Tradition and evolution in tango: the influence of Street Latin

 

A: At Buenos Aires milongas people do/don’t do X (high boleo, cabeceo, etc.)
B: Tango is a living culture. It cannot be defined by narrow-minded ethnocentric attitudes. It keeps evolving.

Here A will typically be someone who believes that tango is a culture with certain traditions and learning tango is learning to emulate the attitudes, habits and standards of those who practice tango in its place of origin, namely, Buenos Aires traditional milongas. B will typically be someone who either studies or teaches either Salon Style Tango or Tango Nuevo, and views tango as a dance that can and should be adapted to the local context, ie., the preferences and attitudes of people in a given location outside of Argentina.

Both viewpoints distinguish tango from something like Ballroom Dancing but for completely different reasons: Traditionalists hold that unlike Ballroom Dancing Argentine Tango cannot be defined in terms of rigid patterns and is improvised; Evolutionists hold that unlike Ballroom Dancing Argentine Tango cannot be defined in terms of rigid rules and continually evolves and adapts. Traditionalists look down on the steps taught by Tango Evolutionists as basically the same thing as Ballroom Dancing, ie., formalising what has no formula. For them, tango culture does not prescribe any particular steps beyond the walk. It only prescribes social rules and attitudes, walking, embrace and music. Tango Evolutionists look down on the rigid social rules of the Traditionalists as essentially the same rigid mindset as Ballroom Dancing, as excessively formalistic.

The two attitudes to Argentine tango are completely and fundamentally at odds with each other as to how tango differs from Ballroom Dancing. Roughly speaking, Tango Evolutionists want to turn tango into a ‘club dance’ like LA Style Salsa. They want to integrate Argentine tango into the ever growing system of Street Latin partner dances such as Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, Zouk, etc. These are all taught using fairly set patterns but their choreography, technique and embellishments keep evolving with teachers constantly adding new choreographic elements and embellishments which they can teach in workshops. And they are danced in the many bars that have a sound system and a dancefloor. This studio-nightclub system emerged because dance teachers need material to teach and bars need new ways of attracting customers, so it’s a mutually beneficial system.

Tango Traditionalists (or traditionalists of any of the actual ethnic dances) will view this as an endless succession of dance fads. They have no interest in endlessly taking classes and workshops, learning ever changing choreography and embellishments, and prefer to spend their money on trips to Argentina where they find that the local milongueros have never taken a dancing class in their life but are constantly preoccupied with minute detail of milonga etiquette, the music being played, and whether someone has a good embrace. This established system of understanding seems non-viable outside of Buenos Aires because it presupposes cultural understanding without which it is difficult and often impossible to attract new dancers. One hardly wants to take a dancing lesson which consists primarily of a lecture about the cultural norms at a milonga, but little or no actual dancing instruction. It also tends to create an alienating ingroup-outgroup dynamic.

The primary problem for Traditionalism is that for people who have little or no dancing experience, the visual aspect of people dancing is the main attraction. Similarly, for people who are unfamiliar with traditional tango music, contemporary and electronic tango sound much more familiar and enjoyable. So Evolutionary Tango has a ready-made public in that it appeals both in terms of the choreography and the sound. Traditionalist Tango suffers because it merely advocates travelling to Buenos Aires. What is necessary is a way of showing how learning about the culture is not merely for the sake of conforming to some distant tradition, but actually translates into beautiful dancing wherever it is done.

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Tango music in historical context

Many people believe that tango music is just whatever falls under the genre Tango. As with Classical, Rock or Jazz, such a category is too general to be of much use. People decide that they like the sound of some random tango music and that they  want to dance to it, assuming that tango dancing is just dancing to whatever tango music with whatever tango steps. As with the other genres, education in music requires breaking down the genre into historically meaningful sub-categories.

For our purposes we only need to know that at a traditional Buenos Aires milonga tango is only ever danced to music recorded during the Golden Era or Epoca de Oro, that is, music recorded by around 20 orchestras in the period 1930-1953. In order to learn traditional Tango Estilo Milonguero this is the only music you need to listen and dance to. To put this in some context it is useful to look at the history of tango in terms of rough periods of its development:

Prior to 1800

British country dance spreads throughout Europe to be known as contradanse and contradanza. In Cuba a swinging rhythm from African music is added to the contradanza and this augmented form returns to Europe now known as the Habanera (see Musicality).

1860-1890

Contradanza/Habanera forms the basis of many folk dances including the milonga danced in the region Rio de la Plata between Montevideo and Buenos Ares. The main instruments used are guitar and flute. The bandoneon, originally intended as a portable organ for small churches, arrives from Germany around this time. Argentina invites a large influx of European migrant workers who comprise half of the population of Buenos Aires by the end of the century.

1890-1910

Tango is crystallizing as a new local creole form of music and dance. First ensembles devoted uniquely to tango emerge, known as Orquesta Tipica Criolla. These early ensembles are quartets comprising guitar, flute, violin and bandoneon.

1910-1925

Tango gains acceptability with the upper classes and moves to cafes and salons in the city centre. The first recording studio is established in Buenos Aires. There is a tango craze in Europe and the US with tango orchestras led by Francisco Canaro touring France. Tango ensembles grow larger adding more bandoneons, violins. The guitar and flute are replaced by piano and double bass.

1925-1935

Guardia Vieja or The Old Guard refers to the first large professional tango orchestras led by Canaro, Fresedo, Donato, De Caro, Lomuto, etc. that give us the first dancable recordings with a more traditional sound. These recordings are characterised by a slower, steady beat. These recordings are usually played early at Buenos Aires milongas.

1935-1938

Juan D’Arienzo’s orchestra with Rodolfo Biagi arranging and playing the piano revolutionise danceable tango playing tunes with a strong driving beat. They produce the most important set of classic recordings. It’s the beginning of the early phase of the Golden Era and an important turning point in the emergence of tango as a popular form. All traditional milongas play sets of tangos from these recordings.

1940-1945

The middle of the Golden Era with around 20 orchestras making hundreds of studio recordings that comprise the bulk of traditional milonga DJ-ing to this day. They are smooth, romantic and sophisticated. The main orchestras are led by Di Sarli, Troilo, D’Agostino, Tanturi, Calo, Laurenz and Pugliese. The singing style is strongly influenced by the dramatic style of Carlos Gardel.*

1946-1949

Later part of the Golden Era with tango becoming smoother, more intense and sophisticated, with more complex arrangements. This music is more difficult to dance to but reaches new heights of emotional intensity. Because of the less pronounced beat and complex arrangement this style requires a smoother style of dancing and higher skill level. These tangos are played toward the end of the traditional milonga DJ set.

1950

The end of the Golden Era as tango orchestras move from being medium size dance hall ensembles to large concert hall orchestras.** This music is for large concert hall audiences. The style of singing also changes, moving away from the dramatic style of Carlos Gardel to a deeper style exemplified by the later recordings of Roberto Goyeneche. Also, many Golden Era recordings originally released on shellac records are remastered adding reverb and re-released on vinyl with the bigger sound imitating concert hall orchestras.

1960s-70s

Astor Piazzolla, who played bandoneon in Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, trains in classical music composition in France and creates a new genre called Tango Nuevo which is a fusion of tango with jazz and classical. He leads classical orchestras as well as jazz ensembles featuring electric bass, electric guitar and the drum kit.

1980s

Tango stage musicals comprising larger orchestras fronted by acrobatic tango choreography tour the world starting a new tango craze. The big sounding orchestras and acrobatic choreography is now strongly associated with tango music and dancing outside of Argentina, but in Buenos Aires it is rejected as Tango por export.

1990s

Orchestral tango and stage choreography becomes formalised as a new globalised hybrid of Salon Style Tango. Meanwhile the new genre of electronic tango emerges building on the sound developed by Piazzolla or mixing tango samples with electronic beats. Gustavo Naveira formalises tango choreography in a way that is compatible with this new genre in what comes to be also called Tango Nuevo, which is popularised in the 1997 movie The Tango Lesson.

2000s

While traditional Buenos Aires milongas retain an established DJ repertoire comprising at least 70% Golden Era tango music, due to the influence on popular culture of tango musicals and Piazzolla’s Tango Nuevo, non-traditional milongas outside of Buenos Aires play mostly a mixture of post-1950 music hall tango, Tango Nuevo, Electronic Tango, and contemporary tango recordings that suit the Salon Style Tango choreography. Tango classes almost never focus on tango music and its history.

Tango music at milongas in 2018

While the law in Buenos Aires specifies that an event cannot be called a Milonga unless at least 70% of the music played is traditional Golden Era tango music, currently most milongas outside of Buenos Aires are Salon Style Tango (see Styles) that play mostly non-traditional, post-1950, tango music. As a consequence, tango events outside of Buenos Aires that play traditional tango music and follow the traditional tango cultural norms (style of dancing and etiquette) promote themselves as either Traditional Milonga or Encuentro Milonguero. Unless so marked a ‘milonga’ outside of Buenos Aires will be a Salon Style or Tango Nuevo event and therefore typically little or no Golden Era tango music will be played.

Notes

*Carlos Gardel was a singing idol and movie star in the 20s and early 30s. He tragically died in a plane crash over Colombia in 1935 sending Argentina into nationwide mourning.

**The only tangos recorded after 1950 that are played at traditional milongas and are counted as Golden Era tango are the early 1950s recordings by Carlos Di Sarli at Music Hall, and by Rodolfo Biagi y su Orquesta Tipica.

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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