Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression: Part I – A Rationale for Classification by Niche Adaptation

May 11, 2011

There has been much disagreement regarding the existence and differentiation of ‘tango styles’. The more common position is that there exist or have existed several distinct tango styles. For example, Stephen Brown lists several ‘Styles of Argentine Tango’ – tango de salon, Villa Urquiza, milonguero-style tango, club style tango, orillero-style tango, canyengue, nuevo tango, and fantasia (show tango). Likewise, Igor Polk lists ’11 Argentine Tango Styles’ – canyengue, salon 1910-20 / tango liso, apilado, nuevo close embrace, salon of 50s (open or close), tango nuevo, tango-colgada-style, candombe, dynamic tango, and neo tango.

Distinctions made among tango styles have focused primarily upon the physical structure of the dance – the nature of the embrace, the posture, and the movements used – and upon the musical environment and musical interpretation but, other than cursory references to geography and historical period, much less attention has been paid to the physical and sociocultural environment in which each style has been danced in Buenos Aires. The goal of this and subsequent posts on this topic is to inject into the analysis of tango stylistic variation the recognition of the physical, social, and cultural environment, i.e., the ‘environmental niche’ in which each stylistic variation is practiced, in order to demonstrate that there is adaptation of the physical characteristics of the dance to the particular niche in Buenos Aires in which a stylistic variant evolved. This interpretation can be instructive for the introduction of these stylistic variants into foreign cultural environments. It is hoped that this understanding will also decrease significantly the amount of animosity that currently exists between proponents and practitioners of different styles of tango outside Argentina.

The One Tango Philosophy

Although terminology regarding tango styles (particularly classifications similar to Brown’s) is widespread and commonly accepted, there are also those who argue against the classification of tango into styles. For example, the Atlanta Tango website, subtitled as ‘Hay solo un tango’ (‘There is only one tango’) states:

Why do we say ‘hay sólo un tango’? Because THERE IS ONLY ONE TANGO – one without strict divisions by ‘styles’; one which does not enforce a ‘close embrace’, ‘open embrace’, ‘apilado’, ‘salon’, ‘milonguero’, ‘Villa Urquiza’ or whatever ’embrace’ or ‘style’ that may be marketed to students around the world as being somehow different or better than the others. We believe that tango is tango, and to subdivide the dance into categories is limiting the enjoyment of the dance and can be confusing to the dancers – because after all, this dance is about love and acceptance- not exclusion.

Although marketing of ‘name brand’ tango styles is indeed often misleading and, in contrast, love and acceptance are admirable traits for all parts of life, these are appeals to emotions, not logical arguments contradicting the existence or selective use of different tango styles. Recognition of tango stylistic variation does not in itself advocate that one stylistic variant is better than another, only that stylistic variation exists and there are underlying reasons for the differences.

The truths and the fallacies of the ‘One Tango’ philosophy have been addressed in detail previously (There is only one Tango). The primary weakness of the ‘OneTango’ philosophy is that the stylistic differences that exist between such different genres of tango such as Tango Escenario and Tango de Salon are adaptations for different niches, e.g., conspicuous movements and drama for the stage versus compact movements and precise navigation for the pista of the milonga. In Buenos Aires this is almost universally recognized, although not always communicated (e.g., among tango instructors whose clients are foreigners) by those knowledgeable about tango.

One logical extension of the One Tango philosophy is the acceptance of coexistence of Tango Nuevo, Tango Fantasia, and Tango Milonguero on the same milonga dance floor in North America (and elsewhere around the world outside Argentina). The blurring of distinctions among tango stylistic variations is perceived and publically stated as accommodating tango diversity, a valued sociopolitical perspective in liberal democratic societies, but this fails to address the issue of the adaptiveness of each tango style to a particular environmental niche and thus does more harm than good in breeding tango harmony. Therefore, one of the most common, if not the most common, source of conflict on tango discussion groups (e.g., Tango-L) is the clash (sometimes physical) on the milonga dance floor between the styles labeled as Milonguero-style Tango and Tango Nuevo or Salon-style Tango (in reality in North America a variant of Tango Fantasia).

Tango Stylistic Differences as Individual Expression

One of the arguments often used against classification of tango by style is that ‘every dancer has his own style’. This is certainly true for accomplished dancers, e.g., those known as milongueros, each of whom interprets tango in a unique way. For example, along these lines, Jantango states “A milonguero is a self-taught dancer with his own style“.

It has been described previously that among dancers of Tango de Salon, there is nearly continuous stylistic variation along several dimensions – the angle of the axis, the alignment of partners and placement of the arms in the embrace, the distance and angle between the chests of partners, the orientation of the head relative to the partner, the length of steps, the manner of placement of the foot onto the floor in walking, among other characteristics. There are also differences among dancers in the relative frequency of use of certain movements and positions such as walking in parallel and crossed feet systems, inside and outside partner (right and left) positions, the relative frequency of use of forward and back ochos, the ocho cortado, and giros (in both directions), the size of the repertoire of movements and the degree of regularity (predictability) in building sequences. There are differences in timing, in the relative use of ‘slow’ and ‘quick’ steps and pauses, and with which movements these temporal variations are used and their predictability. There are also numerous subjective characteristics (ones that are imperceptible or inapparent from a video) such as the force applied in the embrace and in the lead, the pressure applied to the floor, the elevation of suspensions, etc., some of which may be characterized as technique (i.e., ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’) but which, nevertheless, represent individual differences among dancers, or ‘individual expression’ of tango.

However, the argument that ‘each tango dancer has his own style’, or some extension of it, also has been used frequently by proponents of Tango Nuevo to obfuscate the larger stylistic differences among various very different genres of tango. This is exemplified by the statements of Homer Ladas:

… Some folks try hard to contain tango in a box and enforce their views on others. …. The lines between stage & social dancing, past & present, and the Argentine vs. non-Argentine way are not very clear and, unfortunately, on more than a few occasions – have been abused.

The images created by language such as ‘box containment’, ‘view enforcement’, and ‘abused’ portray those with an opposing view as aggressive and intractable, which is not useful for finding resolution on this issue. Although these accusations may be true for some people, this again does not address logically the argument that distinct stylistic variants of tango exist or do not exist, i.e., ‘whether indeed ‘the lines between stage and social dancing … are not very clear’.

The Semantic Confusion regarding Tango Styles

The conflict over tango styles (‘There are distinct tango styles’ vs. ‘There is only one tango’) is based in part on different semantic interpretations of the phrase ‘tango style’. To say that ‘each tango dancer has his own style’ is to recognize that are indeed differences in individual expression of tango. However, if one were able to ‘map’ the location of dancers’ individual characteristics along the different variable dimensions, it would be possible to identify a higher density of individuals in some parts of this mapped space than in others and that there would be distinct gaps or at least areas of low density of dancers in some parts of this range of variation. The identifiable clusters of individuals with similar stylistic traits represent a ‘tango style’.

The acknowledgement that these are different levels of analysis, and that both levels of tango stylistic variation exist, can contribute significantly to an understanding of tango stylistic variation and hopefully as well to a reduction of hostilities in the tango ‘style wars’ that create animosity within and between tango communities.

Each Tango Genre has its own Niche

The concept of niche adaptation is pivotal to the arguments presented here; i.e., each genre of tango has its own sociocultural and physical environment (i.e.,  ‘niche’) to which it is adapted. This has been discussed previously for Tango de Salon, Tango Nuevo, Tango Escenario and Tango Queer and will be reiterated in part in subsequent posts.

Note that the term ‘tango genre’ has been used here as a substitute for ‘tango style’. The term ‘genre’ is formally defined as:

Genre (from French, genre: “kind” or “sort”, from Latin: genus, Greek: genos) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, based on some set of stylistic criteria.

This terminology has been used previously within Tango Voice to describe tango stylistic variation but does not appear to have been used elsewhere and thus is unlikely to be subject to misinterpretation. The reason for the substitution of ‘tango genre’ for ‘tango style’ is in part to circumvent the problem of imprecise communication associated with the multiple meanings intended for the term ‘tango style’. However, it is also to recognize that a tango genre is a range of stylistic variation that functions successfully within (i.e., is adapted to) a particular environmental niche appropriate for tango.

Nevertheless, the term ‘tango style’ will be retained for distinct stylistic variants within tango genres that can co-occupy the same niche, which coincides with the most common specific application of the term ‘style’ (or ‘estilo’) with respect to variation in tango dancing, i.e., the ‘styles’ attributed to the dancing that occurs in the milongas of Buenos Aires, e.g., Tango Estilo Milonguero, Tango Estilo del Barrio, Tango Estilo del Centro, Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza.

A Tango Classification based on Niche Adaptation

Presented here is a framework for classification of tango genres by the environmental niche to which each is adapted. This will be developed over several subsequent posts.

(A) Tango Argentino

Listed below are three genres of tango that evolved within the tango culture of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • (1) Tango (de) Salon: This is the range of tango stylistic variation that is adapted for the sociocultural and physical environment of the milongas of Buenos Aires.
  • (2) Tango (de) Practica: This is the range of tango stylistic variation that is adapted for the practica, an environment where practice towards skill improvement and experimentation are primary motivations for participation.
  • (3) Tango Escenario: This is tango adapted for the stage, or for exhibition in general, whether in a theatre, in a restaurant or café, or perhaps even for a public plaza or street corner. It is dancing for the purpose of entertainment, not for the purpose of social interaction.

(B) Tango Extranjero

Listed below are two genres of tango that evolved outside Argentina.

  • (4) Tango Ballroom: This is tango that is adapted for the ballroom dance environment, that is, International and/or American Ballroom Tango in an environment where, in alternation, other ballroom dances such as waltz, foxtrot, swing, cha-cha, rumba, and samba are danced.
  • (5) Tango Finlandia: This is the tango that evolved within the sociocultural environment of Finland.

In subsequent posts, description and differentiation of the different genres of Tango Argentino and the stylistic variants of Tango de Salon and Tango de Practica will be discussed. Variation in Tango Escenario has been discussed previously. The genres of Tango Extranjero – Tango Ballroom, and Tango Finlandia – also have been discussed in previous Tango Voice posts.

Summary

(1) Distinct tango styles such as Tango Milonguero, Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza, Tango Fantasia, and Tango Nuevo are frequently identified in tango discussions.

(2) The One Tango philosophy denies the meaningfulness of classification of tango into distinct styles, noting that each dancer has his own style, and that the dividing lines between different styles of tango are not distinct.

(3) There is often conflict between those who espouse the One Tango philosophy and those who identify distinct tango styles. This conflict is due in part to the multiple semantic interpretations of the term ‘tango style’, and could be reduced with the recognition that individual stylistic variation and distinct clusters of individuals with similar stylistic traits are two different levels of analysis of tango stylistic variation.

(4) An analysis of tango stylistic variation will indicate there are different sociocultural and physical environments in which tango is danced and a significant proportion of tango stylistic variation represents adaptation to these different environmental niches.

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