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, fellowship, unity, harmony and beauty, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us into individuals, but tango unites us into a team, community and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, 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 affinity, altruism, cooperation, and accommodation. 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 distinguish 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 appearances, embraces, feelings, steps, techniques, lead/follow methods, and philosophies. (See Three Theories on Leading.) Any definition describing one dance automatically excludes the other. In fact, people who have only learned one dance are not able to dance the other dance without learning it. Instead of peddling performance tango to beginners, it's better to tell the truth, so students would know what they actually are getting into.

Social tango is a popular dance form catered to the tastes, needs and abilities of ordinary people. It is a spontaneous and improvisational dance, typically danced in close embrace with substantial physical contact, serving the need for affinity and intimacy between the two sexes. It is danced for personal pleasure in milongas under the guidance of the milonga codes. Although containing many aesthetic elements, its steps are uncomplicated, allowing dancers to concentrate on the inner aspects such as emotions, intimacy, comfort, and feelings. Dancing social tango is a deeply personal and soulful experience. What matters is how it feels and not how it looks. (See Highbrowism and Populism in Tango.)

Performance tango, on the other hand, is a highbrow dance form designed for stage performance. It is a theatrical rendition of tango, incorporating intricate steps and techniques that are beyond the scope of ordinary individuals but tailored for trained professionals with advanced skills. It is a choreographed and rehearsed dance, typically danced in an open dance hold to allow for expansive movement possibilities. Its steps are wide, fancy, often dangerous, and demanding ample space. Unlike social tango, performance tango is not aimed at providing an intimate, soulful, or personal experience; rather, it serves as a showcase for flashy figures and dazzling movements intended to impress and entertain the audience. It does not abide by the milonga codes and is unsuitable for crowded dance floors. Safety, comfort and user-friendliness are not its concern. What matters is how it looks and not how it feels.

I believe it's not in most students' interest to learn performance tango, especially before they have mastered social tango, because it's a waste of their time and money since very few of them will ever become stage performers, because without the foundation of social tango they cannot achieve high-level performances anyway, and because the bad habits acquired from learning performance tango, such as using arms and hands to lead and follow, the inability to use the torso to communicate, the focus on the look rather than feelings, the disregard of safety and comfort of others, and the difficult movements and dangerous footwork, not only hinder their own enjoyment of social tango, but also cause disturbance to others in the milongas.

For most students, social tango should be the focus of their learning, because their purpose is to dance in the milongas for pleasure and not on stage to entertain the autience, because they want a user-friendly dance suited to their abilities and not a difficult dance beyond their reach, because they want a dance that serves their need for affinity and intimacy, not a gaudy and uncomfortable dance to show off 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 the cause of many problems in our milongas. In Buenos Aires, the two dances are separated. Social tango is danced in the milongas. Performance tango is danced on stage. (See The Styles of Tango.) The professionals who dance performance tango on stage will dance social tango exclusively when they go to a milonga. 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.


  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.