On a chilly night he walks by himself on a dark street, looking for the new milonga, or venue to dance tango. The gentleman is dressed in black loose pants, an ivory shirt, and a jacket. He carries a small black shoe bag with “2×4 Buenos Aires” printed on the outside. He knows the street name but not the exact address. In a passageway in the middle of an empty street, he hears the sharp notes of his favorite orchestra, Juan D’Arienzo. He follows them. He goes up a flight of stairs; blue and red lights illuminate the hallway. The music is suddenly much more powerful…the bandoneón picks up pace as he walks in. He enters the world of tango.
This experience becomes a weekly, or even daily routine for many tango aficionados across the world.
As with any artistic activity, tango gathers people together. Dick Hebdige argued that subcultures bring together like-minded individuals and allow them to develop a sense of identity. Subcultures frequently identify themselves by symbols, clothing, mannerism, argot, and activities. For instance, jazz musicians were first seen as a subculture in the US in the 1920s. In his book Outsiders, Howard S. Becker identifies ‘dance musicians’ in Chicago in the 1960s as an outsider culture, as they emphasized how they differ from non-musicians, or ‘squares’. As Louis Armstrong responded when asked what jazz is, “if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”
Argentine tango works in a similar way. Like jazz music, tango is identified by the customs and parameters accepted and created within the subculture, or the individuals dancing tango and living the milonguero lifestyle. Movements that are created in Argentine tango reflect the evolving social patterns (ex: dance floor space created shorter or longer steps). Groups of insiders, or dancers within a city or a community, influence the standards of dress, attitude, and the way tango is danced…the mecca being Buenos Aires, of course. The highest level of respect in the community is recognition by other practitioners. To be fully accepted into, or to be considered a part of this community, outsiders become insiders by understanding the improvisational qualities of the dance, the power of the music – that is the orchestras from the Golden Age (1930s-1950s), and most importantly by adopting a lifestyle that revolves around tango. Those who are transitioning from being outsiders to becoming insiders usually have little to no influence on the definition of the dance and culture.
Tango etiquette and culture is applied and enforced by generally accepted norms. For this reason, it takes time and experience to make the transition from a non-tango dancer to a milonguero. Dance shoes are one of the most important distinguishing feature of tango dancers. If you don’t spot Comme Il Faut, Greta Flora, Neotango, or 2×4 shoes on the dance floor, you know that there’s something missing. Dancing in a counterclockwise manner and following the structure of the music (sets or tandas are split up into three to four tangos) are also musts to be a tango insider. One of the most important mannerisms is the cabeceo, or the tilt of the head that determines acceptance of a dance. Once a man spots the woman he wants to share a tango with, he nods his head in the form of an invitation. If she accepts, she nods back, and they embrace on the dance floor.
Tango is not a dance, but a lifestyle, revolving around community, music, poetry, lyrics, dance, and emotion.