06 January 2009

A layman's guide to the different types of Tango

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The following are my redactions from several historical references in my library, on-line, and my own 1st hand experiences.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 &
Geraldine Rojas

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

Dance Position
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"

Foot Placement
AT: Toe lead. Toe hits the ground first on the step
BR: Heel lead. Heel hits the ground first, as in a march

Women's Shoes
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.


msHedgehog said...

I see it as a bit like the difference between baseball and cricket. Recent common ancestor, but fundamentally different activities.

I've read elsewhere that the ballroom version was invented at about the same time by a German instructor in England. But it's quite possible both ballroom versions were invented independently to fill similar needs.

Anonymous said...

My back would hurt from leaning out like that! Eek! Talk about polar opposites. I like my Argentine embrace instead :-)

Random visitor said...

Some clarification about International Standard Ballroom Tango (I'll call it IBT for short) as some of what you had written is probably only true for American Smooth Tango (of which I'm fairly ignorant).

Tango came to England from France. The French got it from the Argentinians in the late 1800s. Till about the early 1920s European Tango would have looked similar to Argentine Tango. In the early 1920s European Tango was drastically simplified and standardised (although it would still look very different to today's IBT). Over the years some figures were dropped and new figures introduced depending on what was socially popular (and more recently on what the top dancers in the world liked). The Dance also took on some of the flavour of the French Paso Doble. At some point it stopped being danced to a Habanera rhythm.

The IBT is still different from other International Ballroom dances. Steps are walked and not glided and the hold is much closer, with the woman's left arm hooked underneath the man's right. The weight is closer to the middle of the foot rather than the ball of the foot, as in the other ballroom dances. As well, 'closed' feet are actually offset. And walks always curve gently to the left.

The purpose of ballroom is primarily fun. Many want to compete as well. The character of the dance is an "I'm rampant for you but I don't want you or anyone else to know that.. yet" kind of passion in contrast to the openly sensual passion of the Argentine Tango. The man projects an air of dominance while the woman projects an air of pretend aloofness.

BRT figures are combinations of 'slow' steps (roughly 1 beat) and 'quick' steps (roughly 1/2 a beat). I say roughly because it's common to slightly vary the length of a step to help achieve the feeling that the leader wants to convey (or what the music suggests). Beginner dances dance complete prescribed figures (eg: SS, Q&Q, SQQSQQ, S, QQ, QQSQQS) while more advanced dancers splice together various prescribed figures to achieve a custom rhythm (socially this is done to reflect the music - or to show off, but in competition it is purely for the look, as the dance is a prepared routine and thus not very connected to the music). The very top dancers invent figures, which may or may not become popular among other dancers later on. AT Salon or Fantasia style leg flicks and leg hooks are occasionally thrown in for a bit of extra flavour by advanced dancers, but is not a major part of the dance.

Posture in BRT is weight near the middle or balls of feet, with soft knees. Hip and lower torso over the knees, chest out shoulders back. Men are vertical, with an upright head looking over the woman's right shoulder. Women shape their upper body to the left and back, and look to the left over the man's right shoulder. The man's arm is further around the woman's back than in a normal ballroom (eg: Waltz) hold. The man's right arm is bent inwards, creating a closer more compact feel than than in a normal ballroom hold. The woman's left arm is hooked near the man's right armpit, and opposed to resting on his bicep/deltoid like in a normal ballroom hold. Body connection is below the ribcage.

Forward steps are typically heel leads, backward steps are toe leads. Side steps are inside-edge of foot, or inside-edge of ball of foot. Closing steps are whole-foot.

Suede soles are used because they are grippier than leather soles, but not too grippy. This isn't important for tango, but other dances require controlled sliding.

Clothes depends on whether you are competing or not. Competitors wear formal attire, with the women typically making considerable effort to be noticed by judges. Socially, it depends on the dress code of the venue, but jeans and a shirt/top through to smart eveningwear is acceptable. Occasionally there will be formal balls which are black-tie or white-tie and the women dressed appropriately. Show dances will have costumes.

Random visitor said...

A good way to compare AT with IBT I think is with a good instructional video on walks from both styles. I haven't found one for AT (except those horrible ExpertVillage vids) but this is one for IBT: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9p5gJ0kYJI&playnext=1&list=PLCF2328E1E8049E09&index=11

Oh, and @msHedgehog: Cricket and Baseball don't have a common ancestor. Baseball is derived from Rounders [Cricket did influence this new American game, but only marginally] which became more popular due to the increased urbanisation of Boston and New York (rounders required less space than cricket) and the (correct at the time) perception of cricket as a game for the upper classes (also Rounders was more popular among Americans of Irish descent, as cricket was seen as quintessentially English). The two games were were played concurrently in the USA till after the Civil War when Baseball won and cricket became largely unheard of in the States.

Rounders and Cricket have independent histories. Cricket most likely was born when shepherds played a game involving hitting small rocks with their crooks (it was initially a game for peasants, but later appealed to the upper classes as well).

Piimapoika said...

The tango was introduced to the United States by Maurice Mouvet and his partner Madeleine in the winter of 1910/11 (source: Carlos G. Groppa, The Tango in the United States. They had learned it in Paris. The American style of tango was never reexported to Europe. The first intimation that the US had its own style of ballroom dancing was in 2005, when the American Smooth was introduced on Strictly Come Dancing.

The tango had never been considered respectable in Argentina; and it was only after it had been refined and shorn of its indecent elements in the genteel salons of Paris, London, Berlin, and New York that it could be taken back to Buenos Aires and be acceptable in high society. So you could say that present-day Argentine tango is developed from ballroom.

Alexis Cousein said...

I don't necessarily agree.

Argentine tango wasn't "developed from ballroom", as is evident if you look at historical material from even the 1910-1920s.

Rather, the development of ballroom tango elsewhere made it acceptable for higher Argentine society to dance a form of tango, but that was clearly still rooted in Argentine traditions (even though some of the elements that would later turn into marked stylistic differences did indeed originate partly in the "salon" tango vs. popular venue tango differences.)

One only has to look at a few movie sources from that period to see that the embrace and musicality are very, very different (with even "salon" Argentine tango from that period being much closer in spirit to Golden Era tango than to ballroom tango, even though the common salida and figures used were a bit different).

Golden Era tango developed quite a bit away from 1910-1920 Buenos Aires tango, by the way. That's because it remained a social dance and was never strictly codified, not even in the high society salons.

From 1925 on, what was danced in Buenos Aires had very little to do with ballroom tango even in form (Ballroom tango had fossilized some of the 1910-1920 figures and never looked to reconnect with Argentine tango).

Et cetero censeo...I'd have to add that the figures/movements are not at the root of this dance. If you think they are, and that superficial resemblances on that level matter, then you aren't seeing the forest for the trees.

Alexis Cousein said...

> Foot Placement
> AT: Toe lead. Toe hits the ground first on the step
> BR: Heel lead. Heel hits the ground first, as in a march

I'd have to say I think that's a bit of a caricature. Many AT dancers have, especially in forward strides, the same foot placement as when they walk, which is not necessarily with a toe lead (which almost never really happens, though some land on the ball of their feet). That's not a coincidence, since the dance is, in essence, based on walking.

Side and back steps, obviously, tend to indeed land on the ball of the feet and the toes respectively, but that makes sense in walking too.

Some stage tango dancers do indeed make a conscious effort to land on the ball of the feet even on large forward steps, but that's really an ornament, not something crucial (and they need to train themselves to do it all the while maintaining a smooth movement of the upper body). Some teachers will insist they land on the ball of the foot on forward steps, but if you watch them dance a longish forward step, they won't actually do it and often land heel first and roll on the foot (which makes perfect sense, actually).

Many forests have been felled on this very subject even within AT, so you can't just generalise like the article does.

There is a difference in foot landing, though, as indeed BR uses a walk that looks a lot more military, rolling from heel to toe or toe to heel a lot more aggressively and extra rapidly.

Anonymous said...

The only Tango I would ever learn is AT. The others are ugly and, actually, quite funny to watch. The IT is the Tango everyone does when making fun of Tango dancing.