Style continued

January 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’d like to develop some of the ideas I introduced previously by looking at a passage from Tango and Chaos where the author talks about styles of tango. In this passage, Rick McGarrey attempts to clear up some of the confusion that has entered contemporary discussions of tango concerning various “styles” of dancing. For him, there are only two, tango danced for the milonga, the dance hall, the “salon,” and performance tango, danced for the stage.

Argentines know there are really only two styles of tango. There’s the showier version used by performers that they call “tango escenario” or “tango fantasia” (stage tango), and there’s the social tango for dancing in the milongas that they call “tango salon” (“dance hall tango”). It’s simple, and it makes sense. But then it began to get mixed up.

He continues:

The new classes [following the tango boom in the 1990s] were based on responding to the cadences of the music, connecting closely with a partner, and moving smoothly around a crowded floor. Admittedly they only scratched the surface—but they did cover basic technique, and because they were so different from the dramatic figures and complex choreography being taught by the performers, the new teachers needed a way to make a clear distinction between their social tango, and the classes that already existed. The problem was that many of the performers already used the label “tango salon” to advertise their classes—so some of the new instructors decided to call their classes “tango milonguero”. They simply replaced the word “salon” with “milonguero”. “Tango salon” means tango for dancing socially in a dance salon (which is a milonga), and “tango milonguero” means the kind of tango danced in a milonga. Technically they are exactly the same thing. But since the stage teachers had already grabbed the “tango salon” label, the new teachers had to come up with a new name. This is probably where the confusion began—but the important thing to remember is that “tango milonguero” is not some separate “style” of tango danced by the old milongueros.

Tango milonguero = tango for a milonga = tango salon.

Tango milonguero ≠ a special type of tango danced by old milongueros.

Old milongueros don’t dance differently than any of the other social dancers in BsAs. They are simply the ones who’ve been dancing the longest. This means they may dance better than most … but they dance the same rhythmic, flowing, tango as everyone else who knows the right way to dance in a milonga. The problem is that many people mistakenly assumed that tango milonguero referred only to the old milongueros. And if it did—if tango milonguero actually was a specific, separate style of social tango that old milongueros danced, then it was logical to assume that other people must be dancing other styles of tango in the milongas … and they began to find them.


 If we were to look at these terms conceptually, we would find (following Tango and Chaos) that “tango estilo salon,” or “tango estilo milonguero,” is not really a style per se but a collection of local variants (“estilo del centro,” “estilo del barrio,” etc.). Obviously, depending on the granularity of our terms, this could (were someone able to do the research) be broken down even further into variations by individual neighborhoods, individual milongas, and, finally, individuals themselves. It is the last group I’m primarily interested in. Regional or neighborhood variations in Buenos Aires are of little more than historical interest at this point. Does anyone know if they still hold true today, with the rapid and efficient dissemination of information and ideas? Can there be distinct neighborhood styles in Buenos Aires, as there once were? Does it matter?

What is more interesting is the development of an individual style. What are the factors that go into making us dance one way rather than another? Are we more influenced by teachers, friends, other dancers, the available videos of dancers from the past and present? Personal limitations. Can we aspire to a style of dancing? For a professional dancer, a performer, the line may be more direct between an individual style of dancing and a teacher or series of teachers. I would imagine that students of Copes or Gavito resemble Copes and Gavito far more than they do Ricardo Vidort.

Juan Carlos Copes and ?

Ricardo Vidort and Alejandra Todaro

Furthermore, following the definition of “style” given in the previous entry, in order to have a distinct style, there would have to be something in our art, our expression, that leaves a mark or trace on the world. This trace would need to be identifiable, distinct, consistent, and a characteristic feature of the work. It is true of pictorial art—Rembrandt, Picasso, Pollack, they all have distinct styles. It is true of literature—Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Burroughs. It is true of dance—Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Trisha Brown. But it is unlikely that a tango dancer, an amateur in the best sense of the word, will develop a style in this sense. To do so probably requires a degree of self-awareness as an artist, a knowledge of tradition, and the willingness to work hard enough and long enough to distinguish ourselves from our contemporaries. More importantly, it would require something unique about the form of expression we use to express ourselves. We may develop habits, mannerisms, ways of dancing tango, but whether they constitute a “style” or are stylistically distinct remains an open question.

Beginning students generally have no idea that there are “styles” of tango or that they are following a particular form of tango through their teachers. Additionally, to the best of my knowledge, most teachers in North America are, or have been, performers or competition dancers, and their students will invariably absorb their attitudes and movements during the learning process. For Rick McGarrey, at least based upon his comments on Tango and Chaos, developing something like an “authentic” style required moving to Buenos Aires and studying with the locals—a kind of total immersion program.

In the previous entry, someone wrote that we should simply dance and forget about style. Which is fine on the face of it, but we will, consciously or unconsciously, express aspects of some style, some form of dancing whether we like it or not. If you’ve only been taught figures, if you’ve never learned the intricacies of the “abrazo,” it’s unlikely you’ll pick it up on your own. If you’ve been taught some variant of stage tango, you’re not going to dance like a milonguero without a radical alteration in your technique. So, yes, we should dance and as much as possible, but we also need to have some idea of how we want to develop. Look at the dance floor of any local milonga here and you’ll see a range of different ways of dancing tango, almost as many as there are individuals. This is inevitable and perfectly normal. But when learning, I think we need to aspire to something, to have an idea of how we might want to look. We might like to look like our teacher when dancing, we might also like to look like Jorge Dispari or Ricardo Vidort. Or like no one at all.

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