Three Styles of Tango: a Comparison

by Bouton Jones

Please excuse me for some of the assumptions about Argentine Tango I've made below. I've collected a lot of "facts" about Argentine Tango from numerous anecdotal and often contradictory sources. But in the interests of accuracy I must admit that in my admittedly limited experience with Argentine Tango, most of the iron clad rules I've encountered have been subjective and have varied from teacher to teacher. The Argentine Tango is like a living language. It's evolving. I offer the information for your consideration but not as the final word. (I welcome constructive criticism.)

Three Styles of Tango
  Modern Argentine Mexican (Old Argentine) American Ballroom
Development An Argentine social dance which developed through folk tradition and evolved over time. It was pioneered by poor immigrants and gouchos. It wasn't embraced by the rest of Argentine society until it became popular in Europe. Like living languages, it's a vital tradition that will no doubt continue to change with popular tastes. Old style of Tango exported from Argentina to Mexico. In what social scientists call the "Paradox of the Periphery," it's a snap shot of what the Argentine Tango looked like decades earlier. Adapted for North American and European tastes and codified by dance teachers in the United States to fit in with the other respectable ballroom dances.
Terminology Spanish (E.G. "Ocho") Spanish (E.G. "Ocho") English (E.G. "Fan")
Position "A-frame" position: Dancers lean in together; "always" in front of each other; sometimes cheek to cheek and breast to breast; both dancers might look down at their feet. Social dance: open but not as open as standard ballroom; often in front of each other Standard ballroom: very open; The man shows off the woman while the woman shows off her dress. The woman looks at the man and the man pretends to look at the woman while he navigates around other couples. They face each other in most of the beginner steps but less often in the intermediate and advanced steps.
The Frame The Lead pulls in his partner and leads entirely with his right hand on her upper back. His left arm is rigid. The follower resists her partner with a slight push with both arms so as to better feel his lead. Social dance frame Standard ballroom dance frame
The Lead Very Strong. The early tangeros learned this dance by dancing with each other so the lead is very masculine and dominant. The lead must not only know his steps but understand his follower's steps. Strong Strong
The Follow Improvisational and submissive. The follower can never anticipate. Almost every step the follower takes is dictated by the lead. Only rarely can the follower improvise and only when the lead decides she may. Easier to follow than Argentine but not as easy to follow as American Based on combinations: The follower can usually recognize how a combination will end based on how it begins (but the more advanced the combinations are, the more difficult that becomes.)
Leading with The upper chest. The weight is over the balls of the feet The torso The torso. Standing straight.
Basic Step Walking (Sliding walk with the ankles brushing) Walking Walking (Gliding)
Basic Combination 8 Count Basic or the Long Box. It's too complicated to describe here. Unlike most of Argentine Tango, this "basic" was invented by dance teachers for the benefit of dance students who were used to learning the "basic" for each of the other ballroom dances. The true basic step of Argentine tango is a walking step -- but with an attitude.
  • Rhythm: slow, slow, quick, quick, slow
  • 4 Count: 1, 2, 3 & 4
  • Lead's Steps: forward (l), forward (r), forward tap (l), rock, together/close (l); weight remains on the right foot.
  • Follower's Steps: back(r), back (l), back tap(r), rock, together/close (l); weight remains on the left foot.
  • Rhythm: slow, slow, quick, quick, slow
  • 4 Count: 1, 2, 3 & 4
  • Lead's Steps: forward (l), forward (r), forward (l), side (r), together/close (l); weight remains on the right foot.
  • Follower's Steps: back (r), back (l), back (r), side (l), together/close (r); weight remains on the left foot.
Demeanor Serious, sad, passionate Dramatic Dramatic

Each style has it's proponents and it's detractors -- some of whom are quite outspoken. In the Smithsonian Magazine, Barbara Garvey writes:

The forms of Tango are like stages of a marriage. The American Tango is like the beginning of a love affair, when you are both very romantic and on your best behavior. The Argentine Tango is when you are in the heat of things and all kinds of emotions are flying: passion, anger, humor. The International Tango is like the end of the marriage, when you are staying together for the sake of the children.

While each style of Tango has a different character, they're all enjoyable to dance and worth learning.

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