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.

February 19, 2012

Tango Is a Language (II)

Dancing tango is like having a conversation with someone. You tell her how you intend to move. She tells you how she agrees to follow. You adapt your lead to her follow. She accommodates her follow to your lead. The silent exchanges of information - intentions, feelings, interpretations, feedback and adjustments, etc., make it possible for the two to dance together as one unified body. Good dancing is the result of good communication.

In order to communicate, you need to speak the same language. If you speak a different language, or use self-invented words, or talk with an accent, it would be hard for others to understand. Not speaking the same language is a big problem in our tango. Different leaders often lead the same step differently. Different followers often follow the same lead differently. The leader complains that the follower does not follow properly. The follower complains that the lead is unclear. That happens often because people do not abide by the same standard.

Many students fail to understand the importance of standardization. They neglect the fundamentals, disregard the instructions and overlook the standards. Young people in particular tend to be fond of things that are unconventional and abnormal. They seek to dance in a way departing from the standard tango. Some teachers, too, like to teach self-invented and nonstandard steps unsuitable for social dancing. Using such steps on stage by the professionals is one thing - they dance only with a fixed partner and can choreograph and rehearse the steps before the show; dancing tango socially with randomly selected partners in the milonga is another thing, where unless dancers conform to the same rules and standards, there is no way for them to communicate and improvise in unison and harmony with each other. (See The Styles of Tango.)

YouTube also adds confusions to the already divided tango language. Students may think what they see online is the standard tango, but in fact that is performance and not the way most people dance tango in the milongas. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.) The tango that most people dance on the dance floor is the milonguero style danced in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango where the dance was created since the beginning of the last century, where it is still a grassroots dance today, and where tango lovers from all over the world come to dance tango with the locals in over two hundred milongas all over the city. No matter what tango language you speak at home, when you visit Buenos Aires you realize that their language is the tango language you must conform to. If social tango needs a standard language to remain a global dance, that must be the language of Buenos Aires

The history of some other languages may shed light on this. The Chinese language, for example, has historically developed into many dialects so different in pronunciation that people from different parts of China could hardly understand each other. For the past one hundred years, the Chinese tried to unify their language by conforming to a standard dialect. This is only partially accomplished in recent decades thanks to the spread of the television that uses Beijing dialect as the standard language (Mandarin). Many Chinese living in rural areas today still use local dialects unintelligible to outsiders. If you study Chinese you want to study Mandarin and not a local dialect. Likewise, if you learn tango you want to learn Argentine tango and not Finnish tango or American tango. If your purpose is to dance tango in the milongas you want to study social tango and not performance tango, and you want to learn the milonguero style danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires, not some self-invented and localized style danced only in a university campus in North America. Some university campuses in North America are pretty isolated. They rarely associate with other tango communities and seldom invite outside teachers in to teach. As a result, they developed their own tango dialect unfamiliar to tango dancers elsewhere. Similarly, foreigners visiting Buenos Aires often find themselves unable to dance with the locals because they dance differently from the locals. As tango gains worldwide popularity, the possibility that it is transformed into different dialects increases. If we are not careful, we may end up repeating the history of the Chinese language. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.)

Here is how the Argentinians dance tango in their milongas.


  1. Paul,
    Thank so much for this wonderful article. Your comparison to the Chinese language is very effectively illustrating the problem we have in Tango. I love it.

  2. Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed reading for you