Tango the Traditions… and then some…
People ask me: “Is it hard to learn tango?” and I say: “Is it hard to learn to do a crossword puzzle?”
Tango is challenging. It can be the tango of a grammar school crossword puzzle or the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle; you choose how far you want to take it and how hard it is to learn. You can follow tango as far as you are willing to go. Tango is a challenging dance, the challenges are mostly psychological and only partly physical.
We are all attracted to tango for different reasons at first, but in the end I believe the complex traditions keep us involved in tango – and at the same time for everyone that dances tango you will find a different reason for being here. Here are the traditions that mean something to me. I am sure as my dancing changes – and my tango is forever changing – this page will change with it!
The Music: Tango is deep and rich with tradition, culture, beautiful music and soft gentle abrazos (hugs, embrace). Many rewards come from participation in the culture and codigos that come with tango. Tango is more than a dance when you get into the traditions and cultural events and activities it spawns.
I believe the evolution of the music has caused tango to be so much more than a dance. The traditions in tango come from a proud and indigenous culture where this dance grew up and evolved arm in arm with the music itself. In the United States and Europe Jazz and Blues were being developed by talented musicians, while dances like the Charleston and Jitter-Bug came and went, tango lived on. Tango is not a fad, tango is a movement or a revolution if you will. It has lasted for more than a century as it grows and evolves.
While we are playing with our new parlor toy the guitar, down in Argentina and Uruguay the bandoneón was helping to inspire a new music called Tango. Tango was being developed not just by the talented musicians but with the help of the dancers themselves, many of whom were also the musicians and composers. It could be that this collaboration of dancer and musician is why tango came and stayed. Whatever the reason, after over a century tango is more alive and well than ever.
Maybe because the dances of the North America and Europe always seem to be fads and trends, there is a common misunderstanding by those cultures as to what tango really is, they see the stage dance and performances and say “Oh yes, I know tango.” But do they? Those that spend some years with tango find out intimately why it is more than just a dance and why it has out lasted scores of styles and fads that have come and gone it its presence. You will find as many opinions about why tango flourishes as you will find people you can ask.
The tango music sub-genres are many, here are a few:
- Milonga: A playful energetic blend of rhythms and fast paced melodies that most generally bring smiles to the faces of the dancers and observers alike. Frequently in a 2/4 timing as opposed to tango which is generally a common time of 4/4.
- Vals: Tango Vals is a faster paced waltz than most of the waltzes you hear. It is about he same speed of a Viennese Waltz. Since it is so fast the casual observer may not always realize the dancers are dancing to a vals since they will frequently step mostly on the #1 beat of the measure – like all waltzes, tango vals is 3/4 time.
- Tango Early: Faster rhythms and a bit more playful that golden era tango. Usually a carefully blended mix of tango and milonga rhythms. The early tangos are less romantic – though there are some very romantic early tangos.
- Tango Gold: These are songs that were written during the golden era of tango from the mid 30s to the late 50s. They are influenced by a critical mass of writing, collaboration, dancing, touring and of course the ever growing recording industry. The songs captured in the golden era are impossible to imitate. Between fidelity and spontaneity the golden era tango music is the boldest, softest, strongest and smoothest collection of harmonically-syncopated rhythms of all tango. They were written for the dance by the dancer about the dancer to the dancer and because of the dancer. Tango dancers and milongas spurred on this almost frantic age of a new and wonderful era. All of which – retrospectively and rather nostalgically – are all the more brilliant in hindsight when viewed through the lens of the political struggles and upheavals that all but caused tango to become extinct for over a decade. There were those that feared tango would be lost forever during Argentina’s darkend political era that followed the golden era of tango by only a few years.
- Tango Transition: This type of high drama music was inspired and spawned by orchestra leaders such as Pugliese, Troilo, Sassone, Canaro, D Arienzo and others.
- Tango ProOrganic: This type of tango music is a bit out of the box though still danceable, it is not really acceptable at traditional Milongas. Artists like Hugo Diaz, YoYo Ma, Tango Lorca – this is more nightclub easy listening tango than “get up and tango” tango music.
- Tango Progressive: This gets into what is traditionally called the non-danceable tango music. Piazzolla, Troilo, Pugliese all played with this genre. It is commonly believed this is where the music went because the dancing and milongas in Buenos Aires stopped.
- Tango Alternative: To the non-tango-musical-ear, there are many musical genres that lend themselves to practice times all over the globe. Blues, some old classic rock, some ballroom and even some country songs can have tango sub-beats. This popular past time of dancing to alternative tango has evolved into what are called “Alternative Milongas” where little to no traditional tango music is played but rather selections that seem to work well with the styles and movements for which tango is so famous. (As a side note: this type of dancing has morphed into yet another American dance trend (sorry I will have to call it a trend for at least a century or so, just to see if it is in the running with tango) called Blues Dancing (see YouTube for some examples).
Tango Genres can go on and on, but this gives you an idea. The main thing I want to convey is that the music that really works within the traditions and codigos of traditional milongas listed on this page are Tango Early, Tango Gold and a very small amount of Tango Transitional (and of course vals and milonga of the same suffixed genres).
The Lessons From my understanding until the 1940s and 50s tango was primarily passed along by friends or family members that danced tango. There weren’t many places to get formal lessons in the early days. Nowadays in Buenos Aires you will find an instructor on almost every corner with a “will teach for food sign” – will, okay I exaggerated a bit (no offense intended) truly there are instructors on every block in the city. Tango has changed a great deal because of the vast instruction available. More people take formal lessons in Buenos Aires than they used to but most of them are tourists. More people formally study tango in Europe and North America than do in Argentina.
A famous Argentine teacher once told me she loves dancing in North America because they take tango seriously. She said “You take classes and study music. At home they just show up and expect to get it because they are born with it. I love dancing with Americans because for the most part you are better dancers!” That is saying a lot since Buenos Aires is her home.
If you watch old black and white videos (there are plenty on YouTube.com) you see an unrefined and raw street dance that only vaguely resembles the dancing you would see in Buenos Aires, festivals or milongas all over the planet. Tango has changed and evolved and it always will. It is the nature of our planet, the only thing that doesn’t change is that everything changes. Still change as it may, tango has only gotten better and more user friendly. As with anything that is exposed to more and more intelligence it evolves into something more refined and beautiful. There is a vastly different feel to the tango I get dancing with a new generation tango dancer than I get when I dance with one of the old guard.
Group lessons pay off and you will learn a thing or two, but private lessons are where you will find tango in a way group classes will never allow.
Find an instructor you trust. Find an instructor that dances this tango socially – well unless you have plans and designs in being on stage then I would recommend several really good stage dance instructors and choreographers, like Michael Walker, Mara Carlson both for stage style salon, Erik Fleming for Nuevo. And on the circuit there are literally hundreds of stage dance instructors. But their dance style and methods may very well fail you when dancing in Buenos Aires or at tango festivals all around the world.
If you want to dance socially find an instructor that dances socially, someone that dances all over the world and seeks tango at every turn. Be wary of instructors that don’t dance in public or refuse to dance within their own community. It is usually indicative of one that is too insecure to actually ply their “wares” in public. It happens all over. The instructors stands in the background but never dances with the public at large – because they can’t.
The Practice – Practicas: We have organized events called Practicas because it is a common codigo at milongas that there is no practicing on the Pista De La Milonga. No stopping to analyze steps. No pausing to explain what you meant to lead. No demonstrations of the step you were trying to create on the floor of the milonga. This stops the flow and disrupts the needed level of concentration required to dance this fine challenging dance. Practice is for Practicas.
Practicas are usually supervised and organized by instructors or senior members of the tango community. Sometimes they will start with a lessons sometimes there will be a theme. However the practica is organized it is just that: a place to practice, to look at steps and see if you can make some new steps you have just learned work better.
The Event & The Codigos: When we dance tango it is at an event called a milonga a milonga is a social event where specific traditions are followed or it wouldn’t really be called a “Milonga” it would just be a “tango dance“.
Everything on this page leads up to the Milonga. In the old days of Buenos Aires one would not dance at a milonga if they were unprepared or didn’t know how to dance tango – they would come as spectators, but if they hadn’t been taught, they didn’t get on the dance floor. The milonga codigos vary from venue to venue, but the major codigos are strictly adhered to and they go as follows:
- Tandas: A tanda is a grouping of 3 to 4 songs all by the same orchestra, with the same mood, feel, rhythms and beat structure, usually even recorded in the same year on the same album. The tanda is separated by a 30-60 second pause during which time they often play an edited song that is not of the tango genre, this is called a “Cortina” (curtain or little cut or divider). We dance the entire Tanda with the same partner – it is considered rude to change partners in the middle of a Tanda, if this is done it usually connotes a sign of bad conduct on the part of one of the dancers in the partnership (though in some cases it could mean someone is hurt or having shoe problems).
When the Cortina plays it is time to find a new partner. Conventionally there will be two Tandas of Tangos, then a Tanda of Vals, then two more Tango Tandas, then a Tanda of Milongas. If a person is in doubt that they will finish a Tanda with the same partner it is best to: wait until one of the later songs in the Tanda or not dance with that particular partner.
- Cabeceo: (to nod or make eye contact) A Cabaceo is traditionally used to find a new partner, you have 30 seconds or so to get a partner between tandas so eye contact is the fastest way to get a dance in a crowded room, you may walk up and ask locally, but most would rather make eye contact. The cabeceo gives choices without hurting feelings, it happens at the speed of light and in Buenos Aires an Argentine man wouldn’t think of just walking up and verbally asking for a dance (unless it was a very very good friend) rather, he would stand his ground, make eye contact and get a cabeceo before he approaches the lady. This performs two basic functions, 1) No one need get direct rejection 2) It gives both participants the option of not dancing by simply not making eye contact. This can save face in a number of ways and even allow someone an opportunity to get some well-needed rest or regrouping time.
- Line of Dance Counter clockwise like a race track, is the line of the dance. Where swing and salsa are “spot dances” meaning you do not progress around the floor, ballroom dances like Fox Trot and Waltz are progressive dances that move counter clockwise around the dance floor at a fairly good clip. Tango is a “progressive-spot dance” meaning it will move in a small circle right where a couple are standing for a few turns then progress down line of dance. So it is traveling one moment then pausing the next. There are pulses and rhythms in the song that actually drive this momentum. When observing a milonga floor at a tango festival or a club in Buenos Aires you will see a “bait-ball” effect in that the dancers are so in tune with the music that the floor is all moving and stopping at the same time. This is easy to do for two reasons: 1) Tango songs are very structured and the phrasing is predictable once you have learned to hear the rhythms and 2) The same traditional songs from the original orchestras are used – there are literally thousands of tangos so it takes a few years to learn them – so after some time spent dancing tango at milongas you eventually get to know the songs themselves in a very intimate way, at this point you move in much more harmony with the song.
There is a loose No Passing – No Lane Changing policy on the Pista De Milonga (tango dance floor). Where are you going anyay? There really is no reason to pass or change lanes since it is not a race and you will only wind up back were you started from any way. There is no hurry. Tango is the epitome of being about the journey and not the destination.
- No Practicing – No Lessons On the floor of the milonga it is generally considered rude and unacceptable to teach lessons stop the flow to practice. It is shut up and dance time and many advanced dancers take this seriously.
- Floorcraft It is only obvious that we respect everyone else’s space by not tailgating or walking against the line of the dance. We should look around and see where our dance mates are and notice what they are up to. It is common that a beginning dancer is not as aware or observant as an advanced dancer so it’s the advanced dancers that should watch out for everyone else and dance for them all. Dance defensively 🙂
- Seating In the old days in Buenos Aires there was a hierarchy the seating arrangement at the milonga – there are still reserved tables at most milongas in Buenos Aires, but not so much here in the States. The cast system in tango is on its way out because there are so many good dancers that it is no longer the issue it once was. Anyone that has been dancing for 5 or more years knows what an effort it is to become a good tango dancer and it is a nice reward to have dances with other dancers of the same level, but we know and love everyone so we dance around – in my mind that is how we grow a community.
The Dancers: Here is the heart and soul of tango all over the world. So much passion and opinion come with this territory it is hard to even venture into this arena, not for fear of criticism, no, but rather because I know I will have a change of opinion and passion with every passing year that I dance this wonderful dance. There is no: “TANGO” in big black and white terms. Tango is constantly in a state of flux. And like tango so to the dancer is constantly changing and evolving into a better work of art. There are some commonalities among those that find their way to tango through different portals and these are the portals of entry to tango that I see:
Tango the Stage Dance – Exposed to tango via a professional show or stage presentation.
Tango the Social Dance – Exposure from having observed tango at a milonga where the dancing is well crafted and respectful to the above-mentioned codigos.
Tango the Extra-Curricular Ballroom Dance – Seeing tango in its unrefined unpolished semi-theatrical performed by amateurs and fledgling dancers, with nothing social about it all choreographed and danced on demand.
Tango the Street Dance – danced with no regard for traditions, no study or effort placed on elegance or refinement in the dance. Rather muddy and frivolous in its context.
Each of these expositions brings with it the construct through which one will find their tango for the first few years. Then one day if you hang around long enough, you begin to sense a different tango; the tango that you feel. The tango that works feels soft and folded like an expensive silk fabric. That is something the observer can’t always see. But the dancers feel it and know when it is there. Once you have experienced that form of tango, you know you dance tango and it no longer matters what the style is. Tango becomes you and your partner for a 12 minute tanda eking out all the song can deliver as you intimately share a feeling and embrace and a moment unmatched and unsurpassed by any before or after. Tango is pure moment.
I love to dance in the community. I love the growth and respect I see in people that hang around tango. It is an amazing journey that has changed not just the face of my life but the bones and blood as well! As a blind character played by AL Pacino once said: “Hoorah!”
Love & Light,
“The root of the matter is a very simple and old-fashioned thing, a thing so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it for fear of the derisive smile with which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean – please forgive me for mentioning it – is Love, or compassion. If you feel this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessity for intellectual honesty.” ~ Anonymous ~