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Argentine Tango

See also: Categories: Dances, History, Ballroom, Terminology, Dance Styles

Genre: Ballroom Dance, Social Dance
Time signature: 4/4
Measures per minute (MPM): between 22.50 and 32.50 (may vary)
Beats per minute (BPM): between 90 and 130 (may vary)
Time: 19th Century
Origin: South America


Argentine Tango is a partner dance that developed over the last century in Argentina's capital city, Buenos Aires. It is very different from the Tango in International and American Style Ballroom Dancing. Argentine Tango is an interpretive, improvisational social dance that allows the dancers to develop a deep connection between themselves, the music, and the environment in which they are dancing.


In the late 1800’s, millions of European immigrants arrived on the shores of the Rio de la Plata in South America, in the two port cities of Montevideo, Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Most of them were Italian and Spanish and the vast majority were single young men looking to make their fortunes in America. They brought their music: the sweet sounds of the violin, the driving flamenco guitar, the strange mournful wail of the bandoneon – and their dances: the Waltz, the Mazurka, the Polka – and mixed them with the Argentine folk music and dance, with the Cuban habanera, with the African candombe rhythms from the freed slaves’ street parties. With very few women around, many of these young men found themselves looking for excitement in the bordello districts of the burgeoning port cities. The Tango dance arose in these seedy waterfront areas from this turbulent mix, becoming a “mating dance” between barmaids and their customers in shady nightclubs. Shunned by the upper and middle classes in Argentina, it nevertheless became a sleazy fixture of urban nightlife in Buenos Aires. Young men in neighborhood gangs would practice the steps with each other in order to become skilled enough to win the attentions of a woman. A beginner would often dance the follower’s part for six months to a year before being shown how to lead.

As Argentina became very wealthy around the turn of the century, the sons of rich families would often look for adventure and excitement in the rougher parts of town, and learned the Tango as part of their escapades. Some of these young men of privilege would show off the Tango as a treat for their friends on their sojourns to Paris, then the cultural capital of the world. The Parisians were shocked and titillated by this raw, sensuous dance. This led to a “Tango Craze” that swept all of Europe, and reached America in the years just prior to World War I. New York newspapers in 1916 feature ads from over seven hundred Tango establishments. While the original Tango was disturbing to many arbiters of good taste, a heavily sanitized version of Tango found its way into the European and American dance academies, where it remains a fixture in Ballroom competitions today.

But in Argentina, the blessings of the Tango-mad people of Paris led to an acceptance of the original homegrown Tango in all classes of society. Tango musicians found themselves elevated from roughneck street performers to respected and adored composers. The Tango dance became the courtship ritual of the middle class. In the ’40’s, the “Golden Age” of Tango, every night found half a million people dancing from midnight until 3 or 4 in the morning. The best Tango orchestras would be booked for more than a year in advance. Each neighborhood would feature its own variation of Tango, and intense rivalries often turned dance competitions into riots ended by the police. Elaborate unwritten codes of behavior in the “milongas” or dance gatherings became as much a part of Tango as the dance itself.

Influenced by the rise of repressive military dictatorships in Argentina after World War II, Tango dancing slowly declined in the face of curfews and clampdowns on public gatherings. Tango music developed a rich new concert-hall tradition, more and more removed from the dance. The culture of late-night dancing went underground, and nearly all the regular milongas closed their doors.

The Tango is Reborn

Accompanying the return of democracy and social liberalization after the Falklands War of 1982-1983, a groundswell of interest in learning to Tango surfaced throughout Argentine society. A younger generation of dancers and teachers began reclaiming their Tango heritage while re-examining the structural underpinnings of the dance they had inherited. Simultaneously and independently, the Paris debut of “Tango Argentino”, a large Tango touring stage production, brought the dance back to worldwide awareness. In theatrical reviews reminiscent of the shocked Parisians of two generations before, Broadway, London, and Paris again became enraptured by the smoldering passion in this exotic dance and music, cultivated in far-off Buenos Aires. A new generation of Argentine Tango dancers, Tango teachers, and Tango musicians found receptive audiences for their country’s primary cultural export. Audiences first enraptured by the stage spectacle of the big Tango shows discovered for themselves the passionate pleasures of the social dance connection, available to anyone willing to invest a minimum of time in learning the silent vocabulary of the dance. Today, major cities around the world (including the Denver/Boulder metro area) feature active Tango communities where strangers and acquaintances can once again meet to share the sweetness of “the three minutes that can last a lifetime.”

Style of Argentine Tango

There are several styles of Argentine Tango, some of which are described below, and different types of Tango danced at milongas or social dances (Note: Milonga is both a social dance and a type of Tango dancing). In addition, modern forms of Tango such as Tango Nuevo and Neo-Tango have also emerged and are fast becoming popular in dance cafes and halls around the world.

In Sally Potter's 1997 movie The Tango Lesson, Sally Porter, inspired by a Tango performance featuring Pablo Vernon, seeks to learn the Tango. Disenchanted with the Tango danced and taught in England, Porter travels from England to Buenos Aires to learn the dance. During her first lesson, Pablo Vernon starts the lesson by saying, "Lets walk."

Those simple words underscore the sentiment that lies at the heart of Tango. Even though the Argentine Tango has now evolved into a complex dance that incorporates an amazing variety of footwork, if you peel away the layers, at its heart, it is a street dance. Many of the dance scenes in the Tango Lesson, are scenes of Porter and Vernon dancing impromptu in the streets and even a shopping mall. You can find a video clip of a scene from the Tango Lesson below in the Video Gallery.

There are other styles of Tango, but the ones mentioned below are the most significant.

Salon Tango

Salon Tango (also known as Tango de Salon) is suited for dancing on larger dance floors, dance halls and ballrooms as the open embrace and upright position require more space than the close embrace and short steps of Milonguero Style Tango.

The relatively open embrace (or changing embrace) of Salon Tango, together with the added space between dancers in larger halls provides opportunities for moves such as sacadas (leg thrusts), ganchos (leg hooks), barridas (foot drags) and boleos (sweeps).

For an example of Salon Tango, check out Juan Carlos Copes dancing in Carlos Saura's movie Tango. When watching the dance, keep in mind this is a choreographed performance in a movie. While it is an example of Tango at its best, dancers in the real life must maintain an anti-clockwise line of dance and need to be mindful of other dancers when leading or executing embellishments and dramatic moves - especially boleos - since the pointed heels of a woman's shoe can hurt other dancers.

When the music is slow, the emphasis in Salon Tango is on the slow, smooth and deliberate execution of every step or move. Each partner finds their center and is responsible for his or her balance. In executing a pattern such as a molinete (a circular grapevine) around the man, the woman does not use the man for support.

For more detailed information, please view our page about the Tango de Salon.

Milonguero Tango

A milonguero is a person who dances at milongas - social dances.

Milonguero Tango is best suited for small or crowded dance floors such as those found in the downtowns of large cities, or those found in cafes and restaurants. Many advocates of Argentine Tango will - with missionary zeal - tell others this is the only way to dance Tango. It is one way.

The embrace or dance hold in Milonguero Style Tango is very close and intimate. The two bodies lean forward slightly, and if the partners heights are fairly well matched, the partners' bodies will touch in the area of the chest bone. The partners' faces or heads are also frequently in contact.

The close embrace of Milonguero Tango requires a special set of leading and following skills. Very little leading is done through the hands. While even in Salon Tango, the woman receives part of the lead through visually observing the man's shoulder frame, in Milonguero Tango the lead is transmitted physically through the shoulder or upper body frame.

The lead is nevertheless subtle, and the partners feel and appear to move as one entity. What this means for the leader is that the leader cannot make unnecessary movements that can be misinterpreted as leads. If the leader changes a step, the leader needs to isolate that movement from the upper body, unless the leader wants the follower to follow that change.

It is not uncommon for the woman or follower to close her eyes and completely immerse herself in the dance embrace, the music and the experience.

For more detailed information, please view our page about the Milonguero Tango.

Tango Nuevo

In many ways, Tango Nuevo or New Tango, combines the disciplines of Salon and Milonguero Tango and then adds something to the mixture. It evolved primarily as a response to Tango Nuevo music pioneered by Astor Piazzolla. Tango music has evolved from what is nostalgically called Golden Age Tango music - old fashioned Tango music. This evolution calls for the music to be interpreted differently.

In Tango Nuevo, sometimes the embrace is close and at other times it is open. This flexibility gives the dancers options on how to express the music and connection in the dance.

Like Salon Tango, Tango Nuevo does require larger dance floors.

For more detailed information, please view our page about the Tango Nuevo.


Neo-Tango is a fusion of Tango, along with Tango-related dance steps as well as other dance steps when dancing to non-Tango music - anything from slow night club music, to the music of Rumba, Salsa and Swing. It is becoming increasingly popular much to the dismay of the Tango orthodoxy.

Neo-Tango dancing is based on the foundation of traditional Tango steps. In that sense, it is not a different dance form. However, it allows for the incorporation of steps from other dances. Neo-Tango dancers are Tango dancers with an expanded range of dance possibilities.

For more detailed information, please view our page about the Neo-Tango.

Types of Tango Dances

In addition to traditional Tango, there are two other types of Tango that are danced in milongas or social dances. One such type bears the same name as the social dance. It is called a Milonga. The other is the Vals (Waltz).


The music for a Milonga is more upbeat than Tango and has a quicker tempo. The music has a strongly accented beat based on the "habanera" rhythm. If Tango is danced with a serious face, Milonga is danced with a smile.

To those familiar with the social Samba, the Milonga shares some steps or concepts with the Samba, and this is not surprising since Brazil and Argentina are neighbors.

As with Tango Nuevo, the dance embrace can change in the Milonga, and as with Nuevo, dancing the Milonga requires a foundation in Tango dancing.

While a Tango dancer can pause over one or more beats, Milonga dancers usually dance on every beat. However, they can insert steps called the Traspie (syncopations).

For more detailed information, please view our page about the Milonga.

Val (Waltz)

The music for the Tango Vals is similar to a fast Italian Waltz.

The Tango Vals dancers normally do not step on every beat. If they did, the dance would look like a Viennese Waltz. Instead, they can occasionally take two beats to make one step. Many leaders dance to a quick-quick-slow (one beat, one beat, two beats) rhythm.

In addition, the giro, or turn (in both directions), is frequently used in a Tango Vals, giving it a characteristic look of frequent turns.

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