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Classic & Contemporary Social Tango

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Classic Tango emerged as a social dance in Buenos Aires and Montevideo during the first half of the 20th century. it developed in response to social conditions and mores of the time, to the music as it developed, and to increasingly crowded dance halls. Modern International Tango emerged from performance and demonstration. It was developed into a social dance style, mainly for foreigners, probably from the early 1980's following the success of travelling stage shows, although performance had been around from the earliest times.

The two dances are not compatible from a learning perspective and not always compatible in a social setting. Prospective and learner dancers are advised to decide what dance they would prefer to follow. It is difficult, if not impossible to combine all the elements of both because the basic technique of the two dances is opposed.

The purpose of this post is to help new entrants in the world of social Tango for dancing to decide on a learning and social dancing route, rather than spend years bouncing from one class and workshop to another, seeking satisfaction. The "One Tango" school proposes that modern social Tango is an evolution of Classic Argentine social Tango from the milongas of Buenos Aires. They are, on any observation, quite different dances from different roots, even though they utilise the same music and terminology much of the time.

People have attached various names to the different dances and styles in order to distinguish them. Names that have emerged in the past 20 years include Milonguero, Salon, Vila Urquiza. I have chosen Classic Tango (the Tango of the Buenos Aires city milongas, broadly from 1930 to 1960) and Contemporary Tango ( a development of performance Tango into a social style). The objective of the two dances is different and the technique for dancing Contemporary Tango and Classic Tango are (literally) 180 degrees opposed.

CONTEMPORARY TANGO Contemporary Tango has become a popular form of Tango for social dancing outside of Buenos Aires. (Asia, Australia New Zealand, United States, Europe) and other parts of Latin America, although its popularity has also grown in Buenos Aires. It is the dance of choice for demonstration dances within and outside Buenos Aires and it is, in its more exaggerated form, stage performance, its roots. The roots of Contemporary Tango lie in performance. There is sufficient archive material to indicate that Tango performance was practiced by popular performers at least since the earliest days of film. Dancers including Petroleo, Cachafaz, Carmencita, Virulazo, Todaro and many others were popular performers through to the beginning of the latest Tango boom of the late 1980’s.

This is the dance that was re-introduced to the world via popular Tango stage shows in the 1980’s headlined by Copes and Nieves, Gavito, Gloria & Eduardo, Miguel Zotto, Milena Plebs and others. Popular tourist Tango cabarets continue in Buenos Aires today. This was followed by a flood of touring performers, teaching this dance, which continues unabated to this day.

It was also the genesis of the competitive European ballroom Tango form, introduced as early as 1912 and codified in England in the early 1920's. This dance was introduced to Europe in the same way that tango is promoted around the world today, by touring or resident Argentine teachers and their followers.

Other modern forms, including Nuevo Tango, a form popularised (in my limited experience of the style) by Salas, Navieira & Frumboli that (to me) developed a method to dance to modern, non-rhythmic music, including the music of Piazzolla, performed in the Paris / Broadway show "Tango Argentino" in the early 1980's and Sally Potter's 1997 movie "The Tango Lesson", in which the three dancers, below, appeared beside Pablo Veron.

and finally Neo-Tango, a European response to Tango / jazz / Latin / pop fusion experiments from 2000, developed as a club dance.

It is notable that many Argentine dancers understand and respect the difference between performance, demonstration, the practica and the milonga. Foreign dancers commonly confuse the differences. These "New Tango" extensions share some of the essential "look" of modern Tango and it is often "sold" using the language of Classic Tango. (connection, feeling etc.).

Why this dance is often the more popular choice in the world outside Buenos Aires?

Contemporary Tango is more familiar to New World audiences and similar in many ways to traditional social partner dances and the cultural customs and sensibilities of most western and Asian countries. it is often described as "creative" and providing for "self-expression". By its nature Contemporary Tango is a more externalised and maximised dance in which there is opportunity to execute more flamboyant figures for the enjoyment of the dancers and the audience. Typically, less crowded dance floors offer the space required for contemporary figures. Externalised pattern or semi-pattern dances have been a feature of social and demonstration / performance partner dances around the world since the 1920’s (Charleston through to Jive and Ballroom Latin and the many famous film dancers including Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly (Copes' idol, he stated) and many others. Deliberately learned and executed decorations and figures are also a more mathematical, left-brain activity that attracts dancers from an education and work background where excelling in left-brain activities is typically a mark of success. A more minimalist, understated, internalised dance is a more foreign experience.

Objective: Contemporary Tango is more directed towards the challenge of a dance with reasonably complex chained-together, memorised figures and moves. Creativity and self-expression, especially for women, are stated as key objectives. There may be an element of “connection / conversation” from time to time, but it is not central to the dance. Technique: The basic step technique for International Tango is FLEX > STEP > MOVE.

Embrace: The embrace is vertical, either closed, semi-closed in a V or open. The lady is often positioned towards the man’s right side. It will often include, for women, an exaggerated lean, broken at the waist. This embrace may be less intimidating than the classic Tango embrace, although it lacks the direct exchange of energy that characterises the classic embrace. Mark / Lead; The lead is whole body. At walk, the couple flex slightly at the knees, the man steps forward from the hips pushing forward and upward with the torso. This lead is identical to modern ballroom dances foxtrot, quickstep, waltz. The man’s step is often long and well inside the lady’s space. As a result, in order to generate turns the embrace must be released or the man must “come to attention” to allow the lady room to step around. The man typically steps out, marching style, heel-toe, or an exaggerated 'toe-slide". The woman typically stretches back with her leg, before moving her body. Changes of direction may be indicated partly or entirely through the arms and hands, as in modern swing / jive and modern Latin genres. The vocabulary is often a more “phrase book” of figures in an "I do this - you do that" form.

Attitude: The attitude of contemporary Tango is more “external”. Both partners have more opportunity to face an audience or onlookers and to demonstrate their agility with a wider variety of more or less flamboyant figures and sequences. contemporary Tango is similar in attitude to most other modern social partner dances including ballroom standard and Latin dances. Figures and decorations: The embrace dictates the number and shape of many figures. The embrace for giros and ochos is often relaxed or open. The lady will usually step directly forward in a giro, at right angles to the man. Ganchos, back sacadas and high leg figures are mostly more comfortable and achievable in an open embrace.

Circulation: The circulation of International Tango is more "stop/start". Couples tend to move more in straight lines, between static figures. Even though the floor circulates there is more opportunity for couples to perform static figures and deliberate decorations. Couples tend to require more space for figures. Left side (ladies) giros are more popular. The more static "on the spot" dance is particularly noticeable in certain Tango communities and in neo-Tango that has developed into a nightclub genre.

As a rule, the couples do not communicate with surrounding couples. Music: Musical interpretation is usually secondary to the dance. Couples may pause at any time to allow figures to be executed. Many couples do not dance to the rhythm at all, preferring to concentrate on the execution of figures. In some milongas modern jazz, rock and Latin fusion with non-Tango rhythms or non rhythmic Tango is mixed with classic Tango.

Learning: This dance lends itself to structured, curriculum-based teaching; another reason it is popular with dance schools. It is also easier to codify, with named figures, and to judge in competition. The annual Tango Mundial (World Championship) is a good example of the style in a competitive environment.

CLASSIC TANGO Whilst its origins are shrouded in myth and mystery, Classic social Tango emerged in dance venues and salons of Buenos Aires in response to the music as it developed from the 1920’s in the crowded dance floors of popular venues. Slight variations between local areas developed in response to varying space, with the crowded city milongas developing a reputation for the tightest dance. A set of customs and etiquette developed around the dance scene that include the invitation, brackets (tandas) of songs and the circulation of the dance floor. These developments and customs were similar to social dances in other countries from the 1920’s to the 1960’s where circular dances including foxtrot and quickstep were popular. It is notable on the following video how simple these dances were in a crowded setting.

Respected Tango dancers of the era (milonguero/a's) discuss the key objectives of the dance as:

  • Dancing a feeling or emotion

  • Drawing on and interpreting the music

  • Respecting your partner, the music and other couples.

It is never referred to as "fun", "creative" or an outlet for self-expression. Tango High and Low in the essay "What's love got to do with it" says, "At the end of each interview, (Monica Paz) asks her subjects to describe tango in one word. Often, that word is “passion” or “emotion” or “a feeling.” [I suspect the Spanish "sentiemento" has a more nuanced meaning - Ed] Although expressive, these are vague terms that seem to dance around the question. Interestingly, and perhaps more to the point, I have never heard (or read, many of the interviews have subtitles) any of her interview subjects describe tango as “fun” or “creative,” or even a form of “self-expression.” For them, this dance, expressed within the confines of the couple, is personal and private. Whatever their talent may be (and her interview subjects are, by and large, the best of the best, individuals who have spent a lifetime perfecting their tango), these men and women rarely display any interest in performance as an end in itself or even as something essential to tango. But they have spent a lifetime cultivating a deep attachment to a social dance that is, simultaneously, casually public and intensely private".

The following long video (17 minutes) describes the dance from the perspective of Ricardo Vidot, one of the most respected dancers from the end of the "Golden Era" of Tango.

(not available to embed here, but well worthwhile)

Technique: The basic step technique for Classic Tango is MOVE > STEP > MOVE

Embrace: The embrace is always closed, meeting at the chest. The partners maintain a vertical or slightly leaned posture that is continuously exchanged as the dance unfolds. The woman is almost always directly in front, allowing a complete transfer of energy between the partners at all times. Mark / Lead; The man does not generally step out into the ladies space; he does not step further than his body. When walking he steps into the footfall that she has just vacated. The mark is created with changes in balance. Direction changes are initiated by turning or twisting the torso combined with changes of balance. The mark or lead is shared between the partners in an invite / accept exchange. The dance is conversational, with this continual interchange of invitation and acceptance. This exchange occurs on a step to step basis. It is achieved by the man inviting the lady to move by opening or closing a space for her to move to, then following her into the space she has vacated. From her perspective, it requires reading the invitation and moving into the vacant space that is offered or made available. As a result, the lady must be aware and attentive at every step. She, also, does not generally step behind her body. She moves over her balance, stepping toe-heel. Decorations can only be performed as and when the opportunity arises, in time with the music. The woman must be acutely aware of timing and balance to achieve elegant decorations within this framework. Attitude: The attitude of classic Tango is introspective, intimate and minimal. Each couple is dancing within their own bubble, for one another, and with awareness and respect for those around them. There is little opportunity to “face” an audience. Figures & Decorations: The repertoire of figures is generally limited to basic turns, ochos, giros, pauses and sacadas. Ganchos, voleos, kicks and other high figures are excluded. All figures are constructed in real time in response to the music, navigation and ability of the partners. Decorations are executed as an interpretation of the music or as a response when opportunities arise within the time available.

Performance - Performance and Classic Tango are not mutually exclusive. In our experience, people with excellent classic Tango technique can also be very good performers, since they have an excellent base from which to work. However, they typically understand and respect the differences and where each one may be appropriate. Circulation: Anti-clockwise, continuous circulation, both for individual couples and the entire floor [ronda] is essential. Stopping to execute figures is disruptive. Codes of practice about changing lanes and pushing-in are applied, although they are more relaxed than they once were. Men should engage with the men on either side, consciously allowing enough space for the couple in front to turn before moving forward. Couples rotate and circulate continually, not stopping to perform static figures.

Music: Tango music is central to this dance. Music for dancing is rhythmic. Non-Tango, non rhythmic Tango (songs [cancion], Piazzolla after 1947, Latin & pop fusion) and alternative rhythms are not used. The couple steps together, on the beat. The pace and variation of the dance is driven by the underlying rhythm, the melodic rhythm, and an interpretation of the melody. Learning: This dance does not lend itself to structured, curriculum-based teaching. Mastering technique, similar to mastering a language, an instrument or a sport, is essential in order to build a vocabulary for a non-learned conversation. It is a slow process that requires long-term application to basic technique. As a result, this dance requires years of dedicated application to become really competent, and only attracts and retains those people who can reasonably quickly get an understanding of the potential of the dance and are prepared to make the journey. The dance is not competitive.


Classic and Contemporary Tango as essentially different dances using mostly the same music and often the same terminology. Their objectives and technique are different. Whilst most milongas around the world accept a mixture, they are not totally compatible. Classic Tango is at its best in a calm, concentrated environment that allows brain patterns to align, similar to group meditation. Contemporary Tango requires more space and is more concerned with personal or artistic expression.

Mixing learning between teachers of the different dance styles does not work. The technique for the two dances is very different.

New recruits to Tango are well-advised to watch the dancers, choose which dance they prefer, seek it out, and stick to it.

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