What is Classic Argentine Tango Dance
Classic Argentine Tango is not a “lead / follow” ballroom dance. Dancing Tango is a shared conversation.
The Tango dance cycle is - (M) Propose/invite > (F) Accept > (M) Follow > (M) Propose/invite >.
This is a key feature that distinguishes it from other ballroom partner dances of any era, that are essentially mirror dances.
The essential objectives of dancing social Tango are sharing and caring.
Sharing music, time, space and energy, with a partner in a gentle (but not constraining) embrace, and with other dance couples circulating together in the same space;
Caring for your dance partner and other dance couples circulating together; caring deeply for the music;
It is achieved by developing excellent technique that allows dancers to enter a flow or meditative state by concentrating intently on the music, your dance partner and other dancers on the floor.
Tango is the sharing of space, time and energy in close embrace. It is invitation & acceptance in a silent conversation. In Tango, the man invites or proposes, by opening a space, then follows, then proposes, throughout the dance. The lady interprets each invitation / proposition and walks into offered space, while she is ‘listening’ for the next proposition. The process is much more like courting than domination - where the man proposes, but the woman chooses; a process that is (or should be) fundamental to human partner selection. Far from being a submissive 'follower" the woman is the final arbiter - another dance? yes please, or no thanks. Similar (but more choreographed) male/female interaction is seen in the Argentine Folkloric dances Zamba and Chacarera. It is a reflection of life and human attraction, perhaps part of the reason Tango can be so intriuging.
By the end of the 1940’s Tango had developed into a dance that was very different from other social, ballroom dances of the time. The nearest equivalent were foxtrot, quickstep, watlz, dances that evolved around swing music of the big bands and dance orchestras of the time. They look similar, but the rhythms are steady and the dance is parallel, where the lady almost always mirrors the man’s steps, hence “lead” and “follow”. Often, dance partners would chat whilst dancing; Tango is a silent dance, since it requires concentrated attention to the music and the silent conversation.
Tango’s unique attributes emerged as a classic mixture of people in time, with unique musical instrumentation, crowded dance floors, the effects of immigration on music and culture.
Classic Tango is rarely danced in parallel. The man is always making space for the lady to walk into, whilst listening intently to the music and attempting to interpret complex rhythms. As soon as a man starts to walk in the lady's space he is restricting her movement. There is, or should not be, any leading or direction with hands or arms, just the opening and closing of space with a transfer of energy at the chest.
It’s entire objective is the interaction of two people within the frame of the music to form a unique, personal conversation.
The development of a new dance - Contemporary International Tango
Contemporary International Tango, as mostly danced and taught around the world, is a development of performance / demonstration Tango, not a development of social Tango. It was devised to give an external expression to the invisible internal emotions of Classic Tango. Ganchos, boleos and many other figures are derived directly from performance. Although performance may have always been part of Tango, as seen in movies from the earliest time, it was developed through the ’50’s by Todaro and others until Copes and Nieves and the cast of “Tango Argentino” brought it to the stage in Europe and on Broadway. This exciting show is what Europeans and Americans saw and wanted to emulate. The performers were only too happy to teach what paying customers demanded, modified for amateur dancers and for a more social setting. Copes is known to have told a North American friend who asked about Tango in the milongas, “We don’t teach that to foreigners”.
Since 2003, “Tango Mundial” World Championships continued the development of demonstration / performance into a social dance, the Tango equivalent of ballroom Dancesport. This government sponsored event is concerned with attracting tourism and entertaining the people. Winning this competition offers an immediate entrée into the world of international touring.
Demonstration performances of CI Tango are promoted all over the world by teachers selling their product. It is commonly known by Argentines as “Export Tango”. This was reinforced by a flood of mostly young performers, many coming out of contemporary dance schools in Buenos Aires, travelling the world selling this dance as the “real thing”. Indeed, they use the language of the “old Tango” in order to sell the “new Tango”.
The ideas of “creativity” and “personal self-expression” are not expressions that are part of the vocabulary of the social dancers of the Golden Age of social Tango. (see Papa Pelazon interviews). The Tango conversation in this dance is more like a phrase book, with the joining of memory-learned figures in a sequence to form the dance.
Nuevo Tango, a development of contemporary Tango was either developed or popularised around the world by Salas, Naviera and Frumboli, particularly after the British movie “The Tango Lesson”. It was a response to dancing to Piazzolla’s non-rhythmic Tango, made popular for dance in the broadway show Tango Argentino.
The further, extreme European development of neo-Tango, as a “club” style, danced “on the
spot” like Latin or Rock/Swing, mostly to jazz-fusion and non-Tango music has also carved a niche that still identifies itself with Tango.
Contemporary International Tango, in its various forms, is an entirely new and different dance, just as competitive ballroom Tango, 100 years ago, moved quickly to a dance that is unrecognisable from the original Tango refined in the city milongas of Buenos Aires from 1935 to 1950.
This is not to say it does not have a legitimate place, just as Dancesport Tango has a place, but it is important to recognise that it is a new and different dance.
Learning to dance Tango
Men, in our experience, take longer to learn to dance the basics of Tango than women. The progression through technique, options, music interpretation, navigation and the more subtle “conversation” takes years of practice. In our experience, a man with some sense of rhythm, a desire to learn and willingness to practice alone, can become a reasonable basic social dancer in about one year. Some women with a reasonable sense of rhythm, desire to learn and plenty of practice, can reach a basic social level in as little as three months. As with men, finding the nuances of social Tango takes years of practice, dancing and discussion.
However, just as many men, women often stop learning at the “get-by” stage. Perhaps the level of a woman’s dance is just not so obvious to a casual observer because high-level women’s skills are very subtle and they take much longer to learn.
These dancers may enjoy the music, the company and dance at a level that satisfies their social needs. They will never find the deeper meaning and satisfaction that the dance can offer. This is not a criticism; Ricardo Vidort noted that there is only ever a handful of good dancers in Buenos Aires, of the hundreds that attend milongas every night. It is one of the great challenges for the survival of Tango as a social dance genre that only a tiny proportion of a diminishing population of dancers ever reach the highest level. (excluding performance).
When starting on the Tango journey it is important to choose the dance that appeals to you. Contemporary International Tango and Classic Social Tango have completely opposed technique and completely different objectives derived from their different roots. Whilst they might appear similar to the casual observer, they are a long way apart.
Learning technique is the first important step in social Tango. Learning to listen intently to an interpret the music, impart this to a partner, hear the message and act in a split second in a genuine conversation takes much more time, but without technique, they will never be mastered. These are skills that emerge over years. A great Tango is a conversation without words, with phrases, sentences and pauses, all guided by the music. It takes two people who have good technique and a clear understanding of the “language” of the dance.
The technique for dancing CI Tango is much closer to Western ballroom dancing, with a lot more parallel overstepping in walking transitions, pausing to execute figures. This is completely different to classic social Tango where there is no, or minimal, overstepping and turning, changes of direction and other interjections are woven smoothly into the dance.
We agree with most commentators that it is harder to get men to commit to learning the dance. There may be cultural reasons for this, although of relatively recent origin. Up until 1970 dance halls and dance clubs thrived in Australia. The social couple dance culture here died out after 1970 when the pub/club scene, awash with alcohol for young men and women, became the centre of social interaction. It was not entirely a world-wide phenomenon. Some few years ago, a young friend left Australia to work in Mexico. He quickly learned that, to join the social scene he had to learn to dance.
They are, and always were different genres of dance that emerged from the same music. The transition of jazz from dance music to a complex musical challenge and intellectual listening exercise occurred over much the same timeline as Tango. There are many forms of Tango music - for dancing, for concerts, for singing and more recently experimenting with classical, jazz and Latin fusion.
Classic social Tango did not evolve into Modern Tango. Contemporary International (Modern) Tango evolved from performance and is, in itself, a separate genre from which even more modern forms have emerged. Most international touring teachers have come from performance dance school backgrounds.
It is more difficult for Classic social Tango to evolve into something else, because its internalised objective has not changed.
Social dance venues have always been a place for people to meet, socialise and find partners. It is obvious that dress, and other codes are more relaxed that the once formal Saturday night dress-up. However, in our experience over just twenty-five years, the dance, the music, the atmosphere and the culture of the milongas are just as important to serious dancers as they were in 1945.