Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

December 25, 2011

Social Tango and Performance Tango

The more I think about the challenges that tango is facing, the more I feel the need to draw a distinction between social tango and performance tango. People who promote performance tango often say, “Why draw a line? They are all tango. The tango is one.” But that is not true. Social tango and performance tango are different dances that serve different purposes. They are different in almost every aspects, including appearance, embrace, connection, feel, steps, techniques, lead/follow methods, and philosophies. (See How Tango Is Led.) Any definition describing one dance automatically excludes the other. In fact, people who only have learned one dance are not able to dance the other dance. Instead of palming performance tango off onto beginners, it is better to tell the truth, so beginners would know what they actually get into.

Social tango is a popular dance. It is a simple and user-friendly dance suited to the tastes, needs and abilities of the ordinary people. It is danced on a crowded dance floor for pleasure and not for show, and is administered by the milonga codes. It is an intimate dance typically danced in close embrace with considerable bodily contact to serve the need for affinity and intimacy between the two sexes. Improvised and feeling-oriented, it is danced in simple and compact steps so the dancers may concentrate on the emotions stirred by the music, the comfort and sensation of the embrace, the communication of feelings through the torso connection, and the harmony of movements in unison with the music. Dancing social tango is a soulful and personal experience. What matters is how it feels and not how it looks.

Performance tango, on the other hand, is a highbrow dance designed for show on stage. It is a dramatized version of tango involving difficult steps and techniques not suited to the ordinary people, but professionals with expert skills. It is a choreographed and movement-oriented dance, typically danced in an open embrace for broader movement possibilities. Its steps are wide, fancy, showy, and often dangerous and requiring a lot of space to do. It is not intended to be an intimate, soulful and personal experience, but a display of flashy figures and dazzling movements to impress and entertain an audience. It does not abide by the milonga codes and is not suited to a crowded dance floor. Safety, comfort and user-friendliness are not its concern. What matters is how it looks and not how it feels. (See Highbrowism and Populism in Tango.)

I believe it is not for the best interest of most people to learn performance tango, especially before they have mastered social tango, because it’s a waste of time and money as very few of them will ever become stage performers, and because without the foundation of social tango it is impossible for them to be good performers anyway. Worse still, the bad habits acquired from learning performance tango, such as using the arms and hands to lead and follow, the inability to use the torso to communicate, the focus on the look rather than the feelings, the disregard of the safety and comfort of others, and the difficult and dangerous footwork, not only hinder their own enjoyment of social tango, but also cause disturbance to others in the milonga.

For most people, social tango is what they should focus their energy on in their study of tango, because their purpose is to dance in the milongas for personal pleasure and not on stage to entertain others; because they want a simple and user-friendly dance suited to their ability, not a complicated and difficult dance beyond their reach; because they want an intimate, soulful and comfortable dance that serves their need for intimacy with another soul, not a gaudy and uncomfortable dance to show their ego; and because they want to be a good social dancer and lay a solid foundation before, if ever, they decide to learn performance.

In the US, social tango and performance tango are mixed, which is one cause of the many problems in our milongas. In Buenos Aires, the two dances are separated. Social tango (tango de salon) is danced in the milongas. Performance tango (tango fantasia) is danced on stage. (See The Styles of Tango.) The professionals who dance show tango on stage will dance social tango exclusively when they go to milongas. Those who teach social tango will say they teach social tango, and those who teach performance tango will say they teach performance tango. They don’t hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat. Separate competitions are organized for each dance. I believe that is how it should be elsewhere in the world as well.


  1. If only we could get tango teachers to understand this and stop giving social dancers their stage choreography which is useless in the milongas.

  2. Well said, Paul.

    "People who promote performance tango often say, “Why draw a line? They are all tango. The tango is one.” But that is not true."


    The better label for that side of the line is: commercial tango.

    Commercial tango dancing is the kind people are paid to do. It's work.

    Social tango dancing is the kind people pay to do. It's play.