I recently returned to the fast-paced city of New York after ten months of living in languid, passionate Buenos Aires. Since I learned Argentine tango about 6 years ago in Buenos Aires, I always compare this unforgettable experience with dancing and teaching in other cities. A common phrase among Argentines is “Tango is a feeling that is danced.” This “feeling” is missing in tango outside of Argentina.
The embrace is one of the biggest differences between tango in Buenos Aires and New York. Culturally, Argentines are more daring and direct when they approach a woman and Americans are more timid. Argentines constantly make flirting gestures, looks and comments, whereas Americans are shyer, indirect and pragmatic. These cultural distinctions carry over into the tango embrace. For example, men in New York embrace in a very light, weak manner. It feels as if they are afraid to touch me, or they are careful not to hug me too tightly for fear of my reaction. An Argentine teacher once told me that when she was teaching tango in New York a man told her that he was afraid to embrace a woman too tightly for fear she would accuse him of sexual harassment. The American culture is colder so many women are cautious when getting close to just any man. This also causes distance in the tango embrace. Both leaders and followers need to relax to be able to find the true Argentine tango embrace. American embraces are distant, while an Argentine embrace makes you feel protected, close, held and secure. For those 3 minutes both the man and the woman seduce each other with the embrace. This is the true tango connection. This leads you into a state of bliss.
Instead of trying to find this blissful state by enjoying the connection with the other person and listening to the music, many tango dancers outside Argentina care only about learning the most complicated steps and thus lose sight of what real Argentine tango is. They would rather learn how to do a gancho (a kick between the legs) or a colgada (a step off axis), instead of tightly embracing a woman and walking elegantly while listening to the romantic music.
Another drastic difference between tango in Argentina and the rest of the world is the way dancers listen and dance to the music. A tango dancer living and dancing in Buenos Aires learns about the different orchestras and how to interpret the music. They do this by going out to milongas, watching the older milongueros dance, and chatting with them between dances. You begin to understand the difference between taking long steps when dancing to Osvaldo Pugliese or quicker steps, playing with the contratiempo in the music when dancing to Juan D’Arienzo. Milongueros tell stories about the musicians and their orchestras. Outside Argentina, since there are very few tango historians or older milongueros, many dancers don’t seem to recognize the difference between the orchestras and often don’t make a distinction between tango, milonga or vals.
Tango is much more than a dance. It is a feeling and it is embedded in the Argentine culture and identity. Thus, it is difficult to try and teach that feeling or that culture to people who have never been there and who have never experienced it. But maybe if we continue to try and disseminate elements from the Argentine culture to the rest of the world people will begin to understand the meaning of true Argentine tango.