We are going to go out on a limb here and say most of you have been to Spain, or studied Spanish at school. Obviously, some of you might have chosen Latin or maybe Mandarin? (glutton for punishment per-chance?)
And, as much as we’re sure you budding Argentines have the accent down, it probably won’t help very much with tango terminology unless you have heard these words before. It’s not the kind of thing Spanish teachers feel you’ll need to get by, ya see. It doesn’t matter that much, it only means we’re all in the same boat or ‘todos estamos en el mismo barco’, if you please?
Here’s a few to get you started:
Abrazo: the embrace, the essence of tango
The embrace is at the source of the connection between dance partners. It is also where all movements are initiated: movements at the torso level are what produce movements of the legs and the feet.
It is the only thing in tango that is not an adornment: the abrazo is always sincere and real.
Think of the abrazo as your best attribute. It’s what might make a partner fall in ‘tango love’ with you, not beauty, success, fancy shoes or a dress that reveals your perfect legs.
Be super flattered if your dance partner compliments your abrazo (promise, they are definitely not talking about your bra).
Cabeceo: an invitation to dance
‘Cabeceo’ refers to the traditional way men in Buenos Aires invite a partner on the dance floor. After making focused and precise eye contact, the man unmistakably nods at the woman. If the woman nods back, it means that she accepts the invitation. Otherwise, she will look away or ignore the man’s nod.
Ladies, recognise the cabeceo and know how to respond, or you could end up in a sticky pickle – like inadvertently accepting to dance with several partners at the same time! Don’t laugh, it happened to a friend of ours…
Cabeceo is part of the milonga etiquette. Although initially daunting for most foreigners, it actually is meant at saving everyone a whole lot of embarrassment.
In Buenos Aires, it is best to avoid men who walk from table to table. They usually are mediocre dancers who suspect the cabeceo will get them nowhere and try their luck by using a little bit of face-to-face pressure. They mainly target foreign women for their shyness to say no. By all means, stay clear if you can.
Caminata: walking in tandem
The way of walking specific to Argentine tango, which makes two people look like a unique being. Tango wouldn’t exist without the caminata ; it is at the core of the dance, what makes it so special, between all the steps and figures. At its utmost expression, it shows complete harmony and communion between two persons.
Cortina: A musical pause
A short piece of non tango music played between 2 tandas (see T) to signify that it is time to hit the road and return to our seat. You really don’t want to have to dance the next milonga tanda when you actually can’t dance milonga. A true ‘swallow me whole’, ‘kill me now’ moment. Ladies and gents, know your cortina for your own good!
Epoca de Oro: the Golden Age
The period from 1935-1952 when tango experienced extremely high popularity in Buenos Aires. This is the time when the many popular and influential orchestras, still heard now in milongas began and became famous.
During this age, a tango orchestra (called an Orquesta Típica) generally had about 10 musicians: a piano, a bass, 3 or 4 bandoneons (similar to accordions), 4 violins, sometimes a viola or a guitar, and often a singer.
Amongst these orchestras, were those of Juan D’Arienzo, called the ‘Rey del compás’ or ‘King of the beat’, Francisco Canaro, and Aníbal Troilo. The orchestras of Osvaldo Pugliese and Carlos di Sarli kick started their careers in the Golden Age and continued afterwards. Di Sarli had a lush, grandiose sound, and emphasized strings and piano over the bandoneon. Over time, Pugliese developed a complex, rich, and sometimes discordant sound. Music in the later part of the Golden Age was played for an audience and not intended for dancing.
Guardia Vieja: pre Golden Age tango music
Translated to the ‘old guard’, this refers to the type of orchestras popular in the late 1800’s to the early 1920’s, before the Golden Age of Tango. These orchestras were small compositions using portable instruments, usually flute, guitar and violin trios. The bandoneon was introduced at the end of the 19th century. The Trio Ciriaco Ortiz is one of our favourite orchestras from this era.
Lunfardo: Buenos Aires slang
Born in Buenos Aires, lunfardo is a wealth of words borrowed from various languages and dialects, used within a normally constructed Spanish sentence. It might sound like a different language to you, but it’s actually not.
Lunfardo is closely linked with the waves of Western European immigrants settling down in Buenos Aires in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s. Most of these Europeans couldn’t speak Standard Spanish (most of us, spoiled because we speak English, still can’t speak it now) and carried on speaking their mother tongue, be it French, Italian, local Italian or Spanish dialects. Other Lunfardo terms arrived from the Argentine countryside and a small number originated within Argentina’s native population.
Words from these languages and dialects came to be incorporated into the standard Spanish language, hence creating a very unique and colourful slang, absolutely unintelligible to Spanish speakers from other countries (kind of like Scots to Southerners)
Lunfardo is frequently found in tango lyrics, and is notable for its double-entendres with overtones of sex, drugs, and the criminal underworld.
Unless very proficient, it probably is best not to use lunfardo in Buenos Aires as you are sure to make a blunder and imply things your mother wouldn’t be proud of.
Milonga: tango music or venues
Can either refer to early tango music notable for its fast beat and syncopated rhythm, or the venues where people meet to dance tango.
Milonguero / milonguera: a tango enthusiast
A person who regularly frequents milongas, whose life revolves around tango and who embodies the philosophy of tango.
Pista: the dance floor
To be treated with utmost respect. Not to be crossed or messed with (like yapping to someone when everyone else has started dancing) without expecting dear consequences – like a lethal 9-cm woman’s heel if it is really your unlucky day. You have been warned!
Porteño / Porteña: a jolly local
An inhabitant of Buenos Aires, usually big-hearted, friendly, chatty and a proud.
A session to practice tango, generally shorter and less formal than a milonga.
Ronda: line of dance
The milonga etiquette is to dance counter-clockwise, using concentric lanes with the most advanced dancers on the outside and beginners at the centre. It’s quite simple really: the advanced dancers stay on the outside lane because they are expert at not letting themselves be manoeuvred or elbowed in by other dancers. It’s a good thing, because there, they can show off their skills to the audience. The more junior dancers can usually not manage to remain on the most exterior lane and end up on the inside, where there is less room, more proximity with other dancers and fewer opportunities to shine. Unfortunately that’s life, but everybody eventually makes it to the outside lane at some point!
The line of dance is at its finest in traditional milongas from Buenos Aires. If you’re ever there, check out Club sin Rumbo, Canning and Los Zucca, some of our favourites.
The line of dance is sometimes rather badly treated in milongas outside of Buenos Aires. Dancers overtake, flail in and out of their lanes and use stage tango moves that put their partners and other dancers at risk of being stabbed by a lethal 9-cm woman’s heel. Less than ideal.
Tanda: a set of songs
A set of songs played in milongas, usually 4 for tango music and 3 for vals or milonga music. Each tanda is composed of songs from the same orchestra, style or epoch.
Tanguero / Tanguera: a tango scholar
Someone who is deeply passionate about tango and its different facets: its origins, its history, the music, lyrics, etc. In Argentina most tangueros are scholars. A tanguero is not necessarily a milonguero and vice versa. One is addicted to tango on an intellectual level, the other to the dance itself.
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