Tango is Tango.

Did you know a “milonguero” doesn’t necessarily dance Milonguero style? Do you know the difference between Milonguero style, Salon style, Tango Nuevo or Tango Escenario? Do you know where they come from? Wondering which one is the real Tango? As a traveling tango instructor I get to meet many wonderful people with a real interest in Tango who have lots of questions about the different styles. I know there is a lot of frustration about all of the different information that’s out there about Tango. So to be able to inform you on a broader scale, I turned my answer into my first blog-post: Tango is Tango. Everything starts with this:

Tango is Tango. Traditional Tango is Tango, Tango Salon is Tango, Tango Milonguero is Tango, Tango Nuevo is Tango, Tango Escenario is Tango, Competition Tango is Tango, we dance a dance that is young, still very much alive and evolving. We are all here to enjoy the dance that we love, no matter the style. Tango’s beauty lies in its diversity. We respect all of it, for all of it is Tango.

That’s not Tango.

“That’s not Tango; there’s too much movement in the embrace, that’s not Tango: it’s a choreography, the steps are huge, there’s no sense in competing, performances aren’t real tango, it’s all just show, it’s so stiff,….”
That’s not Tango… Over the course of the last 17 years, I’ve heard it many times. Heck, in the beginning years of my career I’ve even been guilty of it. I got so caught up in supposedly being a traditional Tango dancer that I failed or perhaps even refused to see the artistry of dancers with other styles. It is typical tribalism, us versus them. It’s in human nature, we want to belong. But after many years of seeing Tango being danced and studied, you come to realize that whether you like it or not, it’s all tango. Every style, every embrace, every expression of movement, all of it is rightly called Tango.

And this is both the problem and the beauty of Tango. All of it is correct (as long as you don’t end up with injuries, more on that in a next post), though all of it is so incredibly different. It’s the reason why many people get so frustrated and confused by the different sets of information that different teachers will bring to classes. The most confusing thing of all is when those teachers all claim that their information is the only correct information. The only true style, the only Tango possible. A different style? That’s not Tango!

I remember during the first six months of our first visit to Buenos Aires, my wife Liz and I got very frustrated. If we took 4 classes in a day, we would hear 4 different versions of what the embrace should look like. “Put your arm higher, put your arm wider, don’t put your arm so wide, put some more pressure on it, why don’t you relax your arm…” This continued on with everything we learned, in multiple daily classes for almost 6 months. It drove us absolutely mad with frustration because the only thing we wanted was to dance Tango the right way, but every teacher had a different “the right way”.

The “Why”?

Right as we were starting to wonder if we shouldn’t just stop Tango all together, we stumbled on some teachers that sometimes had a clear, logical reason “why” they did something. It was absolutely mindblowing, there suddenly was a possibility that there was logic to the madness. From that point forward; Why? was The Number One question we had for ourselves and for pretty much every teacher after that. And when the answer was “Because that’s the way it is”, which according to logic is the error of authority, it just wouldn’t do and we’d ask why again. We’ve kept up that approach ever since and we’ve studied with many teachers of very different styles to find out their why’s. (You can actually find a lot of great, consistent, logical teachers in Buenos Aires once you get past all the tourist traps.) So every bit of information in which “the why” sounded logical and felt natural, was inserted into our technique.

If you apply this to your own learning you’ll find yourself being a lot more consistent in your fundamental dancing. If you change your dancing every time you hear something different, that’s a recipe for frustration. But when you are convinced that what you are doing is logical and natural, then the only thing that can happen to your technique is that you improve upon it, rather than changing it radically every month. So moving your body the way it is intended to move, making sure the techniques you use are logical and natural, that’s “the right way” to dance Tango, regardless of the style.

Milongueros?

Unfortunately, lately, I’ve been running into more and more people who seem to think “Milonguero”-style is the authentic Tango style and that it is the only way the Tango is danced in Buenos Aires. This the result of a couple of widely read blog-posts and many years of bold claims by some of the people originally responsible for the commercialization of the style.

What are milongueros? Are they dancers who dance milonguero-style? No. Funny enough, milongueros do not necessarily dance milonguero-style. A milonguero/a is a dancer who “honors” the milonga by visiting it on a very regular basis, they like the social aspect of the milonga. They don’t care about dancing all the tandas, they care about some dancing, some great conversations at the table, some jokes, a good time to be had. What is their style? It’s his or her own Tango. In the ’40s and ’50s, everyone was trying to develop their own personal style. You could recognize a great milonguero from a mile away just by his posture and his way of moving. A figure was a successful figure, one that “had tango” when it could be watched but not easily copied. The hard difference with the way we dance today, is that we’re all trying too hard to dance just like the others and all the figures are the same and rather predictable. So first we need to realize that we can use all the styles out there, and once we can pull it off we need to inject a healthy dose of personality into the whole thing.

But then where does the confusion come from about the limited close embrace dance that we call milonguero style today? Two things happened around the middle of the ’90s. First, at some point a tango-tourist was in Buenos Aires and saw a couple dancing at a crowded milonga in a small venue in the micro-center of Buenos Aires. The couple was dancing in a very close embrace, moving very small -since there was not a lot of space on the crowded floor-. The tourist asked someone what those dancers were called, wishing to know the particular style of dance. Another milonguero simply answered: “Milongueros”. Welcome to the translation error of the last three decades. The style itself has always existed, but it was known by other names such as Estilo del Centro or Estilo Petitero.

The second thing that happened is that a couple of people picked up on the misunderstanding and very heavily and aggressively started selling the idea of the Milonguero-style. The one, the only, the authentic. And since people who are new to Tango don’t know about the myriad possibilities of styles out there, claims like that are a very effective way of making sure the people want to dance Tango “the correct way’. It’s a convincing sales pitch, brilliant move. Unfortunately, it’s also very misleading, there are so many dancers out there who think that being a Milonguero means dancing Milonguero style, or who believe that it is “the original Tango”, while it most certainly is not. I’ve lived in Buenos Aires for over 4 years spread over the last 13 years and the “Milonguero-style” is definitely not the only way people dance in the milongas there. On the contrary, Tango is very much alive and takes on many forms. You might have a preference for a certain way of dancing, but one style does not need to exclude the possibilities of the other styles. There is not one way of dancing Tango that is “more” tango than other styles.

Tango Nuevo & Escenario

A lot of people seem to think, for example, that Tango Nuevo is not to be considered “real” Tango. But Tango Nuevo dancers are actually the much-needed hackers of Tango. They took a dance that had certain limitations brought upon it by the era in which it was developed, and went looking for how they could bend the rules right up to the point of breaking them. Almost all movements in Tango Nuevo are exaggerations of movements that the Milongueros (the social dancers at the milonga, not milonguero-style dancers) used to do. A lot of the original Nuevo dancers were also responsible for bringing body-healthy and energy-conserving techniques into Tango. Techniques that I apply in my Traditional Tango-style, something I’m very grateful for. In fact without Tango Nuevo, the big influx of dancers into Tango in the second half of the nineties and the beginning of the 2000s would probably not have happened and Tango might have died a second time. So if a style is responsible for bringing new fresh blood to Tango, increasing the popularity of the dance and the size of the overall communities, then, by all means, consider it as a true style of Tango.

The exact same thing can be said for Tango Escenario, or show-Tango. So many people share this idea of “Phewy, it is not improvised, therefore it truly is not Tango.” Little do they usually know that it is Tango Escenario and its choreographies that brought back Tango from certain death. By 1955, Tango as a social phenomenon was disappearing. Newer generations thought it was a dance of the old people! Rock’n’Roll brought the advent of swing dancing and the older generations were either growing too old or had found partners and started families. In the decades after that Argentina also had a long period of political turmoil and a dictatorship that prohibited gatherings of more then a couple of people. By the mid-70’s there were only two or three milongas left in the entire city of Buenos Aires. The dance was all but dying out.

Fortunately, as the dictatorship ended by 1983 and the newer generations went looking for their national identity and who they were as a people, they re-discovered Tango. But the thing that got Tango out of Argentina, into the world and into our hearts was a tango show called “Tango Argentino”. In it were some of the only Escenario dancers that Tango still had and even some Milonguero couples. It debuted in 1983 in Paris and in 1985 exploded onto Broadway and the rest of the world. Suddenly, everybody wanted to learn the Tango! So next time you hear someone saying that Show tango is not Tango, remind them that it’s thanks to the Tango Escenario that we are dancing Tango today in almost every country in the world. Tango Escenario today looks totally different than the one from the 80’s but it is still as much a part of Tango as the embrace is. If dancing Tango at a milonga is the fullest representation of the Social Aspect of Tango, then Tango Escenario is the fullest representation of the -equally important but oft-forgotten- Artistic Aspect of Tango.

The poster for Tango Argentino, the show that is probably the reason why all of us are dancing Tango today.

A lot of the first teachers abroad were actually classically trained dancers with little knowledge of social tango. There was a large shortage of show-dancers who could also social dance. So they were trained to dance in the many shows following Tango Argentino. This eplains why to this day we are still seeing people teach techniques directly from the old Show techniques from the ’80s (Big contra-body, projection, etc). Techniques stemming from classical ballet, designed for the movements to be seen from the 46th row in the Theatre. It was only when the Milongueros from Buenos Aires started traveling around to teach Social Tango techniques and when the first Tango Tourists traveled to Buenos Aires that some of that Show- information was contradicted or challenged.

Competitions

We’ve also heard lots of objections about Tango Competitions. The main argument is usually about how something so beautiful as a connection, that is shared by two people, can simply not be competed in. That’s true, you can’t compete in how much you care about the other person, how much you are taken away in woosh of fluffiness or how tightly you embrace each other. You can compete -however- in how original your style is, how good your technique is, the execution of your steps, your musicality, how you improvise with awesomeness and many other factors that make up Tango. Tango competitions are as old as Tango itself, historically there have always been Tango competitions, as early as 1920, maybe even earlier! Today, they are a great way to meet many new people with a similar passion, they are a great way of pushing yourself to become better dancers and they teach you an appreciation for other styles! A competition is a celebration of Tango. But of course, we’re biased.

Another argument is that Tango competitions are very subjective. There’s no way something like art can be judged objectively. That’s true, there’s no way of quantifying a win. In athletics, that’s very simple, you cross the finish line first, you win. In Tango, it all depends on the judges and their own personal taste and how broad their understanding of Tango is. So that means that if you decide to partake in Tango competitions you need to realize upfront that if you’re not too crazy about a certain judge, they probably won’t be too crazy about you (though if they’re experienced dancers and teachers, they should know better than to judge Tango by who dances which styles). But it is still not a good reason not to have Tango competitions. The benefits far, far outweigh the downsides.

Traditional Tango

Tango, the way my wife and I eventually learned it -and teach and perform it– has an elastic, flexible embrace. You choose what to dance in close embrace and when to open up to do cool figures (enrosques, anyone?) and then choose to go back to dancing in a closed embrace or not. It has many figures and lots of techniques like being on axis, moving your own body, listening musically to more than just the rhythm. At one point it was called “Tango Salon”, but to be historically more accurate it’s what today we call “Tradtional Tango”.

It’s a Tango that’s about more than just the close embrace. It’s about the intellectual challenge. It’s about the artistic aspect of Tango as much as the social and even a historical aspect. It’s a Tango that you need to study to do it well. We’ve heard it so many times during our stays in Buenos Aires: ” If you want to dance the tango well, you have to study it. Tango has to be studied.” That is also why it is so important to keep on taking classes. Yes, you can learn a lot from dancing socially, but to really improve you need to take classes. You need a trained eye that watches you and that can give you feedback and correct you where necessary. And yes, at the same time, we need teachers who are not afraid to challenge their own views and knowledge. Who spend as much attention to the responsibility of the followers as that of the leaders. “When something goes wrong, it’s always the leaders’ fault” is a thing of the past. There is 50-50% responsibility to be taught and learned in a dance which takes two to do.

And does all of this mean that our Tango is the correct one and Milonguero style is wrong? Not at all! Both are correct, both are totally valid. So are Tango Nuevo and Tango Escenario and all the others. It will also depend on how you got into Tango in the first place. What was it that drew you to Tango? The flashy movements, the sometimes intimate embrace, the music, the feeling of being part of something that feels like it’s underground, the intellectual challenge? Our very first teachers in Belgium were beautiful Traditional Tango dancers, which is probably the reason why afterward we kept on choosing to take Traditional Tango classes. The thing that first draws you to tango might also be the thing that keeps you in Tango.

Styles have techniques

The real question is, why would you limit yourself to one style only? When I dance, I love switching between styles and there’s so much to be learned by doing so. The real problem, however, is being able to distinguish between styles and their separate techniques. One of the single biggest problems that we see today in the world of Tango is leaders using the Milonguero-style embrace while they’re trying to lead figures from Traditional Tango. That’s murder on the dancefloor! The followers’ back muscles can’t handle the pressure of the arm blocking the back while being invited to dissociate. It is important that we use different styles when we’re dancing, but it is even more important that we know how.

So here is our small challenge to you: find two different styles and incorporate a couple of elements of them into your own dancing. Learn the differences in their techniques, and learn to apply them. You will become a better dancer with a richer Tango. That is the true goal, to enrich your tango. To achieve a broader understanding of what you’re doing and where it’s coming from. To be able to switch between styles seamlessly while dancing, while maintaining the health of both bodies.

Then join us in spreading the word: Tango is Tango.
There’s really no need for tribalism, no need to judge others by what draws them to Tango. Let Tango dancers be tango dancers and allow them to express themselves in any way possible, as long as they don’t hurt themselves or others in the process. Tango is Tango.

Thank you for reading this post. Let me know if you have any questions! Feel free to share it! In the next couple of posts I will be talking about what constitutes a good technique in any style, why I’m not too crazy about Encuentros and about some of my favorite things in Tango. If you want to keep track of us during our tours you can follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Keep dancing, Tango is Tango.

Yannick Vanhove.

Tango is Tango. Traditional Tango is Tango, Tango Salon is Tango, Tango Milonguero is Tango, Tango Nuevo is Tango, Tango Escenario is Tango, Competition Tango is Tango, we dance a dance that is young, still very much alive and evolving. We are all here to enjoy the dance that we love, no matter the style. Tango’s beauty lies in its diversity. We respect all of it, for all of it is Tango.

P.S.: If you are really crazy about our message, you can back it up by wearing one of our Tango is Tango shirts or tanktops, or one of the other designs, to the next class, milonga, practica or even encuentro that you’re attending! Check out the Tango Store right here!


6 thoughts on “Tango is Tango.

  1. last but not least …the date of the launching of the blog is full of symbolism for the Portuguese …the launching of the Democratic Revolution in Portugal 25 April 1974

  2. Love it…Tango is Tango. And agree about making the dance more fun…not less . To dance, to smile and to enjoy the embrace, the music and the whole social scene that is tango and makes us happy!!!

  3. Love it! Finally a comprehensive elaboration based on facts as much as possible, respectful and balanced.
    Enjoy

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