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Tango: Argentine, American, European - The Age-Old Debate... Resolved!

It seems as though the question arises every couple of months... "What is the difference between these 3 Tangos?" True to par, it recently arose in a social media forum in the form of a short article by a well-known aficionado, under the title, "Argentine Tango & American Tango Are Not the Same Dance". We have been asked to, once again, dispel the usual crappy diatribes about steps, patterns, hardened cowboy chaps, and smelly snobbish positions, and correct some misconceptions. Here, again, is a short study of:

  • The History of Tango

  • The Music of Tango

  • The Myths of Tango

  • Argentine, American, International... All the Same Dance. Kinda.


Firstly, let us agree that no two cultures of differing countries are the same. French, Spanish, American, Italian, Canadian, African cultures all vary in many ways and for equally as many reasons. There are even greater differences when one considers sub-cultures, such as in Spanish and the differences between South American Spanish, Mexican Spanish, and Spain Spanish to name a few. Languages, styles of dress, eating habits, music and dance all vary accordingly. Here in the US, as in most places, there are; city people, country people, Rhodes scholars, and others living "off the grid". However, given that we all live on the same planet, we are bound to experience a cross-over of cultural, societal, and/or ethnical norms from time to time. In the US, when the singer Bobby Darin sang "Beyond the Sea", a song (La Mer) made popular by French artist, Charles Trenet, the music remained but the lyrics were changed completely to suit an American audience. No-one cared. The Minuet and similar dances of the era gave birth and way to the Waltz, which at its origins was considered too wild because it varied the contemporary movements of the day, and was considered too risque because it required the dancers to hold each other in a closer manner than was customary. Today, no one cares; the many styles of Waltz are danced without question or criticism. Can we not in this same manner put to rest the completely absurd theory that if a tango (be it music or dance) is not from or the same as its origins (what/whenever that might truly be), then it is not a real tango?

Of course, it is! Simply because a tango didn't come from its original birthplace, or isn't in the same style as an original, or doesn't have the same message as a "Golden Era" lyric, does not make it any less a true tango. There is nothing wrong with evolution and cultural integration ; it is almost expected for civilizations to grow. I will acquiesce however, when something evolves in such a manner as to no longer resemble its original design at all, then it is equivocally fair to say that it is no longer said premise. Believe me, I have seen some tangos which fell unequivocally into this category.

"I think those who say that you can't tango if you are not Argentine are mistaken. Tango was an immigrant music... so it does not have a nationality. It's only passport is feeling." -- Carlos Gavito

Brief Histories - Argentina

As Buenos Aires grew in 1816, so did the Waltz. This was followed by the Polka, Mazurka, and Schottische.In the early 19th century, Spanish and Cuban rhythms (guajira Flamenca and Flamenco) appeared. The Habanera, a mixture of these rhythms, came from Havana, Cuba to Argentina via Andalusa, Spain. The Habaneran, Andalusan, and German/Austrian rhythms merged with Indian rhythms (3/8, 5/8, 6/8, 9/8), and became parts of the Argentine dance known as the "Milonga." Originally, Andalusan women would dance the Milonga as a solo dance. By the mid 1840s, because of the dance's popularity, the tempo was slowed and dance steps were added to it.

There are writings of the African-Argentines' contributions to, and influences on, the Milonga which they called Mondonga Tango. Supposedly, they danced separately and similarly to the Andalusians. 'Compaditos' who danced with them took this dance and 2 other African-Argentine rhythms and slave-dances, Candombe and Canyengue, to their Milonga's, and, inevitably, the styles changed. The were also slowly being integrated into the milongas of the tangos. Though some used the term "Spanish Tango", the African-Argentines simply called this new dance "Tango", circa 1860 or 1870. Contrary to the popular inclination to pair these solely with Buenos Aires, they are more rightly associated to both Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

Believe it or not, what the word "tango" means is still a mystery. It has been said to mean; 1) a "closed place" or "reserved ground", 2) the Portuguese words "tangere" (to touch) and/or "tangomau" (to touch the hand), 3) cities in Angola and Mali (Africa) named Tango, 4) [be a derivative of] "Shango", a Nigerian word for a God of Thunder, and, 5) the sound created by the tambor (drum), "tan-go!". Similarly, Milonga, in modern usage, may mean; 1) a song/rhythm, 2) a dance, 3) a dance party, and/or, 4) a club/dance hall.

Brief Histories - Europe and the U.S.

Tango had become associated with the lower socioeconomic societies in Argentina (BsAs), and was somewhat forbidden by the higher structures, governments, etc. Brought to Europe mostly by the traveling, younger generation of the more wealthy of Argentinean society, Tango, as a dance, arrived in Paris, France circa 1908. By 1913-1914, Tango had become very popular, and had spread to other European cities, such as; London, Berlin, and Rome, to name a few. The dance had reached the United States as well, and primarily in New York. Unlike in BsAs, the Tango in all of these cities was being embraced by the upper socioeconomic strata. This was both good and bad in that; on the one hand, it gave the music and dance a higher degree of respect and acceptance, but, on the other hand, the dance lost much of the closeness, movements, sensuousness, playfulness, and character which were considered to be of a 'lower class', but were so integrally fundamental to the dance itself.

Thankfully, there are written and filmed accounts of how Tango was danced in that era. Some accounts protesting against the overt sexuality displayed in early tango, by both Argentine and non-Argentine dancers, led to the dance being changed, or 'tamed' for respective audiences, removing a significant part of its original character. Thanks to researchers such as historian, Richard Powers and the "Early Buenos Aires Tango Project' (Library of Dance), we can study the early dance practically from its roots. Often looked at as farcical, Rudolph Valentino’s performance in the 1921 silent movie, ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, is not that unauthentic. After the initial integration of Tango from Argentina to Europe and the US around the early 19-teens, there was no further contribution to the music or dance from Argentina.

The photo shows " El Tango Argentino de Salón: Método de baile teórico y practico". It is written by Nicanor Lima in Buenos Aires, circa 1914-1916. making it, to date, the earliest known tango dance manual from Argentina. It contains detailed descriptions (50 figures; 125 variations, and 67 illustrations and diagrams).

In Europe, the English were primarily responsible for the codification of tango within their ballroom dances. The Germans contributed some as well, circa 1930. This has now become known as International (Ballroom) Tango. In the US, Arthur Murray, and Vernon and Irene Castle, were primarily responsible for the first 'Americanized' version of the tango. As in Europe, it was incorporated into a teaching curriculum with other ballroom dances. This 'syllabus', for teaching/learning dances, was developed largely by the Arthur Murray Dance Studios, and the style is only danced in the US. It is known worldwide as American (Ballroom) Tango. Tango remained largely a 'Ballroom' dance until the mid 1980s, when the staged show, "Tango Argentino" premiered in Europe and the US. This more contemporary style of the dance rebirthed it into the mainstream of Euro/Amer music and dance as it had once been in the Argentina and Europe of decades past.


Today, some Argentines and non-Argentinean 'Tango Snobs' will argue ad nauseam that unless one is dancing "what/how they dance in Buenos Aires, then you are not dancing real Tango"; or, "the American/International Tango is not real tango", and, my personal favorite, "Tango is the most difficult dance to learn; it will take a lifetime to become good at it." This is all, in a word, and as I digress from eloquence, BS.

In an early 1990s National Geographic interview with the famously beloved, Maria Nieves, Maestra Extraordinaire, she was asked what she thought of the "other forms of Tango". Without much breath or thought, she said, [paraphrased; The Argentine Tango is the authentic tango. The American Tango is a reasonable facsimile when it is done well; and, the European Tango is not tango at all.] Many in the latter two categories, superficially, took offense at her comments. However when one studies more profoundly, it is easier to understand what she meant, and she was not wrong.

When the early European and then American Tangos were adopted and then adapted into their respective cultures, they were fairly close copies of the original dance as it was danced in Buenos Aires. There was nowhere else to get the movements from. Of course, referring back to earlier in this reading, respective culture differences inevitably were integrated into the dance, and the varying 'styles' emerged. Yet, here is the 'Grand Debate' and the Big 'Rub'... fast forward to the Golden Era of Tango (1935 - 55), and into more modern times, and we learn that it was not the Europeans and the United Stateseans who changed the tango, it was the Argentines.

Oh! Stop hating this, and read on.

Firstly, it was the music.

The Tango began as a cheerfully celebratory type of music danced and played, as mentioned, by African-Argentines (Candombe and Canyengue styles), and in the lower economic and socio-stratas (slums). As Tango moved slowly from these areas to the Barrios, or working and middle class neighborhoods, 'Organitos', portable organs played mostly by Italian-Argentines, became quite popular. By the early 1900s, tango was moving from the outer rural areas to the downtown area, and "porteno" culture was changing. As in all cultures, this change was expressed in its music, the tango.

Tango music no longer only depicted "compadritos"; parties, celebrations, and bordellos. Better musicians developed better orchestras and better places to dance. Better lyricists came along and told different stories. Tango stories depicted our oldest and greatest desire and struggle, love. Interestingly, it was of all kinds of love; love of life and land, love of family, and, love from the "minas", women, and the usual struggles of everyday life, love, fidelity and infidelity. Sadly, because Buenos Aires had a great gender imbalance of well-meaning immigrants and seamen singularly seeking better lives, there was always more men than women. Solitude, loneliness, and sadness became huge topics within the tango culture. Thusly, from around 1917, the music, lyrics, and ultimately the dance of the tango changed from its original form and from what had been introduced to the Europeans and North Americans. The Tango went from a festive and lively party dance to the slower, more subdued, embracing, and often melancholy dance which we know of today. In what might seem to be a misnomer in many ways, this period of time will begin what is known as the Golden Age of Tango.

The Music Continued.

Referring back to the grand bailerina and maestra, Maria Nieves, the music is largely a part of what she meant when she referred to American Tango as being a reasonable facsimile and European Tango (International) being something else. In order to better understand, one must know the differences between 'beats', 'bars/measures', 'counts', and 'rhythms'. The first two are immutable; the latter two are discretionary... especially to the dancer.

The Argentine Tango is danced in 'counts' of 1s and 3s. The origins of the music, as noted, are in the Habenaras and related rhythms of the times. This is composed as:

Marcato & Sincopa: The 2 Basic Rhythms. The most basic

marcato in four virtually marks the beat. 1, 2, 3, 4. Síncopa is an off-beat pattern that includes a number of variations.

Yeites Perhaps the most elusive aspect of performing tango. Colloquially translated as “licks,” these extended techniques provide percussive effects to accentuate the rhythm.

Chan-Chan (chum chum): Ending of the tango. Note the usual ending 3 - 4 measures of most tangos... very distinctive.

This Rhythm 3 3 2 is very prevalent in tango still, and, when translated into counts for dancing, is said to be danced not as 3s and 2s, but 3s and 1s. What Ms. Nieves was referring to was that both, the Argentine and American tangos, are danced in this 1 and 3 pattern, whereas the International is danced in 2s. Her comment reflected that the dance did not follow the norms of the others. Tango is now often played in 2/4 4/4/ and 4/8. The familiar 'March' rhythm so prevalent in mainly non-Argentine music came in the 1940s. This was directly related to the Germanic influence on the music in war-time France and Europe. It is anomalous that this European, non-authentic form of Tango music maintained the 1s and 3s structure (ba-rump, ba-rump, ba-rump - bump - bump... 1, 1, 1-2-3) in its march, but not in its dance. It is also very enlightening to see the American Tango taught and danced more correctly, that is to see the American steps, danced to the marching style of music, but in the style of the Argentine.

Secondly, it is the Tango: The dance, itself.

Tango was a dance before it was the Tango. Dance is movement. No 2 persons move in the exact same ways because movement is affected by many things. One of the greatest injustices that we have done to the tango is to try to divide its movements into entities which we can better understand. Rather than to study movement, we created an impossible dance. We have taken one Tango, and created; Tango de Salon, Tango Apilado, Tango Liso, Villa Urquieza (VU), Tango Milonguero, Tango Orillero, Tango Nuevo, Tango Fantasia, Tango Escenario.....

OK! STOP! POINT TAKEN! Are you certain? If not, I could go on to name a few more.

In reality, this is no one people's fault. The Argentines, in the mid 1980s, found themselves in a slight conundrum. The world was going crazy over this 'newly discovered' Argentine dance; there was no-one to teach it save for the Argentines, and, they had nothing to teach. So it was that, in that time, many Argentines found themselves teaching workshop after workshop in the elusive art of walking. After all, that is the essence of this phenomenon. It is Not the most difficult dance on the planet. It is Not the pinnacle of every serious dancer. It does Not take a lifetime to master. It is Walking. Children in Argentina were doing it while trained adult dancers in Europe and the US were lamenting about how difficult it was, and boasting of their accomplishments when they attained a level that they perceived as some physical or metaphysical Utopia.

To be fair, there were/is degrees of difficulty to mastering the dance depending on one's purposes and/or desires of proficiency. Yet, this applies to most everything in life. There are proper and improper ways to do some things, as well as faux pas which should be avoided at all costs. Yet, this, too, is true of most everything in life. There are dance norms and techniques which should be applied simply because, though based on simply walking well, it is, in fact, dance. It is my contention that the true difficulties of the tango lie in the lack of proper movement, music, and dance education rather than some elusive, ethereal aspect of the dance.

The ever-mounting 'styles' of Tango seem to be more correctly attributable to man's inherent order needs rather than true variances of the dance. As children, we learn things in a more freed and less formalized matter. As we age, we tend to want to categorize, compartmentalize, and rate things according to a plethora of criteria. When an Argentine is asked what is the Milonguero style of Tango, they will answer that it is all tango danced by the milonguero (simply, one who spends time dancing social tango). Non-Argentines, however, had the need to deferentially label the 'style' of dance which is done socially from others, i.e. for performances. Further, in order to distinguish what we might have learned from what someone else might have learned, and to satisfy our seemingly obsessional needs to be right, we have created all and more of the aforementioned variants of the dance, with the exceptions of the obvious, i.e. for performances.

Referencing again the statement by Maria Nieves, when we look at many of the descriptions and diagrams in "El Tango Argentino de Salón: Método de baile teórico y practico", we are surprised to see that what are most often considered as "American Tango steps", are there. This would seem to support her theory that it is not the steps and patterns that are bad; it is in the way/s that they are being danced. The 'Ballroom' posturing and the 'marching' cadence are reasonable facsimiles, but not quite what the movement/dance calls for. When 'American Tango steps' are danced with an Argentine 'embrace' rather than 'frame', and within the typical Argentine rhythm structure (not the March), they all work perfectly well. Even some of the opened or apart steps and patterns dance nicely in this manner. Of course, when these are seen, they are only in Stage or Performance Tangos, and are never danced socially.

Even though the European (International) Tango is "...something else..." according to Ms. Nieves, it still has a few resemblances of the original Argentine dance. The very popular 'Head-Snap' of the Int'l is even found in the book,"The Fashionable Dancer's Casket" by Charles Durang (1796-1870), which was printed in 1857 .....


Part 1st...

The gentleman and lady at the beginning stand face to face, without taking hands, or holding by the waist.

1). Echappé with the right foot, and raise the left foot; the second time to the side, point it down. Spring on the right foot slowly, the three following times quicker. The lady does the same with the gentleman.

2). Give their right hands to each other and place their left on their sides. During these steps they look under and over their arms, which they move in graceful circles four times changing their hands and feet, and finish by Echappé levé bringing the foot into the third position. Three jetés well marked. They turn their faces from right to left, and from left to right.

The four measures which follow are different from the first, because the dancers turn, sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left. The gentleman holding the lady by the waist as in the tarantular."

Even the notion that Argentine Tango is void of syllabic steps and patterns, we have learned to be untrue. Steps and patterns are nothing more than repetitive movements. In dance, they are inevitable. Not only were there syllabicated steps and patterns for Argentine Tango, but 'How-To' books as well. The dance changed over the years to its more improvisational style which undoubtedly freed it to become what it is today. Similarly, concurrent arguments are forever present about Ballroom Dance suffering from the same issues. I have always found that the only thing wrong with Ballroom Dance is the way that it is taught, learned, and passed on. I have always asserted that if one learned Argentine Tango and applied its movement principles to Ballroom dancing, misconceptions and disbeliefs would quickly change.

In closing

Again, we understand Maestra Nieves' intent in her statements. The Argentine Tango was born, grew up, and changed inherent with all of the cultural norms of Argentina, and rightly exemplifies a life and culture not known to non-Argentines. Yet, this does not mean that other cultures cannot find themselves in the Tango, as well. The American (United States) Tango has maintained many of the movements and intent of the dance, but is lost in the way that it is perceived, taught, and ultimately learned; msucially, physically, and, structurally. The European (International) Tango is something else because; the playful, social, sensual structure is not emphasized, the cadence of 1s and 3s has been replaced by 2s, and, the movements and steps, albeit some in the forms of the originals, have been modified, codified, and displayed in a manner untypical of what the dance was. We understand this to be because the International style has become more of a competitive/performance style than a social dance; not that it isn't danced socially in many circles.

When we look at the history of Tango, the music, the migrations, and the inter-socializations, we see that they are not different dances at all; rather, 3 styles of the same dance. Dance is movement, and movement, like languages, is alive, fluid, and by its very definition, ever-changing. If 2 persons walk differently, no-one cares; yet, if 2 persons dance differently, then one must be wrong. This notion is absurd. If one learns to move properly, then one will more likely dance properly. In order to be a good Tango dancer, one must be a good dancer, which requires learning more than a few steps and patterns. One must learn:

body structure and mechanics - movement -

dynamics of time and space - music - rhythms -

partnering (not lead/follow, but how to understand and instill all of the aforementioned topics into your partner)

As coaches, we have heard, "Well, I don't want to know all of that; I just want to have fun!" We consider this equitable to, "Well, I don't want to know anything about a car or driving; I just want to go!" If one learns about cars and learns how to drive, then almost all cars seem to become, not different, but different versions of the same thing. And, so it is with Tango.

St Thomass and partner Shelle Hubbard

"First, there is music; a feeling, a moment, a reflection of a sensation, emotion ...memory. Then, there is the passion, not only to dance, but to share. Comes now the embrace; the most important part of the dance. The embrace is not a frame, or a hold, or a position. It is the moment that you share all of your inward intention with a partner. The embrace has defined the dance, before the first step has been made. Tango, now, is a silent communication between partners; an intimate connection of mind and body, and a unique conversation without words. He tells her of his inner-most desires, and she assures him that she understands with her movement. She tells him of her passion for the dance, and he acquiesces with lead. The dance is not the steps; it is the feeling of the movement in between. It is the movement and feeling that defines the dance, and the most beautiful, is the movement within the stillness. Tango is neither slow nor quick, hard nor soft, a step or a pattern. It is a welling of expression that is drawn from the inside - out... not a physical intervention from the outside - in. It is the most natural dance on the planet. One just has to close the eyes, and feel."

~ Percell Angel St Thomass

Bibliography & Reference

- "The Complete Book of Ballroom Dancing". Richard M. Stevenson, Joseph Iccarino ; Doubleday, New York (1980)

- "Tango: the Dance, the Song, the Story". Artemis Cooper, Maria Susana Azzi, Richard Martin), Simon Collier; Thames & Hudson, London. (1997)

- "The Fashionable Dancer's Casket or the Ball-Room Instructor - A New and Splendid Work on Dancing, Etiquette, Deportment and the Toilet". Charles Durang (1836) ; Pumona Press (2007)

- "The Meaning of Tango". Christine Dennison ; Portico Books, London (2007)

- "The Tango in the United States". Carlos G. Groppa ; MacFarland & Co.; Jefferson, North Carolina (2004)

- "Couple Dancing Begins in Europe". Christine Dennison

- ‘"El Tango Extranjero: The International Role in Creating a National Symbol". Diana Geribaldi: ; Duke University

- "Tango Dance Concepts: El Tango at a Glance" ; Eduardo Fernandez

- "The Tango Family Tree" ; Richard Powers

- "Tangomania in Europe and North America: Contemporary Music Project". ; Yu Ye

- "Tango Principles". ; Artem Maloratsky

- "Ballroom Tango" ; ’Wikipedia:

- "History of Argentine Tango" ; Wikipedia

Special Thanks:

- Rodolfo Dinzel, Dancer, Maestro, Coach, Choreographer, Author ; Notes from Private Coachings (circa late 1980s)

- Alberto Paz, Historian, Dancer, Maestro, Coach, Author ; Notes from Interview/Lecture (2001)

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