My mindset was rather simple when I started dancing. I found a teacher I liked and learned from him. I was aware that different teachers taught in different ways, but I did not worry about not being able to dance with students of other teachers. I thought if I were good enough, I should be able to dance with anyone. Later I discovered that I was learning “Tango Nuevo,” which was the fashionable way of dancing at the time. All my friends were learning the same thing, and we were all happy with it.
This happiness lasted a few years. Then I became bored. I looked for a new teacher. The new couple I found danced in a completely different way. Although their teachings were not immediately contradictory to what I learned before, I was pretty much starting from the beginning again. I felt rejuvenated. I did not care to ask my new teachers what kind of tango they teach, and they never cared to explain. As long as I liked it, it was all fine.
Then the city government of Buenos Aires started the Mundial de Tango (World Tango Championship). In the Mundial there are two categories: Tango Escenario (tango for stage) and Tango Salon. People knew what Tango Escenario was because we had seen plenty of tango shows. But we were not so sure about Tango Salon. This term was not widely used until then. So people began to ask, “What is Tango Salon?” They also wanted to know what the other tango styles are, and how these styles are defined.
A few years later, to avoid confusion the Mundial changed the name of the category to “Tango de la Pista” (tango of the floor, as opposed to tango on stage). I thought the new name was cumbersome, but I understood why they made the change. Tango is not a standardized dance. There is no best way of dancing. The Mundial wants diversity and individuality, so it is best to use an all-inclusive name. As for myself, the question of style was not important because I had no problem dancing happily in the milonga. As long as I danced well enough, there was no need to label myself.
Then I became a tango teacher, and I could not avoid these questions anymore. People would ask me, “What style of tango do you teach?” It became a professional necessity to talk about styles. While I understood the customers have a right to know, deep down I was frustrated. To me, as long as you dance well, who cares what style it is? This issue also affected my students. At the milonga people would ask them what style they danced. They did not know how to respond. Sometimes people would make their own assumptions, “Who is your teacher? Are you learning from him? Then you are dancing XXX style.”
I was frustrated because I do not want to be labelled. Labels limit my possibilities for development. They constrict how other people look at me and interpret what I do. For the same reason, I do not want labels for my students. I wish they could be free to dance as who they are. After all, in tango, styles are just names created by people for convenience. They do not represent some immutable standard that we need to live up to. Great dancers all dance in different ways, and that includes all the judges of the Mundial too.
Instead of focusing on what styles there are, let us think for a moment about how people came to dance in different ways. An important factor is the amount of space available. If the dance floor is not crowded, people can take bigger steps. They have more freedom to explore and create complex figures. Because the dance floor is sparse, the audience can see clearly how each couple dances, so the appearance of the dance becomes important. On the other hand, if the dance floor is crowded, the embrace becomes tighter. The dancers are forced to dance with simpler steps. They are compelled to use a more limited set of figures to interpret the music. It is harder to see how each couple dances on a crowded floor, so instead of appearances, the sensation one gives to his or her partner becomes important.
This was what happened in Buenos Aires. In the suburbs people had more space. They created complicated figures and they focused on being elegant. In the city center the milongas were a lot more crowded. There was tighter body contact in the embrace and the dancers used simpler steps. There were of course exceptions. But because transportation was not so convenient, people stayed and danced in their own neighborhood. Gradually their ways of dancing diverged. This is probably not unlike how languages develop – when there is a geographical barrier between two places, over time two different dialects appear.
Nowadays some people use the term “Estilo Milonguero” (Milonguero Style) to label the way of dancing in the city center. This term was first coined by Susanna Miller. She chose this name for herself when she went to the US to teach in the 1990’s, because her partners were all older milongueros from the city center.
But the word “milonguero” has a more general meaning. It refers to people who understand how the milonga works, who love going to the milonga, and who have centered their lives around the milonga. The identity of a milonguero is not tied to the way he dances. There were milongueros in both the city center and the suburb, and they danced in diverse ways. Milonguero Style as a name may sound universal and attractive, but Estilo del Centro (style of the city center) or Tango Apilado (apilado refers to the close body contact of the embrace) would be more correct to describe what Susanna Miller taught.
There are many suburbs in Buenos Aires. Villa Urquiza had received a lot of attention a while back. This neighborhood had produced many important dancers, and the famous milonga Sunderland was located there. There was talk about a “Villa Urquiza Style.” Although dancers in this area had influenced each other, they were more proud about their unique identity. Important milongueros each had their own signature steps, and copying each other was frowned upon. If you ask these dancers whether they dance “Villa Urquiza Style,” they would probably say they were each dancing their own style. “Villa Urquiza Style” is a term that other people may use, but it is not a label that they would desire for themselves.
Nowadays we live in a totally different tango world. Before the pandemic, we could travel everywhere to dance. We frequently need to adapt to different spaces, dancers, and ways of dancing. We can learn from a wide variety of teachers. There is an overabundance of videos and online resources for us to look at. Oddly enough, at least according to the older-generation milongueros, people nowadays all dance the same, as opposed to the old days when they all had different characters.
It may be beneficial to find out how the different ways of dancing come about, but it is not productive to be overly concerned with the boundary of style. It is more important to satisfy our curiosity and our desire to improve. Learn from different teachers, broaden our horizons, forge our own path. As long as it is useful, as long as it suits your fancy, it is good.
* This piece was first published on Facebook in May, 2018. Lately I have been getting more questions about styles from our students, so I have updated it and I am publishing it here again.