Argentine tango is a social dance and a musical genre that originated in Argentina and Uruguay. In the US, it is commonly confused with ballroom tango, though this is a later derivation.
Argentine tango consists of a variety of styles that developed in different regions and eras, and in response to the crowding of the venue and even the fashions in clothing. Even though the present forms developed in Argentina and Uruguay, they were also exposed to influences reimported from Europe and North America. There are records of XVIII and early XIX century tango styles in Cuba and Spain, while there is a flamenco tangos dance that may share a common ancestor in a minuet-style European dance. Consequently there is a good deal of confusion and overlap between the styles as they are now danced – and fusions continue to evolve.
Argentine tango is danced in an embrace that can vary from very open, in which leader and follower connect at arms length, to very closed, in which the connection is chest-to-chest, or anywhere in between. Close embrace is often associated with the more traditional styles, while open embrace leaves room for many of the embellishments and figures that are associated with tango nuevo.
Tango is essentially walking with a partner and the music. Musicality (i.e. dancing appropriately to the emotion and speed of a tango) is an extremely important element of dancing tango. A good dancer is one who makes you see the music. Also, dancers generally keep their feet close to the floor as they walk, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other.
Argentine tango relies heavily on improvisation; although certain patterns of movement have been codified by instructors over the years as a device to instruct dancers, there is no “basic step.” One of the few constants across all Argentine tango styles, is that the follower will usually be led to alternate feet. Another is that the follower rarely has her weight on both feet at the same time. Argentine tango is a new orientation of couple dancing. As most dances have a rational-pattern which can be predicted by the follower, the ballast of previous perceptions about strict rules has to be thrown overboard and replaced by a real communication contact, creating a direct non-verbal dialogue. A tango is a living act in the moment as it happens.
Argentine tango is danced counterclockwise around the outside of the dance floor (the “line of dance”) and dance “traffic” often segregates into a number of “lanes”; cutting across the middle of the floor is frowned upon. In general, the middle of the floor is where you find either beginners who lack floor navigation skills or people who are performing “showy” figures or patterns that take up more dance floor space. It is acceptable to stop briefly in the line of dance to perform stationary figures, as long as the other dancers are not unduly impeded. The school of thought about this is, if there is open space in front of you, there are likely people waiting behind you. Dancers are expected to respect the other couples on the floor; colliding or even crowding another couple, or stepping on others’ feet is to be avoided strenuously. It is considered rude; in addition to possible physical harm rendered, it can be disruptive to a couple’s musicality.
Comparison to ballroom tango
Competitive vs. social dance
Ballroom tango steps were standardized by dance studios. The steps have been relatively fixed in style for decades.
However, Argentine tango has been an evolving dance and musical form, with continual changes occurring every day on the social dance floor in Argentina and in major tango centers elsewhere in the world.
Argentine tango is still based heavily on improvisation. While there are patterns or sequences of steps that are used by instructors to teach the dance, even in a sequence every movement is led not only in direction but also speed and quality (a step can be smooth, pulsing, sharp, … etc.). Although Argentine tango evolves mostly on the dance floor, the government of Argentina does host an annual competition of Argentine tango in Buenos Aires, attracting competitors from around the world.
A striking difference between Argentine tango and ballroom tango is in the shape and feel of the embrace. Ballroom technique dictates that partners arch their upper bodies away from each other, while maintaining contact at the hip, in an offset frame.
In Argentine tango, it is nearly the opposite: the dancers’ chests are closer to each other than are their hips, and often there is contact at about the level of the chest (the contact point differing, depending on the height of the leader and the closeness of the embrace). In close embrace, the leader and the follower’s chests are in complete contact and they are dancing with their heads touching or very near each other. In open embrace, there can be as much space as desired between the partners, but there should always be complete contact along the embracing arms to give optimum communication. Since Argentine tango is almost entirely improvisational, there needs to be clear communication between partners. Even when dancing in a very open embrace, Argentine tango dancers do not hold their upper bodies arched away from each other; each partner is over their own axis. Whether open or closed, a tango embrace is not rigid, but relaxed, like a hug.
Another difference is that the leader may freely step with his left foot when the follower steps with her left foot too. In English, this is sometimes referred to as a “crossed” or “uneven” walk (or as “walking in the crossed system”) in contrast to the normal walk which is called “parallel” or “even.” In ballroom tango “crossed system” is considered incorrect (unless the leader and follower are facing the same direction). Furthermore, the flexibility of the embrace allows the leader to change his weight (from one foot to another) yet keeping the follower’s weight unchanged. This is another major difference with ballroom tango, where a weight change by one partner leads to an automatic weight change by the other.
The nomenclature originated with the Naveira/Salas “Investigation Group.” Early on, they used ‘even/uneven’ to describe the arrangement of legs in the walk (or turn). By the mid-’90s they began using ‘parallel/crossed’ and later ‘normal/crossed’.
Argentine tango music is much more varied than ballroom tango music. A large amount of tango music has been composed by a variety of different orchestras over the last century. Not only is there a large volume of music, there is a breadth of stylistic differences between these orchestras as well, which makes it easier for Argentine tango dancers to spend the whole night dancing only Argentine tango. The four representative schools of the Argentine tango music are: Di Sarli, D’Arienzo, Troilo and Pugliese. They are dance orchestras, playing music for dancing. When the spirit of the music is characterized by counterpoint marking, clarity in the articulation is needed. It has a clear, repetitive pulse or beat, a strong tango-rhythm which is based on the 2×4, 2 strong beats on 4 (dos por cuatro). Astor Piazzolla stretched the classical harmony and counterpoint and moved the tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. His compositions tell us something of our contemporary life and dancing it relates much to modern dance.
Unlike the majority of social dance, Argentine tango is not a set step, but is a completely improvised dance combining various steps in a spontaneous manner, as determined by the lead. Most Argentine tango teachers teach complex figures, but then break them down into simpler parts. They then teach students how to improvise their own figures. Here is what might be taught in beginner classes.
- Caminata – “walk” in Spanish
- Baldosa – (“tile”) a six-step figure similar to the ballroom box step. Except the man starts with his right foot, then steps back, side, FORWARD, forward, side, together.
- Salida – (“exit”, also “beginning” – as of a journey) any of several patterns that begin a figure. The first half of the baldosa is one such pattern.
- Resolución – any of several patterns that end a figure. The second half of the baldosa is one such pattern.
An Argentine tango figure, then, is the pattern salida + basic steps + resolución. (In the baldosa the number of basic steps is zero.) This makes for flexible, ever-changing patterns unlike those of conventional partner dances. This gives leaders exceptional opportunity to improvise, and is part of why the Argentine tango is unique in the dance world.
There are other basic steps than caminadas, including the following.
- Cadencias – “cadence” as when soldiers “count cadence” by stepping in place. (The word is sometimes mistakenly applied to the following.)
- Cunitas – rock steps, to side, forward, or back. Comes from rocking a cuna “cradle”
- Cazas – “chases” when one foot steps forward and the other chases it to step beside it. Can be used as a resolución.
- Stepping outside, walking outside – the man moves further to his left (or less often right) so that both his feet are outside his partner’s
- Cruzada – (from cruzar – to cross) the follower steps back right then back left, crossing her left foot over her right before finishing the step. A “chase” with a “cross”. One way to go from the outside position back to the inside position.
- Ocho – a figure-8 traced by the follower’s feet when moving forward or backward.
- Giro – a turn (in either direction), often a complete 360-degree turn
- Media Luna – a half moon, the shape of a half giro
- Molinete – (windmill, wheel) the follower walks in a cadena (chain, braid, grapevine) around the leader, the hub of the wheel.
- Paso Básico – “basic step” There are several, including the baldosa and the molinete. Another popular one begins with the three-step salida from the baldosa. However, on step 2, the side step, the leader steps outside his partner. After step 3 he then leads his partner into the two steps of the cruzada. The three steps of the resolución makes eight steps in all. This eight-step pattern is abbreviated the 8CB.
Intermediate steps further spice up the caminatas, including the following “dueling feet” actions. These are ways for leaders to challenge and tease their partners.
- Sacada – the leader displaces his partner’s unweighted leg outward as they wall
- Parada – the leader halts the motion of the other dancer with her legs apart and weight on both feet
- Barrida – one partner sweeps the others foot, displacing it along the floor
- Arrastre – (drag) synonym for “barrida”
- Sandwich – the leader places both feet on either side of the other dancers forward foot.
- Gancho – one dancer hooks their leg around their partner’s leg.
Women also can contribute to the in-the-moment improvisations of tango dancing with adornos (“adornments”). These include the following.
- Golpecitos – “little toe taps” done between steps.
- Golpes – “toe taps” which rebound high behind the woman – not recommended on a tight floor!
- Amagues – “threats, feints” a kick by one foot across in front of the other. May be very small kicks, or very high (though usually only in choreographed show routines).
- Boleos – “throws” when an ocho is quickly reversed in the middle, the woman’s foot is thrown to the side and wraps around her leg at the knee. (Comes from the way the weighted balls at the ends of gauchos’ bolas wrap around an animal the South American cowboys want to capture.)
- Caricias – “caresses” usually by the woman, who rubs her thigh, calf, or foot down her partner’s body.
Advanced tango steps are often borrowed from tango shows, but modified for the tight spaces and flow of other dancers around the floor.
- Saltitos – “little leaps”
- Elevaditos – “little lifts”
- Colgadas – spins around a common center while leaning outward
- Volcadas – extreme leans, usually followed by an adorno. These include amagues or front boleos, a drag of the woman across the floor, and calesitas (carousels, or merry-go-rounds).