• John Lowry

Tango - it’s a Circular Dance


I invited an early stage dancer (under a year), to a tanda at a local milonga. She struggled for a while with ochos & giros chained together, and walking into free, or open, space. At the first break, she commented that most men dance “more linear”, and the “circular” dance was unfamiliar to her.


I explained that we dance (and teach), the Tango of the milongas, developed in the crowded city milongas of Buenos Aires. (more here). Not that we are dogmatic about what others should do, but it’s what we prefer. To her credit, she picked up the marks quickly, with a little exaggeration, so by the third song we were dancing “Milonga style”.


It got me thinking, how and when did Tango morph from a "circular" dance into a “linear” dance?


Deby Novitz, an expat American living in Argentina, wrote, “Tango became big business after the financial crisis of 2001 when the government saw tango as an opportunity to promote tourism. They held seminars for the tango business community on how to maximise their business. Overnight everyone became a teacher,…… With so many "new" tango teachers everyone needed an angle….. People said they teach "Villa Urquiza", "Estilo Almagro” or whatever else sounded good. People dancing less than 2 years now had ads in the local magazines as teachers and taxi dancers. It is horrifying. These are the ones who are teaching and traveling”.


Since that time, it has been a relentless train of touring teachers. Many of the younger dancers had graduated from performing arts universities, and with few work opportunities, they turned to touring and teaching. it was these people who introduced what has become International Tango. A good number of these dancers, including some very well known couples have settled in other countries, setting up permanent studios.


This style of performance / demonstration dance is different from stage Tango (Fantasia) and the Tango of the milongas. When performing demonstrations, teaching couples must move quickly around the floor to give the surrounding audience a view of their show. Often, they will walk long distances (and with long steps), interspersed with “classic” Tango figures to titillate the viewing audience. It is this dance that they pass on to students and teachers around the world.


As a teaching method, it is easier to commercialise with a standard curriculum, and it offers visiting teachers a tangible deliverable from a short workshop series. The method of teaching is also more familiar for dancers in countries with a ballroom dance background, where systematic curricula for dance teaching were developed from 1920, perfected by “franchise”operations such as Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire. This formula works for Tango around the world, because most milongas around the world are not constrained by very crowded dance floors. For a time it seems that it would take over as the dominant dance outside Argentina, just as happened 100 years ago.


However, the real magic of the milonga is, at the least, diminished, if not lost in an environment where couples are not silently circulating with and within the “ronda”, building group energy; instead locked in to their own personal dance experience.

The Tango of the milongas developed over half a century, influenced by many happy accidents, including the classical music influences, the introduction of the bandoneon, the ties to, and longing for, homelands and families far away, and finally by the large crowded city milongas.


In order to create an interesting dance in a packed dance hall, couples had to turn within the small space available, and circulate, with all the other couples, slowly around the floor. Men took responsibility for navigating by connecting with other men around them, ensuring they offered space to the following couple and moving into the space vacated by the leading couple. They also learned to interpret the emotion and melody of the complex classical polyphonic music form. Other conventions and etiquette followed.


The dance was not flamboyant. Women avoided trampling or kicking other couples by keeping their feet close to the ground, and men were conscious to quickly turn away from potential collision. It is said that the best dancers moved around the edge of the room, maintaining the lady’s back to the tables, to protect her from collisions.


The silent, concentrated circulation and connection, both between dance partners and dance couples, creates a special energy that comes from aligning brainwaves, a well known neurological phenomenon.


This was the zenith of social Tango. These ingredients combined to create a dance that is entrancing, emotional and seductive with an intense energy.


Whilst many Tango communities around the world can not re-create the huge crowded ballrooms of the 30’s and 40’s, we can re-create the environment to a degree with quality music and quality dancing in the style of the milongas.


Organisers should ensure that the style of dance expected at their milonga. We find it attracts dancers with the same objective, and discourages those who prefer the more flamboyant international dance, or in Buenos Aires, the dance of the practicas.


We are sensing an upsurge in interest in our community, and around the world, in classic social Tango; the Tango of the milongas. With good tuition and more opportunities to dance at classic milongas and classic Tango “encuentros” we look forward to building a sustainable classic Tango community.

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