Understanding Tango: Argentine vs Ballroom

Couple dance tango

Has the siren call of tango been tapping at your heart? Are you curious about the differences between Argentine and ballroom style? Do you wonder about the culture that breathes life into this passionate dance? 

Do you want to know what makes a tango a tango, and which style you should dance?

Well then promenade on through this article! We’ll dive into the roots of tango, how it started, how it evolved, and what tango looks like today. We’ll be answering all your burning questions about the differences between passionate Argentine and elegant ballroom tango. And we’ll even help you choose which tango is the perfect tango for you. 

Couples dance Argentine and ballroom tango outside

What Makes a Tango a Tango?

At its core, tango is a partner dance. It has two roles, a lead and a follow, both with important parts to play. 

You are welcomed and encouraged to learn either or both roles. But no matter which role you choose, partners must communicate and work together to create a tango.

Man and woman dance tango

Communication during a tango starts and ends with the physical connection between a lead and a follow. When the lead initiates a move that the follow executes, they’ve had a full conversation without ever saying a word. 

Another key mark of tango is the type of music that accompanies it. While tango can technically be danced to a wide variety of music, as long as it’s in 2/4 or 4/4 time (I’ve seen tango danced to Seven Nation Army more than once), there are traditional instruments and styles that usually accompany it.  

Tango music is typically created with the romance of guitar or the strains of the orquesta tipica, which include violins, flutes, and basses. But most iconic to tango is the mini accordion-like instrument the bandoneon. You might’ve never seen one but you’ll definitely recognize its sound:

Tango dance and tango music are heavily influenced by their origin story, which we’ll be getting into next. 

The Way to Tango’s Heart Is Through Argentina 

The roots of tango grew from nineteenth-century Argentina when the culture of former slaves, European immigrants, and Buenos Aires natives collided. It was a dance created by and for the poor, the misfits, and the outcasts of Buenos Aires society. Many years passed before tango was accepted and envied by the rich. 

Man plays tango with the bandoneon

Tango was a way for these underrepresented groups to thrive and enjoy life, even as they faced intense, often heartbreaking situations daily. It embodies passion for life and also has an incredible legacy of sensuality and beauty built into it. 

This style of dance was popular among lovers, but even at its start tango was a social dance. Impoverished areas of town were jam-packed with people, so gathering close to dance with neighbors, friends, lovers, or family was a way to revel in their culture and pass the time. 

In the early 20th century, the country’s growing wealth allowed richer Argentinians to send sons abroad, thereby spreading tango around the world. It wasn’t until tango was being danced in Europe and America that the elites of Argentina finally took notice and incorporated tango into their own upper-class circles. 

But once tango had found its global foothold, the Golden Age of Tango took the world by storm and created the many variations and styles we find in tango today. With the input of so many amazing dance teachers, Argentine and ballroom style tango both blossomed.

Yet appreciating the history of tango is key to learning the dance. Without the combination of Latin and African rhythms and the diverse peoples that poured into 19th century Argentina, tango would’ve never been possible. 

The Birth of Ballroom Style Tango

Tango developed throughout the 19th century in Argentina before exploding across the global stage in the early 20th century. It was the culture shock of Argentine tango meeting European ideals that birthed ballroom style tango.  

Couple dance ballroom tango in competition

Many Europeans were not as comfortable with the intimate embrace exhibited by Argentine tango, or the underlying sensuality of the dance. So they stretched the partners away from each other, making cheek to cheek contact impossible and creating the stiff ballroom frame. 

American vs International Style

Ballroom style tango has two variants: American and International style. Around the same time Argentine tango was brought to Europe, it was also brought to North America, and each culture made changes. 

American style tango had a friendlier social flair to it that made it easily accessible to aspiring dancers. This style is likely what you’d learn today if you took any beginner ballroom tango class in the U.S. 

International style tango is more rigid and precise than American style and is a favorite for ballroom competitions. The exactness of each movement makes it easier to judge, and it creates a very elegant traveling tango. 

The Big Differences You Need to Know

We’ve talked about what makes a tango a tango, and how Argentine and ballroom tango share roots, music, and history. But when you watch these two styles of dance, you might notice more differences than similarities. 

So let’s talk about some of the biggest differences you should know:

The Basics 

When we talk about partner dancing, we often speak in terms of basics and variations. Basics are the common ground footwork partners can start with and return to at any point in the dance. They’re the first steps we learn when taking on a new partner dance, and they’re what all variations spring from.  

When we look at Argentine tango, there can be some discussion about whether or not there is a ‘true basic’ to the dance. But what’s usually taught in beginning Argentine tango classes is an eight-step basic, which involves parallel as well as cross-body leads:

 

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This is in stark contrast to the much simpler ballroom tango basic, which involves five steps and is performed to the rhythm of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. The ballroom tango basic is also done completely in parallel, reducing the difficulty:

The Embrace

One of the biggest differences we see between Argentine and ballroom style tango is how the dancers are connected. 

Ballroom tango utilizes a ballroom frame, with heads and chests lifted, shoulders rolled back, and stiff upper arms (although this frame is often held much looser when social dancing).

Ballroom frame is the polar opposite of Argentine tango’s embrace, where it’s common for dancers’ cheeks and chests to touch. Keep in mind that this embrace can be adjusted to an individual dancer’s comfort levels and is simply part of the partnership.  

Couple in Argentine tango hold in dance class

It’s also important to note that as different as the connection points are for Argentine and ballroom tango, both dances are still led from the same place: the chest. 

The stiff upper arms don’t generate the lead for ballroom tango, the chest does. It’s the goal of keeping the frame in place against the movement that drives ballroom tango. With Argentine tango, you mostly bypass the arms and feel the chest lead from the chest connection instead. 

Cross-body vs Parallel Lead

Cross-body lead isn’t as technical a term as it sounds. It just means leading the follower across the leader’s body, instead of leading the follower parallel to the leader. 

Cross-body leads are very common in Argentine tango. These types of leads allow duos to perform variations and stylings that aren’t seen in parallel style tango. But parallel leads create the dynamic sweeping travel seen in ballroom style tango.   

Number of Songs Danced

Don’t make the same faux pas I did! When I first tried Argentine tango, I had only ever danced ballroom tango and swing. So it never occurred to me that you could be expected to dance more than one song in a row with a partner. 

It’s typical at ballroom and swing dance socials for partners to change every song. But this isn’t the case when doing Argentine tango.

When social dancing Argentine tango, you typically dance at least three songs in a row of the same style (called a tanda) with the same partner. After a set finishes, then it’s acceptable to dance with a different partner. 

Luckily, when I made the mistake of breaking the embrace with my partner after the first song, he politely let me know the etiquette around Argentine tango. He and I were already friends so my faux pas was taken with no hard feelings. 

But just keep this in mind if you’re regularly a social dancer in non-Argentine tango venues. It could be the difference between making a good impression or seeming insensitive. 

Feet of couple dancing Argentine tango

Other Styles of Tango 

Did you know Argentine and ballroom style tango aren’t the only types of tango? There are many variations of tango including: 

  • Uruguayan tango
  • Fantasia tango
  • Salon tango
  • Tango nuevo 
  • Tango apilado
  • Finnish tango

Each style of tango brings something unique to the dance floor whether it be the ‘A’ frame from apilado tango or the minor key undertones of Finnish tango. Since tango drew worldwide interest, many styles have developed to suit the desires of different dancers. 

Which One Should I Pick?

So which style of tango is the right style for you? I say, learn as many styles as interest you! But if you’re looking for just one new style to learn, let’s go over some of the reasons to pick Argentine versus some of the reasons to pick ballroom. 

Unsure woman deciding between ballroom tango and Argentine tango

Argentine Tango: Worldly, Intimate, Complex

Argentine tango is a great style to learn if you’re looking for a dance you can do around the world. As popular as ballroom style is in some parts of North America and Europe, Argentine tango has worldwide popularity, especially in Latin America. 

You’re unlikely to see ballroom tango being danced in the streets of Buenos Aires, but you’ll probably run into some Argentine tango. 

On top of its popularity, Argentine tango is an intimate dance that can bring feelings of deep connection between leads and follows. So it’s the perfect style if you’re looking for more connection with your fellow dancers, or perhaps just to learn a sensual dance you can do with your significant other. 

And if you like a challenge, Argentine tango will never disappoint. There will always be new, intricate variations you can grow your dance with. 

Ballroom Tango: Elegant, Beginner-friendly, Distanced

Ballroom style tango might draw you in if you enjoy the beautiful lifted lines of ballroom dancers. There is an elegance and steadiness to ballroom tango that is captivating.  

Ballroom style tango has the added benefit of being a bit more beginner-friendly right off the bat compared to Argentine style. The beginning steps are less complicated, and there isn’t any cross-body action to keep track of. Diving into ballroom tango is great if you don’t have any prior social dancing experience. 

Another piece of ballroom tango that can be welcoming to many is the greater distance between partners, as well as the traveling aspect of the dance. Some people can feel less awkward dancing with strangers when you’re not pressed cheek to cheek. And ballroom style has a lot of long sweeping movements that feel powerful and elegant when whirling around the floor. 

Get Out There and Tango!

We’ve talked the talk, now it’s time for you to walk the walk. If you finished this article, tango must intrigue you—which is all you need to get started.

Whether you take your first steps at home in the kitchen or venture out to a beginner lesson at your local social dance avenue, we wish you happy tango-ing.

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Miriam is a passionate social and competitive dancer turned freelance writer. She uses her background in health and wellness, her B.S. in kinesiology, and her experience in the dance world to create high-quality content for a variety of needs. Miriam’s greatest dreams involve professional dancing, traveling the world, and writing full-time. You can learn more about her and her services on her website: miriambarnes.com. Or you can connect with her on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter,  and Instagram.