One dance or many: the styles of tango

An important question is what style of tango one should learn and how the different styles are related to each other. For the purposes of a person learning tango outside of Argentina the styles of tango can be usefully divided into three types:

  1. Tango de salon – this is the traditional Buenos Aires tango that includes more open embrace tango estilo Villa Urquiza and close embrace tango estilo milonguero;
  2. Salon style tango – this is a globalised derivation of tango estilo Villa Urquiza that incorporates stage show choreography (tango escenario), that one finds in floor shows, tango competitions, and most commercial tango classes and events around the world;
  3. Tango nuevo – this is a style created in the 1990s that draws on estilo Villa Urquiza and tango escenario adapted to dancing contemporary tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music; it was popularised in the movie The Tango Lesson;

This seems simple enough, but then the more difficult question that causes seemingly endless arguments in the tango world is whether and how far these styles can co-exist? In order to provide my own perspective on the issue I will define it in terms of the following questions:

  1. If you learn one style can you dance with people who dance the other style?
  2. Can you effectively participate in events of the other styles?

My answer to these questions is basically No, not really. This is not unique to tango: I like Cuban salsa but I find that I cannot effectively dance at parties where people dance LA style salsa because the music and the dancing technique are too different. I don’t really like the music they play, and the women I dance with cannot follow my lead.

You can think of it on analogy with learning to play guitar. If someone told you that they are learning to play guitar you might assume that they are learning to play acoustic guitar because that is what most people start on. But actually a lot of people play electric guitar and others play classical guitar. The instrument, equipment, repertoire, venues and technique involved in each type of guitar are all very different. Still, structurally speaking, they are all types of guitar and so transitioning from say acoustic to classical guitar might be easier than from acoustic guitar to the saxophone or piano.

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As with the styles of guitar playing the different styles of tango are only loosely related in terms of the dancing technique and the type of event even if they might all be called milonga.* A dancer of tango estilo milonguero will sit through most sets of the non-traditional music at a salon style milonga waiting for a traditional tune, whereas a salon style dancer will find most traditional tunes do not fit well with his choreography which fits better with music recorded after the  mid-40s and non-traditional tango. A tango nuevo dancer tends to get bored with the traditional stuff and breaks out with non-traditional tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music.**

So it is best to treat these styles as distinct forms instead of lumping them together in the same basket. More importantly for our purposes here that means that the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.


… the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.


Currently most teachers and events around the world are salon style tango and this is the usual entry point for most people starting out with tango. It is a style of dancing tango that has been adapted to suit the mindset of people outside of Argentina: it has visual appeal so that it attracts people, and it has been formalised into steps and figures so that it is relatively easy to teach. Nonetheless, most dancers have been exposed at some time to either tango nuevo or traditional tango estilo milonguero. Most people will try one or the other and will in the end settle for the one that suits them most.

One may argue that Salon Style Tango is the most useful one to learn because it has the most classes and events. However, on the downside, it also has the lowest rate of retention, that is, while most people take salon style tango it is also the case that most people get bored and drop out within 6 to 12 months, whereas the other styles can claim that their adherents are more committed to their styles in the long run. Many people who do stick with salon style tango will gravitate in the direction of tango estilo milonguero as they find the fixed choreography increasingly repetitious and boring, or else move to Tango Nuevo.

The reality is that dance scenes in most Western countries are inherently unstable because they depend on constant need for classes and marketing for funding and styles of dancing that are the most visually appealing are also most marketable. Because of its emphasis on culture and limited marketability tango estilo milonguero is more likely to be organised locally by non-profit organisations and connoisseurs who enjoy social dancing to traditional tango music. It might not turn you into a rock star, but it provides enjoyment of classical Argentine tango.

Selecting a teacher

Here’s a quote from a tango teacher that represents a fairly common marketing strategy:


Interviewer: What style of tango do you teach?

Tango teacher: I teach the essence of tango of all styles. I do point out if something belongs to a certain style: Salon, Orillero, Canyengue, Apilado, Milonguero, Nuevo. I especially welcome dancers who want to learn tango in all its complexity and beauty, not bound to any restrictions. I am the only one dancer in our [major city] area who knows all these styles.


What this teacher is saying is that he superficially knows bits of each of these styles but does not know any of them well. He does not welcome any students who want to seriously study any particular style, much less if they actually want to know something about it in depth, but welcomes students who want to dabble in all the different styles and then move on to something else like Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, etc. His events will be a disconcerting confusion of music and styles where no one knows anything well. His students will turn up randomly to tango events once or twice a year with only the ‘basics’ that allow them to get through a set without falling over and then to hang around taking selfies and networking.

Now, it does make sense for you to try out the different styles in order to see which one suits you the most. However, the worst kind of student is one who takes lessons for 3-6 months and then turns up randomly to events with only basic ideas about the different styles. Once you decide on a particular style you should then stick with classes for at least 12 months to get good enough to participate in a tango event or help organise events.

As a rough guide, each of the three styles suits a different personality type:

  1. If your main interest is that you just want to dance, enjoy lots of activity, fancy constumes, musicals, and dancing competitions then Salon Style Tango is probably your thing. (O-, C-, E+, A+, N-)***
  2. If your main interest is that you just want to express yourself, contemporary dance performances and theatre improv, then Tango Nuevo might be for you. (O++, C-, E++, A+, N+)
  3. If you are more contemplative, enjoy classical music, romanticist literature, art galleries and ancient architecture then Tango Estilo Milonguero might better match your tastes. (O+, C++, E-, A-, N-)

Quick quiz

Which picture represents which style of tango? Write down your answer, then scroll to the bottom for the answer key.

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Notes

* Although apparently in Buenos Aires there is a law that requires that a milonga must play traditional tango music and follow traditional customs, so that a Tango Nuevo event cannot be called a ‘milonga’.

**Outside of Buenos Aires the default event for tango is Salon Style Tango and so these events are never specified as it’s taken for granted. Also, it is typical of these organisations to want to attract the maximum number of participants. Unless otherwise specified, an Argentine Tango event outside of Buenos Aires is probably a Salon Style Tango event, whereas events specific to Tango Estilo Milonguero or Tango Nuevo are likely to be marked as such, eg., “Traditional Milonga”, “Nuevo Milonga”, “Tango Nuevo Festival”, etc.

*** In the brackets are included high (+) and low (-) on the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (OCEAN)

Answer key:

Salon style tango: A F H K L

Tango estilo milonguero: B E I M

Tango nuevo: C D G J