One dance or many: Styles of tango

An important question is what style of tango one should learn and how the different styles are related to each other. For the purposes of a person learning tango outside of Argentina the styles of tango can be usefully divided into three types:

  1. Tango de salon – this is the traditional Buenos Aires tango that includes more open embrace tango estilo Villa Urquiza and close embrace tango estilo milonguero;
  2. Salon style tango – this is a globalised derivation of tango estilo Villa Urquiza that incorporates stage show choreography (tango escenario), that one finds in floor shows, tango competitions, and most commercial tango classes and events around the world;
  3. Tango nuevo – this is a style created in the 1990s that draws on estilo Villa Urquiza and tango escenario adapted to dancing contemporary tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music; it was popularised in the movie The Tango Lesson;

This seems simple enough, but then the more difficult question that causes seemingly endless arguments in the tango world is whether and how far these styles can co-exist? In order to provide my own perspective on the issue I will define it in terms of the following questions:

  1. If you learn one style can you dance with people who dance the other styles?
  2. Can you effectively participate in events of the other styles?

My answer to these questions is basically No, not really. This is not unique to tango: I like Cuban salsa but I find that I cannot effectively dance at parties where people dance LA style salsa because the music and the dancing technique are too different. I don’t really like the music they play, and the women I dance with cannot follow my lead.

You can think of it on analogy with learning to play guitar. If someone told you that they are learning to play guitar you might assume that they are learning to play acoustic guitar because that is what most people start on. But actually a lot of people play electric guitar and others play classical guitar. The instrument, equipment, repertoire, venues and technique involved in each type of guitar are all very different. Still, structurally speaking, they are all types of guitar and so transitioning from say acoustic to classical guitar might be easier than from acoustic guitar to the saxophone or piano.

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As with the styles of guitar playing the different styles of tango are only loosely related in terms of the dancing technique and the type of event.A dancer of Tango Estilo Milonguero will sit through most sets of the non-traditional, post-Golden Era music at a Salon Style Tango milonga waiting for a traditional tune, whereas Salon Style Tango dancers will find most traditional tunes do not fit well with their show-influenced choreography which fits most perfectly with the more dramatic music recorded after the  mid-40s (see Proposal for an alternative tango nomenclature). Tango Nuevo dancers will get bored with the traditional stuff but will breaks out with non-traditional tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music.*

So I feel that we best treat these styles as distinct forms instead of lumping them together in the same basket. More importantly for our purposes here that means that the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.

… the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.

Currently most teachers and events around the world are salon style tango and this is the usual entry point for most people starting out with tango. It is a style of dancing tango that has been adapted to suit the mindset of people outside of Argentina: it has visual appeal so that it attracts people, and it has been formalised into steps and figures so that it is relatively easy to teach. Nonetheless, most dancers have been exposed at some time to either tango nuevo or traditional tango estilo milonguero. Most people will try one or the other and will in the end settle for the one that suits them most.

Outside of Buenos Aires milongas by default are oriented towards Salon Style Tango which has for all practical purposes become synonymous with “Argentine Tango”. This is mainly because they are essentially practicas for the students of the studio teachers who are also the organisers. They then progress to what has been termed “Practilongas”, and although they are called milongas they rarely develop past the Practilonga stage because the majority of the dancers tend to be the high beginner level students (see also Minding the red flags and The fundamental problem of global tango). It is typical of these teachers to want to attract the maximum number of participants. Unless otherwise specified, an Argentine Tango event outside of Buenos Aires is probably a Salon Style Tango event.

Given this, one might argue that Salon Style Tango is the most useful one to learn because it has the most classes and events. However, on the downside, it also has the lowest rate of retention, that is, while most people take salon style tango it is also the case that most people get bored and drop out within 6 to 12 months. Again, to go back to our analogy with the guitar, judging by the fact that most guitars in the music shop are electric and acoustic guitars that one should prefer these over classical guitar. Indeed, the amount of time it takes to learn to play rock music on an electric guitar is much shorter than to learn to play classical guitar. A classical guitarist might still insist that if you want to learn to play music properly and seriously, and gain long term satisfaction you should consider classical guitar. Whether you decide one way or the other will depend on whether words like “proper”, “serious” and “long term” resonate with you (see below).

The reality is that social dancing scenes that are based on studio dancing lessons rather than some sort of a community are inherently unstable because they depend on constant need for the marketing of lessons, and styles of dancing that are the most visually appealing are also the most marketable. Because of its emphasis on culture and limited marketability Tango Estilo Milnguero is more likely to be organised locally by non-profit organisations and connoisseurs who enjoy social dancing to traditional tango music. It might not turn you into a rock star, but it provides enjoyment of classical Argentine tango.

Selecting a teacher

Here’s a quote from a tango teacher that represents a fairly common marketing strategy:

Interviewer: What style of tango do you teach?

Tango teacher: I teach the essence of tango of all styles. I do point out if something belongs to a certain style: Salon, Orillero, Canyengue, Apilado, Milonguero, Nuevo. I especially welcome dancers who want to learn tango in all its complexity and beauty, not bound to any restrictions. I am the only one dancer in our [major city] area who knows all these styles.

What this teacher is saying is that he superficially knows bits of each of these styles but does not know any of them well. He does not welcome any students who want to seriously study any particular style, much less if they actually want to know something about it in depth, but welcomes students who want to dabble in all the different styles and then move on to something else like Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, Zouk, etc. His events will be a disconcerting confusion of music and styles where no one knows anything well. His students will turn up randomly to tango events once or twice a year with only the ‘basics’ that allow them to get through a set without falling over and then to hang around taking selfies and networking.

Now, it does make sense for you to try out the different styles in order to see which one suits you the most. However, the worst kind of student is one who takes lessons for 3-6 months and then turns up randomly to events with only basic ideas about the different styles. Once you decide on a particular style you should then stick with classes for at least 12 months to get good enough to participate in a tango event or help organise events.

As a rough guide, each of the three styles suits a different personality type:

  1. If your main interest is that you just want to dance, enjoy lots of activity, fancy constumes, musicals, and dancing competitions then Salon Style Tango is probably your thing. (O-, C-, E+, A+, N-)***
  2. If your main interest is that you just want to express yourself, contemporary dance performances and theatre improv, then Tango Nuevo might be for you. (O++, C-, E++, A+, N+)
  3. If you are more contemplative, enjoy classical music, romanticist literature, art galleries and ancient architecture then Tango Estilo Milonguero might better match your tastes. (O+, C++, E-, A-, N-)

Quick quiz

Which picture represents which style of tango? Write down your answer, then scroll to the bottom for the answer key.

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*** In the brackets are included high (+) and low (-) on the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (OCEAN)

Answer key:

Salon style tango: A F H K L

Tango estilo milonguero: B E I M

Tango nuevo: C D G J

Walking: the basic movement of tango

The basic movement in tango is walking. This is often misunderstood as a statement about practicing. That is, what one often learns is that there are certain basic steps such as paso basico (the basic), ocho (figure eight), or cruzada (the cross). These are the steps that one commonly learns in a beginner class. Walking is then stressed as technique practice much as one might practice scales on the piano. Moreover, the student is taught to practice walking with elongated steps, pushing into the step and then bringing feet together in between the steps.

Now, this way of framing the issue of walking is typical of styles of tango which are essentially choreographed. This means that there are set patterns which take several steps to execute. This, however, is at odds with tango estilo milonguero which is essentially improvised.* Practicing by walking individually, taking elongated steps, powering horizontally into each step, and bringing feet together at the end of the step will actually hinder progress in learning walking with a partner and will interfere with dancing in the close embrace.

This type of movement can work in two contexts which are different from that of a beginner class. First, it looks great in a choreographed floor show in an open embrace that allows for such walking and for the choreography. In a floorshow we need to use up all that empty space and such walking satisfies this requirement. Second, in tango estilo milonguero it is a case of demonstrating high level of skill. However, as I explain in Training vs. demonstration of skill, the process of attaining the requisite skills requires a different process of training.

In general, while it sometimes can be seen, this type of walking is not the norm as for the most part it is not efficient, connected or functional in the context of social dancing. We often have to take smaller steps due to (i) limited space on the dancefloor; (ii) the level of our partner; and (iii) the requirements of the music. It is therefore unlikely that we would be dancing powering into each step other than on a selected occasions when the opportunity or need arises (see also Walking and the principle of reversibility). I suggest that this type of walking is best viewed as emerging out of more basic improvisational skills that require a very different type of training (see Choreography vs. emergent movement).

Instead, what we want is to practice initiating the step by breaking at the knee and then following that with the foot sliding along the floor so that it ends up where we want to go and then taking the step. This walking movement has these parts:

  1. Breaking at the knee in the leg that is going to go.
  2. The foot slides along the floor in the direction that we want to go.
  3. Finally, move into that step.

It may be useful to prepare by practicing that movement alone but ultimately it only makes sense to practice walking by doing it with a partner, walking forward and back, with some relatively slow music to begin with.

In tango estilo milonguero there are no steps to be learned, ie., copied and memorised. All the patterns that one sees in social tango dancing naturally emerge from walking. Tango is essentially improvised. We start walking in a straight line forward and back but soon enough we discover new possibilities which we may call steps if we want. For example, learning to change direction while we walk with a partner creates the pauses and turns that we associate with tango. Anything outside of that is fixed or semi-fixed choreography and so then it is no longer traditional tango estilo milonguero which can be defined as the exploration of the possibilities of walking in a heart-to-heart embrace to tango music.


* Although one does find teachers who claim to instruct tango estilo milonguero using set patterns.

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