The Argentine Tango

The Argentine Tango is a social dance and a musical genre that originated in Argentina and moved to Uruguay and to the rest of the world later on. In the US, it is commonly confused with Ballroom Tango, though this is a later derivation.

Argentine Tango consists of a variety of styles that developed in different regions and eras, and in response to the crowding of the venue and even the fashions in clothing. Even though the present forms developed in Argentina and Uruguay, they were also exposed to influences re-imported from Europe and North America. There are records of XVIII and early XIX century Tango styles in Cuba and Spain,[1] while there is a flamenco Tangos dance that may share a common ancestor in a minuet-style European dance.[2] Consequently there is a good deal of confusion and overlap between the styles as they are now danced - and fusions continue to evolve.

Argentine Tango is danced in an embrace that can vary from very open, in which leader and follower connect at arms length, to very closed, in which the connection is chest-to-chest, or anywhere in between. Close embrace is often associated with the more traditional styles, while open embrace leaves room for many of the embellishments and figures that are associated with Tango Nuevo.

Tango is essentially walking with a partner and the music. Musicality (i.e. dancing appropriately to the emotion and speed of a tango) is an extremely important element of dancing tango. A good dancer is one who makes you see the music. Also, dancers generally keep their feet close to the floor as they walk, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other.

Argentine Tango relies heavily on improvisation; although certain patterns of movement have been codified by instructors over the years as a device to instruct dancers, there is no "basic step." One of the only constants across all Argentine Tango styles, is that the follower will usually be led to alternate feet. Another is that the follower rarely has her weight on both feet at the same time. Argentine tango is a new orientation of couple dancing. As most dances have a rational-pattern which can be predicted by the follower, the ballast of previous perceptions about strict rules has to be thrown overboard and replaced by a real communication contact, creating a direct non-verbal dialogue. A tango is a living act in the moment as it happens.

Argentine Tango is danced counterclockwise around the outside of the dance floor (the "line of dance") and dance "traffic" often segregates into a number of "lanes"; cutting across the middle of the floor is frowned upon. In general, the middle of the floor is where you find either beginners who lack floor navigation skills or people who are performing "showy" figures or patterns that take up more dance floor space. It is acceptable to stop briefly in the line of dance to perform stationary figures, as long as the other dancers are not unduly impeded. The school of thought about this is, if there is open space in front of you, there are likely people waiting behind you. Dancers are expected to respect the other couples on the floor; colliding or even crowding another couple, or stepping on others' feet is to be avoided strenuously. It is considered rude; in addition to possible physical harm rendered, it can be disruptive to a couple's musicality.

Differences from Ballroom Tango

Competitive vs. Social Dance

Ballroom tango steps were standardized by dance studios. The steps have been relatively fixed in style for decades.

However, Argentine tango has been an evolving dance and musical form, with continual changes occurring every day on the social dance floor in Argentina and in major tango centers elsewhere in the world.

Argentine Tango is still based heavily on improvisation. While there are patterns or sequences of steps that are used by instructors to teach the dance, even in a sequence every movement is led not only in direction but also speed and quality (a step can be smooth, pulsing, sharp, ... etc.). Although Argentine tango evolves mostly on the dance floor, the government of Argentina does host an annual competition of Argentine tango in Buenos Aires, attracting competitors from around the world.

Embrace (Abrazo)

A striking difference between Argentine tango and ballroom tango is in the shape and feel of the embrace. Ballroom technique dictates that partners arch their upper bodies away from each other, while maintaining contact at the hip, in an offset frame.

In Argentine tango, it is nearly the opposite: the dancers' chests are closer to each other than are their hips, and often there is contact at about the level of the chest (the contact point differing, depending on the height of the leader and the closeness of the embrace). In close embrace, the leader and the follower's chests are in complete contact and they are dancing with their heads touching or very near each other. In open embrace, there can be as much space as desired between the partners, but there should always be complete contact along the embracing arms to give optimum communication. Since Argentine tango is almost entirely improvisational, there needs to be clear communication between partners. Even when dancing in a very open embrace, Argentine Tango dancers do not hold their upper bodies arched away from each other; each partner is over their own axis. Whether open or closed, a Tango embrace is not rigid, but relaxed, like a hug.

Walking (Caminata)

Another difference is that the leader may freely step with his left foot when the follower steps with her left foot too. In English, this is sometimes referred to as a "crossed" or "uneven" walk (or as "walking in the crossed system") in contrast to the normal walk which is called "parallel" or "even." In ballroom tango "crossed system" is considered incorrect (unless the leader and follower are facing the same direction). Furthermore, the flexibility of the embrace allows the leader to change his weight (from one foot to another) yet keeping the follower's weight unchanged. This is another major difference with ballroom tango, where a weight change by one partner leads to an automatic weight change by the other.

The nomenclature originated with the Naveira/Salas "Investigation Group." Early on, they used 'even/uneven' to describe the arrangement of legs in the walk (or turn). By the mid-'90s they began using 'parallel/crossed' and later 'normal/crossed'.

Music

Argentine tango music is much more varied than ballroom tango music. A large amount of tango music has been composed by a variety of different orchestras over the last century. Not only is there a large volume of music, there is a breadth of stylistic differences between these orchestras as well, which makes it easier for Argentine tango dancers to spend the whole night dancing only Argentine tango. The four representative schools of the Argentine tango music are: Di Sarli, D’Arienzo, Troilo and Pugliese. They are dance orchestras, playing music for dancing. When the spirit of the music is characterized by counterpoint marking, clarity in the articulation is needed. It has a clear, repetitive pulse or beat, a strong tango-rhythm which is based on the 2x4, 2 strong beats on 4 (dos por cuatro). Astor Piazzolla stretched the classical harmony and counterpoint and moved the tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. His compositions tell us something of our contemporary life and dancing it relates much to modern dance.

Steps

Unlike the majority of social dance, Argentine tango is not a set step, but is a completely improvised dance combining various steps in a spontaneous manner, as determined by the lead. Most Argentine tango teachers teach complex figures, but then break them down into simpler parts. They then teach students how to improvise their own figures. Here is what might be taught in beginner classes.

  • Caminatas - "walks" in Spanish

  • Baldoso - ("tile") a six-step figure similar to the ballroom box step. Except the man starts with his right foot, then steps back, side, forward, forward, side, together.

  • Salida - ("exit", also "beginning" - as of a journey) any of several patterns that begin a figure. The first half of the baldoso is one such pattern.

  • Resolución - any of several patterns that end a figure. The second half of the baldoso is one such pattern.

An Argentine tango figure, then, is the pattern salida + basic steps + resolución. (In the baldoso the number of basic steps is zero.) This makes for flexible, ever-changing patterns unlike those of conventional partner dances. This gives leaders exceptional opportunity to improvise, and is part of why the Argentine tango is unique in the dance world.

There are other basic steps than caminadas, including the following.

  • Cadencias - "cadence" as when soldiers "count cadence" by stepping in place. (The word is sometimes mistakenly applied to the following.)

  • Cunitas - rock steps, to side, forward, or back. Comes from rocking a cuno "cradle"

  • Cazas - "chases" when one foot steps forward and the other chases it to step beside it. Can be used as a resolución.

  • Stepping outside, walking outside - the man moves further to his left (or less often right) so that both his feet are outside his partner's

  • Cruzada - (from cruzar - to cross) the follower steps back right then back left, crossing her left foot over her right before finishing the step. A "chase" with a "cross". One way to go from the outside position back to the inside position.

  • Ocho - a figure-8 traced by the follower's feet when moving forward or backward.

  • Giro - a turn (in either direction), often a complete 360-degree turn

  • Media Luna - a half moon, the shape of a half giro

  • Molinete - (windmill, wheel) the follower walks in a cadena (chain, braid, grapevine) around the leader, the hub of the wheel

  • Paso Básico - "basic step" There are several, including the baldoso and the molinete. Another popular one begins with the three-step salida from the baldoso. However, on step 2, the side step, the leader steps outside his partner. After step 3 he then leads his partner into the two steps of the cruzada. The three steps of the resolución makes eight steps in all. This eight-step pattern is abbreviated the 8CB.

Intermediate steps further spice up the caminadas, including the following "dueling feet" actions. These are ways for leaders to challenge and tease their partners.

  • Sacada - the leader displaces his partner's unweighted leg outward as they walk.

  • Parada - the leader halts the motion of the other dancer with her legs apart and weight on both feet

  • Barrida - one partner sweeps the others foot, displacing it along the floor

  • Arrastre - (drag) synonym for "barrida"

  • Sandwich - the leader places both feet on either side of the other dancers forward foot.

  • Gancho - one dancer hooks their leg around their partner's leg.

Women also can contribute to the in-the-moment improvisations of tango dancing with adornos ("adornments"). These include the following.

  • Golpecitos - "little toe taps" done between steps.

  • Golpes - "toe taps" which rebound high behind the woman - not recommended on a tight floor!

  • Amagues - "threats, feints" A kick by one foot across in front of the other. May be very small kicks, or very high (though usually only in choreographed show routines).

  • Boleos - "throws" When an ocho is quickly reversed in the middle, the woman's foot is thrown to the side and wraps around her leg at the knee. (Comes from the way the weighted balls at the ends of gauchos' bolos wrap around an animal the South American cowboys want to capture.)

  • Caricias - "caresses" Usually by the woman, who rubs her thigh, calf, or foot down his body.

Advanced tango steps are often borrowed from tango shows, but modified for the tight spaces and flow of other dancers around the floor.

  • Saltitos - "little leaps"

  • Elevaditos - "little lifts"

  • Colgadas - spins around a common center while leaning outward

  • Volcadas - extreme leans, usually followed by an adorno. These include amagues or front boleos, a drag of the woman across the floor, and calesitas (carousels, or merry-go-rounds).

Related Dances

Argentine Tango dancers usually enjoy two other related dances: Vals (waltz) and Milonga.

Music for the Vals is in 3/4 time but otherwise very similar to Tango music. Tango dancers dance the Vals much like they do tango only with a waltz rhythm that has one beat per measure (at a beginner-level). This produces a rather relaxed, smooth flowing dancing style in contrast to Viennese Waltz where the dancers often take 3 steps per measure and turn almost constantly. Experienced dancers alternate the smooth one-beat-per-measure walk with syncopated walks, stepping on one- two- or (rarely) all three beats in a measure. Vals is characterized by its lack of pauses, and continual turns (giros) in both directions.

Milonga is essentially Tango; the differences lie in the music, which has a strongly-accented beat, and an underlying "habanera" rhythm. Dancers avoid pausing, and often introduce syncopations called traspies and broken rhythm into their walks and turns. Milonga uses the same basic elements as Tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than some of those danced in some varieties of Tango.

Milonga is also the name given to tango dance parties. This double meaning of the word milonga can be confusing unless one knows the context in which the word "milonga" is used. People who dance at milongas are known as milongueros.

Resurgence of Argentine tango in North America

In 1983, the dance show Tango Argentino, staged by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzolli, opened in Paris, France, starring dancers Juan Carlos Copes[3] and Maria Nieves,[4] Pablo Veron, Miguel Zotto and Milena Plebs,[5] and Virulazo and Elvira.[6] In 1985, the show opened on Broadway in New York City.[7] Cast members gave classes to a number of students, including Robert Duvall. Paul Pellicoro provided a dance center for the performers to teach new students. At the same time, Danel and Maria Bastone were teaching tango in New York, and Orlando Paiva was offering tango classes in Los Angeles, California. For further lessons, Duvall sought out Nestor Ray, a dancer who Duvall had seen perform in the documentary film Tango mio.

In 1986, Nora and Raul Dinzelbacher visited San Francisco, California, coming from La Paz, Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires aboard a cruise ship where they were dancing tango and chacarera professionally. Al and Barbara Garvey took tango classes from them as well as from Jorge and Rosa Ledesma from Quilmes, Buenos Aires; all in the style of choreographed show tango. In 1987, the Garveys traveled to Buenos Aires to discover the traditional improvisational social dance style at a large milonga (Centro Akarense) filled with older dancers in Villa Urquiza.[8] Upon returning home to Fairfax, California, the Garveys continued tango lessons and began organizing milongas around the San Francisco Bay Area. They co-founded the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association (BAATA) and published a journal.

In 1986, Brigitta Winkler appeared in her first stage performance, Tangoshow in Montreal. Though based in Berlin, Winkler traveled often to teach at tango festivals in North America throughout the following two decades. Winkler was a seminal influence of Daniel Trenner.[9] Montreal's first tango teachers, French-born Lily Palmer and her Argentine friend, Antonio Perea, offered classes in 1987.

The Dinzelbachers settled in San Francisco in 1988, in response to the demand for tango teachers following a visit to San Francisco by the touring production of Tango Argentino.[10] Nora and Raul Dinzelbacher taught a core group of students who would later become teachers themselves, including the Garveys, Polo Talnir and Jorge Allende.

In 1989, the Dinzelbachers were invited to Cincinnati, Ohio by Richard Powers, to introduce and teach Argentine tango at a week-long dance festival. The following year, Powers moved his festival to Stanford University and asked the Dinzelbachers back. Unfortunately, Raul Dinzelbacher, 40 years old, collapsed and died at the end of the third day of the festival. Nora Dinzelbacher was devastated but threw herself into her work, forming a dance performance troupe and teaching. She asked a student, George Guim, to become her assistant. They taught at a week-long dance festival in Seattle, Washington.

Throughout 1990, Luis Bravo's Forever Tango played in eight West Coast cities, increasing viewer's interest in learning the tango. Carlos Gavito and his partner Marcela Duran invented a dramatically different tango embrace in which both dancers leaned forward against each other more than was traditionally accepted. Gavito's ultimate rise to fame came from this starring appearance in Forever Tango.[11]

In 1991, Richard Powers asked Nora Dinzelbacher to help him transform "Stanford Dance Week" into "Stanford Tango Week". The two produced the popular annual festival until the University abruptly cancelled it after its 1997 run. In 1998, with Bob Moretti, a former student, Nora began a new festival in the same vein: "Nora's Tango Week", held in Emeryville, California.[12] Moretti would continue to co-produce the festival until his death on June 22, 2005, just days before that year's Tango Week.[13]

In the first half of 1994, Barbara Garvey's BAATA mailing list grew from 400 to 1,400 dancers. Garvey places the critical mass of the San Francisco Bay Area's tango resurgence at this point. The number of regional milongas went from three per month to 30.[14]

Forever Tango returned to the United States late in 1994, landing in Beverly Hills, then San Francisco, where it ran for 92 weeks. From there the show went to New York where it became the longest-running tango production in Broadway history.[15]

In June 1995, Janis Kenyon held a tango festival at Northwestern University. Kenyon had attended Stanford Tango Week in 1993, where she met Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves. The pair were invited to teach at Kenyon's 1995 Chicago event. The next year, Kenyon moved her festival to Columbus, Ohio, where she featured Osvaldo Zotto. In February 1997, Clay Nelson (a two-time attendee at Stanford Tango Week) organized his first ValenTango festival in Portland, Oregon; "Tango Fantasy on Miami Beach" was formed by Jorge Nel, Martha Mandel, Lydia Henson and Randy Pittman as Florida's first tango festival; and the Portland October Tangofest was launched, again by Clay Nelson. 1999 saw a split in Miami: Nel and Mandel scheduled their "United States Tango Congress" to open a month prior to the Tango Fantasy event.[16]

Daniel Trenner has been credited with bringing improvisational social Argentine tango to the United States.[17] Like the Garveys, he first went to Buenos Aires in 1987, where he went to a milonga in Palermo and saw the traditional improvisational style being danced. Trenner was introduced to Miguel and Nelly Balmacera, a couple who would become his first tango teachers.[18] Being fluent in both Spanish and English he was able to study with many Argentine tango masters, including Gustavo Naveira and Mingo Pugliese. He made video tapes of the lessons he took and translated the Spanish instruction into English. In the late 1980s, Trenner brought his new-found appreciation of traditional tango back to New York and conducted classes. In 1991, Trenner began working with Rebecca Shulman in performing and teaching tango.[19] (Shulman would go on to be a co-founder and director of TangoMujer in New York and Berlin.) In 1995, Trenner taught for ten weeks in Colorado, followed by some 15 of those students accompanying him to Buenos Aires. Out of this experience, "Tango Colorado" was formed by Tom Stermitz and other tango aficionados from Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, and a twice-yearly tango festival was organized in Denver. Trenner had planted the seed and moved on. In this way, Trenner has been called the Johnny Appleseed of tango.[20]

In February 2009, the popular ABC series Dancing with the Stars announced that the Argentine tango would be added to the list of dances for its eighth season.

Styles of Argentine Tango

Tango Canyengue

Tango canyengue is a rhythmic style of tango that originated in the early 1900s and is still popular today. It is one of the original roots styles of tango and contains all fundamental elements of traditional Argentine Tango. In Tango Canyengue the dancers share one axis, dance in a closed embrace, and with the legs relaxed and slightly bent. Tango Canyengue uses body dissociation for the leading, walking with firm ground contact, and a permanent combination of on- and off-beat rhythm.[21] Its main characteristics are its musicality and playfulness. Its rhythm is described as "incisive, exciting, provocative".[22]

The word Canyengue is of African origin. It came into use to describe the tango rhythm at the time of the first so-called 'orquestas típicas' (including bandoneon, violin and piano).[23]

Leading exponents of Tango Canyengue:

  • Romolo Garcia (deceased)

  • El Negro Celso (deceased)

  • Rodolfo Cieri (deceased) y Maria Cieri

  • Luis Grondona

  • Marta Anton y 'El Gallego' Manolo Salvador

  • Roxina Villegas y Adrian Griffero

Tango Orillero

Tango orillero refers to the style of dance that developed away from the town centers, in the outskirts and suburbs where there was more freedom due to more available space on the dance floor. The style is danced in an upright position and uses various embellishments including rapid foot moves, kicks, and even some acrobatics, though this is a more recent development.

Salon Tango

Salon Tango was the most popular style of tango danced up through the Golden Era of the dance (1950's) when milongas (tango parties) were held in large dance venues and full tango orchestras performed. Later, when the Argentine youth started dancing rock & roll and tango's popularity declined, the milongas moved to the smaller confiterias in the center of the city, resulting in the birth of the "milonguero/apilado/Petitero/caquero" style.

Salon Tango is characterized by slow, measured, and smoothly executed moves. It includes all of the basic tango steps and figures plus sacadas, barridas, and boleos. The emphasis is on precision, smoothness, and musicality. The couple embraces closely but the embrace is flexible, opening slightly to make room for various figures and closing again for support and poise. The walk is the most important element, and dancers usually walk 60%-70% of the time during a tango song.

When tango became popular again after the end of the Argentine military dictatorships in 1983, this style was resurrected by dancers from the Golden Era:

  • El Turco Jose Brahemcha

  • Gerardo Portalea (deceased)

  • Luis "Milonguita" Lemos (deceased)

  • "Finito" Ramón Rivera (deceased)

  • "Lampazo" Jose Vazquez (deceased)

  • Virulazo (deceased)

  • Miguel Balmaceda (deceased)

  • in the milongas at Club Sin Rumbo, Sunderland, El Pial and Canning.

One of the most famous examples of the elegant Salon style is the Villa Urquiza style, named after the northern barrio of Buenos Aires where the clubs Sin Rumbo and Sunderland are located. Dancers who are currently leading the wave of Villa Urquiza Style tango are:

  • Carlos Perez y Rosa

  • Jorge Dispari y Marita 'La Turca'

  • Miguel Angel Zotto y Milena Plebs (Miguel now dances with Daiana Guspero)

  • Osvaldo Zotto y Lorena Ermocida

  • El Chino Perico

  • Javier Rodriguez y Andrea Misse

  • Alejandro Aquino

  • Andres Laza Moreno y Samantha Dispari (daughter of Jorge and Marita)

  • Fabian Peralta y Natacha Poberaj

  • the Misse family (Andrea, Sebastian, Gabriel, y Stella)

  • Ezequiel Paludi and Geraldine Rojas de Paludi (daughter of Jorge and Marita)

To this day, tango classes that teach the "Villa Urquiza style" are held in Club Sunderland every Monday and Wednesday nights around 8pm (led by Carlos and Rosa Perez).

"Estilo Milonguero" (tango apilado/confiteria style)

This style originated as the 'petitero' or 'caquero' style in the 1940s and 50s in closely packed dance halls and "confiterias", so it is danced in close embrace, chest-to chest, with the partners leaning - or appearing to lean - slightly towards each other to allow space for the feet to move. There are not many embellishments or firuletes or complicated figures for the lack of space in the original milonguero style but now also those figures are danced, which only at first glance seem impossible in close embrace. Actually, a lot of complicated figures are possible even in milonguero.

Although the rhythmic, close-embrace style of dancing has existed for decades, the term "Milonguero Style" only surfaced in the mid- '90s when the name was created by Susana Miller, who had been the assistant to Pedro 'Tete' Rusconi. Many of the older dancers who are exponents of this style (including 'Tete') prefer not to use the label.

Tango Nuevo

Tango Nuevo is a dancing and teaching style. Tango nuevo as a teaching style emphasizes a structural analysis of the dance. It is a result of the work of the "Tango Investigation Group" (later transformed into the "Cosmotango" organization) pioneered by Gustavo Naveira and Fabian Salas in the 1990s in Buenos Aires. By taking tango down to the physics of the movements in a systematic way, they have created a method of analyzing the complete set of possibilities of tango movements, defined by two bodies and four legs moving in walks or circles. This investigation provided a view of a structure to the dance that was expressed in a systematic way.

In walks, their explorations pioneered what were once called "alterations" and are now called "changes of direction" or "cambios". In turns, they focus on being very aware of where the axis of the turn is (in the follower/in the leader/in between them). This tends to produce a flowing style, with the partners rotating around each other on a constantly shifting axis, or else incorporating novel changes of direction.

Many of the recent popular elements in tango vocabulary, such as Colgadas, owe their debut on the tango scene to the popularity of Gustavo's and Fabian's approach.

From this teaching style, a new and unique style of dancing has developed, called by many a "tango nuevo" style. The most famous practitioners of "Tango Nuevo" are Gustavo Naveira, Norberto "El Pulpo" Esbrés, Fabián Salas, Esteban Moreno, Claudia Codega, Sebastian Arce, Mariana Montes, Chicho Frumboli, and Pablo Verón. Interestingly enough, all of these dancers have highly individual styles that cannot be confused with each other's, yet can be easily recognized as Tango Nuevo.

Tango Nuevo is often misunderstood and mislabeled as "Show Tango" because a large percentage of today's stage dancers have adopted "tango nuevo" elements in their choreographies.

Show Tango

Show tango, also called Fantasia, is a more theatrical and exaggerated form of Argentine tango developed to suit the stage. It includes many embellishments, acrobatics, and solo moves. Unlike other forms of tango, stage tango is not improvised and is rather choreographed and practiced to a predetermined piece of music. This means that often moves are shown that cannot be led.

Advent of "Alternative Tango Music"

While Argentine Tango has historically been danced to traditional tango music produced by such composers as Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos Di Sarli, Juan D'Arienzo, in the 90's a younger generation of Tango dancers began dancing Tango to what was referred to as "alternative tango music"; music from other genres like, "World Music," "Electro-Tango," "Experimental Rock," "Trip Hop," & "Blues," to name a few. Artists like Kevin Johansen, Gotan Project, Otros Aires, Tom Waits, Portishead & Louis Armstrong are among those favored in alternative tango music playlists.

Tango Nuevo is often associated with "alternative tango music", see Nuevo tango, but any of the other Tango styles can be danced to it.

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