On Style

2010 June 21
Café DE UNIE by tdietmut, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by  tdietmut

To do a dull thing with style–now that’s what I call art.

Charles Bukowski

Few topics stir as much emotion among tango people as that of styles… My style is better than yours, my teacher is stronger than yours, people dancing like this are like that…

Or equally frustrating, claiming that styles do not exist. We all dance tango, only the others don’t get it…

Some claim to be able to dance “all styles”, changing between them like putting on a different sweater. Which I find curious, as I have never seen it, even with the very best dancers. Adjusting to circumstances, yes. Changing style (in the case that they got any), no. I have seen some professional couples shift over time, but then we are talking about several years in transition, making gradual changes, which is an other matter entirely.

According to the webster dictionary, the word style has (at least) two relevant meanings for this discussion:

2 c : a particular manner or technique by which something is done, created, or performed <a unique style of horseback riding> <the classical style of dance>


5c : beauty, grace, or ease of manner or technique <an awkward moment she handled with style>

Complicating the matter in the discussion of tango is that we seem to think partly about the first meaning, partly about the second, thus adding to the confusion.

The tango is inherently a modern dance. (Which is why I always have trouble with people talking about traditional tango. There is no traditional tango.) For a fascinating account about the tension between the traditional and the modern (in a broad sense) ideal of individual style, read My name is red by Orhan Pamuk. Only on the surface is the conflict about a murder. Let’s hope the conflicts in Tango don’t end in murder, but Tango is a child of the modern movement, and the ideal of the tango dancer was always to find a unique, personal style.

Talking to the milongueros (the few that are still left) will give you conflicting information, and in general they are reluctant to admitting to dancing this style or that, or even acknowledge the existence of distinctive ‘styles’. They would say that they dance ‘tango’. This is hardly surprising, given that the ideal in tango has always been to find your own, unique style. Which is the proper context to interpret the statements  of Nito García in an interview with El Tangauta:

Does the Avellaneda style exist nowadays?

N: No, at times I taught a “milonga from Avellaneda”, but I called it like that because these are steps that I learned in Avellaneda. But I don’t believe that either the Avellaneda style or the Villa Urquiza style exist. I even doubt that the great creators of what they call today Villa Urquiza style ever lived in that neighborhood. How come the Villa Urquiza style appears now and did not appear before? When tango turns commercial, strange things begin to happen.

And what was that “milonga of Avellaneda” like?

N: In Avellaneda we danced more open, we did more turns, ganchos, kicks and steps in general because the space we had gave us the freedom to do so. As you moved away from the Centro (downtown), there was more space. The thing is that speaking about tango is very difficult, because it does not have a syllabus. Nobody can say, “this is tango and this is not” and even less say this is such style and that another one.

While probably nobody called it by that name at the time, it is fair to assume that people knew how people learning to dance in Avellaneda tended to dance, which was obviously different from how they danced in the centre, and again different from how they danced in the barrio of Urquiza. “El Turco” José stated that he went to Villa Urquiza in order to learn from “Milonguita”, for instance.

It is a widely recognized paradox of style in fashion that essentially everybody tries to express their individuality by the way they dress, but within a social group, people tend to dress more or less the same. At least as seen by an outsider. In doing that, they express individuality and belonging to a group at the same time. That the same could apply to dance should not be too stretch it too far.

Buenos Aires of the 1940s was very different from what it is today, and as they danced somehow differently in each barrio, they also danced  differently at different times (different space available, different floor quality out on the streets, in dance halls with wodden floor etc etc)

Still, people in some parts of the city danced more alike or different than others. People in the south (La Boca, San Telmo etc) danced differently from those in the centre, again differently from those in the north (Saavedra, Pueyrredon, Urquiza etc). New styles develop, others go out of fashion and some die out completely. Some styles are almost non-existent today, but were important in the development of the tango as we know it today, for instance orillero and canyengue.

Perhaps more important than geographic distinctions per se were people. Particularly good dancers in one part of town influenced the others.  “Milonguita” in Villa Urquiza is one example.  The barrios were more distinct communities at that time. You will hear stories about people dancing in the wrong neighbourhood getting into fights, but I suspect that had more to do with the locals wanting to keep the girls of their neighbourhood for themselves than fighting over dance styles. Maybe the way of dancing gave them away as outsiders, though. Interestingly, not all such disagreements were resolved by violence, there must have been some tradition of “battles”  or duels between dancers, one famous such dance duel was between “El Cachafaz” (José Ovidio Bianquet) and El Rengo Cotongo in 1915.

Some times people will complain that this or that ‘style’ is simply a brand used for marketing, be it Estilo Villa Urquiza, Milonguero, Estilo del Centro, Salón or whatever) An often cited newpaper article from the newspaperClarín [Spanish version] [English translation] I think it has contributed to establishing the widely acknowledged trichotomy so humorously caricatured in the amusing matrix on what the different style extremists say about each other, but it is hardly the entire picture.

Personally I always had problems with the term “Milonguero style”, not because I disapprove of that way of dancing, but rather that it suggests (probably intentionally) that it is something that it is not. (i.e. that it is somehow more authentic because this is/was how the milongueros dance/d). As we already determined, the milongueros all danced more or less differently, depending in particular on the barrio they went dancing. Almagro style, club style or confiteria style seems like more apropriate terms to me.

Sadly, on several occasions I saw men I respected, fabulous dancers, some of whom had been dancing since the early 1940s, profoundly hurt because members of the new generation of dancers had accused them of not being the real thing — not being real Tango dancers — because they did not dance in they style called ‘Estilo Milonguero’

Christine Denniston, The meaning of tango, p200

Making geographic makes more sense, I think, but one also have to take the time dimension into account. Nowadays most people move around, visit and take classes with different teachers and dance all over town, so it is more a matter of origins and tracing back the roots of what we are doing (or not doing).

I will return to the specifics of Villa Urquiza or perhaps more specificly to the style of  “Milonguita” and “El Turco” José in a later post, but calling everything originating in the northern barrios for Urquiza style is not clearing up much. There are, however several reasons why it probably happened that way. Some of the oldest milongas still running are located in Villa Urquiza (Sunderland & Sin Rumbo), the dancing originating there has been very influential (e.g. the giro was invented by Petróleo in the 40s) and several important milongueros were teaching there at the time when tango had its comeback in the early 1980s.

Some people are outraged of the ‘commercialization’ of tango and the ‘brands’ of different tango styles being promoted. I, on the other hand, would like to see someone promoting the tango of Avellaneda, Boedo, Parque Patricios etc. In a time when everybody’s favorite rant seems to be that ‘everybody dances the same’, that would enrich the tango world and keep the rich tradition alive and remind us of the tango’s roots.

Few if any dancers today dance any pure style, be it that of the 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s,  be it from Villa Urquiza, Almagro, Boedo, or Avellaneda. Most people have several teachers, from different parts of town with different philosophies.

Do I want to dance pure Villa Urquiza style? I am not even sure it makes sense to become a purist of one style or another… But that is not the same as saying that it is uninteresting to know how they danced in a particular neighbourhood at a certain time.  Do I want to learn from the great masters of the barrio or those who learned from them? Definitely. In fact, maybe learning about the styles of different milongueros would be the most fruitful approach to the matter of style and styles.

To conclude,  it would be a good idea to follow the advice of Oscar Wilde:

While one should always study the method of a great artist, one should never imitate his manner. The manner of an artist is essentially individual, the method of an artist is absolutely universal. The first is personality, which no one should copy; the second is perfection, which all should aim at.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 June 26

    Amazing post…… This pretty much sums up what I’ve been thinking of regarding all the different styles of tango. I couldn’t have put it better, especially the dimensional analogy of geographical location and historical background. Thanks for the brilliant insight!

  2. 2010 June 27

    Thanks, Jaimito, I think we need to get out of the trenches and have a more nuanced debate on style and styles. Glad you liked it 🙂

  3. 2010 June 28

    This is what Alito Candamil (81) said about styles in a recorded interview on February 22, 2010: A good dancer has mastered all the styles of tango — canyengue, orillero, fantasia and salon.

  4. 2010 June 29

    Excellent post Simba. This is how we have come to understand “style” (despite what might be thought from what we have written). Our issue has been with people who dance horribly (in general as well as with no concept or regard for the culture and codes), but they (or people referring to them) use “style” as an excuse. “Oh, they just have a different style.” Plus you know how we feel about people referring to Nuevo as a “style”…

    Your discussion of barrios and styles is what could still easily be seen in Buenos Aires when we were there. The way locals danced at Sunderland vs. Cachirulo (for example) definitely left us with a picture of what the styles of various barrios of Tango might have looked like back in the day.

  5. 2010 July 1

    @jantango: It’s not quite clear to me what your point is, that would leave us with very few good dancers, no? Or do you mean that it is easy to switch between styles?

    @MiM: Thanks, it is true that there are clear differenses between different places in Buenos Aires still, but I think the differences are a lot less pronounced than they used to be. So one has to add a little imagination and go a little outside the beaten track.

  6. 2010 July 2

    Very few good dancers or easy switching styles? I don’t know. It was Alito’s comment.

  7. 2010 August 12

    I think opinions will vary depending on who you talk to: student or teacher.

    If dancing all of the different variations of tango makes the dancing beautiful, or the lead remarkable, or the following fabulous then I have no issue. If, however, the dancing is a hot mess and they’re making a grand nuisance of themselves then I have an issue with their ‘style’ or lack of style from having a shit-mix of variations.

    Style has evolved but we still need to understand our roots which is what your article does in spades.

  8. 2010 September 14

    Thanks, Kirra

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