The fall of the military junta in Argentina in 1983 began a spectacular Tango Renaissance in Buenos Aires. Friends of mine who were in Buenos Aires at that time tell me the atmosphere was extraordinary. Suddenly everyone wanted to move. It was as though a physical weight had been lifted from them. Yoga classes were full. Martial arts classes were full. Dance classes of all kinds were full. And suddenly people wanted to learn to dance Tango, the ultimate symbol of Argentina to the rest of the world, because suddenly it felt all right to be proud to be Argentine again.
The problem with the Tango was that there had never been beginners' Tango classes in the Golden Age, and there was no tradition of teaching Tango. The prácticas had gone. There were no Tango teachers in Buenos Aires. There was a vacuum that needed to be filled.
A dear friend of mine, and a wonderful dancer, told me a story about how he started to teach Tango. He was a student at university, and there was this girl... He wanted to find a way to get closer to her, and he saw a notice for a Tango class aimed at people training to be professional stage dancers, to prepare them to dance in shows. The turnout had been low, so they had opened the class up to other students. He suggested to the girl that they go to the class together, and she agreed. After the second class her schedule changed and she couldn't make it to the Tango class any more, so he suggested that he carry on going and then show her what they had learned afterwards.
After about three months of classes things were going well, and she suggested that as he was doing so well teaching her, perhaps they should start a class. She had some contacts in a local Arts Centre and got their class put into the programme. It happened that this was exactly at the moment that the junta fell and everyone suddenly wanted to move. They came to teach their first ever Tango class and there were 200 people there.
Everywhere in the world that Tango has begun since 1983 the story has been more or less the same. I taught my first Tango class in London when I had been dancing seriously for four months, not because I thought I knew everything, but because people asked me to teach, because I had taken as many classes with visiting teachers or by travelling myself to Europe as I could, and knew a little. Very few Tango scenes anywhere in the world were begun by experienced dancers.
Even in Buenos Aires, when the Tango Renaissance began, it was mostly young dancers who knew a little who were the first teachers. In 1983 many of the people who had been dancing in the Golden Age were not dancing, and those that were would still have been suspicious of strangers. After all, there had been a brief flirtation with democracy in the 1970s, but in the background the Dirty War was already beginning.
So the first people to start dancing again in Buenos Aires would probably never have danced with someone who had danced in the Golden Age. A friend of mine tells me that she went to milongas and sat and waited and went home and didn't dance for years before people began to believe that she might be able to dance and started to ask her. Another friend of mine went to Tango classes for almost two years, eventually becoming the teacher's assistant, before she decided to go to a milonga for the first time. She took one look at the people dancing and suddenly realised that what she had been doing for such a long time had nothing to do with Tango, and was something that her "teacher" had made up.
Gradually the people who had been dancing in the Golden Age, and who might not have danced for thirty years began to dance again. Some of them developed a passionate desire to pass on to the younger generation the dance that they loved.
One of the most important couples in the early years of the Tango Renaissance were Miguel and Nelly. Miguel tragically died at a relatively early age, before I had the chance to meet him, though I did meet and dance with Nelly. They organised their beginners' classes to be as close as possible to the traditional way of learning. Students were only allowed to dance with the teachers until they were considered to be ready, only doing the most basic steps.
A friend of mine tells me that she went to Miguel and Nelly's classes with her boyfriend of the time. After a few months he said to Miguel, "When are you going to teach us some steps?" Miguel said, "When you're ready. You're not ready." The boyfriend protested and picked up my friend to show some of the steps another teacher had already taught him. Miguel threw him out of the class.
Many of the most important professional dancers of the Tango Renaissance trained with Miguel and Nelly.
The early period of the Tango Renaissance was dominated by complex steps. There can be a tremendous excitement to doing complicated steps, especially if they are done with the technique used by those who learned Tango in the traditional way - native speakers of Tango, if you like. When done in this way, steps are part of the emotional connection that defines the essence of Tango. I began dancing when this fashion was still dominant in the new Tango scene. I always loved dancing with complicated movements, and still do. But even as a relative beginner I started to feel that some people in the new generation of dancers were dancing differently, and using steps to keep an emotional distance from their partners.
One of the most influential teachers of this period was Antonio Todaro, a brilliantly inventive dancer of the older generation. The intellectual challenge of the steps he created, and danced with the technique of the Golden Age, was a great inspiration to new dancers. He taught many of the professional stage dancers, and toured frequently in Europe. Todaro fell ill late in 1993, and passed away soon afterwards. It may be coincidence, but the fashion amongst young dancers in Buenos Aires, and then in the rest of the world, began to swing away from steps in 1994.
The next style to come into fashion was one based on the style of the geographical centre of Buenos Aires and the centre of the south of the city in the early 1950s. This is a style that is choreographically relatively simple, relying on the connection between the dancers, and their connection with the music. While it is possible to dance the other styles of the Golden Age with space between the dancers' bodies (although this was not done during the Golden Age), this style makes no sense if it is not done in a close hold.
The great attraction of this style is in the connection within the couple which is necessary to make it work, and which, when done well, is tremendously seductive.
One of the most prominent champions of this style, Susanna Miller, coined for it the term "Estilo Milonguero", milonguero style. The word milonguero, though it literally means someone who spends a lot of time in milongas, had come to be used to mean someone who had been a regular Tango dancer during the Golden Age, before the 1955 coup. While the choice of the term was obviously inspired by the desire to distinguish this style from the steps dominated style danced on stage, the unfortunate and unforeseeable consequence was that it set up the idea in people's minds that this was the only authentic social Tango style.
One of the saddest things I ever saw in Buenos Aires was a dear friend of mine who started dancing in 1945, in the style of the north of Buenos Aires, which is the most elegant and also the most difficult style of the Golden Age, on the point of tears - and elderly Argentine men do not cry in public - because a young dancer had said that he was not a milonguero because he danced with steps. He was being accused of lying about an important part of his whole identity, because this young dancer had misunderstood the term "Estilo Milonguero" and thought that this was the only true style.
The dancing of the people who were dancing in the Golden Age remained unchanged, and one could still go to milongas away from the centre of Buenos Aires and see people doing the most fabulously complicated steps in a truly authentic and completely social way. But by 1995 the style variously known as “close hold”, “short steps”, “Tango club” or “milonguero” had come to dominate the dancing of the people in Buenos Aires who were part of the Tango Renaissance.
The problem with this style, lovely as it is, is that it lacks the fascinating choreographic challenge of all the authentic styles of the Golden Age, apart from the style of the geographic centre and centre south in the early 1950s on which is was loosely based. The thing that makes this style exciting is the connection within the couple and the musicality of the dancers. Quite quickly I started to notice people finding ways of manipulating the close embrace in order to maintain an emotional distance from their partners. Most particularly I noticed people not dancing directly in front of each other, but with the follower away to the leader's right. This was certainly not my experience of dancing with people who had danced this style in the 1950s. They always were directly in front of me, as were almost all the dancers I danced with who had been dancing in the Golden Age, whatever the style.
So quite quickly people began to get bored with the version of this style from which the emotional connection had been removed, as they were not getting the emotional connection that made the style work, but were also not getting the chorographic challenge of the other styles.
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