The Essence of Tango – Feelings or Steps?

19 03 2010

What is the essence of tango? What generates the passion that makes tango both seductive and addictive at the same time? Does the same motivation that gets us started in tango dancing continue to generate the emotion and excitement to sustain it?

One of the ongoing debates within American tango communities is a focus on feelings vs. a focus on steps. The discussion goes back to the introduction of tango in America. At the time, Americans were captivated by what they saw on stage, and wanted to learn that stage dance, to dance socially. Many tanqueras and tanqueros have come to understand tango social dancing as what was performed on stage, when in fact these same performers danced a very different style socially – and still do today.

Yet the trend persists. Social dancing for some as become synonymous with learning steps, steps to perform for others. Yet most traditional tango social dancing in the salons and barrios of Buenos Aires is a much more understated style that focuses on feelings generated by posture, embrace and musicality. That dance is commonly called ‘milonguero’ style, though it’s sometimes confused with ‘salon’ or other ‘close embrace’ variations. ’Millonguero’-style social dancers feel what stage dancers see. They’re inspired in their dance by their connection with their partner and how it feels to them, instead of how their performance looks to others.

Is there a natural growth or progression? Only time will tell for each person. As in in many types of artistic expression, the best artists may never feel like they have finally arrived. Instead their art continues to evolve through their own understanding, inspiration and interpretation.

Good tango dancers can only aspire to the pinnacle of tango; they never reach it. Some of the best dancers in the world feel like they’ve only just begun.” As recently stated by older and wise ‘milonguero’ who has been dancing tango in Buenos Aires most of his life, “After over 60 years of tango dancing, I think I’ve finally learned how to walk.” How humbling for those of us who have only danced a few years, while sometimes feeling that we have already learned how to walk.

As perhaps best stated by Daniel Trenner — one of the early pioneers in bringing ‘milongueoro’ style social dancing to North America:

“It took years to get past being fascinated with the steps, which were my first draw to the dance. The dancers who were doing less footwork were uninteresting to me and I just didn’t see them. Then, years of advice from the milongueros to feel the dance, not just learn steps, began to take effect. I started to notice the dancers for how they stood, embraced and felt the music. It isn’t like I didn’t know about these things before, I just didn’t see them… even though they were right in front of me.”

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