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The Tangos -- Argentine, International, and American Styles

by Jack & Judy DeChenne

The name "Tango" includes many different ideas and feelings of very stylistic dancing. In Round Dancing, there is the International (English), the American, and the Argentine styles. The Argentine is truly the father of both the International and American styles but includes many movements and positions not found in the other styles. Though there are many different stories about the origin of Argentine tango, all of these identify that the Argentine style of tango was born in working-class neighborhoods and port areas of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century. It was an expression of the criminal sub-culture and working class who thought of it as much more than a dance. The Argentine music and dance is an expression of emotion, soul, and culture. With over 100 years of tango, these roots remain very strong.

All tangos use some of the same movements as other walking dances, such as foxtrot, paso doble, and quickstep, though often with differences in timing or execution. The walking action is done with virtually no rise and fall but does have the same passing-of-the-feet action found in other moderns. In the Argentine style of tango, walking should make you feel like a "great jungle cat." This is done by stepping forward onto the balls of the feet instead of the heels, as you do in other rhythms. Argentine has a small amount of rise and fall, unlike the other two types of tango, International and American. In Round Dancing, we use all three of the tango styles, but when you're working on aspects or actions of the Argentine style, try to keep this "jungle cat" image in mind. The best Argentine dancers value creativity and improvisation and have strong feelings about those who copy others' movements or patterns. In Round Dancing, the basic movements require correct footwork and execution, but we can use some of this creativity to personalize the actions.

As they did with many other dances, the Europeans (most notably the English) adopted the tango they found in South America and made it their own. A very powerful dance was the result, with big movements, dramatic gestures, and quick snaps of the head from one position to another. Unlike the Argentine, the International uses strong heel lead steps with all the rise and fall being absorbed by the legs and ankles. The correctness of basic patterns or movements is strongly emphasized and judged in competitions. Grouped together in competitive events with the smooth ballroom dances, the International tango incorporated many of the patterns and characteristics of waltz and foxtrot. But it still maintains a unique character, which sets it apart from all of the other ballroom dances.

The American tango also developed with strong influence from the Argentine tango. It however developed more as a social dance, which then worked its way in to competitions. The American tango also incorporated many of the patterns and characteristics of waltz and foxtrot, with the heel leads but also uses very little rise and fall like the International. Each of these styles have movements that are unique but share many others.

Among the strongest characteristics of any tango is the way the dancer moves and relates to his partner. No other type of dance connects two people more closely than the tango. Part of the reason is the consistently strong closed dance position used. With Argentine tango, this connection is both a physical and an emotional bond. Argentine styling requires keeping the upper body straight and shifting the weight onto the balls of the feet. This will bring you and your partner very tightly together, helping to meld you into a couple, while allowing occasional glances at your partner to express the emotion of the music. This emotion could be tenderness, passion, sadness, or any other emotion you feel from the music, even silliness, as Argentine tango does not have to be somber.

With Argentine tango, the ladies commonly place their left hand on their partner's upper shoulder with a very slight pressure against his shoulder. From this basic position any variety of movements may be executed. Many of these movements will cause an extension of the basic frame to positions that are well outside of boundaries used in other rhythms, including the International and American tangos. The different positions used in Argentine are completely necessary for comfortable execution of many of the movements or actions; they must be used when required. These positions vary from the basic closed or semi-closed, often called "dancing inside," to the more familiar sidecar or banjo that can be done very close or very loose, often called "dancing outside." They also include positions that are almost side by side, often called "dancing beside," though a very poor technique in other rhythms, they are essential for many actions in Argentine tango.

Many of the Argentine actions seem to have very difficult names to recognize, but with some basic definitions they can become very understandable. Though there are many actions or patterns used in Argentine tango, we feel the following movements are critical for getting the feel of the Argentine style.

The first of the common Argentine actions is the Basic or Argentine Basic. Although a fairly simple action, there are some things to remember when executing this movement. The basic figure may stay facing the same direction or rotate to the left a quarter and can start with either foot. This action requires a passing of the feet in a very Argentine or "jungle-cat-like" manner with the upper body rotating to the left to finish the action. This rotation leaves the lady in a crossed-feet position requiring the man to release her before moving backwards out of this move. The releasing is done with a small but sharp left-face rotation prior to the man stepping back for the next move. The lady may find that this release gives them an opportunity to add an "Adorno" or an adornment used between steps. In the Basic action, the Adorno is often a flicking back action of the released foot. A common timing used with the Basic is a slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. This is a common Argentine timing found in many moves.

A second common action found with the Argentine style is the Gancho or "hook." This action requires a "dancing beside" position to be executed comfortably. It is done by a slight lift of the whole leg off the floor and then rotating the heel to generate the hooking action and not by wrapping the free leg around the partner's supporting leg. The Gancho can be done moving forward or backward any number of times.

A third action often used in Round Dancing is called Ochos or "figure 8s." Ochos may be done by the lady, the man, or both and may be done either forward or backward. The term "Slow Ochos" refers to forward Ochos for the lady while the man remains in an extended position during the duration of two measures for each figure 8. Other types of Ochos include, but are not limited to, Back Ochos and Double Ochos. Again the position can vary for each move but always require extending beyond the normal position, allowing the move to become more comfortable.

There are other common Argentine tango actions, such as La Cobra, Grandes, Sentadas, and La Vids that we find in Round Dancing. These actions, and many more not so commonly found, use much of the same styling and feelings as the actions listed above.

In the American tango, we use many other tango actions. These include Tango Draws, Tango Closes, Outside Swivels, Cortes, Doble Cruz (or Double Cross), and other standard movements. As this style was started with the idea of social dancing, these actions can be done with a more standard modern closed position. One thing that is only found in American tango and isn't used in the other styles of tango is open work. Open work consists of side-by-side dancing that is independent of the partner. The footwork and routines are usually, but not always, the same for both partners. These movements are done in a shadow or a side-by-side position. In Round Dancing, we often mix tango styles, so American open work can be found in Argentine and International tangos. In Round Dancing, we mix figures from the different types of tango, and many of these movements can also be done with Argentine styling and possibly an "Adorno" or an adornment used between steps, such as a leg lift between movements.

In the International tango, many movements display the strong walking steps and quick head movements associated with this style. The close dance position used is one of the strongest of any modern position with the body having more right rotation locking the ladies into a tighter frame. One of the characteristics of this strong frame is the ladies placing her left arm behind the man's arm. This allows ladies to follow quick actions of body changes that are used in many movements, most notably in Head Flicks. Unlike the Argentine, this strong upper frame means that the partners never glance at each other but only have brief eye contact as the ladies change positions.

The first of the common International figures is the Promenade. This movement has many variations such as the Closed Promenade, Open Promenade, and the Back Open Promenade. The standard timing used with the Promenades is slow, quick, quick, slow. Changes to this basic can be found in Double Promenades in which the timing is changed to slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, slow.

The second of the common International figures is the Five Step and its related figure the Four Step. Even though both figures have four weight changes, the timing and execution are very different. Again, these actions display deliberate walking steps and quick changes of position.

A third family of actions found in the International tango are the Progressive Side Steps and Links. These may include brush and tap actions and head-flick position changes. There are many variations of these such as Progressive Links and Progressive Side Brush Tap. Linking actions are also used to go from promenade position to closed position and visa versa.

In addition, there are figures used in Round Dancing that are common to all three styles of tango, such as Reverse Turns, Contra Checks, Reverse Fallaway with Slip, Viennese Turns, and very many others. Many of these movements came from other modern rhythms and are done with changes in execution to maintain the tango styling. This includes heel turns being done with no rise by placing the free foot to the desired direction and bringing the other foot to it as the weight changes.

We can blend each of the styles and movement characteristics to achieve a personal style of dancing tango that is both comfortable and preferred. Movements of each style can be combined into a single flowing dance as the music dictates. The combination of styles, movements, and actions make the tango we find in Round Dancing a more personalized but still emotional rhythm. This allows the dancers a certain amount of freedom to express their own personal styling as they feel it in the music.

From clinic notes for a URDC Teachers Seminar, 2007 and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2014.


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