The Ascent of Tango

When tango emerged from the primeval mud of the corrales in Mataderos, it may have looked like this:


Salvador Garcia y Sonia Corolenco

Salvador Garcia y Sonia Corolenco
dancing the old style at Bohemia.


Of course, no one is sure, but the picture above is probably similar to the way many people danced tango when Petroleo came along in the 1920’s (some drawings, some old posed photographs, and maybe a few stylized choreographies in movies are about all there is to go by). But we can see a couple of things from the photo. First, the woman’s left arm is draped far over the man’s shoulders, and the couples are holding hands low and in front, near their hips. The most noticeable thing is that the couple faces more or less the same direction, the woman is held close against the man’s right hip, and both are looking down at the ground in front of them. Sometimes the couples danced with their foreheads touching. This canyengue style of dancing was somewhat restrictive, with both partners stepping rhythmically together to the old street music. The couples probably raised their feet when they stepped, stomped down flat-footed, and may have looked forward at the ground because they danced on rough surfaces like cobblestones, or even dirt.

The say Petroleo was an innovator, and his contribution may have been to open up the embrace, move the woman around in front of her partner, and add a whole level of complexity to the steps. The music was changing, and Petroleo’s dancing probably changed to keep up. In the following pictures, we can see that his style still contains some of the bent legged—head down posture of the old days, but the embrace is more open. Petroleo does a lot of complex things with his feet to follow the new music, and he also is able to use his arms to lead the woman into new and different ways of moving:


Salvador Garcia y Sonia Corolenco
The old way?

Petroleo still shows elements of the old style, but in the picture on the right, you can see
that he also begins to use a more open, face-to-face embrace.


I think that the pictures above show that Petroleo is developing a more modern tango. In the first picture he still has some of the old elements from the top picture—a bent forward, head down posture, with both couples facing more or less in the direction of travel. And, in fact, about half of his dancing in this clip looks very much like the “old style”: Petroleo places his partner over by his right hip, and dances forward with very quick foot movements. When he does this, his partner hangs on, and is often forced to sort of shuffle along sideways to keep up. But that’s only half the story. Look at the second and third pictures. They show the elements that are essential for the future: Petroleo and his partner are both embracing in the upper bodies, while Salvador, dancing the old style in the top picture, has his arm low across Sonia’s back, pulling her into his hip—an embrace that greatly restricts the movement of both partners. In the second and third pictures, not only does Petroleo embrace his partner higher up on the back, but she is in more in front of him. The partners face each other, with some distance separating them. This is important, because it allows both partners to walk and do figures that are impossible when they are joined at the hip in the more awkward side-to-side position. Both partner’s hips and legs are free to move in new and creative ways, and they can now express the more sophisticated music of the new orchestras.

Finally, look at the two pictures below. They show a hint of things to come—in the first picture Petroleo begins to stride out like a modern milonguero, and in the second pictures he and his partner are beginning to stand up and display the more upright posture of today’s tango. The mix in this clip is amazing! The partners go from a hunched style where the woman hangs on Petroleo’s hip and shuffles sideways as he dances, to the modern style with Petroleo striding out to the front, and his partner beginning to accompany him by taking the long reaching back steps that are characteristic of today’s milongueras. It is like watching as Petroleo actually changes the direction of tango.


Petroleo stands up and strides out… the beginnings of a more modern tango?