it was first presented in French cabarets, shocked as many as it intrigued.

Artemis Cooper [‘Tangomania in Europe and North America: 1913-1914 (in Tango: The Dance, the Song, the Story; Simon Collier, Artemis Copper. Maria Susana Azzi, Richard Martin, eds; Thames and Hudson, London, 1995)] also describes the reaction of Parisian society to the introduction of tango (p. 76):

Dances for couples are always designed to enhance the masculinity of one partner and the femininity of the other; but not until the tango has Paris seen a dance that gave so much scope for overt sexuality…. On first seeing the tango danced, the Comtesse Mélanie de Pourtalès leaned towards the distinguished académicien seated next to her and murmured ‘Is one supposed to dance it standing up? In 1913, tangomania had reached even the most fashionable salons, causing shockwaves in French society. The ballet-master of the Opéra, among many others, condemned it as an atrocity.

The sensuous nature of the tango, a novelty for social dances within polite European society, was also the characteristic of the tango that made it attractive as entertainment in night clubs and theaters across Europe. However, the tango dance spread not only as entertainment, but also as a social dance to European capitals such as London, Berlin, Rome and Moscow, as well as to New York, New Orleans, and other cities in North America.

Although the tango danced in Europe and North America prior to World War I often has been described as ‘sensual’, ‘risqué’, ‘provocative’, ‘indecent’, ‘shocking’, and ‘scandalous’, precise descriptions of the physical characteristics of the dance are often lacking. Nevertheless, some clarity is provided by the following statements:

The tango transformed conventions and scruples: women who, a few years earlier, would not have left the house unaccompanied, lost the fear instilled by their mothers; and allowed themselves to be closely embraced by dancing partners who were often unknown to them. (Ardy de Carbuccia, Du Tango à Lilly Marlene, Paris, 1987; quoted by Cooper, op. cit. p. 77.)

In the United States, a characteristic response of the clergy to the tango is represented in this very descriptive statement:

Two young people interlocking knees and putting their chests together and then pushing each other other across the floor with a ducklike walk are not dancing. (‘Dancing of Tango barred by Dean of the Cathedral’, Anaconda Standard, Anaconda, Montana, March 7, 1914; quoted by Knowles, op. cit., p.126. )

A review of the European tango postcards and show posters of this period provided by Cooper (op. cit.) and Knowles (op. cit.) supports the conclusion that the tango of this period was danced in a closed embrace. These images, in conjunction with the available quotes above, demonstrate that the maintained close physical contact characteristic of tango, contrasting with other social dances, was at the very least part of the reason for tango being unacceptable to many guardians of the social mores at that time.

Although film of actual tango dancing in Europe and North America during this period does not appear to be available, Rudolph Valentino’s interpretation of the dance in ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, with an unknown degree of authenticity, at least confirms the characterization of tango as a dance with close physical contact.

World War I disrupted the gaiety associated with social tango dancing in Europe. However, in the years before and after the war, the ballroom dance establishment in Europe and North America saw an opportunity to include the popular tango within its repertoire of social dances, but in order to have more widespread appeal that accommodated the social mores of its supporting clientele, the tango was stripped of its sensuality, so that it lost its resemblance to the primordial tango born in the barrios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Vernon & Irene Castle, popular ballroom dance instructors in New York, were instrumental in sanitizing tango for safe distribution to ballroom dancers in the United States. A characteristic feature of tango that was lost in this adaptation was the embrace. In its accommodation to ballroom dance standards (and prevailing social mores) of the time, the embrace was replaced with holding the partner at arm’s length, thus removing from tango one of its most objectionable features. [For a more detailed account of the incorporation of tango into the ballroom dance repertoire in North America, see Carlos G. Groppa, The Tango in the United States: A History; McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC, 2004.]

Somewhat independently, a form of tango developed and flourished in Finland that became an integral part of Finnish folk culture, including tango songs that were not tied directly to the Finnish Tango dance.

During the Golden Age of Tango in Argentina (1920s – mid 1950s), in which period tango music and dance co-evolved to a form still predominant in the tango social dance culture of Buenos Aires today, the influence of Argentine Tango upon foreign cultural derivatives of tango (mostly Ballroom Tango) was minimal if not non-existent.

Tango Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation after the Tango Renaissance

During the period of oppressive political regimes in Argentina during the late 1950s, the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, tango as a social dance had been suppressed and marginalized and, to a significant degree, driven underground. With the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983 and the subsequent introduction of democracy, tango social dancing (i.e., at milongas) was revived in Argentina. The revival of tango during this period has been labeled as the ‘Tango Renaissance’.

It was at this time that the second wave of worldwide trans-cultural diffusion of Argentine Tango as a dance was initiated by the stage production ‘Tango Argentino’. In 1983 ‘Tango Argentino’ opened in Paris, and in subsequent years in numerous cities throughout Europe and North America (Anton Gazenbeek – Inside Tango Argentino: The Story of the Most Important Tango Show of All Time; published by the author, 2008). ‘Tango Argentino’ was well received by the viewing audiences. In a review in the Parisian newspaper Le Mond (November 13, 1983), Tango Argentino was described (as reported by Gazenbeek, op. cit., p. 33):

Between men and women with the sound of monotonous chants charged of sensuality. The scenario is always the same: approach, seduction, hesitation, conquest, heat, rebellion and finally death…. The men have the look of macho seducers and the girls have the incandescent glance which gives shivers everywhere.

Upon its debut on Broadway in New York in 1985, there were similar reviews (Gazenbeek, op. cit, p. 60-61):

Dancers … grab their partners and whip into high-stepping, sexy action. A woman’s leg rises slowly from under her satin skirt, telegraphing an unmistakable message. It lowers, then pauses, caught and kissed by a partner’s extended foot…. (New York Times; October 10, 1985)

The people in ‘Tango Argentino’ mean business, and the business is passion. The true tango turns out to be a mini dance-drama, formal and abandoned, austere and sensual, intricate and elemental, explosive and implosive. (Newsweek; November 18, 1985)

The shifting choreographic patterns were like the flaring up and ebbing away of emotions…. Occasionally dancers simply walked or glided enticingly. But feet could also caress the floor and the air and stamp with petulance and exuberance. In some sequences, the feet hurried forward, then paused, but not for long; and when they started up again, they darted back and forth like adders’ tongues. Little kicks to the side and constant changes of direction suggested the wiles of worldly people who were virtuosos in the art. (New York Times; July 7, 1985).

Absent from these reviews were terms like ‘shocking’, ‘indecent’, and ‘scandalous’. Social mores in Europe and North America had changed. The sexual revolution of the 1960s redefined possibilities for sexual expression. Sexuality portrayed in dance was no longer shocking. However, tango had also changed. It was no longer the rough and aggressive Tango Canyengue of 1913. The Golden Age of Tango in Buenos Aires had refined the dance and made it socially acceptable. In the smooth movement of the dancers, as well as in their elegant attire, the stage tango of Tango Argentino reflected that refinement, even in its more sensuous and seductive scenes. However, at the same time, in its dramatic portrayal of sexually-charged sensuality and its demonstration of physical prowess, ‘Tango Argentino’ provided audiences vicarious pleasure, creating a yearning for enactment of tango-derived fantasies. The fact that tango was known to be a social dance (but not known to be very different from the dance portrayed on the stage) permitted those fantasies to appear attainable. This was a major component of the popularity of ‘Tango Argentino’ and the dance it portrayed.

The success of Tango Argentino led to other traveling tango shows such as ‘Tango Por Dos’ and ‘Forever Tango’. These traveling tango shows created a desire for instruction in the tango portrayed on the stage and prominent tango performing artists such as Juan Carlos Copes, Eduardo Arquimbau, Carlos Gavito and Osvaldo Zotto, as well as many other tango stage performers, began teaching tango in Europe and North America. What was taught was some pared down version of stage tango without the acrobatics, without the drama, but including basic movements – walking, the salida, cruzada, resolution, forward and back ochos, the sandwich, giros, sacadas, barridas, ganchos, boleos, plus adornments, danced in an open frame, i.e., without the embrace of Tango de Salon. Neverthless, this adaptation of stage tango for the social dance floor became known as ‘salon tango’ in North America. It was this influence of stage tango productions and their performers’ teaching that led to the formation of hundreds (if not thousands) of milongas worldwide during the 1990s. Tom Stermitz, tango instructor and organizer in Denver, commented on the characteristics  of tango social dancing in the mid 1990s:

In 1994 in the US, 90% of tango was done in a wide-open embrace full of ganchos and big boleos. This was not at all typical or authentic for Buenos Aires milongas.

The Influence of Argentine Tango de Salon on the Evolution of Social Tango in North America in the 1990s

Despite the significant impact of stage tango on the development of social tango subsequent to the exposure of Europeans and North Americans to stage tango productions, the influence of the Tango de Salon of Buenos Aires was not negligible. A prominent figure in spreading tango as a social dance in North America during the 1990s was Daniel Trenner, who often has been called the ‘Johnny Appleseed of Tango’. Trenner had visited Buenos Aires numerous times in the late 1980s and 1990s and had seen tango at milongas and tango on the stage. In an article called ‘The Argentine Social Dance’, Trenner differentiates between social tango and stage tango:

There is a distinction between two esthetics of tango dance which is not always so clear outside Argentina. Salon tango involves improvising each step according to the nuances in the music, and, like any other social dance, it involves communicating each decision to your partner. Fantasy tango is theatre, choreographed for the stage.

In Argentina the quality of dancing does not depend on how many steps you know…. Inventive ways of using the known vocabulary to interpret the music is judged to be superior dancing. Efficiency in movement, doing more with less, and the most subtle changes in the displacements of feet are what bring the murmurs of appreciation from an educated audience.

Trenner created a ‘Bridge to the Tango’ series of instructional videos that introduced dancers outside Argentina to the tango danced by Argentines. The influence of instructional videos easily can be overrated, in that they function primarily to provide a model for imitation rather than understanding, and they accomplished that in the absence of direct contact with tango instruction, which was limited in the 1990s. Tango instructional videos also provided local community tango instructors who had experienced direct tango instruction with a visual record for development of a teaching syllabus. Thus, in the era prior to YouTube, when a visual record of tango dancing was not readily available, the videos in this series had a significant impact on tango dancing in North America.

Included in the Bridge to the Tango series are instructional videos of Argentine Tango de Salon (i.e., tango as danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires) by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi and Silvia Ceriani (video), whose dance is representative of Tango Estilo Milonguero, with its maintained enclosed embrace, and by Mingo, Esther & Pablo Pugliese (video), and by Ernesto Norberto ‘Pupi’ Castello & Luciana Valle (video), whose dances, as portrayed in these videos, are representative of Tango Estilo del Barrio, with its movement into and out of the embrace. Notably, in the instruction in these videos, Tete discusses the embrace whereas Mingo and Pupi do not. The Bridge to the Tango catalog also provided instructional videos from other genres of tango not adapted for the milonga environment, including Stage Tango [e.g., by Fernanda Ghi & Guillermo Merlo (video), by Osvaldo Zotto & Lorena Ermocida (video), and by Pablo Inza & Veronica Alvarenga (video)] and Tango Nuevo (e.g., by Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli, by Norberto ‘El Pulpo’ Ésbréz, and by Gustavo Naveira & Olga Besio). In the series of videos of Argentine dancers, the distinction among the different genres of tango is usually reasonably clear, at least to the informed dancer, although these were undoubtedly few in number.

Within the Bridge to the Tango instructional video series there are several videos with instruction by Daniel Trenner and Rebecca Shulman that were quite popular in North America during the 1990s (and somewhat thereafter). There are 3 videos (V101-103) that cover levels I-III of Argentine Tango, and 2 videos (V104-105) of ‘close embrace’ ‘milonguero-style’ tango and milonga. This is where the distinction between the Argentine Tango de Salon and its culturally modified derivative danced without an embrace are not well differentiated. For example, in this (V102) recording of a studio performance, not only do Trenner & Shulman dance without embracing, in a manner uncharacteristic of milongas in Buenos Aires, but they repeatedly exchange the man’s (leading) and woman’s (following) roles in their demonstration, something that is never seen during social dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

Trenner & Shulman also offer an additional instructional video (V107) that is devoted exclusively to ‘The Exchange of Lead and Follow’. The description provided in association with this video states:

Either as a method for improving your knowledge of the tango, or as the beginning of a new way of social dancing, the material is both challenging and fun.

Fun it may be, but Argentine Tango de Salon this is not.

In the third video of the instructional series (V1003), Shulman reports that during the 1940s and 50s in Buenos Aires, the use of ganchos was considered vulgar in the milongas with the highest standards and their use could result in ejection from the milonga; she continues that most foreigners are familiar with ganchos from stage tango and that ganchos are rarely used in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. Trenner reports that he and Shulman agree with the codes of social dancing. They then embark upon an extended instructional session on the use of ganchos in tango. This kind of instruction, despite its caveats, has contributed to the legitimization of the use of ganchos in tango social dancing. This, along with abandonment of the embrace and the exchange of lead and follow, represent significant departures from Argentine Tango de Salon in its modification in a foreign culture. Thus, in planting the ‘appleseed’ of tango across North America, whether by conscious intention or by subconscious evasive action against the demanding confinements of the embrace in the recipient culture, the predominant message communicated is that tango can be danced at a milonga without embracing and still be legitimately labeled as ‘Argentine Tango (de Salon)’. That Trenner has taught mostly the tango without an embrace as demonstrated in the Bridge to the Tango instructional videos (V101-103) is supported in this post to Tango-L by Tom Stermitz, who had studied extensively with Trenner in the mid 1990s [words in square brackets added]:

Daniel [Trenner] teaches social tango, but nobody would ever call him a Milonguero Style teacher or dancer. I HAVE seen him teach milonguero style (like Susana [Miller] or Tete), but only occasionally in more advanced classes. Daniel almost always taught and presented social tango as an improvisational, dance with pivoting ochos and grapevines, an approach that owes more to the “salon” tradition in general rather than the “milonguero” one in specific. He had many inspirations, but I always felt his analysis or teaching methodology owed most to Gustavo [Naveira] and Mingo [Pugliese] circa 1995.

The widespread avoidance of the embrace in dancing tango in North America in the 1990s is remarkable within the context of a post sexual revolution culture, yet it indicates that the sexual revolution was largely granting permission to express sexuality in public by display at a safe distance (the revealing clothing and stylized flirting represented in stage tango) but still struggled with discomfort in a maintained chest-to-chest contact. Of course, some dancers chose to dance tango in an embrace, and some had the opportunity to learn from Trenner & Shulman and the Bridge to the Tango videos in this regard, but this was a minority of tango dancers in North American during the 1990s.

A recurring tango event that had a significant impact on the development of social tango in North America was the Stanford Tango Week, held annually from 1991 to 1997 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California (link). The instructors included Argentine stage dancers (Eduardo Archimbau, Juan Carlos Copes, Nora Dinzelbacher, Jorge & Rosa Ledesma, Pablo Veron), Argentine salon dancers representing Tango Estilo del Barrio (Danel & Maria Bastone, Juan Bruno, Graciela Gonzalez, Esther & Pablo Pugliese, Jose Vazquez ‘Lampazo’) and various North American instructors, including Daniel Trenner & Rebecca Shulman. Absent from the teaching roster were representatives of Tango Milonguero, the predominant style of tango danced in a maintained closed embrace in the milongas in the center of Buenos Aires. The Stanford Tango Week was responsible for training many local community instructors throughout North America during the 1990s, at a time when there were few local tango instructors, thereby perpetuating the virtual absence of tango danced in an embrace. Thus, in the relative absence of Tango Milonguero, there was a bias in the transmission of Argentine Tango de Salon to North America. The only exception to the predominance of Tango Estilo del Barrio appears to have been the San Francisco Bay Area, where Tango Estilo Milonguero was danced in significant numbers.

Summary and Conclusions

There have been two major waves of trans-cultural diffusion of tango to cultures outside the Rio de Plata region of its origin. In the first wave, in the 1910s just prior to World War I, when Europe and North America were exposed to tango, the rough and sensuous tango (canyengue) of the time was met with shock, given the more conservative mores of those times, yet at the same time there was a strong attractive element in the dance. The discordance between the overt sensuality and sexuality and the social mores of the time was resolved by the ballroom dance establishment intervening to sanitize the dance, stripping it of its sensuality while retaining the ‘tango’ name and some characteristics of its movements and the musical melodies to which it was danced. Thus was born Ballroom Tango, which exists to this day as an aberrant deformation of the original tango dance.

The second wave of trans-cultural diffusion of tango began with the tour of the stage production ‘Tango Argentino’ in Europe and North America during the 1980s. After the sexual revolution of the 1960s, European and North American societies were no longer shocked by the sensuality depicted in ‘Tango Argentino’ and subsequent touring tango stage productions, but tango itself also had evolved within Argentina to become a more refined dance, with smooth and elegant movements replacing the roughness of the Tango Canyengue to which European and North American societies had been exposed prior to World War I. It is perhaps also notable that the ritualized sensuality and sexuality in Stage Tango provide some safe emotional distance for imitators of this dance form. Women tango dancers in Europe and North America wearing the revealing clothing characteristic of tango stage productions that they might not otherwise wear, engaging in a (perhaps pseudo) courtship ritual within dramatic pauses and across locked feet and legs, could express a limited but safe amount of sexuality now permitted after the sexual revolution.

In contrast, the maintained close embrace of Tango Milonguero could be more threatening. In sharing breath and heartbeat, with cheeks perhaps even touching and exchanging perspiration, while moving in rhythmic unison in time and space, this stylistic variation of Tango de Salon indeed can become the ‘vertical expression of a horizontal desire’ (quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw) that so attracts, excites, and frightens those who experience its seductive power. However, from another cultural perspective, the tango embrace is more powerful for people who don’t normally embrace, which may explain why some people are attracted to this form of tango. While not denying the sensuality and potential sexual power of a warm tango embrace, it should also be noted that Argentines normally embrace each other perhaps several dozen times daily and tango dancing is just an extension of something that is already familiar and comfortable.

Although the absence of Tango Milonguero in tango social dancing in the 1990s may be attributable to some degree of discomfort with the maintained closed embrace, a culturally definable taboo even in the post sexual revolution period, the most logical explanation for the widespread absence of tango danced in an embrace is biased cultural transmission, combined with some degree of cultural selection. In the tango instruction they received, during the 1980s and 1990s European and North American dancers were taught a pared down version of stage tango. Outside the Argentine socio-cultural environment, tango dancers in foreign cultures accepted this as accurately representing Argentine social tango. However, the acceptance and proliferation of this modified tango occurred because it met certain needs for individuals adopting it (the cultural selection aspect of the spread of tango). Unlike their predecessors 70 years earlier, who saw a need to adapt tango in order to accept it, Europeans and North Americans found an environmental niche on the social dance floor for this modified stage tango they were taught, without recognizing the discordance between form and environment compared to the culture of origin.

During the 1980s and 90s Europeans and North Americans were also exposed to Tango de Salon, in the form of Tango Estilo del Barrio, although most tango dancers of this era did not understand the distinction between the two genres of tango because Tango Estilo del Barrio contributed most of its movements to Stage Tango. However, one subtlety that seems to have been lost in the transmission of Tango Estilo del Barrio to Europeans and North Americans during the 1990s is that Tango Estilo del Barrio is basically still a man walking in an embrace with a woman to classic tango music (The Essence of Tango Argentino), a walk that may be interrupted by turns in which the embrace is loosened, in which adornments may be brought into the dance, whereas the aspects of Tango Estilo del Barrio that seem to have been transmitted most successfully to European and North American dancers have been what happens when the embrace is opened, i.e., the sacadas, sandwiches, boleos and adornments, the characteristics of this style most visually apparent in Stage Tango. The familiarity of tango dancers with named steps and a ‘step list’ in ballroom dance probably assisted in the differential acceptance of certain aspects of Tango Estilo del Barrio into the overall expression of tango social dancing in the recipient cultures; i.e., the perception that social dance consists of a series of learned steps and sequences transformed tango social dancing in Europe and North America into a series of named steps and sequences rather than recognizing it as an improvised dance.

Despite early trends largely ignoring its existence, Tango Milonguero, the tango of the maintained embrace, has been given its time and opportunity for infusion into European and North American culture. This process will be examined in a subsequent post.