Styles of Argentine Tango
by Stephen Brown
In Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina, tango is danced in a spectrum of individualistic or personal styles, and many tango dancers who are Argentine do not accept a categorization of their own dancing by any broad stylistic name. They simply say they are dancing tango, their own style, or the style of their neighborhood or city. A few confuse the issue further by identifying their own style by a name that other dancers associate with a different style. Consequently, parsing the commonalities and differences that can be found across the continuum of individual styles to clearly describe the characteristics of various styles is challenging, potentially controversial, and possibly misleading. Nonetheless, if we regard style to mean an approach to dancing that creates incompatibilities with other approaches and has a sufficient number of adherents who stick firmly to the listed elements, I think it is possible to create rough definitions for a number of distinguishable styles of Argentine tango: tango de salon, Villa Urquiza, milonguero, club, orillero, canyengue, nuevo, fantasia and tango escenario.
Tango de Salon
Some Additional Comments about Style
[bandoneon - back to top]
Tango de Salon
The term "tango de salon" refers to a variety of social dance styles, including Villa Urquiza, milonguero and club-style tangos that are danced socially in salons rather than for exhibition (likefantasia or tango escenario) or in improper venues (like orillero). Traditional tango de salon requires that dancers exercise respect for the line of dance, but the embraces and characteristic movements can vary considerably across individual styles.
Outside Argentina, what is sometimes called "salon-style" tango may refer to the Villa Urquiza, tango fantasia, tango escenario or a blend of these styles. The blended style can have a looser embrace with a more pronounced V than the Villa Urquiza style. The greater distance between the partners allows the woman to execute her turns more freely and pivot without requiring much independent movement between her hips and torso. The looser embrace accommodates showy movements and may lead to a blending of styles that many observers would consider only suitable for exhibitions.
Named for one of the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, the Villa Urquiza style of tango is typically danced with an upright body posture with the two dancers maintaining separate axes and looking toward the clasped hands of the embrace. The embrace is typically closed, but the couple loosens the embrace slightly to accomodate the turns and allow the woman to rotate more freely. The more the woman rotates her hips through the turns independently of her upper torso, the less the embrace needs to be loosened. Because both dancers look toward the clasped hands, the embrace may create an impression of a slight V, in which the woman's left shoulder is closer to the man's right shoulder than her left shoulder is to to his right. Despite the name, the style is danced throughout many of the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, and is sometimes called "Tango Estilo del Barrio." Outside Argentina, the style is widely known as "salon-style tango."
Milonguero-style tango is typically danced with a slightly leaning posture that typically joins the torsos of the two dancers from the tummy through the solar plexus (in an embrace that some Argentines call apilado) to create a merged axis while allowing a little bit of distance between the couple's feet. The embrace is also typically closed with the woman’s right shoulder as close to her partner's left shoulder as her left shoulder is to his right, and the woman's left arm is often draped behind the man's neck. Some practitioners of this style suggest that each dancer lean against their partner. Others say that the lean is more of an illusion in which each partner maintains their own balance, but leans forward just enough to complete the embrace. The couple maintains a constant upper body contact and does not loosen their embrace to accommodate turns or ochos, which can limit the couple to walking steps and simple ochos until both partners develop the skills for the woman to execute her turns by stepping at an angle rather than pivoting. Milonguero-style dancers typically respond to the ric-tic-tic rhythm that is prominent in the music of Juan D'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi and also found in the playing of many other tango orchestras. The milonguero style allows for a more elastic approach to the rhythm when dancing to music that has a less insistent ric-tic-tic rhythm, such as that recorded by Di Sarli or Pugliese. The ocho cortado is one the characteristic figures of milonguero-style tango because it integrates the embrace with rhythmic sensibilities of the style.
Milonguero-style tango can also be identified as apilado-, cafe-, and confiteria-style tango. One of the better-known dancers of the style, Tete, referred to his own style as "tango de salon."
Club-style tango has the rhythmic sensibilities of milonguero-style tango, but it uses a more upright posture, separate axes and close embrace of the Villa Urquiza style of tango. The couple may loosen their embrace slightly on their turns to allow the woman to rotate more freely and pivot without requiring much independent movement between her hips and torso. If the woman rotates her hips through the turns independently of her upper torso or steps back at an angle, the embrace need not be loosened as much. Club-style tango is typically danced to the ric-tic-tic rhythm that is prominent in the music of Juan D'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi and also is found in the playing of many other tango orchestras. Club-style tango uses the ocho cortado and other rhythmic figures that are found in milonguero-style tango. Possibly a rhythmic variation of the Villa Urquiza style of tango, some people regard club-style tango as a mish mash of styles rather than a separate style. Club style tango is sometimes identified as Tango Estilo del Centro, referring to its current use in the central area of Buenos Aires.
Orillero-style tango is an older style of tango whose name suggests that it may have had its origins in the streets of poor outlying tenements in Buenos Aires. Later it came to refer to the man dancing around the edge of the woman. In either case, orillero-style tango was not considered acceptable in the refined salons of central Buenos Aires during the golden age of tango. To the extent that orillero-style tango is still danced it has become more like the Villa Urquiza style of tango. It is danced with upright body posture with the dancers maintaining separate axes, and the embrace is typically offset in a V and can be either close or open. In the turns, the woman is allowed to move freely and pivot without requiring much independent movement between her hips and torso. When orillero-style tango is danced in a close embrace, the couple loosens the embrace slightly to accommodate the turns. If the woman rotates her hips through the turns independently of her upper torso, the embrace need not be loosened as much. Orillero-style tango differs from salon-style tango because it adds playful, space-consuming embellishments and figures that do not always respect the line of dance. Many of the playful elements are executed to the ric-tic-tic rhythm that characterizes the music of Juan D'Arienzo and Rodolfo Biagi.
Canyengue is a historical form of tango that was danced in the 1920s and early 30s that may or may not be accurately captured by its current practitioners. The embrace is close and in an offset V, the dancers typically have bent knees as they move, and the woman does not execute a cross. At the time canyengue was popular, dresses were long and tight. Consequently, the steps were short and frequently executed in the ric-tic-tic rhythm that is characteristic of the tango music played by the old guard which included Francisco Lomuto, Francisco Canaro (early in his career), Roberto Firpo, and Juan de Dios Filiberto. (The modern-era orchestra Los Tubatango played in the same style.) Some dancers of canyengue use exaggerated body movements to accent their steps.
As it was originally conceived, nuevo tango was largely a pedagogic approach to tango that emphasized a structural analysis of the dance through which the connections between tango's elements could be explored and new combinations and step patterns could be found. Some of the dancers exploring those possibilities gradually developed nuevo tango into a style that is danced in an open, loose or elastic embrace with a very upright posture and a great emphasis on the dancers maintaining their own axes. Although some advocates of tango nuevo emphasize its structural analysis over specific figures, some of the most identifiable figures of the style are overturn ochos, cadenas, linear boleos, volcadas and single axis spins—most of which are best accomplished in a loose or elastic embrace.
Fantasia (Show Tango)
The term "tango fantasia" refers to an exhibition style of dancing that draws principally on the Villa Urquiza style of tango but uses embellishments more extensively and adds dramatic poses, ganchos and high boleos, all of which have their roots in some part of tango's history. This style developed for use in exhibitions during breaks in social dancing at milongas, but was carried to the stage. As the stage style evolved through the addition of elements outside the tango vocabulary, some people distinguished the result as tango escenario. Many people refer to all forms of exhibition tango as fantasia.
Tango Escenario (Stage Tango)
The term "tango escenario" means tango danced in stage shows. This style originally drew from the idioms of the Villa Urquiza and orillero styles of tango but today also includes elements of nuevo-tango. Tango escenario is danced in an open embrace with exaggerated movements and additional elements (often taken from ballet) that are not part of the social tango vocabulary. The balletic elements integrate well with the Villa Urquiza style of tango because the way a couple relates to each other's space in the Villa Urquiza style is very balletic in nature, even though tango movements are typically more grounded like modern dance. Many people refer to all forms of exhibition tango as fantasia.
Nuevo milonguero is a relatively new approach to Argentine tango that adds some nuevo movements such as cadenas, volcadas and single-axis spins to milonguero-style tango. It would probably be a stretch to regard nuevo milonguero as a separate style of tango because the approach is fully compatible with the movements in milonguero-style tango (if not the sensibilities), and nuevo milonguero doesn't have an identifiably separate group of adherents. Truthfully, nuevo milonguero might be considered the show version of milonguero-style tango because the added elements are showy but can be inappropriate for dancing in crowded venues.
Liquid tango is approach to dancing Argentine tango in which the embrace shifts between close and open to allow the integration of various styles of tango, particularly the nuevo and club styles. It is probably premature to consider this a separate style of dancing because the approach is largely compatible with nuevo and doesn't have an identifiably separate group of adherents.
Some Additional Comments about Style
Which Style is Authentic?
All of these styles have some degree of authenticity because they draw from the practices, idioms, and historical precedents of Argentine tango as it is and was danced in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and other cities in Argentina and Uruguay. Some styles are more popular in a particular city or in venues within a city, but popularity should not be confused with authenticity. Fantasia and tango escenario are authentic for exhibition dancing but not for social dancing.
Some of the confusion about authenticity may be the result of different styles serving different social purposes during the golden age of tango. The Villa Urquiza style of tango was danced in very nice clubs, where one was expected to get dressed up and dance very slowly. The milonguero and club styles were danced in more crowded venues, some of dubious reputation. Orillero was considered a lower class or street style of tango. In many cases, the same individual would dance somewhat different styles in different venues or to different music.
Which Styles Have an Open Embrace and Which Have a Close Embrace?
All of the styles except tango escenario can be danced in a close embrace. Although Villa Urquiza and orillero-style tango can be danced in a open embrace, they are more typically danced in a close embrace in Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina. Milonguero- and club-style tango are only danced in a close embrace. The milonguero-style embrace is also typically closed with the woman's right shoulder as close to her partner's left shoulder as her left shoulder is to his right. The nuevo embrace is loose and elastic, but many of the movements that are emphasized in tango nuevo can be danced in either the apilado or the close offset V embraces.
Embrace and Frame
Some people distinguish between milonguero and other styles of tango by claiming that the frame in milonguero-style tango is in the woman, and in other styles the frame is created in the arms of the embrace. Whether the frame is inside the woman or in the arms of the embrace depends largely upon the closeness and softness of the embrace. A firm, distant embrace places the frame in the arms of the embrace. As the embrace becomes closer and softer, the frame is moved into the woman's body in all styles.
What Is Salon-Style Tango?
The term "salon-style" has been applied to a range of styles from Villa Urquiza to fantasia. Sometimes tango escenario is taught as salon-style tango. Because the Villa Urquiza style serves as the base for the exhibition styles of tango, it is relatively easy to add exhibition elements to Villa Urquiza that are inappropriate for social dancing. Adding these elements belies the name salon-style because the resulting style is unsuitable for dancing in crowded milongas.
Isn't Salon-Style Tango an Exhibition Style of Tango?
What is taught as "salon-style tango" can range from Villa Urquiza to fantasia or tango escenario. The two exhibition styles can be thought of as an extension of Villa Urquiza because they rely heavily upon Villa Urquiza tango for a basic set of movements. Exhibition tango adds showy figures and embellishments (and sometimes ballet or other theatrical movements) that are inappropriate for social dancing. Many tango instructors confuse their students by teaching an indistinguishable blend of social and exhibition figures and calling it salon tango. This hybrid style is characterized by an open embrace, large steps, dramatic pauses, conspicuous ornamentation, and sometimes a disregard for the line of dance. The hybrid style is danced socially by many thousands of dancers outside of Argentina and Uruguay, who are mostly unaware that their style of dancing of unsuitable for dancing in crowded milongas in Buenos Aires or elsewhere.
Which Styles Are Improvisational and Which Are Choreographed?
All of the styles are potentially improvisational including fantasia and tango escenario. Stage tango is often choreographed. Exhibitions at milongas can be improvised or choreographed. Many instructors who describe the style they teach as salon tango emphasize memorized figures in their teaching. Such teachers may still intend that their students understand that tango is an improvisational dance that follows a strict line of movement around the dance floor.
Which Styles Are Feeling and Which Are Analytical?
Some people look upon improvisation in Villa Urquiza, orillero, fantasia, and nuevo tango as puzzle pieces that are assembled as you dance, and those who teach the structure of tango within these styles can emphasize the analytical nature of the dance. If these styles are held in the intellectual domain and not moved into the intuitive and emotional domains, they can remain a dry, analytical puzzle. Dancers and instructors of milonguero-style tango often emphasize the intuitive and feeling aspects of the style, but it can be approached in an equally analytical manner to the other styles.
How Are the Milonguero and Club Styles Related?
As described above, the styles are very similar and may be or have become variations within a single style. According to Edaurdo Arquimbau, a leading dancer of the style, club-style tango was danced in some of the clubs de barrios during the 1950s, while milongueros were dancing somewhat different styles in central Buenos Aires (which Arquimbau seemed to imply was much like what is now known as Villa Urquiza). Arquimbau also maintains that several of the better-known milonguero-style dancers took lessons in club-style tango from him during the 1950s. His claim has led some to raise the possibility that club-style tango may have played an important role in the development of milonguero-style tango and that the two styles are essentially the same.
Other facts point to the possibility of evolutionary convergence. Club-style tango may have developed as orillero-style dancers moved indoors and adapted their rhythmic dance to smaller spaces. Milonguero-style tango may have developed after the tango salons closed, and some dancers modified their smoother style by adding highly rhythmic elements to create interesting movement in smaller spaces in which they now had to dance.
Ric-tic-tic is onomatopoeia for the staccato rhythms that are prominent in the music of Juan D'Arienzo, Rodolfo Biagi, and some other golden-era orchestras. With Biagi on the piano, D'Arienzo's orchestra debuted in the 1930s with the ric-tic-tic rhythm. Although some describe music with the ric-tic-tic rhythm as 2x4, the characteristic rhythm of this music is actually created through a variation in accented beats that yields an alternation of single-time and double-time rhythms. For example, the music might be played one and two and, one and two and, one and two and, one and two and (where boldface represents the accented beats), and the dancers might respond slow, slow; quick, quick, slow; slow, slow; quick, quick, slow. One might express the chararacteristic stacatto rhythm of this music as one, two; ric, tic, tic; one, two; ric, tic, tic.
Some tangos contain more complex rhythms and longer phrases of double-time staccato accents. Juan D'Arienzo's "El Flete" contains a rhythmic figure of one and two and one and two and,one and two and one and two and, one and two and one and two and, one and two and one and two and. For the dancer adhering strictly to the accents, that rhythmic figure becomes the demanding and rapid fire slow, pause, slow, pause; quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, pause; slow, slow, slow, slow; quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, pause. For a dancer taking the music at half speed, the rhythmic figure becomes the familiar slow, pause, slow, pause; quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, pause; slow, slow, slow, slow; quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, pause (where boldface represents the beats used for dancing).
Copyright © Mark Anderson. All rights reserved.