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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