Tango Estilo del Centro (Tango Downtown Style): Reclaiming the Term as a Replacement for Tango Milonguero

July 12, 2011

During the early 1950s, at the end of the Golden Age of Tango, two somewhat distinct styles of tango were being danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires [Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)]. The tango danced in the outer barrios, particularly those in the northern and western parts of the city where the floor density at milongas was lower, as well as its descendant form today, are characterized by linear walking interspersed with turns when space is limited. Movement is smooth, with few changes in tempo, except that there may be pauses between movements. This style of tango is typically danced in an upright posture in a closed embrace that may be opened slightly for forward ochos and turns. Turns can be accented with elaborate footwork including such elements as sacadas, arrastres, boleos, dibujos, toe taps and touches, and the sandwich. An example of this style of tango is given in this demonstration by Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen. During the Golden Age this style of tango was simply referred to as ‘Tango (de) Salon’. It is currently being promoted as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, although this style of dancing was neither unique to the barrio of Villa Urquiza during the Golden Age, nor is it the predominant style of tango danced in Villa Urquiza today (Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza). Given that this style of dancing tango was prevalent throughout the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the latter part of the Golden Age, the term ‘Tango Estilo del Barrio’ is recommended as a more appropriate term than ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ [Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)]. Although Tango Estilo del Barrio is not very common in the milongas of Buenos Aires today, an idealized portrayal of this stylistic variation is portrayed in a staged milonga setting from the film ‘Tango: Baile Nuestro’.

During the latter part of the Golden Age, a different style of tango was evolving in the milongas in the central (“downtown”) part of the Buenos Aires. In the smaller and more crowded confiterias and night clubs where tango was danced, a more compact tango evolved. In this style of tango and its descendant forms, the embrace is maintained in the closed position throughout the dance, usually in a posture with a slight forward lean. Movements are smaller, with less ornamentation, and although turns are used, they are often interrupted with a change of direction, thus, the widespread use of the ocho cortado that serves this purpose. Movement is also varied with the rhythmic variation of the music by the alternation of slower and rapid movements (‘slows’ and ‘quicks’). In the 1950s this style of tango was referred to as petitero, caquero, confiteria style, or tango del centro. Today this style of tango is most commonly referred to as ‘tango (estilo) milonguero’ in Buenos Aires and ‘milonguero style tango’ outside Buenos Aires (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America), terminology attributed to tango instructor Susana Miller (Denniston), who has popularized her interpretation of this style of tango in Buenos Aires and throughout the world. The terminology ‘estilo milonguero’ refers to the milongueros who created this style of tango dancing in the milongas in downtown Buenos Aires. There is also an occasional reference to this style of tango as ‘Almagro style’, referencing the club where Miller taught tango in the early 1990s. At times the term ‘tango apilado’, referring to the forward postural lean of this style, is used as a synonym for Tango Milonguero, although the fallacy in the focus upon this characteristic of the dance has been discussed previously (Is Tango Apilado equivalent to Tango Milonguero?). An example of this style of tango is shown in this demonstration by Osvaldo Centeno & Ana Maria Shapira. An example of a milonga where almost everyone is dancing Tango Milonguero is shown in this recording of ‘La milonga del los consagrados’ at El Centro Region Leonesa in the barrio of Constitucion, near downtown Buenos Aires.

The Primary Problem with the Tango Milonguero Label

One problem with applying the Tango Milonguero label is that not all milongueros (people who have devoted a significant part of their lives to dancing tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires) dance a similar style of tango. This is certainly true at the individual level in that each milonguero has his own characteristic way of dancing, his own individual expression of tango. Nevertheless, there are certain traits that many dancers in the milongas of Buenos Aires have in common, and it is the existence of distinct clusters of dancers with similar definable traits that identify a style of tango (Tango Styles, Genres, and Individual Expression). The label Tango Milonguero has been applied to one cluster of stylistic variation of tango, the style of tango that evolved in the milongas in downtown Buenos Aires in the early 1950s. However, what the term ‘milonguero’ attached to this label implies is that the style of tango represented (taught, demonstrated, or identified) by this term defines the way milongueros as a group dance. This objection has been raised previously by Christine Denniston. What Tango Milonguero as a defined style of tango does not include as its practitioners are men who have devoted a significant part of their lives to tango (thus, milongueros) who dance the style of tango that developed in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the Golden Age (i.e., Tango Estilo del Barrio). Thus, the term Tango Milonguero is exclusionary in failing to include within its definition the style of tango danced by milongueros such as Gerardo Portalea, Ricardo Ponce (El Chino Perico), Miguel Balmaceda, and Puppy Castello, whose styles of tango are representative of Tango Estilo del Barrio. In addition, as will be discussed below, what has generally been defined as Tango Milonguero does not encompass the entire range of stylistic variation danced by milongueros in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires in the 1950s. The fact that there have existed milongueros whose style of dancing does not fit within the range of characteristics defined for Tango Milonguero brings into question the validity of the label for the defined style of tango it represents and terminology less misleading than Tango Milonguero needs to be sought.

Tango Estilo del Centro as an Alternative Label for the Downtown Style of Tango

Although high milonga floor density was a primary determinant in the development of the compact maintained close embrace stylistic variant of tango that has been labeled as Tango Milonguero (with the anonymity of the singles scene in downtown Buenos Aires milongas being a contributing factor) (Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga), in the 1950s stylistic differences in dancing tango were largely associated with geography. The term Tango Estilo del Barrio reflects the fact that the more ‘open’ style of tango of the 1950s (embrace may open, movements more spacious) developed in the neighborhood clubs. Likewise it would seem logical to label the style of tango that developed in downtown Buenos Aires in the 1950s as ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’. This name was used to some degree historically to label this style of tango (Tango-L post). In a recent YouTube video (no longer available) of Horacio Godoy teaching in Moscow, he also used the term ‘tango del centro’ to describe this tango style.

One obstacle in using ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’ as an alternative term for ‘Tango Milonguero’ is that performer and tango instructor Daniel Lapadula already has been using this label for marketing his interpretation of the downtown style of tango. Lapadula’s website offers video clips of segments from his ‘Tango Estilo del Centro’ instructional DVD as well as some exhibitions he has given at various venues. A more intensive examination of the DVD reveals that the style of tango taught is not what is usually defined as Tango Milonguero. There is a forward postural lean and an extended arm position in the embrace that is characteristic of Tango Milonguero, but there is a ‘V-form’ to the embrace with the open side (man’s left) opened somewhat and contact maintained only on the closed side of the embrace (man’s right); the woman is offset to the man’s right and faces inward towards his face, unlike the orientation of the woman’s face over the man’s right shoulder with cheek-to-cheek contact characteristic of Tango Milonguero. The dance itself improvises on the rhythm of the music with frequent use of rock steps and alternation of quicks and slows, which is similar to Tango Milonguero.

Lapadula’s perspective on his version of Tango Estilo del Centro vis-à-vis Tango Milonguero is evident from the following interview posted on his website:

(A. F.):¿Cuál sería la diferencia entre el “del centro” y el “milonguero”?

(D. L.) : En realidad, quien lo llamó estilo milonguero, lo hizo mal. Porque el milonguero, es el tipo que va a las milongas. El estilo que quisieron imponer como milonguero, si recorrés y sos de conocer la noche, te vas a dar cuenta de que, de mil personas que estamos reciclando todas las milongas, quizás un cinco por ciento baila milonguero, si llega. Se globalizó el nombre. A distintas formas de enseñar se las llamó milonguero. Milonguero es lo que en un principio hizo Cacho Dante, Teté y Susana Miller. Buscaron un cierre plano de hombre y mujer apilados, pero totalmente apilados. Entonces al no tener espacios no espacios de salida laterales, o caminatas por fuera. Entonces buscaban pasos, lineales, pero en base a esa figura. A no tener espacios para el movimiento. Entonces no hay pivote, porque el pivote no permitiría mantener la línea paralela. Sin juzgar, juzgar no me interesa, yo soy quién soy y llegué a dónde llegué, no me interesa lo que hagan los demás; poniendo eso como pauta, por lógica te diría que, primero, el abrazo es desigual, porque un lado está abrazado y el otro está abierto o en resistencia. Entonces, si hay algo que no está cuadrado, como simétrico, no se puede bailar simétrico.

This is translated as follows:

Interviewer: What would be the difference between ‘el centro’ and ‘milonguero’?

Lapadula: In reality, whoever called it ‘milonguero style’, made a mistake, because the milonguero is the guy who goes to the milongas. The style that they want to impose as ‘milonguero’, if you go around at night and count, of 1000 people cycling through all the milongas, perhaps 5 percent dance milonguero, if it’s even there. The name has been globalized. There were different forms of teaching that were called milonguero. Milonguero is that which Cacho Dante, Tete, and Susana Miller did in the beginning. They sought to include men and women dancing apilado, but totally apilado, with no space to go to the side or walk outside. Then they were looking for linear steps but, at its foundations, a figure. But not having space for movement, there is no pivot, because the pivot would not permit maintaining the parallel alignment. Without judging (I am not interested in judging), I am who I am and I have arrived at where I have arrived, I am not interested in what the others may do; with that standard, logically I would like to say that, first, the embrace is asymmetric, because one side is closed and the other is open, or in opposition. Then, if there is something that is not aligned, as in symmetric, it is not possible to dance symmetrically.

Thus, Lapadula argues against the validity of the ‘milonguero style’ on two main grounds – first, that is not prevalent in the downtown milongas. However, an examination of a recording of dancing in Lo de Celia, a traditional milonga where the downtown style of tango predominates, will reveal that the embrace that characterizes Tango Milonguero predominates. Only one couple (at around 1:55, identifiable by the woman wearing the red blouse) has an embrace similar to that used by Lapadula & co-instructor Dolores de Amo in their instructional DVD. Lapadula’s second reason for dismissing Tango Estilo Milonguero is that the embrace is symmetric. Certainly thousands of dancers have not found this to be illogical and it is indeed the preferred embrace among dancers at milongas in Buenos Aires today. This does not negate the validity of dancing with a partially opened embrace; it is a stylistic preference that can be functional. However, Lapadula’s arguments against the Tango Milonguero embrace are no more than a personal opinion.

A different opinion on the degree of offset of the embrace is provided by Denniston:

The thing that makes this style exciting is the connection within the couple and the musicality of the dancers. Quite quickly I started to notice people finding ways of manipulating the close embrace in order to maintain an emotional distance from their partners. Most particularly I noticed people not dancing directly in front of each other, but with the follower away to the leader’s right. This was certainly not my experience of dancing with people who had danced this style in the 1950s. They always were directly in front of me, as were almost all the dancers I danced with who had been dancing in the Golden Age, whatever the style.

demonstration by Lapadula & de Amo from the instructional DVD is a reasonable representation of a type of tango that could occur in a crowded milonga in Buenos Aires today. However, in some respects the movements demonstrated in this DVD do not appear to be adapted to navigation in crowded downtown Buenos Aires milongas. Although the relatively compact movements and frequent changes of direction, including liberal use of the ocho cortado, would appear to function in this respect, most movements are demonstrated with an assumed linear forward progression of couple in the ronda, which is not characteristic of crowded (or even not so crowded) downtown Buenos Aires milongas, where the man basically navigates much of the time keeping the woman’s back to the outer edge of the floor, with progression in the direction of movement of the counterclockwise circulating ronda occurring primarily due to sideways left movements of the man and only occasional forward movement in the direction of the ronda (Milongueros Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires). Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro also violates milonga codes at times in the inclusion of such movements as quebradas, ganchos, and puentes (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics), which are more characteristic of Tango Escenario (Stage Tango / Show Tango / Exhibition Tango / Tango Fantasia / Tango for Export). Another demonstration from the instructional DVD incorporates these fantasia elements while also opening the embrace during turns, in contradiction to the claim in the first instructional segment of the DVD that the embrace is never opened in Tango Estilo del Centro. Thus, Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro at times represents the tango danced in the crowded milongas of downtown Buenos Aires and at times does not. Lapadula appears to be the only tango instructor using Tango Estilo del Centro as a label for this style of tango.

The Relationship of Club-Style Tango to Tango Estilo del Centro

Given the characteristic traits of Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro, Stephen Brown’s commentary on ‘club style tango’ is interesting:

Club-Style Tango.
Club-style tango has the rhythmic sensibilities of milonguero-style tango, but it uses a more upright posture, separate axes and close embrace of the Villa Urquiza style of tango. Club-style tango is danced with an upright posture with the two dancers maintaining separate axes while embracing closely in an offset V. The couple loosens their embrace slightly on their turns to allow the woman to rotate more freely and pivot without requiring much independent movement between her hips and torso. If the woman rotates her hips through the turns independently of her upper torso, the embrace need not be loosened as much.… Club-style tango uses the ocho cortado and other rhythmic figures that are found in milonguero-style tango. Possibly a rhythmic variation of the Villa Urquiza style of tango, some people regard club-style tango as a mish mash of styles rather than a separate style. Club style tango can also identified as Tango Estilo del Centro, referring to its current use in the central area of Buenos Aires….

How Are the Milonguero and Club Styles Related?
As described above, the styles are very similar. Club-style tango was danced in some of the clubs de barrios during the 1950s, while milongueros were dancing somewhat different styles in central Buenos Aires. These facts suggest that milonguero- and club-style tango may have developed at about the same time. Eduardo Arquimbau, a leading dancer of club-style tango, claims that several of the better-known milonguero-style dancers took lessons in club-style tango from him during the 1950s. His claim has led some to raise the possibility that club-style tango may have played an important role in the development of milonguero-style tango.

Except for the element of upright posture, Brown’s description of ‘club style tango’ is similar in many respects to the Tango Estilo del Centro portrayed by Lapadula. Brown implies that ‘club-style tango’ developed in los clubes de barrio (i.e., in the outer barrios) and that Tango Estilo del Centro (and possibly Tango Milonguero) may be derivatives that developed in downtown Buenos Aires.

Eduardo Arquimbau’s perspective as someone who danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires during the 1950s is significant here. Linda Valentino of Los Angeles reports that:

… Eduardo is also one of the great milongueros of his generation – the guys who grew up dancing in the milongas of the early-mid 1950s. He is one of the teachers most responsible for the worldwide popularity of the “club” style tango (or milonguero style, confiteria style, close embrace, apilado – whatever your preferred term is).… This style is very rhythmic, very close, and VERY FUN.

This web page continues with Valentino’s report (and translation) of Arquimbau’s words:

Tango of the ‘50s (what we variously refer to as club, milonguero, apilado, close embrace, etc.) is danced without separation, using the “contra-tiempos” and lots of “playing” with the rhythms. It does not pause and does not use a lot of complicated figures and adornos.

A demonstration given by Gloria & Eduardo Arquimbau after a workshop on ‘club-style tango’ (from a privately circulated recording) reveals that with its maintained closed embrace in a forward leaning posture, and compact movements improvising on rhythmic variation in the music and employing rocks steps and the ocho cortado, the style of tango demonstrated falls within the range of variation typically described for Tango Milonguero (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America). A recording of a similar demonstration of tango (without mention of style represented) at another workshop shows similar characteristics. (Note that in the milonga demonstration in this recording Gloria turns her head inward towards Eduardo’s face, which is not characteristic of Tango Milonguero, as usually defined.) These recordings of tango demonstrations by Gloria & Eduardo, specifically referred to in the first demonstration as ‘club-style tango’ are somewhat different from the club-style tango described by Brown and different from the Tango Estilo del Centro danced by Lapadula.

Tango Estilo del Centro as an Umbrella Term for all Downtown Tango Styles

The high floor density in downtown Buenos Aires milongas during the early 1950s was highly influential in the evolution of tango stylistic variations where movement was compact with rapid, rhythm based changes of direction (i.e., rock steps and the ocho cortado), and the embrace was maintained in the closed position throughout the dance. In the milongas of Buenos Aires today, most dancers have these traits as the foundation of their dance, as is evident in the recordings of La Milonga del Los Consagrados and Lo de Celia Tango Club referenced above. Yet there is still variation around this core set of traits, particularly in the nature of the embrace, in that there is a range of variation in the degree of postural lean (from upright to balanced forward), degree of offset (from centrally aligned to offset to the right), the angle of the contact (shoulders parallel to a ‘V-frame), the orientation of the woman’s head (from over the man’s right shoulder to directed inward towards his face), the degree of extension of arms around the partner (e.g., from woman’s arm on man’s biceps to draping over his right shoulder to cross the midline of his back), and the height of the man’s arms reaching around the woman’s back (from at the shoulder level to below the shoulder level).

Tango Milonguero (as it is usually defined by its promoters and adherents) occupies a particular sector in this range of variation – forward lean, centrally aligned, shoulders parallel, woman’s head oriented over the man’s right shoulder with her left arm draped over the top of his shoulders, man’s arms reaching across the woman’s back at the height of her shoulder blades. This is the most common stylistic variant of tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires today, as is seen in this video of a milonga at Lo de Celia Tango Club, a traditional milonga near downtown Buenos Aires.

In another sector of this range of stylistic variation is a second set of traits seen at times in the milongas of Buenos Aires today – upright posture, offset to the right, V-frame, woman’s head directed inward toward the mans’ face with her left arm contacting the man’s upper arm or extending slightly beyond to contact the right side of his back below the shoulder blade, and the man’s arm holding the woman’s back below the shoulders. This second point on the range of stylistic variation is close to Brown’s description of ‘club-style tango’. Add a forward lean to the posture and a more complete and higher extension of the arms around the partner and this is Lapadula’s Tango Estilo del Centro (assuming the ganchos, puentes, and quebradas are dropped).

Given that there are small differences between these points on the continuum, as well as dancers whose traits fill in the space in between these points, these minor stylistic variations are still part of a cluster of related traits, one that is distinctly different from the smoother style (i.e., accenting rhythmic variations less), with more pauses and liberal use of adornments, that opens the embrace for turns, that is labeled here as Tango Estilo del Barrio. The question raised here is what is an appropriate name for this style of tango that evolved in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires during the 1950s? The Tango Milonguero label is misleading because not all milongueros have danced this way, and also because as usually promoted, Tango Milonguero includes only a part (albeit the most common contemporary variant) of the range of variation in the downtown-derived style. Brown’s description of ‘club-style tango’ is another less common part of contemporary variation, and it is different from Arquimbau’s ‘club-style tango’ (which appears to be essentially Tango Milonguero), so ‘club-style tango’ is not a good choice as a label for this cluster of related stylistic traits.

It is suggested here that the entire cluster of tango stylistic variation characterized by compact, rhythm-based movements in a maintained closed embrace, an evolutionary descendent (with perhaps some undetectable and unverifiable changes) from the style of tango that developed in the milongas of downtown Buenos Aires in the 1950s be called, very simply, Tango Estilo del Centro. This label pays tribute to its origins and complements the labeling of the style of the outer barrios in the 1950s as Tango Estilo del Barrio. This is a distinction made, perhaps only informally, by porteños in differentiating between these distinctly different styles of Tango de Salon by their geographic origin. Labels such as Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza and Tango Milonguero are terms coined later, in the Tango Renaissance period of the 1990s, and have been shown above to be inaccurate and misleading.

There are several obstacles to the proposition that Tango Estilo del Centro replace Tango Milonguero as a label for the compact, rhythmic, maintained closed embrace style of Tango de Salon. Perhaps the least formidable is that Lapadula has been using this label for some years. Since his appropriation of this term has not led to a propagation of other instructors teaching the Lapadula syllabus using this label, there is not a long and widespread tradition of use of this terminology with which to contend. The expansion of the term Tango Estilo del Centro to include the entire cluster of related downtown-derived tango stylistic variation (at the very least the variations demonstrated and/or described by Lapadula, Brown, Arquimbau, and Miller) seems to be both fair and logical.

The greatest obstacle to replacing the terminology Tango Milonguero with Tango Estilo del Centro is the widespread use of the label Tango Milonguero. The term Tango Milonguero has expanded beyond the disciples of Susana Miller and La Academia Tango Milonguero to include numerous other instructors, as a perusal of Buenos Aires tango periodicals Buenos Aires Tango, El Tanguata, and Diostango will reveal. Perhaps it is not that important what name is used, as long as people understand what stylistic variation is included under a label. However, as long as styles of tango danced by some milongueros from the past and present eras do not fall into the cluster of stylistic variation defined as Tango Milonguero, the appropriateness of this label needs to be questioned. Perhaps with repeated use Tango Estilo del Centro will become a preferred alternative to Tango Milonguero.

Future Tango Voice posts will continue to use the label Tango Milonguero to refer specifically to the sector of related stylistic traits that are characteristic of this variant, as defined above. Henceforth, the label Tango Estilo del Centro will refer to the larger cluster of stylistic variation that characterizes the tango that developed in the downtown milongas of Buenos Aires in the early 1950s and its contemporary descendants, including Tango Milonguero.

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