The one tango philosophy: can tango milonguero and Argentine tango co-exist?

Graciela Gonzalez: “Milonguero” is one of the many tango salon styles that have to do with the differences between neighborhoods and spaces. I believe that the name arose like a marketing tool, something that was sold. Because all of us, who dance at milongas, are milongueros. As for the style of dance itself, in some moment it was promoted like the only one that was danced in Buenos Aires, which is not true either. Today it is already a label and, as such, one has to accept it.

quoted by Jantango on a “Tango Milonguero” thread of Dance Forums

Here is a possible line of argument:

You criticise salon style tango which is derivation of an authentic form in Buenos Aires, namely, Villa Urquiza style or tango del barrio which is a traditional style of tango. But there are videos showing people dancing tango milonguero and tango del barrio at the same milonga. And you have this mixing between these styles at milongas outside of Buenos Aires. So if that works in Buenos Aires why do you think it can’t work in other places as well?

Let’s analyse this argument in minute detail:

Premise 1: It works in Buenos Aires
Premise 2: (All else being equal) if X works in Buenos Aires then it can work outside of Buenos Aires.
Conclusion: Therefore, it can work outside of Buenos Aires

I will argue that both, Premise 1 and Premise 2 are false, because it’s not evident that it does work in Buenos Aires and, even if we grant that it works in Buenos Aires, the “everything else being equal” clause is unsupported.

Premise 1: It works in Buenos Aires

It can’t be taken for granted that it works in Buenos Aires. There are articles online where milongueros practicing close embrace are critical of a lot of choreography or patterns, which is a characteristic of tango del barrio, and argue for minimalism. So it’s not clear that all so-called traditionalists in Buenos Aires accept each other. In Buenos Aires I mainly danced at milongas that were packed with tango milonguero type dancers. I kept seeing one young couple doing salon style moves who were taking up more than their share of the space. I never had any issues with other dancers at these milongas than this couple who seemed to be quite aggressive. I also attended a couple of hipster and nuevo type events where everyone was doing nuevo sort of moves. Only the established milongas had tango milonguero. So I have not seen any real mixing or any of that supposed mutual tolerance.

Premise 2: Ceteris paribus, if it works in Buenos Aires then it can also work elsewhere

The ceteris paribus clause requires that the conditions are similar in the relevant respects, namely, the teaching and the milonga scene. But it’s very clear that they are not. Even the traditionalists dancing tango del barrio don’t do a lot of the show figures at the milonga that salon style tango people both in Buenos Aires and elsewhere are seen doing. While salon style tango is derived from tango del barrio the former incorporates more performance choreography and teaching method. So you have among the traditional dancers in Buenos Aires a way of dancing that is still rooted in understanding that’s acquired informally at the traditional milongas which is not available outside of Buenos Aires because of the lack of established traditional milongas with an oral tradition and learning by example. Most of the teaching is conducted by teachers with a background in performance training and little or no social dancing experience at traditional milongas.

Why these two approaches are fundamentally at odds with each other

But let’s assume for the sake of the argument that salon style tango is close enough to tango del barrio/Villa Urquiza and that this traditionally-based type of dancing is a tolerably good way of dancing tango. That still doesn’t mean that it is desirable in itself, or that it can co-exist on the same milongas with tango milonguero. For example, it’s not clear that a traditional tango milonguero dancer accepts the tango del barrio approach or vice versa. I would argue that we have two groups with very different approaches to the practice of dancing tango. They can both seemingly occupy the same space and thus seem to be able to co-exist. But this would assume that they are continuous with each other, and that they are just different shades of the same thing. But this assumption of continuity is highly questionable.

I would argue that on the contrary, there is a fundamental difference in the core values of these approaches which means that they will always tend to clash. Tango milonguero dancers emphasise the embrace and only do steps that are possible within an unchanging close embrace. Tango del barrio dancers have a more flexible approach to the embrace which requires a fairly rigid frame at the arms and which accommodates their figures. If you ask a typical Argentine salon style tango teacher about tango milonguero you will often hear the response “But they don’t do anything!”. On the other hand, tango milonguero dancers are heard saying that they eventually found all the sort of choreography, like what you got from petroleo, unnecessary and just getting in the way. (I read an article written by a tango milonguero dancer directly but I can’t find it at the moment so I’ll link to it as soon as I do.)

So looking at what these people do and say I came to the view that these two groups are in really fundamental disagreement as to their respective approach to tango. They might barely tolerate each other at best and view each other with contempt at worst. My very first tango teacher was a Villa Urquiza sort of dancer who did performances. At some point he stopped talking to me. I couldn’t fully understand why, but I suspect that at least part of the reason was that he saw that I started to dance in the close embrace. He was the type of teacher that would tell women to have a firm frame, with a lot of tension in the arms. This is what they need to lead those steps. I think this goes totally against the tango milonguero technique which relies on weight sharing and not on a rigid frame at the arms and hands. It’s a totally different mindset and approach to dancing tango.

Here we should consider tango milonguero outside of Buenos Aires. There are advertisements on various Facebook pages and tango websites for festivals and encuentros that promote themselves as being tango milonguero events. What I see in the promotional photos and videos for these events is a sort of close embrace dancing that is technically wrong from a tango milonguero point of view. The hold is an armpit embrace with the man’s chest open to the woman’s right. This is a sort of embrace that is only necessary when one wants to do stepping patterns in the close embrace and it goes against the ethos of tango milonguero as I have defined it above.

This type of close embrace dancing is a completely pointless and futile attempt to fuse tango milonguero with salon style tango stepping patterns and partnering technique. I think that it’s better to call this “close embrace salon style tango” and that it falls under the Argentine tango umbrella. It’s basically taught using the same approach as salon style tango using sequences of steps and a push-pull partnering technique, which go against the fundamental focus of tango milonguero which is a constant embrace with weight sharing and a point of contact at the centre, and a limited repertoire of stepping patterns that do not upset this sort of hold.

Now the one tango philosophy is the idea that it’s all tango. But at some point we need to ask ourselves whether having these two approaches coexisting in a common tango space is actually workable. Salon style tango milongas (what I call Argentine tango) have completely taken over outside of Buenos Aires because of their visual appeal and teachability. Tango milonguero has less visual appeal and is more difficult to teach because of the need to share weight. Therefore, it will always be marginalised in a scene dominated by Argentine tango dancers. The question then is whether it’s not time for a divorce.

A major problem with the term tango milonguero is well exemplified in the quote at the beginning of this article, namely, anyone who attends a milonga is ipso facto a milonguero. The term is confusing because some people use it as a label for a particular style of dancing and others use it to refer to whatever is danced by the people who frequent milongas in Buenos Aires. To add to the confusion it’s not clear what the style is, views ranging from anything that’s close embrace to a particular set of attitudes about the primacy of the embrace over sequences of stepping patterns.

So a milonguero can be someone dancing tango del barrio, and even so-called close embrace tango still focuses on executing predetermined stepping patterns, which is why they use either an armpit embrace or an in-out approach. Both of these approaches contradict dancing which prioritises the embrace and music above sequences of stepping patterns. The tango milonguero that you see practiced at Salon Canning and similar milongas in Buenos Aires does not involve an armpit embrace or the in-out approach. Therefore, I think that we need to use some other label that narrowly defines that such as Contact Milonguero or something of that sort.