The Roots of Tango

Are there distinct “styles” of tango that represent different barrios in Buenos Aires?  An old milonguero we know put it very simply.  He said, “There were some great dancers around town that everyone admired and followed” (he was talking about the well known ‘patrons’ of tango).  But, he said, “There were practicas everywhere, and whenever someone came up with something new, people practiced it, and it spread quickly”.  So my view is that there were always great dancers with their own styles, but these styles were picked up quickly by everyone else, and they didn’t remain isolated in a certain part of town for very long.  People are always experimenting, and new things constantly appear in the milongas.  Some are good, and some aren’t so good.  Occasionally, the way someone dances really catches on, and it affects things for many, many years to come—while other ways of dancing aren’t copied, and they probably just fade away.

So who has had the greatest influence on modern tango dancing?  Well, it’s not that hard to find information about the famous tango dancers of the past.  There are books and magazine stories, and a quick Internet search will bring up lots and lots of information.  But most of it is the same.  You’ll get names, and dates, and places, and some words about how great they danced and how famous they were.  But exactly how did they dance?  What did they do on the dance floor that may have influenced tango?  Because we have filmed so much in the milongas, and studied so much of the video, I have a good mental picture of most of the great current dancers... but seeing into the past to find the things that may have influenced the way milongueros dance today is much more difficult.  Lately, we have been trying to collect all of the old video we can find, put it together, and see what’s there. I decided to study it the same way I have studied over 100 of the modern milongueros: by digitalizing the film, and then using the computer to try to discover exactly what it is they do, and comparing one to the other.

This is a work in progress, and the video record I’ve been able to compile is very slim, but I’ve done the best I can, and I’ve come up with a theory. It appears to me right now that there are more or less 3 basic styles of tango from the past that are still identifiable today in the milongas.  And furthermore, it looks like each is represented by a single tango dancer!  Like the model A Ford or the ’57 Chevy that affected automobile design for generations to come, these three legendary dancers will continue to affect the way tango is danced far into the 21st century.  On the following pages, we’ll try to show what it is they did that was so influential—and how it is still being expressed by the best milongueros today.

The First Legend: “Petroleo

Carlos Estevez was born in Almagro, and he began dancing tango in the 1920s. His sobrenombre in the milongas was "Petroleo"—a strange nickname that means "petroleum" in English. At first I was told that it he was called Petroleo because he was smooth, like oil, when he danced. But in an interview shortly before his death, he said he got the name because he drank so much when he was a young man. The first thing you notice is that Petroleo’s feet were very, very fast. He often danced with his legs bent, and he also bent forward at the waist. At times he even danced up on his toes. Here is a series of photos that show Petroleo’s way of standing and moving:

Petroleo Petroleo


Now you might look at the above series of pictures and say, “What’s so great about this? It looks like an old guy dancing around with poor posture.” Well, these pictures don’t show Petroleo at his best, and like a lot of tango, it took me awhile to see what was going on. As I reviewed the video, and began to capture stills I notice that Petroleo was moving so fast, that it was very difficult to capture the foot positions I wanted. I’ve only noticed this in a few other dancers (El Gallego, for instance, who is lightening fast). I began to realize that Petroleo danced a very dynamic, moving tango. He dances with so much energy that sometimes he gets up on his toes, and he even jumps occasionally. This is a style of dancing that sacrifices everything to express the music. Posture and step become secondary to the intense musical feeling and movement. Petroleo is not dancing for the camera. He’s flying around the floor… for him the music is everything! And then it hit me! He’s like Tete—my first tango hero! Here are Petroleo and Tete side by side: 

Both Petroleo and Tete occasionally display the awkwardness of dancing on the edge.


Both accelerate forward with energy and charge across the floor.


Similar side steps.


Tete y Sylvia

And both get up on their toes.


Petroleo tangoTete y Sylvia tango

Sometimes you can actually see the bottoms of both of their shoes at the same
time—this is unusual for most milongueros!


But despite their similarities, you couldn’t really say Tete and Petroleo have the same style. Tete flows and accelerates more smoothly around the floor, with a lot of giros, while Petroleo (at least in this video) tends to dance in place and, rarely does giros . He relies more on very fast small steps to express his tango—but there are other dancers in the milongas today who show Petroleo’s influence.