Tango (dance)

Tango in the streets of
Tango in the streets of Buenos Aires

Tango is a social dance form that originated in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The musical styles that evolved together with the dance are also known as tango. Early tango was known as tango criollo or simply tango. Today, there are many tango dance styles including Argentine tango, ballroom tango (American and International styles), Finnish tango, Chinese tango, and vintage tangos. Argentine tango is often regarded as the "authentic" tango since it is closest to that originally danced in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Music and dance elements of tango are popular in activities related to dancing, such as figure skating, synchronized swimming, etc., because of its dramatic feeling and rich opportunities for improvisation on the eternal topic of love.



The word "tango" has no clear etymology. It may derive from a place-name used in African languages, or from the Latin verb tangere, meaning 'to touch'. However, it is more commonly thought that etymology of tango is from Niger-Congo origin, where tamgu means 'to dance'. The name was widely used among Black communities in Spanish America to refer to a place where people gathered to dance. Later the name was applied to various Black dance forms, leading up to the development of what is now known as tango.

The dance originated in Montevideo and Buenos Aires during the late 19th century. The music derived from the fusion of music from Europe, the South American Milonga, and African rhythms. The word Tango seems to have first been used in connection with the dance in the 1890s. Initially it was just one of the many dances, but it soon became popular throughout society, as theatres and street barrel organs spread it from the suburbs to the working-class slums, which were packed with hundreds of thousands of European immigrants.

The dance was soon found on the street, in bars, dance halls, and in the upper class venues such as the Teatro Opera, which started organizing balls that included tangos in 1902.

Missing image
Tango postcard, c. 1919

In the early years of the twentieth century, dancers and orchestras from Buenos Aires travelled to Europe, and the first European tango craze took place in Paris, soon followed by London, Berlin, and other capitals. Towards the end of 1913 it hit New York in the USA, and Finland. These exported versions of Tango were modified to have less body contact ("Ballroom Tango"); however, the dance was still thought shocking by many, as had earlier been the case with dances such as the Waltz. In 1922 guidelines were first set for the "English" (international) style of ballroom tango, but it lost popularity in Europe to new dances including the Foxtrot and Samba, and as dancing as a whole declined due to the growth of cinema.

In Argentina, the onset in 1929 of the Great Depression, and restrictions introduced after the overthrow of the Hiplito Yrigoyen government in 1930 caused Tango to decline. Its fortunes were reversed as tango again became widely fashionable and a matter of national pride under the government of Juan Pern. Tango declined again in the 1950s with economic depression and as the military dictatorships banned public gatherings, followed by the popularity of Rock and Roll. The dance lived on in smaller venues until its revival in the 1980s following the opening in Paris of the show Tango Argentino and the Broadway musical Forever Tango.

Tango styles

There are a number of styles of tango:

  • Argentine Tango
    • Tango Canyengue
    • Tango Liso
    • Salon Tango
    • Tango Orillero
    • Tango Milonguero (Tango Apilado)
    • Vals (the tango version of waltz)
    • Milonga (a related dance that has a faster tempo)
    • Show Tango (also known as Fantasia)
  • Ballroom Tango, see Ballroom dance
    • American Style
    • International Style

Argentine tango (tango argentino)

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 they all developed in Argentina and Uruguay, they were also exposed to influences reimported from Europe and North America. Consequently there is a good deal of confusion and overlap between the styles as they are now danced - and fusions continue to evolve.

In sharp contrast to ballroom tango and most other social dances, Argentine Tango relies heavily on improvisation, and in theory, every tango is improvised. Although there are many steps and sequences of steps that a tango dancer learns, every dancer is free to modify them.

Argentine Tango is danced counterclockwise around the outside of the dance floor (the so-called "line of dance"); cutting across the middle of the floor is frowned on. It can be acceptable to stop briefly in the line of dance to perform stationary figures, as long as the other dancers are not unduly impeded. (There is a saying about this: "If you look down the line of dance and there is space for you -- you are probably keeping everyone else waiting behind you.") Dancers are expected to respect the other couples on the floor; colliding with, or stepping on the feet of another couple is to be strenuously avoided. There are two sides to this: on one hand it is bad etiquette towards the other dancers (and shows your "incompetence" from a strict honor based judgment) - but even more so the leader wants to protect his lady and give her a most memorable time while dancing with him, any collision would just disturb that.

Argentine Tango is danced in a relatively close embrace, with many dancers choosing to remain in chest-to-chest (and sometimes head-to-head) contact. The walk is one of the most important elements, and dancers prefer to keep their feet in close contact with the floor at nearly all times, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other. A striking difference between Argentine tango and ballroom tango is that the follower remains upright on her axis, or may even lean toward the leader (and in a close embrace dances "chest-to-chest" with the leader). In ballroom tango this posture is unheard of. In fact, in ballroom tango the follower shyly pulls her upper body away from the leader whenever he draws her toward him.

Another interesting difference is that in Argentine tango, the leader may freely step with his left foot when the follower steps with her left foot. In English, this is sometimes referred to as a "crossed" or "uneven" walk. In ballroom tango this is unheard of and considered incorrect (unless the leader and follower are facing the same direction).

A third difference is that Argentine tango music is much more varied than ballroom tango music, allowing Argentine tango dancers to spend the whole night dancing only Argentine tango. There is a great variety of music. Canaro alone produced more than 4000 titles. Argentine Tango has its own waltz and a fast dance - called Milonga, the same name that dance parties are called.

Unlike the social version of ballroom tango which has been standardized and thus been relatively fixed in style for many decades, Argentine tango is a constantly evolving dance (even on the social dance level) and musical form, with continual innovation in Argentina and in major tango centers elsewhere in the world. These innovations may offend some traditionalists (there are quite many discussions about what still can be considered tango), but they make sure that it remains a relevant to contemporary culture and society.

Tango canyengue

"Tango canyengue" refers to a style of Tango danced until the 1920s. Reportedly, the long tight fashion in dresses of that era restricted the follower's movements. Consequently, the style involves short steps. The dancers tend to move with knees slightly bent, the partners slightly offset, and in a closed embrace. The style tends to be danced to a 2/4 time signature.

Tango liso

Liso style tango developed in small and crowded dance halls, where there was only space to take a few paces before having to circle around each other, waiting for a space to open. The style is danced with an upright posture, usually with each dancer slightly offset to the right of their partner. If a close embrace is used, it is relaxed to allow the follower to perform turns. The dance involves just the simpler steps-- decorative moves such as boleos, ganchos, and sentadas are absent from the style.

Tango orillero

Tango orillero is thought to have developed away from the town centers, in the outskirts and suburbs where there was more freedom due to more available space on the dance floor. The style is danced in an upright position and uses various embellishments including rapid foot moves, kicks, and even some acrobatics, though this is a more recent development.

'Vintage' tango

In modern usage, the words "Salon" and "Milonguero" are often both applied loosely to older styles of Tango.

Salon Tango

Salon Tango developed in the less crowded up-market dance halls, allowing space for boleos, ganchos, and sentadas to be performed. The style is generally danced in an open embrace. Also known as the style of 'Villa Urquiza', a northern barrio of Buenos Aires.

Tango milonguero (tango apilado)

This style developed in the 1940s and 50s in closely packed dance halls and "confiterias", so it is danced in close embrace, chest-to chest, with the partners leaning - or appearing to lean - slightly towards each other to allow space for the feet to move.

Although the rhythmic, close-embrace style of dancing has existed for decades, the term "Milonguero Style" only surfaced in the mid- '90s. Many of the older dancers who are exponents of this style of Tango prefer not to use the label.

Show tango

Show tango, also called Fantasia, is a more theatrical and exaggerated form of Argentine tango developed to suit the stage. It usually includes many embellishments, acrobatics, and solo moves.

Ballroom tango illustration, 1914

Ballroom tango

Ballroom tango, divided in recent decades into the "International" (English) and "American" styles, has descended from the tango styles that developed when the tango first went abroad to Europe and America. The dance was simplified, adapted to the preferences of conventional ballroom dancers, and incorporated into the repertoire used in International Ballroom dance competitions. English Tango was first codified in October 1922, when it was proposed that it should only be danced to modern tunes, ideally at 30 beats per minute.

Subsequently the English Tango evolved mainly as a highly competitive competitive dance, while the American Tango evolved as an unjudged social dance with an emphasis on leading and following skills. This has led to some principal distinctions in basic technique and style. Nevertheless there are quite are few competitions held in the American style, and of course mutual borrowing of technique and dance patterns happens all the time.

Ballroom tangos also use different music and styling from Argentine tangos, with more staccato movements and the characteristic "head snaps". The head snaps are totally foreign to Argentine tango.


The ways that steps are taken in tango are quite different in ballroom tango versus Argentine tango. Ballroom tango does not use gliding steps but instead uses staccato steps. However, teachers sometimes call the steps out as SLOW SLOW QUICK QUICK SLOW. The SLOW steps are better described as QUICK-HOLD where the dancer rushes to make a step and then holds it as long as possible before rushing to make the next step. That is what gives the staccato action of the steps. This is an attempt to match the staccato accents that always appear in ballroom tango music.

In ballroom tango the feet move before the whole body weight is moved, quite in contrast to argentine tango, where the body center starts to move and is then supported by the movement of the feet.

Other forms of tango, including Chinese tango and Argentine tango, use more gliding steps that match the music which tends to be romantic and less staccato. The basic position is a closed position similar to that of other kinds of ballroom dance. In Argentine Tango, the "close embrace" with full upper body contact is often used. In Ballroom tango, the "close embrace" involves close contact, too, but the contact is with the hips and upper thighs and not the upper torso. In Argentine Tango, the ball of the foot may be placed first. Alternately, the dancer may take the floor with the entire foot in a cat-like manner. In the International style, "heel leads" (stepping first onto the heel, then the whole foot) are used for forward steps. Ballroom tangos, including American and International, are based mainly on the movement of the feet across the floor, while the Argentine Tango includes various other moves such as the gancho (hooking one's leg around one's partner's leg), the parada (in which the leader puts his foot against the follower's foot), the arrastre (in which the leader appears to drag the follower's foot), and several kinds of sacada (in which the leader displaces the follower's leg, by stepping into her space).

Tango in film

A number of films show tango in several scenes without tango being the main subject, such as:

Related articles

External links

Tango steps

cs:Argentinsk tango da:Tango de:Tango eo:Tango es:Tango (danza) fr:Tango he:טנגו hr:Tango it:Tango argentino ja:タンゴ lb:Tango (Danz) nb:Tango nl:Tango pl:Tango pt:Tango ru:Танго sl:Tango (ples) sv:Tango zh:探戈


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