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About Argentine Tango


The Argentine Tango originated in the melting pot of cultures in the streets, bars and brothels of Buenos Aires in the 1860’s / late 19th Century when Buenos Aires was enjoying a period of growth and prosperity and a large number of immigrants were pouring into the city.

In this environment, the gaucho (Argentine cowboy) traditions of the pampas (Argentine countryside) mixed with the new influences of the immigrants and the street culture of the compadritos developed.

These compadritos were street-wise young men, given to displays of machismo and a propensity for violence and they gathered in the brothels and bars to strut, brag and dance.

At first they danced the Milonga, which itself had evolved from the Afro-Cuban Habanera and the European Polka. Then they incorporated the rhythmic patterns of the Candombé dance of the African community and, it is believed, some elements of the Mazurka, into what became the Argentine Tango.

The Tango possesses many of the characteristics of the environment from which it sprang. It is nostalgic, melancholic, proud, dramatic, passionate and sensual. It could be said to contain the lust of the lonely immigrant and the dispassionate sensuality of the prostitute. Another description of the Tango is that it is ‘a vertical expression of horizontal desire’.

The dance of the Tango is a tale of restrained passion, which will never reach its ultimate conclusion. Its power lies in the potential of the moment.


Pic - Final By Beatriz Cuello
Final By Beatriz Cuello

Argentine tango is danced in an embrace that can vary from a very open embrace, in which leader and follower connect at arms’ length, to a very closed embrace, in which the connection is chest-to-chest, or anywhere in between.

Argentine tango dancing relies heavily on improvisation. Dancing appropriately to the emotion and speed of the tango music is extremely important to dancing tango. A good dancer is one who transmits a feeling of the music to their partner.

Unlike the majority of social dance, Argentine tango is not a set step, but an improvised dance combining various elements in a spontaneous manner, as determined by the leader. To be able to improvise, the dancer needs to learn the lead and implementation of the different single elements of Tango, so they can be produced later when leading appropriately to the music and the space on the dancefloor.

The elements include caminar (walk), cruce (cross), ochos (figure-eight), giros (turns), contragiros (turns in the other direction), ganchos (leg hooks), boleos (leg flicks), paradas (stops), barridas (foot-sweeps), llevadas de pie (moving foot by foot), sacadas (displacements), cortes (cuts), and quebradas (breaks). Well-known and simple combinations are called figura básica (basic figures).

Argentine Tango is actually a family of three dances / rhythms.
- Argentine Tango itself, in 4/4 time
- Milonga, in a lively 2/4 time and...
- Vals, in 3/4 time.

(NB. Milonga is also the word used to refer to a dance hall)


Milonga is essentially tango, with the difference lying in the music, which has a lively, strongly accented beat, and an underlying ‘habanera’ rhythm. Movement is normally faster than Tango and pauses are not made. Milonga uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than those danced in the Tango, due to the faster rhythm.

Milonga can be danced as Milonga Lisa (Simple Milonga), in which the dancer steps on every beat of the music or Milonga con Traspié, in which the dancer introduces double-time steps (traspiés) in order to interpret the dynamics of the music.

Music for the Vals (Waltz) is in 3/4 time but is otherwise very similar to tango music. Tango dancers dance the Vals much like they do tango, except with a waltz rhythm that has one beat per measure (at beginner-level). This produces a relaxed, smooth flowing dancing style. Experienced dancers alternate the smooth one-beat-per-measure walk with some double-time steps.

The lighter flowing character of the Vals is different to the dramatic passion and sensuality which infuse the Tango.


Below are some excerpts from the excellent film ‘The Tango Lesson’ by Sally Potter which should give you a flavour of the Tango, Milonga and Vals.

Zum (Tango) from The Tango Lesson


Milonga De Mis Amores from The Tango Lesson



Amor Y Cielos (Vals) from The Tango Lesson



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