The One Tango Philosophy: Can “Tango Milonguero” and “Argentine Tango” co-exist (and what is it anyway)?

“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 de Barrio at the same milonga. And you have this mixing of these styles at milongas outside of BA. 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 BA
Premise 2: (All else being equal) if X works in BA then it can work outside of BA.
Conclusion: Therefore, it can work outside of BA

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

Premise 1: It works in BA

It can’t be taken for granted that it works in BA. 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 BA accept each other

Premise 2: (All else being equal) if it works in BA then it can also work outside of BA.

First, this premise assumes that the conditions are similar in the relevant respects, namely, the teaching and the milonga scene. But they aren’t. 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 BA and outside of BA are commonly seen doing. Salon Style Tango is derived from Tango del Barrio but it’s not the same because it incorporates more show choreography and teaching method. So the argument is that you have among the traditional dancers in BA a way to dance that is still rooted in informal understanding that is acquired at the traditional milongas, which is not available outside of BA because of the lack of established traditional milongas with an oral tradition and learning by example. Most of the teaching is conducted by teachers most of whom are based in performance training.

Second, let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Salon Style Tango is identical with Tango del Barrio/Villa Urquiza Style and that this traditionally-based type of dancing is a tolerably good way to dance tango. That still doesn’t mean that it is desirable in itself, or that it can co-exist on the same milonga scene with Tango Milonguero. For example, it is 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.

There is a really crucial difference in the core values of each of these approaches which means that they clash with each other. Tango milonguero dancers emphasise the embrace and only do steps that are possible within the close embrace. Tango del Barrio dancers have a more flexible approach to the embrace that requires a fairly rigid frame at the arms and that accommodates their figures. If you ask a typical an Argentine Salon Style Tango teacher about Tango Milonguero you will often hear the response “But the don’t do anything!”. On the other hand, Tango Milonguero dancers express the view that the movements of Tango del Barrio are overly busy, redundant and pointless. (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.)

This is the reality: these two groups look down on each other! They might tolerate each other but that’s as far as it goes. 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 “frame”. It’s a totally different mindset and approach to dancing tango.

Here, we should consider Tango Milonguero outside of BA. There are apparently milongas and festivals or “encuentros” in various countries that advertise themselves as being “Tango Milonguero”. But when I go to those sites or Facebook pages what I see in the pictures is a sort of “close embrace” dancing that is technically wrong. The embrace 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 choreography in the open embrace. This goes against the ethos of Tango Milonguero as I have defined it above. It is an attempt to combine a “close embrace” with an Salon Style Tango sort of choreography. I think this is better called “close embrace” tango and falls under the “Argentine Tango” umbrella. It is taught using the same approach as Salon Style Tango, namely, sequences of steps or choreography. But this goes against the fundamental focus of Tango Milonguero which is a constant embrace with weight sharing and a point of contact at the centre and therefore a more limited repertoire of steps 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 really worth it. Tango del Barrio/Salon Style Tango type dances (what I call “Argentine Tango”) have almost completely taken over outside of BA because of the visual appeal of their dancing. Tango Milonguero (a) has less visual appeal and (b) is more difficult to teach because of the need to “share weight”. Therefore, Tango Milonguero will always be marginalised in a scene dominated by “Argentine Tango” dancers. The question then is whether it’s not time for a divorce.

One of the problems is 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 therefore confusing because some people use it as a label for a particular style of dancing, and others use it to refer whatever is danced by a “milonguero”, ie., a person who frequents milongas in BA. To add to the confusion, it is not clear what the style is, views ranging from anything that is “close embrace” to a particular set of attitudes about the primacy of the embrace over any complex choreography. As a result, a “milonguero” can be someone dancing Tango del Barrio or doing figures, and “close embrace” tango still focuses on figures and choreography. Both of these approaches would be against Tango Milonguero as I understand it, which prioritises the embrace over everything else. Therefore, I suggest using a label that is more specific and perhaps therefore clearer, such as “Contact Milonguero” for the type of tango that emphasises weight sharing and a constant point of contact at the solar plexus.