Tango Dance - Types, Techniques and Influence

Tango dance is one the most famous partner dances that emphasizes the vibrant and playful style of movement, rich expressions, improvisation and requires close connection and passion between dancers. It is currently practiced by millions of people from all around the world, who have learned to love not only a traditional tango style which was popularized in late 19th and early 20th century but also many of its other modern tango dance variations created in Argentina and many other countries. The core concept of the tango dance revolves around leader and follower, where leader through their embrace gives openings to the follower what to do, and follower then chooses how he will respond. The end result of this cooperative process can be a highly improvisational dance that fully captivates the attention of both the dancers and spectators. The attire of the tango dancers is also important because it significantly impacts the visual appeal of the dance, most notably with female dancers promoting their elegance and sexuality by performing the passionate tango dance routines while wearing revealing clothing and high heels.

Tango Dance Competition

When people think about tango, today they are most likely to think about its modern ballroom type, which has become famous for its focus on high spectator satisfaction and ability to be practiced in a competitive environment. In addition to various tango dancing styles, tango can also be danced to several styles of tango music, including traditional, nuevo and alternative. While the influences of those music styles change the dance, the core number of principles are shared among all types of tango dances. Musical instruments that can most commonly be heard during a tango dance are the traditional accordion, bandoneon (tango accordion), piano, guitar, violin, double bass and a human voice.

Originally developed with influences of African and European culture in Argentina and Uruguay under the name of “tango criollo” (Creole tango), this original dance managed to survive to today and is still danced as “authentic tango” in addition to many other historical Argentine dances. As of summer of 2009, UNESCO has included tango as the part of their UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists , and thus increasing the preservation, awareness, and significance of this important part of Argentinian cultural history.

History of Tango

The history of tango can be traced all the way back to 18th century Argentina where a mix of influences brought by European immigrants, South American natives and dances of former African slaves in their candombe ceremonies brought the rise of the new type of partner dance that was practiced almost exclusively by poor and lower class. The popularity of this dance grew at a steady pace, especially in the lower-class districts of the cities such as Buenos Aires and Montevideo (Uruguay). It is important to mention that several types of tango dance existed then, with only one of them managing to find wide popularity outside of the lower class (in a dance that is today referred as tango criollo or authentic tango).

The origin of the word “tango” comes from the words tango/tambo which was used in the region around the basin of River Plata to describe the musical gatherings of slaves. With this term started being used for more types of musical gatherings, it eventually becomes a synonym of the popular tango dance. The earliest written record of the word tango comes from the year 1789, in a colonial government proclamation that attempted to ban these musical gatherings.

From the moment tango music expanded to the middle-class of people of Argentina, it’s growth became unstoppable. In late 19th and early 20th century, tango dance becomes commonplace in Argentinian theatres, dancing halls, and street performances, enabling it to quickly become one of the favorite dances of newly arrived European immigrants who were settling in Argentina. By early 20th century, many of those immigrants and other Argentinian natives formed entertainment groups that traveled to Europe with a goal of promoting their newly popular partner dance. They first found popularity in the early 1900s in the City of Light, Paris, and from there Tango quickly reached London, Berlin, and many other European capitals.

United States dancers become first fascinated with Tango dance between 1911 and late 1913, with them doing so much to develop new styles of tango dance that eventually got the monicker ”North American tango”. This new type of tango is distinguished with faster tempos and uses 2/4 or 4/4 rhythms such as one-step, and it was usually danced not to the tunes of traditional tango music, but other popular music styles from the US. By the year 1914, traditional Argentinian tango and North American tango settled down into their proper forms, enabling the US dances to enjoy dancing any type of tango dance they preferred.

The popularity of Tango dance went through several ups and downs in its native Argentina. While the dance slowly becomes more and more popular around the world, dancing in Argentina became harder and harder to do during several prolonged periods of economic, government and civil unrest, such as during Great Depression, overthrowing of Hipólito Yrigoyen government, and during post-1950s military dictatorships. However, in between these dark events, tango managed to thrive and was revived several times as a point of natural pride.

Tango Types/Styles

Since tango is highly improvisational, personal and impulsive, it is not strange that it has managed to quickly evolve from its traditional form into dozens of styles that are today practiced all around the world. Musical historians have become aware that tango is one of the most “reactive” dances in the world, being able to be significantly reshaped by various factors, even things such as changes in simple cultural elements (including from big effects such as government regulations to even smaller things such as changes in clothing fashion styles, venue sizes, music, crowding, and more).

Style of tango is also distinguished in the way the dancers are supporting their center of gravity. In Argentine and Uruguayan tango, dancers first move their chests, and then their feet reach to support them. Ballroom dancing, however, uses a different style, where feet move first, and then the center body mass moves . Other styles involve differences in step movements, timings, speed, the character of movement and following of the rhythm. The embrace of the dancers (called “frame”) which can be tight, loose, in “V” shape or others, can also change from style to style, and even change several times during a single dance routine. Different tango types also use different styles of leg positioning, such as being intertwined and hooked together between dancers or being kept away one from another. Placement of the foot on the floor can also change between tango types , with some requiring landing the foot flatly on the ground, and others for toes to touch the ground first. Finally, the amount of time the dancers stay on the ground can vary, with some tango routines requiring the dancers to keep feet in the air for the prolonged period of time, such as with moves “boleo” (swinging leg into the air) and “gancho” (hooking a leg around a partner).

Here are brief descriptions of some of the most popular types of Tango dances:

  • Ballroom tango - The most famous international version of tango, that originated from Europe and managed to become famously simplified tango style that is used in competitions. The American version of this dance is used only as an ordinary social dance.
  • Salon tango (Tango de salon) - Not a specific tango style per se, but a tango that was first played in dance halls of Buenos Aires during the Golden Age of Tango (1935-1952).
  • Argentine tango (Tango canyengue) - One of the original types of tango that contains all the fundamental elements of the 19th-century traditional Argentine tango styles.
  • Tango nuevo (Nuevo tango) - Developed in the 1980s, this new tango style is distinguished by complex moves, and the mix of jazz, electronic, alternative or techno-tinged inspired elements. Many see Tango nuevo as a mix of tango music and electronica.
  • Finnish tango - Rise of the popularity of tango in Finland in after First World War brought the development of new tango style that promotes contact dance, horizontal movements and low standing stance that features no kicking or aerials.
  • Uruguayan tango - Very old type of tango, developed at the same time as earliest Buenos Aires tango styles. Today, Uruguayan tango consists of several sub-styles and can be danced with several types of music (Tango, Milonga, Vals, and Candombe).
  • Tango apilado - Close embrace tango which is best danced on a crowded dance floor.
  • Show tango - Argentinian version of the theatrical tango that is danced on a stage.

All tango styles are practiced using one of the two types of embraces between lead and follow dances:

  • Open embrace - Lead and follow are dancing with open space between their bodies
  • Close embrace - Practiced either with chest-to-chest embrace (used in traditional Argentine tango) or more loose upper thigh, hip area (common in international and American tango)

Tango dance can also be performed with several types of background music, including:

  • Traditional tango music style
  • Alternative tango music, which is inspired by tango styles
  • Electronic tango-inspired music

Tango Music

Tango music developed at the same time as the tango dance. It was originally played by the European immigrant populations of Argentina, and it continues to be played today all across the world. It’s defining characteristics are 2/4 or 4/4 beat and the focus on traditional instruments such as solo guitar, two guitars, or an ensemble (orquesta típica) that is made out of minimum of two violins, piano, flute, double bass and minimum of two Bandoneon (which are a type of concertina accordion that are especially popular in Argentina, Uruguay, and Lithuania, also known as "tango accordion"). Originally developed by a German instrument dealer Heinrich Band (1821–1860), this instrument was originally brought to the Argentina by German and Italian emigrants and sailors in late 19th century.

At first, tango music was closely associated with the underclass, same as the tango dance, but this style of music quickly reached mainstream in Argentina and Uruguay , fueled by the expansion of the dance and arrival of new composers that captured the attention of the general population. The early expansion of tango music was helped a lot by the arrival of tango song La cumparsita" which was composed in 1916 in the Uruguay.

To this day, Tango music is an important part of the music of Argentina . Tango remains the most internationally known traditional music of this country, but its population also enjoys genres such as folk, pop, rock, classical music, electronic, Cumbia, Cuarteto, Fanfarria Latina, art music and “nueva canción” (folk-inspired music with socially-themed lyrics).

Tango Clothing

The tango dance routines are intimate, passionate and elegant, which has pushed the dancers to dress appropriately. Tango dancers purposelyaim to look their best, while also picking outfits that don’t restrict their movement. During the early decades of tango’s popularity, it was customary for women to wear long dresses. This fashion choice remained popular in tango community, although the arrival of shorter dresses and dresses with openings have given female dances freedom to pick their favorite fashion style. Modern tango dresses are very sensual - short, have asymmetrical hemlines, are adorned with intricate fringes and crochet decorations, and show cleavage. They can be made both from traditional and modern (lycra and stretch fabric) materials. As for footwear, women should almost exclusively use high heel tango dance shoes.

Men’s tango fashion is much more traditional, with straight-cut trousers, shirt, and a part of good dancing shoes. Many of the dancers also frequently wear accessories such as vests, hats, and suspenders.

People

Since its popularization, tango has managed to become a phenomenon that has influenced many spheres of life across the world, including sports (synchronized swimming, figure skating, gymnastics), festivals, healthy living, film, music, and more. Many people were responsible for raising awareness of this music and dance, including:

  • Composer and virtuoso of the bandoneón Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) who rearranged traditional tango with influences of jazz and classical music into a new style called “ nuevo tango.”
  • Carlos Gardel (1890-1935) - French-Argentine singer, composer, songwriter and actor, today regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of rango. His work became immortalized after he died in the plane crash at the age of 44.
  • Carlos Acuña (1915-1999) - Famous tango singer known for his incredible voice.
  • Néstor Fabián (1938- ) - Famous tango singer and actor in Argentina, best known for his songs and musical comedies.
  • Julio Sosa (1926-1964) - Regarded today as one of the most important tango singers from 1950s and 1960s Uruguay.
  • Olavi Virta (1915-1972) - Famous Finish singer known for over 600 tango songs. He is known as the “king of Finish tango”.
  • And many others