An important question to get out of the way early is whether Argentine Tango is a single dance with different styles, or whether the different styles of tango are actually distinct dances. Styles of Tango Argentino can be usefully divided into three types:
- 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;
- 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;
- Tango Nuevo – this is a popular style created in the 1990s by Gustavo Naveira that draws on Estilo Villa Urquiza and Tango Escenario (stage tango) adapted to dancing contemporary tango music and non-tango music; it was popularised in the movie The Tango Lesson;
So the question is whether and how far can these approaches communicate and interact with each other? The question here can be defined for practical purposes in terms of the following questions:
- If you learn one style can you dance with people who dance the other style?
- Can you effectively participate in events of the other styles?
The 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.
A good analogy for this might be 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’s what most people start on). But actually most people play electric guitar and a lot of people play also classical guitar. The actual instruments, equipment, songs and playing technique involved are completely different. Still, they’re all types of guitar and so transitioning from say, acoustic to classical guitar might be easier than from playing acoustic guitar to say playing the saxophone or piano.
As with the guitar, the different styles of tango are only loosely related in terms of both technique and music, so that learning Tango Estilo Milonguero vs. Salon Style Tango is like learning to play classical guitar vs. learning electric rock guitar. They sort of look the same, and you sort of can do it, but not really, or not to any satisfactory level.
The same goes with the music and the etiquette at the milongas that are organised around the different styles. A traditional milonga organised with Tango Estilo Milonguero dancers in mind will be a different type of event than one organised primarily for Tango Nuevo dancers, even though they both use the term milonga.* A Tango Estilo Milonguero dancer will sit through most sets of the non-traditional music at a Salon Style Tango milonga waiting for a traditional tune, whereas a Salon Style Tango dancer will find most traditional tunes don’t fit very 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 really quite distinct forms and not mix them 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 in the world, most teachers and events 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 Milnguero as the 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 more 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:
Q: What style of tango do you teach?
A: 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 know or want to know something about it in depth, but wants students who want to dabble in all the different styles and then move on to something else like Salsa or Bachata. 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:
- 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-)***
- 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+)
- 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-)
Which picture represents which style of tango? Write down your answer, then scroll to the bottom for the answer key.
* 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 include high (+) and low (-) on the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (OCEAN)
Salon Style Tango: A F H K L
Tango Estilo Milonguero: B E I M
Tango Nuevo: C D G J