Definition of Tango: Where are the Boundaries in Contemporary Tango (Stage Tango / Tango Nuevo / Contact Improvisation Tango)?

February 2, 2011

The Task of Defining Tango

Those who attempt to define tango walk through a political minefield, facing potential attack from those who consider themselves to be creative innovators forging the future evolution of tango, as well as those who consider themselves preservers of a cultural tradition with immutable core characteristics. This is a contemporary controversy, as several new directions in the evolution of dance and music are currently being explored, appropriating the name ‘tango’. The relevance of this controversy is that it determines to a significant degree the norms and ranges of variation in dancing and music that exist at events advertised as ‘tango’, and the freedom of expression of individuals who attend these events. This post concentrates on identifying the characteristics of the dance that define it as tango, as well as recognizing when a dance is not tango, even if it is labeled as such. In this light, contemporary evolutionary trends in dance labeled as ‘tango’ will be examined with respect to their adherence to the defining characteristics of the dance and thus the credibility of labeling these evolutionary developments as ‘tango’. The goal is to contribute to truth in advertising of events as ‘tango’.

What will not be examined here are historically extinct forms of dance that have been classified as tango, such as canyengue and tango orillero, which have been discussed previously (Canyengue, Candombe and Tango Orillero: Extinct or non-existent Tango Styles?). Also not examined here are foreign derivatives of early 20th century Tango Argentino, in particular American and International Ballroom Tango and Finnish Tango, which have also been examined previously, as these are relatively stable descendants of tango with clearly defined niches that do not impinge upon the identity and integrity of Tango Argentino to any significant degree.

The Defining Characteristics of Tango as a Social Dance (Tango de Salon)

Tango has evolved in Buenos Aires as a social dance, and the unique characteristics of the tango social dance in Buenos Aires form the basis for definition of tango and thus its differentiation from non-tango forms of dance. What is danced today in the milongas of Buenos Aires – Tango de Salon – is universally recognized as tango. Although there are and have been historically stylistic variations due to individual proclivities and micro-geographical (i.e., neighborhood) differences, since the Golden Age there have been certain common characteristics of Tango de Salon (The Essence of Tango Argentino).

The foundations of Tango de Salon are a man embracing a woman and leading her in a linear walk connected to the rhythm of tango dance music from the golden age of tango (1930s – 1950s). The characteristic walk of tango is light and level, with smooth strides close to the floor, pulsating with the music, elegant in having clearly defined lines and collection of weight into a point. This walking can be inside or outside partner, in parallel or crossed feet. When walking inside partner in parallel feet, the man and woman share the same track, i.e., there is no offset to one side. This walking is done respecting the space of other dancers on the pista by participation in a progressive ronda. Where there is insufficient space to continue walking in a straight line, turns are employed, typically turns of the woman around the man whose spatial position changes little (i.e., the molinete). Walking, turning, and other optional movements (described below) are combined in unique sequences and varied with the music in an improvised manner. These are the unique, defining characteristics of contemporary tango as a social dance that differentiate it from other dances.

Thus, the defining characteristics of Tango de Salon are:

  • (1) a closed embrace between man and woman
  • (2) the man leading a woman in a smooth and level linear walk close to the floor,
  • (3) the man leading the woman to turns around his stationary position when space for linear walking is unavailable,
  • (4) the connection of the above characteristics to tango dance music from the golden age of tango (1930s – 1950s)
  • (5) improvisation with respect to varying timing and use of space in the creation of sequences of movements
  • (6) maintenance of the movements utilized within a progressive ronda

This is an operational definition, in that a particular dance can be viewed and evaluated reasonably objectively with respect to the degree to which it meets these criteria. These can be considered necessary and sufficient criteria for the definition of a dance as Tango de Salon or, at the very least, the characteristics of a mature Tango de Salon (with developing dancers in the process of acquiring these traits). In addition, there are characteristic movements – the forward ocho, the back ocho, the ocho cortado, the cruzada, the sacada, the boleo, the barrida, the sandwich, the calesita, as well as various decorative movements  (i.e., adornos) – that, with rare exception, differentiate tango from other dances. However, these movements are neither necessary nor sufficient to define a dance as tango.

Shown here are representative improvised demonstrations of the two most prevalent variants of Tango de Salon, the predominant contemporary variant usually classified as Tango Milonguero, and the mostly historically important Tango Estilo del Barrio.

This demonstration of Tango Milonguero by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani to the tango “El recodo” by the orchestra of Rodolfo Biagi shows the characteristic tango walk interspersed with turns that define Tango de Salon. Characteristic of Tango Milonguero, there is a maintained close embrace and minimal use of adornments.

This demonstration by Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen to the tango “Anselmo Acuña el resero” by the orchestra of Carlos Di Sarli is an example of a variation of Tango de Salon that was popular in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires during the 1950s (‘Tango Estilo del Barrio’, which is currently undergoing somewhat of a revival and reincarnation on the teaching circuit as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’). It also shows the alternation of linear walking with turns that characterizes Tango de Salon. It differs from Tango Milonguero in core characteristics in that the closed embrace is released for the execution of molinetes. There is also a tendency to utilize more embellishments in Tango Estilo del Barrio than in Tango Milonguero.

It should be noted that even under moderately crowded floor density at a milonga, it may be possible to move forward in the ronda only for short distances. Under these conditions, the molinete plays a more prominent role in the improvisation of tango sequences. An example of this is demonstrated in this video of Carlos Velino & Marta Frasia dancing at the Lo de Celia milonga in Buenos Aires. Additional videos of Tango de Salon danced in the milongas are referenced in the previous Tango Voice post ‘Milongueros Dancing in the Milongas of Buenos Aires’.

There are other contemporary genres of dance that are called ‘tango’ that are not Tango de Salon. They often incorporate elements and characteristics of other dance genres and to varying degrees lose the connection with the foundations of tango at its evolutionary point of divergence – the milongas of Buenos Aires. Several contemporary genres of dance labeled as ‘tango’ are examined below with respect to the degree to which the defining characteristics of Tango de Salon exist within representative dances of each genre. The argument is made here that another genre of dance is legitimately classifiable as ‘tango’ in the more general sense when it is built upon the defining characteristics of tango represented in Tango de Salon. All core characteristics of Tango de Salon need not be present, but there needs to be a clear incorporation of at least some of these core characteristics that is evident in observing the dance. The most important of these is the characteristic tango walk. Without the tango walk, a dance is not tango of any kind. Another important characteristic of tango is that it is danced to tango music, i.e., music with the identifiable rhythmic characteristics of tango. Thus, employment of movements characteristic of tango to music that is not tango music is not a tango dance. However, setting the minimum requirements of a characteristic tango walk danced to tango music as defining tango is considered restrictive and intolerant to some contemporary dancers who appropriate the term ‘tango’ to label their dance that has deviated from this core, as will be seen below.

Stage Tango as an Adaptation (or not) of Tango de Salon

Stage Tango (Tango Escenario) has taken the core characteristics of Tango de Salon of the milongas and modified and elaborated upon them, designing the dance to be outward directed and entertaining for an audience. Social tango movements have been expanded in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions, accelerated and often presented within a dramatic context. In doing so, predetermined choreography has replaced the improvisation of Tango de Salon, and the ronda, the counterclockwise line-of-dance, has been suspended. Although some elements not used in Tango de Salon are characteristically employed in Tango Escenario (e.g., breaking open the embrace and partner separation, ganchos, high boleos, quebradas, al reves position), and the prominence of the close physical connection between partners (i.e., el abrazo) is usually reduced in frequency, in Stage Tango there is still the recognizable tango walk and molinetes closely connected with tango music (albeit music sometimes not used for tango social dancing, such as Piazzolla or later Pugliese).

Examples of Stage Tango that primarily use movements derived from social tango are seen in the following performances by well-known Stage Tango dancers:

Osvaldo Zotto & Lorena Ermocida, in their first performance to “Gallo ciego”, represent for the most part Tango de Salon (specifically Estilo del Barrio), i.e., smooth walking interspersed with molinetes, modified for exhibition by an opened embrace, larger movements and adornments lifted off the floor; the second performance, to “Derecho Viejo”, although deviating further from Tango de Salon in adding ganchos, lifts and dips, and some breaks in partner hold, still has as its foundation linear walking interspersed with turns.

The performance of Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran to “A Evaristo Carriego” emphasizes heavily the drama and passion of man – woman interaction, yet the dance itself is largely linear walking and molinetes generously decorated with embellishments.

These stage performances are considered within the Argentine tango culture to represent tango, because the walking and turns that form the foundations of the dance are based on the movements utilized in Tango de Salon. Nevertheless, because of its enlarged movements, choreography, suspension of improvisation and the ronda, and emphasis on dramatic interaction, Tango Escenario is clearly recognized as a genre of tango with a different niche – the stage or other performance platform – from the Tango de Salon of the milonga.

As Stage Tango has evolved over the years, it has incorporated more and more movements from other dance genres – in particular, ballet, modern dance, and jazz. However, at some point the incorporated elements can dominate the tango elements to the point where the foundations of tango are no longer apparent. In this scene from the stage production ‘Tango Fire’, except for about 3 seconds of fragments of molinetes, there are no elements of Tango de Salon in the performance. The music – Astor Piazzolla’s “Verano porteño” – is recognized as tango music, albeit not music for social dancing, but it is tango music nonetheless. However, dance movements made to tango music are insufficient for classification of dance as ‘tango’; the movements need to be movements characteristic of Tango de Salon – the linear walking of man and woman in an embrace, interspersed with turns – something that is absent in this performance in Tango Fire.

Also consider this performance, labeled as ‘Tango-Danza-Teatro’ (tango dance theatre) and danced to music by ‘neotango’ ensemble Narcotango, in a production directed by Pablo Inza, a recognized instructor of Tango Nuevo. There are no movements of Tango de Salon in this scene and the music is unlike any music generally identified as ‘tango’, even the music of Astor Piazzolla. The director is associated with tango. The ensemble playing the music has ‘tango’ in its name. The music it plays may be classified by some as ‘neotango’ or, more specifically, ‘electrotango’. This performance is labeled as ‘tango’, but neither the dance nor the music has any features characteristic of the Tango de Salon of the milongas of Buenos Aires. It is not tango. It needs another name to differentiate it from tango.

Evidence (or lack thereof) of Tango de Salon within Tango Nuevo

Tango Nuevo is characterized by improvisation in the exploration of the spatial dimensions of the dance in and around partners. It is recognizable and differentiated from other genres of tango by movements that are more or less specific to Tango Nuevo, e.g., the volcada and the colgada. Nevertheless, despite these innovations, in its evolution Tango Nuevo has built upon the foundation of Tango de Salon, with walking and molinetes forming a major part of the exhibitions of the pioneers of Tango Nuevo. This can be seen in the following videos.

This demonstration by Pablo Inza & Moira Castellano, recognized instructors of Tango Nuevo, to the classic tango “Poema” by the orchestra of Francisco Canaro, relies to a significant degree on movements characteristic of Tango de Salon – walking inside and outside partner in both parallel and crossed feet along with some molinetes including sacadas. What is different from Tango de Salon is the changing embrace, from the closed embrace of Tango Milonguero to the shift to the side with mutual forward walking characteristic of Canyengue to the al reves position adopted from Tango Fantasia. Also borrowed from Tango Fantasia are planeos and high boleos. Lacking in this demonstrations are the lifts and drops and other elements from other genres of dance that have been incorporated into Stage Tango. Almost every movement used in this demonstration traces its evolutionary origins to various genres of tango that had already expressed themselves by the mid-1950s, the end of the Golden Age of tango. It is not Tango de Salon, but a convincing argument cannot be made that it is not tango.

This demonstration by Gustavo Naveira & Giselle Anne, recognized pioneers of Tango Nuevo, to the classic tango “El adios” by the orchestra of Edgardo Donato, consists primarily of movements from Tango de Salon – walking with molinetes with sacadas – but adds some ganchos, a few quebradas and more variability in the embrace, including partial (one hand) and complete release of the hold between partners. Nevertheless, just as in the Inza – Castellano demonstration, all movements used had appeared within accepted tango genres by the end of the Golden Age.

In this demonstration by Homer & Cristina Ladas, recognized North American instructors of Tango Nuevo / Organic Tango, to a live orchestra adaptation of Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”, the foundations of Tango de Salon are abandoned in order to accommodate a cornucopia of movements commonly utilized in Tango Nuevo – colgadas, volcadas, boleos (contra boleos, linear boleos), sacadas (forward & back), ganchos and enganches, barridas, dibujos, and foot paradas, along with splits, lifts & carries, drags, underarm turns and other soltadas. Some of these movements are indeed incorporated on a few occasions into fragments of molinetes and one can even see a few segments where walking in both parallel and crossed feet is interspersed within the cascading display of Tango Nuevo movements. However, this is almost entirely a parade of Tango Nuevo elements rather than a demonstration building on the core characteristics of Tango de Salon. It is noteworthy that Homer’s walk has some characteristics inconsistent with the tango walk of Tango de Salon. There are times when he lands on his heel with his toes angled upward from the floor and there are other times when he lifts his foot off the floor and lands it straight downward onto a flat foot (i.e., heel and toe making contact simultaneously). Homer also spends a considerable portion of the dance with his knees bent and his feet apart, in contrast to the elegant walk landing on a straight leg and collecting feet characteristic of Tango de Salon, something that is maintained in the Stage Tango performances of Osvaldo Zotto and Carlos Gavito, and in the Tango Nuevo performances of Pablo Inza and Gustavo Naveira referenced above. This extensive collection of optional tango movements within a few fragments of walking and turning plus, in particular, the abandonment of the smooth elegant walk of Tango de Salon essentially disqualify this performance from classification as ‘tango’. It may be very creative and pleasing to the audience, but it is not tango.

The following demonstration by Nick Jones & Rebecca Shulman also stretches and transcends the boundaries of what is usually identified as tango. (Jones lists recognized Tango Nuevo instructors Norberto ‘El Pulpo’ Esbrez and Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli as his influences.) First, the music – by classical music composer Erik Satie – is clearly not tango, which would automatically disqualify it as a tango dance. Dancing in bare feet defies the traditions of Tango de Salon. With respect to the movements, there are some elements borrowed from the standard Tango Nuevo repertoire (e.g., the volcada, the calesita, the gancho, the sacada), but just as adding ballet movements to a tango show does not convert it into ballet, the insertion of movements associated with tango into a dance does not automatically qualify it as tango. The quality of tango most noticeably absent from this demonstration is the smooth and close to the floor tango walk. Jones’s bent knee, often lunging walk is uncharacteristic of tango. Shulman, also maintaining a bent knee position during much of her walking, keeps her feet elevated in a suspended position for much of the dance, also uncharacteristic of tango. There is also too much vertical motion in the walking movements, in contrast to the low vertical variation inherent in the tango walk. Although this is listed and described on You Tube as ‘tango’, it is not and clearly has been mislabeled. This labeling sends the wrong message to those naïve about tango.

Contact Improvisation Tango

Contact improvisation is defined by Daniel Trenner as:

CI is a form of partner dancing based upon the laws of physical motion. Dancers give and receive weight, fall and fly, and sharpen their intuitive powers, as they follow the energy phrases and flows of their dancing.

In recent years, there has been an intended fusion of contact improvisation dance with tango dance. Javier Cura is an Argentine-American living in Berlin who teaches workshops in contact improvisation tango. Cura claims to have

A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO TANGO”- Contact and Tango are two dance forms that focus on the relation to the other and on the circulation of energy between them. Using the dynamics of fluids as an image metaphor for this dance (ascending and descending spirals round an axis or fulcrum) we will bring together elements of these two dances to create a richer and more liberating form of physical expression.

From tango we’ll borrow :
– The clarity of axis and the use of spirals – The interplay of balances and counter balances – Rhythm and melody

From Contact improvisation we’ll borrow:
– Falls, levels, grounding, lifts – The conscious use of centripetal and centrifugal forces – The free body relation to the earth.

A good tango walk has a clear axis, movement with balance, and connection to the rhythm and melodic phrasing of tango music. These are part of the core essentials defining a dance as tango. An examination of the videos referenced here will identify whether these core characteristics are retained when merged with contact improvisation.

A workshop on Contact Improvisation Tango by Cura is captured in this video. For those who are naïve about tango, The YouTube label ‘tango1’ informs the viewer that this is tango. This video may serve to negate anyone’s impression that tango is a serious dance. However, there are no elements of tango in the movements – no walking, no molinetes – and no tango embrace. The music is not tango, even by the most generously liberal classification. There is no rational justification for calling this dancing ‘tango’.

Javier Cura & Leilani Weiss give a performance labeled as ‘ContacTango’ in this video, which has the music of the Narcotango group played in the background. (It is not clear whether this music was being played when the dancing was occurring.) If one examines this video closely, one can see a few sacadas, enganches, back ochos, and fragments of molinetes, mostly in the early part of the demo, but the movements in general resemble a staged wrestling match like one would see on television in the United States more than they resemble anything else. It is unclear what rationale is being employed in attaching the label ‘tango’ to these movements.

Another performance of ‘contact tango’ is given by Erdal Atik & Ali Türkkan in this video, using the tango music “Milonga triste” played by the ensemble of Hugo Diaz. There is some walking in the first 30 seconds that is somewhat reminiscent of tango, but after that the movements are not identifiable as tango. The music may be tango, but the movements in this dance do not resemble tango. Perhaps the symbolic phallic imagery projected in this supposed improvisation can be deemed by some to capture the primordial sexuality attributed to tango.

What appears to be a ‘contact tango jam’ in Munich is recorded in this video. There are very few movements associated with tango in this dancing and the characteristic tango walk is absent; there is only ‘neotango’ music in the background. Perhaps this event represents the future evolution of the ‘alternative milonga’ worldwide.

It should be noted that in these videos the movement is only loosely connected to the music, at best, and thus the music appears almost irrelevant to the movement. One could improvise the same movements to jazz or the music of Erik Satie. Since the only connection tango has with any of these displays of movements is the music (using a broad, perhaps unduly heterogeneous classification for music as tango), the disconnection from the only tango element possibly present indicates this is a tango fusion in name only.

What Contact Improvisation Tango does offer is the opportunity to tumble barefoot in dance attire while under the illusion that one is expanding the creative boundaries of tango.

Summary and Conclusions

As stated at the outset, definition of dance as tango often invites controversy. However, for any form of dance to be classified legitimately as tango, there must be a connection to its evolutionary origin in social tango danced in Buenos Aires. When examined in its contemporary and recent historical manifestations, the Tango de Salon of the milongas of Buenos Aires has certain defining characteristics that differentiate it from other genres of dance – the close embrace, the level walk, the molinete, and improvisation of movement in the temporal and spatial dimensions in connection with classic tango music while maintaining the couple’s position in the circulating ronda. Other genres of dance classified as tango do not always adhere to these characteristics of Tango de Salon, but the expression of a characteristic tango walk connected to tango music are postulated here as essential for classification of any dance as tango.

Examined here are several contemporary evolutionary trends labeled as ‘tango’ that, in theory, involve the fusion of elements of Tango de Salon with other genres of dance – Stage Tango, Tango Nuevo, and Contact Improvisation Tango. It is seen within some performances of Stage Tango and Tango Nuevo that there is a foundation of tango walking interspersed with molinetes in connection with tango music (broadened to include the post golden age music of Osvaldo Pugliese and Astor Piazzolla). In having these characteristics, the criteria for classification of a dance as tango are satisfied in the Stage Tango performances of Osvaldo Zotto & Lorena Ermocida and of Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran, and in the Tango Nuevo performances of Pablo Inza & Moira Castellano and of Gustavo Naveira & Giselle Anne, although it also needs to be recognized that these represent different genres of tango, not designed as is Tango de Salon for the pista of the milonga. In contrast, the stage performance to “Verano Porteño” in the ‘Tango Fire’ production, the scene from the ‘tango-danza-teatro’ directed by Pablo Inza, and all of the Contact Improvisation Tango demonstrations clearly suffer from a lack of incorporation of any of the defining elements of tango, and most rational investigators of tango would have to conclude that classifying them as tango involves a near obliteration of the boundaries of tango such that almost any movement to music could be called ‘tango’, perhaps for lack of an alternative label for classification. Following such a path renders the classification of ‘tango’ for dance meaningless because it then becomes impossible objectively (but perhaps not by assumed authority) to classify a dance as tango.

Declaring the Nick Jones & Rebecca Shulman and the Homer & Cristina Ladas performances as not meeting the criteria for classification as tango is likely to be controversial in the tango political arena, mainly because the performers self-identify their instruction as tango, which to an admiring audience may be sufficient justification to label all products of their efforts as ‘tango’. However, these demonstrations (and many others by dancers self-identifying with tango) lack the core characteristics of tango. At some point in its evolution, creative exploration of the boundaries of tango crosses over into a territory that is no longer tango.

To some the objection to an ever broadening boundary for tango may be perceived as intolerant and stifling to creativity, but this misinterprets the rationale for this objection. The objection is to labeling and communication, not creativity. If creativity were the only factor involved in the fusion of elements of tango with other dances, the creators of tango fusions would apply the name of ‘tango’ to their activities honestly, with caution. However, there is another factor operating that provides greater motivation than creativity and that is economics.

Tango is the creation of Argentine culture and there are indeed aspects of this culture that are difficult to communicate to foreign cultures. Thus, in order to market tango, self-proclaimed tango artists modify their product so that it achieves wider acceptance within the foreign culture. For example, in general in North American and European cultures, learning to dance consists primarily of memorizing a sequence of steps. Therefore, marketing of the long list of labeled movements of Tango Nuevo is more likely to achieve economic success than teaching the foundations of Tango de Salon – walking elegantly in a close embrace to classic tango music and improvising in the temporal and spatial dimensions while navigating within the ronda in a milonga. Another route to acceptance of the exported product of tango to foreign cultures is to replace classic tango music, which takes time to appreciate, with the American culture derived electronic music labeled as ‘(electro)tango’, or even non-tango music blatantly mismarketed as ‘neotango’, as a vehicle for expression of movements associated with tango. Attach an impression of creative exploration to this dilution of tango character and its palatability to the targeted consumer increases. The motivation for marketing contact improvisation with tango music played somewhere in the background as ‘tango’ is that the former dance genre appeals to North American and European cultural ideals of free expression, which can be misapplied readily to corrupt the concept of improvisation that exists within Tango Argentino. By catering to the pre-existing cultural biases of foreign cultures, the purveyors of tango, both Argentine and non-Argentine, are more intent on maximizing profits than in accurate cultural transmission. Within this potpourri of marketed movements and sounds bearing a loose connection at best to the Tango de Salon of Buenos Aires, the probability of a foreigner being exposed to the authentic Argentine culture of tango is reduced significantly, thereby minimizing the possibility of a foreigner benefiting from understanding what Tango Argentino has to offer – close physical (and possibly emotional) connection (within defined boundaries) between man and woman to emotionally rich music, while having the opportunity to playfully improvise with the temporal and spatial dimensions provided in a milonga environment. Truth in advertising dance as ‘tango’ is necessary to allow those living outside the Argentine tango culture to benefit from what Tango Argentino really has to offer.