Tango Like a Porteño

Tango rouses strong emotions. I can understand why. But often this spills out into areas which seem to me to be inappropriate. Perhaps sometimes it’s good to take a moment to think, and to remind ourselves what a precious thing tango is. Tango is about the music, about the songs, and about the dance. But most of all, to me, it is about a feeling.

A few weeks ago I was chatting to some people at a Sheffield milonga who had been to the recent Cafe de los Maestros concert. Afterwards many went on to a well-known London tango club. Apparently there was a slight altercation at one point when a tanda of ‘alt tango’ was being played (don’t know what the music was). It seems that an Argentine dancer present took exception to this and said to the DJ that if he played anything like that again he’d demand his money back and leave.

The guy I was talking to went on to say that of course if some people wanted this sort of thing that was fine, but there was a separate room for nuevo and alt music, although this had closed and the dancers from there had joined the main group. At this point the Argentine guy said to Andrew, “Look, there are three kinds of dancers: a few are dancing like porteños, most are dancing like Europeans, and some are just wrestling.”


Tango is a dance which originated in area around the estuary of the River Plate, but has since been given to the world. It is important to acknowledge and respect its roots. And to be grateful, too, that it has been given to us. Maybe we do need people who cry halt sometimes, and seek to return to basics, to tango as it was born and developed in its home. Maybe we also need people who push the boundaries from time to time.

Because tango is, at least potentially, an interpretative art form which relies on the dancers’ emotional/spiritual response to each other and to the music, ultimately we each dance our own tango. If it was a dance which was rigid and prescribed, these arguments would not arise. And it wouldn’t be tango.

Of course there must be ground rules, or structures we work within. That’s true of any art form. We may start by copying steps and sequences. We must learn and practice our technique until it becomes body knowledge; only then can we truly interpret and react to what we hear, and what we feel.

And that must be different for us all. Again, if it wasn’t; it wouldn’t be tango.

“To dance tango is to tell an emotional story.” And to be true to tango that emotion has to come from us and our understanding of (ourselves and) reaction to the music.

Like all of us who love tango, I have my ‘tango heroes’, people I love to watch dance. Because I can see, or feel, something happening when they dance which touches something in me. But I’m not going to be able to dance like them. Nor should I wish to.

I cannot dance exactly like a porteño. I wasn’t born in Buenos Aires; I haven’t become steeped in the culture. My journey is to find my own tango. And to learn from those who have found their tango.

I hold no particular brief for neotango, alt-tango, tango nuevo, or whatever term you may wish to use. (Although there seems confusion sometimes over the use of ‘tango nuevo’ as music or as a dance style…) Much electrotango I find repetitive and somewhat tedious; then some ‘golden age’ tangos don’t speak to me either. I’m quite happy to accept that that may well be a shortcoming in myself rather than the music. (And the term ‘golden age’ tends to suggest something that partly lost in its own history?)

Of course, these are just my opinions. I’d love to hear what tango means for other dancers. It helps develop my own understanding. But I don’t wish to be told what it should mean for me. Part of the pleasure I find in tango is continuing to discover that for myself.

What do you think?

~ by magickwords on Monday, 24 August 2009.

13 Responses to “Tango Like a Porteño”

  1. Well said, my distant friend!

    I cannot dance exactly like a porteño. I wasn’t born in Buenos Aires; I haven’t become steeped in the culture. My journey is to find my own tango. And to learn from those who have found their tango.

    This to me illustrates the frustration many tangueros put themselves through by trying to become a tango stereotype. The music and the dance have evolved into something people can’t accept sometimes.

    I, much like you, try to learn what I can from those who are happy with the tango they’ve developed. What I take from them will ultimately mean something different to me on my road to discovery.

    If you’d like to read more about how I discovered tango and what it means to me, you’re welcome to read How Tango Saved My Life.

    I enjoyed your thoughts,
    Pete | The Tango Notebook

  2. There is no excuse for bad Tango porteño

    It’s very surprising when people defend their inability to TANGO as I am doing my own tango. Ballroom dance would never say I am doing my own Ballroom dance, why in TANGO, Maybe people don’t understand TANGO, tango is interpretation of the music to well defined steps, the skills to interpreter the music varies from individual and level of skills. It’s not easy but with practice -which is lacking in the European tango scene – you will get to a decent level which is sufficient for any social tango. I am not talking about show tango, which is different from social tango.

    If I can quote Gavito “Tango is like going for an evening stroll with your love one, pace and step match each other”.

    A porteño is someone who has skills to interpreter tango music to steps, leads but follows, has skills to navigate the dance floor without bumping others. And you don’t have to be an Argentina to be a porteño.

    To summaries this take a look at the photo above. The man is wrestling with the girl with his hold. A porteño will lead his partner with his torso and then he follows all. He does not rush her or wrestle her. In Bs As, there is not excuse for bad tango why should we settle for anything less. Guys – Practice, practice and practice. Girls – Learn to say not to bad tango, they will love you for it.

    • Hi Jack, many thanks for taking the touble to comment. Much appreciated.

      Perhaps I haven’t made myself totally clear. Your definition of porteño is one I would accept fully. And seems to me to be the basic minimum for good tango. Certainly what I strive to do.

      What I would argue against is the arrogance I have occasionally come up against which seems to say that you cannot really dance tango properly unless you are from Argentina. Or, conversely, that you must learn more and more complex steps in order to progress.

      For me, tango isn’t about that. And I stress, for me. I’m not interested in multiple ganchos, show tango, and all that. I may enjoy watching it when it’s well done. But it’s not for me as a dancer.

      I consider myself a beginner. I started tango about three years ago. Can’t speak about the European scene in general, but I dance 2-3 times a week, as do most of my fellow dancers. Perhaps in Sheffield we’re lucky to be able to work with many teachers from Argentina, such as Mimi Santapa, Fernando Sanchez, Andres Cejas, and others. That may not make us good dancers, but I’d suggest it’s a pretty good basis.

      There are times, even, when you hesitate to mention who you have worked with. There’s always someone who will say, “But they don’t teach the real tango.” I am not arrogant enough to believe I cannot learn from any teacher. Even if it is only what feels like tango to me and what doesn’t.

      May I suggest that a major reason that people don’t say, “I’m doing my own ballroom dance,” is that, as you go on to say, tango is quite different from ballroom, in terms of depth of and potential for interpretation, and the level of emotional connection between leader/follower (Gavito: “I lead and I follow.”?) and the music. Surely, if that connection is truly there, then you must put something of yourself into it.

  3. The debates about ‘what is tango’ remind me of the debates about what is Zen.

    Zen masters used to ask “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
    Perhaps the answer is two portenos dancing tango…

    Yours in joy……….

  4. happy to express a view next time we teach or dance in Sheffield which, come to think of it, is tonight.

    regards Bill

  5. Few of us can ever aspire to dance like a porteño, but there are many of us who try. However when I hear this guy ranting about the music I have to agree with him. Why do DJs in this country and across Europe think it is clever to play music that they think we should be able to dance to. OK in theory you can dance to just about anything, but the point is I do not want to. I come to the milonga to dance Tango, if you want foxtrot or disco there are plenty of places to listen or dance to this.
    Call yourself a tango DJ, then play tango.

  6. A porteño is a person who was born in Buenos Aires. This doesn’t mean they automatically know how to dance tango.

    Tango originated first as music. The dance had to come later. I feel it is unfortunate that so many who enjoy the dance want to do their “tango” steps to other music. The result isn’t tango.

    Ballroom dancing has syllabi which everyone teaches and dances without any room for individuality. Tango doesn’t restrict us in that way. Dance what you feel in the music. Then you are creating and expressing your tango.

    • Precisely. (I didn’t explsin the term porteño as I’d assumed that anyone interested in tango would understand the meaning.) That’s my feeling about ballroom too, although to be fair I’ve never been to a ballroom class since school days.

      The freedom to express what the music speaks is what first attracted me to Argentine tango, and is what continues to feed my passion.

      Thank you for your comments.

    I love your blogs. Carry on with your good work.
    Have a look at
    New tango lyrics with translation every week!
    Un Abrazo

  8. Hola…just discovered your blog…I’ll add you to my blogroll…

    For me, tango, or what it represents for me, is best said by Dan Boccia [Anchorage, Alaska]…in defining the “tango trance”…

    “The state of being so completely immersed in the music, and so profoundly connected with your partner, that movement flows from within the partnership uninhibited by conscious thought.” [Dan Boccia]

    It’s about the feeling dancing tango in close embrace conveys to the dancers, the metaphysical connection. For me, only close embrace tango, danced to guardia vieja music, is the only way this feeling can be achieved.

    Nice blog, you’ve got a new reader…happy holidays…


  9. Also, if I may, I would like to share something from Malevito over at http://virtualapiz.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-crest-of-wave.html.

    He shared an anecdote from a conversation with tango friends, that tango is born of “love, hate, jealousy, joy, pain, humor” – ageless emotions…here is the last of his post, which seems apropos to your post…and elucidating for me…

    “So I suppose it would be foolhardy to be concerned about the welfare of tango in regards to the effects of popularity and mass commercialization, or to lament the apparent stagnation of the dance.

    Then again… writing this now just reminded me of something that a couple of friends of mine, truly traditional-minded milongueros, once said regarding innovation. I had once asked them about the dilemma of making tango relevant in a modern context, with modern influences, rather than merely being an exercise in nostalgia. Their response was that back then, people didn’t feel things differently than we do now. Love, hate, jealousy, joy, pain, humor… these things are ageless. People felt them the same a thousand years ago as they will a thousand years from now (assuming we’re still around that long). The tango came about as a response to and a reflection of these feelings, and in its classic form is a very successful concoction. So is it really so urgent to come up with new things all the time? As long as the feeling is true and well presented, that is what is most important. I think this is something I truly need to remember, lest I fall into the misguided allure for novelty, as it seems I may have when I began this post. And as for mediocrity and exploitation, there has always been bad tango, and distorted tango. Bad music, bad dancers. Probably a lot more bad than good. But there has always been good as well, and it’s the good we remember and which inspires us, the good which is the root from which we want to grow. And there is good tango now–a lot of good tango, indeed. This is something not to be taken for granted, as perhaps I have.”

  10. Just read your blog for the first time and wanted to comment. I first learned about the tango in a Hispanic music and globalization class. I cannot dance it at all, but I´ve come to love listening to the music. It expresses a deep passion and longing that I never felt in the classical European music I grew up on. I would love to learn to interpret it.

  11. […] rambled on enough, and doubtless left myself open to lots of comments and criticisms (as in my Tango Like a Porteño post some time ago). Please feel free to make them, either in person if you see me around, or […]

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