The tango has been popular around the world for over a century. Therefore it has evolved into several different forms over the years. It may be helpful to understand how and why it changed.
Over the past century, tango has branched out into three primary forms. We'll look at the family tree of tango from the ground up.
The Roots of Tango
The antecedents of the tango are difficult to trace, but may include ● the African candombe, or ● a Spanish tango, possibly of Gypsy origin, that may have been brought to Argentina by touring Zarzuela theatre companies. Or ● the Cuban habanera ("dance of Havana"), or ● an evolution from European social dances brought to Argentina by immigrants, or ● one of the many dances of the gauchos (the gato, chifras, pericon, chacarera or estilitos). Or more likely, a hybrid combination of some of these five possibilities.
The roots of tango are not known with certainty because it was created by the disenfranchised poor, who lived in the arrabales, or outskirts, of Buenos Aires. These barrios were primarily immigrant slums, that expanded with a migration from the pampas as farms failed or were taken over by the land barons. Free from the support or control of the city government, the surrounding arrabales developed their own unique subculture of the dispossessed, and it was here that the tango evolved. When a dance arises from a disfranchised subculture, the roots are especially vague because these developments were rarely described by those in the inner city who could record events for posterity.
And finally, the origins of the tango are not only blurred, but were often intentionally obscured by those who preferred a more respectable heritage, or more sensational imagery ("Born in the brothels!"), for the dance.
The Paris Tangomania
The northern hemisphere first saw the tango when Argentine dancers brought it to Paris around 1908. Its popularity grew, becoming the biggest news in Paris — the 1912-14 Tangomania, which quickly spread to England, the United States, Germany, Russia, and throughout Europe. Dancers around the world fell in love with the tango, and added it to their growing repertoire of social dances.
When we compare European and North American tango descriptions to a Buenos Aires tango manual from the same time, we see that the northern hemisphere dancers mostly got it right, dancing the same steps, in the same style, as the Argentines.
Don't believe that? Read on.
There are three main branches on the family tree of tango.
1. Living Tradition Argentine Tango (Tango Argentino)
This is tango as danced in Buenos Aires today. Most social dance forms continue to evolve in their country of origin, and tango is the perfect example. Every decade has seen changes in steps and style.
When we compare today's Argentine tango to descriptions from Buenos Aires tango dance manuals a century ago, we see that the original combination of slow and quick steps has mostly disappeared from tango Argentino today. One typical early Argentine timing was slow-slow-quick-quick-slow. Tango promenade position (both looking forward, side-by-side, clasping hands in front) was featured in early Buenos Aires tango manuals, and has also disappeared, along with other original elements. But these all remain in social ("American") tango.
Other steps and styles have been added to tango Argentino over the decades, like intricate footwork (ganchos, sacades, barridas, etc.). Close embrace tango was introduced to this country in 1995 at the Stanford Tango Week, and has since been widely adopted. After many decades of changes, today's Argentine tango is significantly different from the original version.
Living tradition tango Argentino is danced throughout the world today.
2. Social Tango
When the Tangomania hit during the Ragtime Era, social dancers already knew many dances, including the one-step, waltz, two-step, the maxixe from Brazil, and then the foxtrot in 1914. So they enthusiastically added the Argentine tango to their growing repertoire of dances.
Then as time went on, social dancers had no reason to change the tango. It wasn't broken, so why fix it? Therefore today's social tango is essentially the continuation of the original Argentine tango. Yes, there have been some evolutionary changes over time, but they're relatively minor compared to the greater changes that have been made to the other two branches of tango.
Ironically, some people call this American Style tango. They use this term to differentiate it from International Style (British competition style) tango, but it's nevertheless odd to call the nearly-unchanged original Argentine tango "American" (unless one means South American).
Social tango is also the form of tango most often seen in movies, perhaps to advance a romantic relationship, or to add dramatic flair.
Since social tango is essentially the original Argentine tango, and the least changed of the three branches, it contains many of the foundation dynamics, upon which the other two forms are built.
Which one changed?
Today, most Argentines believe that Europeans changed ("tamed" or "corrupted" or "bastardized") the Argentine tango, when in fact it was the Argentines who changed it, while European and American social dancers continued the original style. Change isn't a bad thing — it's natural, and a sign of healthy growth. But maintaining an original tradition also has value, so all forms of tango are valid, each enjoyed by thousands of enthusiastic devotees.
3. Competition Ballroom Tango (International Style Tango)
The other reason why dances change is competitions. You won't win by being the same as your competitors — you need to add something extra to stand out. New steps are constantly created, as others are deemed out-of-date. For instance, the Champion competitor Fred Camp introduced a quick head snap from Germany to British ballroom tango in 1933, launching a bitter debate among English dancers about this new "staccato tango." After the fighting subsided, this German variant was adopted as the "correct" British style. Then during the 1960s it was decided that the woman must dance with a stiffer posture and look away from her partner.
Tango style changed dramatically when the Elimination Round was introduced, in which the competition begins with a fairly crowded floor, filled with all of the competitors dancing at once. The judges thin the crowd down to a few finalists to be individually evaluated. The dancers have to perform far more expansive movements, to stand out from the crowd. Extreme, expanded movements are a matter of survival, either outshining the others, or being quickly eliminated. This expansiveness has become the look of competition-style tango.
In addition to the three main branches of tango, many dance historians and vintage dancers enjoy learning the original tango from a century ago, reconstructed from dance manuals and films from the period. Early tango is popular at vintage dance weeks, both in the U.S. and Europe, and is re-enacted, in period attire, at vintage balls.
Exhibition tango, on stage and film, can be considered a separate branch because its intent is substantially different from the original tango. This is tango as entertainment for an audience. Movements are usually exaggerated, and the tango is often reshaped to be more dramatic, or sometimes comic.
Then just as in human family trees, branches often cross-pollinate. For example, Finnish tango can be seen as a hybrid of social tango, foxtrot, and tango Argentino. The English Sequence Dance and Round Dance movements have short repeating tango choreographies, and can been seen as a three-way morph of social, competitive and historic tango. Most of these sequences date back to the 1920s to 1950s, and the choreographies haven't changed since then. International folk dancers and Australian "bush dancers" still enjoy doing these sequenced tangos, such as the Royal Empress Tango (1922).
Body contact in tango
This is an interesting comparison. We have many illustrations and photographs from the early years of tango in Buenos Aires to know that there was originally little or no body contact between the dancers. The space between dancers varied, from barely touching to six inches, but there was no compressure.
Social tango and Argentine salon style tango continue this distance between partners, as one would expect, since they changed the least. Close embrace tango Argentino connects at the chest. International Style ballroom tango connects at the pelvis.
Which one is best?
That depends on your personal preference. All of these forms are valid, enjoyed by thousands of enthusiastic devotees.
About the Author:
Full-time instructor in contemporary social dancing and dance history, Stanford University Dance Division, Department of Theater and Performance Studies.
Principal focus since 1975 has been social dance forms from the Renaissance to today. Specializations include currently evolving vernacular dance forms, 19th century American and European social dance, dances of the Ragtime Era and Jazz Age.
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