The Milonguero Style and Social Tango

Milonguero Style? Whats in a name?


Argentine milongueros, in my experience, are like the aged members of youth gangs from 40 years ago.

It’s easy to meet them and to encourage them to talk, unlike when they were younger and more secretive. They reflect selectively on their histories, like any older folks, first putting the best spin on their own individual roles, then on the roles of their family and friends, and finally on their neighborhood and gang related loyalties. Maybe some of them are telling the absolute truth, but we will never know. It is impossible for us to relate to such truths, because they really don’t exist anymore, having been made pale by their own stupidity, as well as by the violent history of Argentine politics. People were punished by death and exile for their social alliances.

Therefore the history of style in the tango dance is a convoluted one, charged with the zealousness of the few dancers left for “their own” “true” tangos.

These allegiances to tango music and dance style form the core of the tango politic. On its good side it is the basis for a dance that is individualistic, variable, and all encompassing. On its bad side it is a sordid history.

What is important to remember is that all of this history happened 40 or more years ago and that even those of us lucky enough to have had a full belly experience of the tango in Buenos Aires have at best only seen the shadows and heard the whisperings of fragments of the “truth”.

Part of the problem in identification and classification of style is that the dancers dancing today in Buenos Aires are for the most part crossing territories widely. In any given dance you see all kinds of neighborhood styles not only mixed up on the dance floor but mixing up all the time as these very dancers are influenced by each other in the present evolution of their dancing. (It is a mistake to think that these older dancers are not evolving, even now, their choices.) And that is why the use of descriptive terminology is constantly evolving and therefore confusing us.

In the old days only some dancers traveled far from their barrio/neighborhood.

No one had to. With seven or eight ballrooms in their vicinity, a constant rotation of good live music, and the family and “gang” connections that made them feel safe, both stylistically and physically (these were violent times so say they all). Dancers who dared to visit other neighborhoods often went looking for trouble, i.e. girls and fights. Ballrooms were run as clubs and each had stylistic rules, which were enforced, often ruthlessly.

It seems that even back in the golden days of the tango there were certain styles and their proponents which gained prominence. However even this assumption is a risk in a world with no written history where we depend solely on the survivors to tell us their subjective tales.

We do know that the city’s center had somewhat different codes than the neighborhoods. Here was where the most aggressive and dangerous, the rich and the extravagant, mixed with the professional theatre, music, and movie crowd. One could disappear and have adventures less likely to be reported on in the neighborhood, one could go seeking adventuresome partners (unchaperoned women, high rolling men). This was the “singles scene”.

In this spicy night life of the city center, the close embrace that we foreigners have been less familiar with until lately became popular. This helps to understand why it was frowned upon in the neighborhoods where elegance implied a paper thin separation of respect between gentleman and lady. Even so, it could be that there were neighborhoods where the close style was preferred.

Exhibition tango was first developed within the social vernacular.

For the most part it was danced as a kind of loose warfare between different neighborhood schools, at the social dances, in breaks between the social dancing. In the fifties, Juan Carlos Copes led the development of tango for stage dancing, which culminated in Tango Argentino and modern show dancing. With this development, the tango style branched again, and the show dancers quickly broadened and evolved their vocabularies creating even more stylistic diversity.

In the modern epoch, after the return of democracy, stylistic differences in social tango still loosely exist by geography. The best known style is from the north and west, based on the style originally developed in the Devoto neighborhood by Petroleos circle. More recently popular among younger students is the close embrace style, danced mostly downtown. And, while there are certainly other styles, these two styles dominate the Argentine social scene of today.

So finally we get to names.

This is not an easy subject, tango dance history being for the most part an oral one; there have been many names.

Canyengue, refers to the late twenties and thirties neighborhood styles. Dancers tell of how the canyengue died out and the forties social style tango took hold. Then tango actually had two divisions: Salon, the walking dance, and Orillero, the one with the turns. (Styles were also identifiable by orchestra allegiance). Also, some dancers were known best for their milongas. In the forties the word milonguero was not all that flattering, as it referred to one who was addicted to the night life, never worked, and was often begging for a loan.

However, in the modern epoch Salon and Milonguero have become more interchangeable in describing the more vaguely defined styles of a now older generation. They are now allied in being contrasted to the stage fantasy tangos, inside and out of Argentina, and foreign social dance forms.

Hence, dancers from each of these two major stylistic groups in Buenos Aires today refer to what they do at their most elegant, i.e. when walking the salon as opposed to showing off figures, as either Salon or Milonguero. It is a matter of oral history. What words you use to describe what depends on who you learned from first. But history marches on, and the meaning of these words seems to be diverging again.

The modern proponents of the style from the North West are all first or second generation followers of the early group led by Petroleo. This group includes the social dancers, Fino and Miguel Balmeceda(passed on), and Juan Bruno and Mingo Pugliese (living). The fantasy artists including Todaro and Virulazo (both passed away), many performers still working from the Copes generation and many important youngsters. They all seem to be most comfortable calling the root of what they do Salon Tango, although Lampazo, for example, still uses Milonguero to describe this style, while Juan Bruno continues to insist on dividing this style into Salon and Orillero styles.

Then along came Pedro Rusconi, “Tete” (the first proponent of the close embrace to arise to prominence as a teacher) and Susana Miller, who has coaxed several other milongueros of this style to teach with her. They all would be comfortable with salon as the label for their style, but most people in Buenos Aires are calling it milonguero style.

So, for the most part, the salon and orillero styles of Devoto have become combined into salon style tango. The closer embrace style, which went untaught for longer, has taken milonguero style tango by default.

Nobody yet is talking about the style of the south or of the neighborhoods ringing the capital, where the younger Argentines often go on their own spelunking expeditions. One thing that I am sure of is that these neighborhoods offer fertile ground for further explorations in Buenos Aires.

As for myself, while I have been attracted to all these distinct “styles” of tango as I’ve seen them danced in Buenos Aires, I have not yet formed personal preferences for any of them. I didn’t even start noticing close embrace, “Milonguero”, style until I’d been in Buenos Aires for a while. It took several 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 milonguero advice 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.

I awakened when I saw Tete dance.

I watched him for two years without ever being able to steal a single step or copy his style, but with great envy for his ability to express the tango feeling, sensuality and music. He could do this with his partner Maria, Mingo’s wife Ester, who is a mistress of the other style, and a plethora of young tango starlets.

Two years ago Tete began to teach, albeit with all the pedagogical glitches of a beginner teacher, and I finally had a chance to get into it. Here was a style that challenged from the inside out. If I couldn’t make heart-to-heart contact I couldn’t dance.

As I made my first breakthroughs I started to gain a much deeper understanding of what I call tango trance, that is the state in which one dances a set at the milonga in a timeless space. Becoming one with the music and my partner was no longer an abstract, intellectual concept to be related somehow to my footwork. The music in its simplest syncopation, came into focus as the basis for my connection with my partner.

After that experience in milonguero style my other tangos have also improved. My “salon tango” is ever richer as I learn to stand tall and make elegant my footwork and musicality. My “Orillero tango” keeps offering more and more complexity and variation as I improve my strength, agility, and concentration. It is also easier to try the vintage canyengue styles and, several distinctive versions of milonga. Most importantly, I am winning the sensual attention of the good dancers I partner.

While I think I’ve definitely gotten beneath the surface of tango style, I do not believe that I’ve exhausted the capacity of Buenos Aires to show me more. In fact, as I’ve said, I’m prepared to be constantly shown more that I didn’t know existed.