Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Troublesome terminology

Tango has a vocabulary all its own. There are many extensive lists of tango terminology out there, and this is not meant to be one of them. This is a short list meant to clear up the meanings of a few of the most misunderstood terms in tango.

Argentine tango: It evolves on dance floors every day while remaining connected to its organic roots.

Argentine tango. Why do we specify "Argentine" tango and what other kinds of tango are there?

Tango originated in Rio de la Plata, the port cities of Argentina (Buenos Aires) and Uruguay (Montevideo), around the turn of the 20th century. From there tango grew and evolved and spread across the globe. Early on, it was picked up by the ballroom dancing communities in the U.S. and the U.K. who transformed the dance drastically, into something much more stylized, showy and regulated for competition. Ballroom tango uses different music, a very different embrace and posture, even different shoes and clothes.

To anyone who dances Argentine tango, what we dance is tango, just tango and the real tango. To us, the "tango" of ballroom dancing is really not tango at all, and we specify Argentine tango to differentiate what we do from both the Hollywood-created, rose-in-the-mouth caricature of tango many people envision and the exaggeratedly stylized tango of ballroom dancing, which is so far removed from its Argentine roots the two have nothing left in common but the name.

Somewhat ironically, Argentine tango has both evolved more and remained closer to its origins. In the 1920s the British and the Americans made major changes to tango to integrate it into their collection of competitive dances, but that tango has not evolved much since then, because it must follow a strict set of competition-friendly rules. Meanwhile, because Argentine tango is an improvised dance it evolves and grows every day on dance floors around the world, developing new moves and techniques and even branching into styles with different names (salon, milonguero, nuevo etc.) that all remain connected to the dance's organic roots and therefore remain Argentine tango.

I have to add that I cringe a little every time a student with a ballroom background tries to make comparisons between the two, and refers to ballroom tango as "regular" tango. To me, our tango is "regular" tango and that ballroom dance is something else entirely.

"Milonga" has two meanings. It is a place where tango is danced
but it is also a musical style and the dance that goes with it.

Milonga. It seems to refer to a bunch of different things. Is it a different kind of music? A different
dance? Or is it a type of event?

It is all of the above. Because the term "milonga" has a double meaning, it is initially a little confusing.

First, milonga is one of the trinity of musical genres that make up Argentine tango: tango, milonga and vals (waltz). Each musical style has a dancing style to go with it, but the basic elements for each dance are the same. The embrace, connection and technique do not change from one dance to another, but the musicality and feel of steps and movements will be different, and to some extent the choice of moves and sequences used will change.

Milonga music is in 2/4 time, while tango music can be in 2/4 or 4/4 and vals is in 3/4. Milonga has a very rhythmic, strongly accented beat, often contains an underlying "habanera" rhythm and is generally faster and more joyful than tango music.

Dancers avoid pausing, mostly stay in parallel system (see the cross vs. cross system below) and often use double-time steps, referred to as milonga "traspie." Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than many of those used in tango.

Second, milonga is the name given to any venue or event where people dance tango.

So you get all dressed up to go dancing at a milonga, where you will listen to and probably dance milonga as well as tango and vals.

The cross vs. cross system. Are they the same thing?

No, they are not.

"The cross" simply refers to the basic crossed position used most often by the follower, in which the left leg crosses in front of the right.

"Cross system" refers to the walking relationship between the two partners. When the leader walks in line with his partner, we call it "parallel system" – basically just the normal walking system with the partners walking in step with each other, but on opposite legs: leader's left to follower's right or vice-versa. In parallel system, each partner is the mirror image of the other. When one partner changes weight, it is called cross system. In cross system, the two partners are in fact stepping with the same leg – left to left or right to right. Ochos most often take place in cross system.

Leader and follower. So, the man leads and the woman follows. Pretty clear, right?

The words "leader" and "follower" may be politically correct, 
but they don't really describe what the roles are all about.
Of course, it is not that clear at all. There are two roles in a tango couple, one for each partner. In English we call them leader, for the role traditionally held by the man, and follower, traditionally the woman. Today we find non-traditional couples on most dance floors, so it is common to find women leading women, men leading men and women leading men. In the interest of inclusiveness and political correctness, in many communities there has been a push to stop using the terms "man" and "woman" altogether within the context of tango dancing roles and to always use the gender-neutral "leader" and "follower." In terms of acknowledging, accepting and encouraging role changes and freedom of choice, I fully understand this movement.

The problem is, "leader" and "follower" are pretty faulty descriptions of what the two roles are all about. They make it sound like the leader is the dominant partner and the follower is passive, even submissive. The terms are limiting and really do not describe what truly happens between the two partners. The much more complex process goes something like this: the "leader" invites the "follower" to execute a movement; the "follower" executes the movement he or she felt and the "leader" follows his or her partner through the completion of that movement – whether or not it was the movement he or she intended. And, of course, the true leader through all of this is the music.

It is a beautiful process when both partners are actively listening and actively dancing, allowing room for error, change, creativity and expression on both sides. It is a less beautiful process when the leader is overly controlling and gets impatient when his partner misinterprets his intention, and when the follower just rushes from step to step, constantly worried about whether she "got it right." Unfortunately, this is the image conveyed by the words "leader" and "follower" – and the attitude of many dancers.

Interestingly, the terms "leader" and "follower" are not really used in Spanish. When referring to the partners, most of the time Spanish-speaking teachers stick to "hombre" (man) and "mujer" (woman), which, while not gender-neutral, don't restrict the partners to one active and one passive role. When referring to the action of the man or leader they say "marcar," which means to mark or indicate, not lead. The woman or follower "acompaña" (accompanies) or "se deja llevar" (lets herself be led), which implies that it is her choice and has a less passive implication.

Words are often more limiting than what they aim to describe and this is true of all the words we have come up with to describe the tango roles. "Man" and "woman" limit the roles to specific genders while "leader" and "follower" limit the roles to specific attitudes. Neither really describes the circularity of the relationship and how both partners must listen to each other, take initiative, complete each other's actions and, ultimately, dance as one.

In any case it is generally accepted, and in my opinion absolutely true, that whatever their traditional or preferred role, the best dancers are those who know how to dance both. They are the ones who both lead and follow, express and listen, give and take – and therefore connect more completely to their partner.


  1. Great Blog Andrea! Thank you for your time and effort in offering excellent clarifying information that supports the broader and deeper understanding of the dance so loved, called the Argentine Tango.

    1. Thank YOU for your feedback, Klaus. I love to write and I love tango, so it is truly my pleasure!

  2. Great points, thanks you. Concerning the leader/follower dichotomy, certainly agree that they are two sides of the same coin, and also agree that in English at least this terminology has problematic connotations... I usually prefer to use the term "navigator" for the leader, as navigation is really the one and only responsibility of that role. And, I also like to repeat as often as I get the chance to, that the (good) leader is always following the follower ;-)

  3. Nice! It seems we are in total agreement. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!