I was talking to Elizabeth at a recent party. She told me about her hairdresser who was perplexed on how one could be proficient at tango without having to dump thousands of dollars on lessons. Her hairdresser would also ask what "Costume" she wore when she went tango dancing. I told Elizabeth that she was talking about Ballroom Tango, and the practice of Ballroom schools that charge based on a linear progressive level (Bronze, Silver, Gold) system .
This is not an isolated question that non-dancers would ask. For instance, whenever the TV shows "Dancing With The Stars," and "So You Think You Can Dance" air, my friends would say, "I was thinking about you when they do Tango. Do you also wear those... 'Spandex latin shirts/coat tails/costumes' when you Tango?" I chuckle and politely explain that I dance Argentine Tango–not Ballroom Tango. They respond with a perplexed look, and I try to explain further.
Being a former ballroom dancer, and now, an exclusive practitioner of Argentine Tango, please allow me the opportunity to try to explain the differences between the two.
The following are my redactions from several historical references in my library, on-line, and my own 1st hand experiences.
The original Tango!
Born in the streets and bordellos of the late 19th and early 20th century Buenos Aires, Argentina. At first, a dance of illicit diversion participated in by the denizens of the night.
It found its way to the dance halls of Europe via Paris' cultural avant-garde. Suddenly, Tango was all the rage. Several evolutions of the dance happened, even the classical colors of tango (black and red–which was originally orange) were concieved and marketed.
Due to the influx of Europeans via travel and immigration to Buenos Aires, Tango returned with a new flavor and fervor. It moved out of the bordellos and slums into mainstream Buenos Aires society. It became "Gentrified." It no longer was the original "Dirty dance." It was now an earthy, beautiful and elegant art form. Further evolutions occurred and the dance took the form that we all know and love today.
To this day, Argentine Tango undergoes constant progressive growth while preserving its intimate, sensual, and elegant roots. This has created some of today's beautiful and popular Argentine Tango styles like Salón, Milonguero, Nuevo, Villa Urquiza, Nuevo, Fantasia (a.k.a. Show Tango), etc.
Argentine Tango performance by the late Carlos Gavito &
Also known as American Tango, American Smooth Tango, American Standard Tango. Originally based on Argentine Tango, it deviated, branched off, and evolved (even the music) into a totally different dance altogether. Ballroom Tango is like the English muffin, and the French Fry. It is an American invention!
America first saw what was supposed to be a Tango in the 1921 silent movie, "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." It starred Rudolph Valentino. This movie created a craze for the new dance.
America's first glimpse of "Tango." Rudolph Valentino's 1921 silent movie
(*Note: The soundtrack was added by the Youtube poster)
Unfortunately, due to the prevailing (and extremely prudish) social and moral attitudes of the 1920's and 1930's, Argentine Tango (as it was supposed to be danced), was considered too intimate, too much body contact, scandalous, lascivious, and thus socially unacceptable to be danced in public. Also, the sheer improvisational nature of Argentine Tango made it difficult to build a standardized teaching syllabus around.
Enter Arthur Murray (Yes, the founder of the Arthur Murray franchise chain of dance schools). He took Tango, combined it with touches from different Ballroom dances, "sanitized" the moves, "Anglicized" the terms, standardized the steps and patterns to make it fit into the stratified levels of Bronze, Silver, and Gold, (with separate pricing plans) of his dance schools. His efforts have succeeded in creating what is now known as Ballroom Tango. This method was applied to all dances taught by the chain.
A further evolution of this happened when American Tango crossed the Atlantic to England. The English codified the steps and movements further in order to standardize the judging for competitions. It became known as, International Tango (a.k.a. International Ballroom Tango, International Standard Tango).
American and International (Ballroom) tango are identical in technique. The difference is that American Tango permits open holds, which allow broken hold moves such as underarm turns, side-by-side choreography, etc. International Tango is strictly done in closed hold. Dancers cannot break their 3 points of contact (i.e. hips, left arms, right arms). Doing so will cost point deductions.
A world class Ballroom Tango at Blackpool, England.
The Olympics of Ballroom dancing competion
Technical Differences (That I know of)
*For Brevity: AT=Argentine Tango; BR=Ballroom Tango
Purpose of the dance
AT: Passionate. You dance for the connection. You dance for your partner. Danced socially.
BR: Exuberant. You dance for the appreciation and adulation of the audience/judges. Geared towards showcases and competition.
AT: The Bandoneon is the primary instrument. Rhythm can change several times within one song. Danced in sets of 4 songs called a "Tanda." Conspicuous absence of percussion. Dancers dance to the rhythm of the music. (note the Argentine Tango video soundtrack)
BR: Characterized by distinctive staccato marching beat, usually in 2/4 time. Beat is normally via snare drum with a distinctive "dump-dump-dump-dump-da-da-dump-dump-dump-dump" in keeping with the standard 5-count basic step. I uses the rhythm of "slow, slow, quick, quick, slow." The music is arranged to match this pattern. (note the ballroom video soundtrack)
AT: Men–Weight forward on the balls of the feet, shoulders back, chest out. Women–same.
BR: Men–Weight back square on the heels, shoulders back, chest out. Women–Leaned back, weight on the heels
AT: Dancers commonly use the "Milonguero" stance–an embrace. The contact from chest-to-chest. Looks like the letter "A" when done right.
BR: Dancers use the "Waltz" hold. Contact is side of the hip to side of the hip, legs alternating in between each other. Looks like the letter "Y"
AT: Toe lead. Toe hits the ground first on the step
BR: Heel lead. Heel hits the ground first, as in a march
AT: Tango shoes are stiff to help support the woman's weight as she is normally on the balls of her feet most of the time. This is also the reason why a lot of Tango shoes have stiletto heels. They have hard leather soles as they are better at pivoting, and intended to be worn out AND to go dancing with.
BR: Flexible to allow for better "Pointing." Heels are lower, and wider as the weight lands on the heel often. Their soles are made of suede to protect the floor.
Technique & Steps
AT: Predominantly improvisational. Strides are normally shoulder width. Movements are smooth deliberate and elegant.
BR: Predominantly step/pattern driven. With memorized/standardized cues. Strides are huge. Movements are exaggerated, snappy, aggressive, and have a stalking, staccato character.
AT: Evening attire. If you can wear them out on an elegant date, this will work.
BR: Flashy, flamboyant ,Ball gowns, Costumes, feathers, sparkles, bling, make-up, etc.
With that, I hope it helps and clears up a few things.