The question: “What are Orillero, Canyengue and Tango de Salon?” was one that people from many different countries began to ask, as they came to Buenos Aires looking for the truth about Tango. I asked that question along with them.
Orillero, Canyengue and Salon were terms often mentioned in books on the history of Tango. I asked many, many people, dancing many different styles from the Golden Age what Tango de Salon was, and all of them answered, “What I do,” no matter how different their styles. Indeed, I saw a very fine, and very famous, dancer, who had begun to dance in the 1940s, thrown into a great rage because a young dancer (not me, I’m glad to say!) had told him that he danced Tango Orillero, because he danced with figures, when he had spent his whole life dancing what he considered to be Tango de Salon.
Tango de Salon means literally “Tango for the ballroom” – not, of course, Ballroom Tango, as we think of it, but Tango suitable for respectable social dance halls, and seems to be the only way to describe all the various styles danced in the Golden Age, including the style on which the 1990s invention of Estilo Milonguero was based. Tango Orillero means “Tango from the outskirts of the city”. If there ever was a distinction between Tango from the outskirts and Tango suitable for ballrooms, it may well have been the distinction drawn by the author of the book on how to dance Tango published in Buenos Aires at the height of Tango mania, between the elegant Tango being danced in Paris and the dubious dance from the outskirts of the city. So it is possible that in the early part of the Twentieth Century there was a real distinction between Orillero and Salon, as the dances of the poor and of the rich.
By the Golden Age, however, the term Orillero seems not to have been in use to describe any style still being danced in Buenos Aires itself, and the real Tango had reclaimed the ballrooms and the dance halls, to be called Tango de Salon.
The word Canyengue is almost impossible to translate into English. It is a word from the slang of Buenos Aires that describes a quality that is indefinable, in the same way that if you have to ask what Swing is you don’t understand it. Canyengue describes a streetwise quality from the end of the Nineteenth Century, and originally meant lower class.
It may be that there was never any distinction between Canyengue and Orillero as Tango styles, but that they were different ways of describing the same thing – the dance done by the immigrants and the poor who were creating Tango in the earliest period, the lower class (cangyengue) people who lived at the edge of the city (in the orillas).
If this is the case then it was this one style of Tango – sometimes called “orillero” and sometimes called “canyengue” – which was the original way that Tango was danced. It was this style, with cortes and quebradas, which took Paris and the world by storm in the years before the First World War. (Certainly a step known as a “Corte” and its variants are fundamental to the sources we have which detail Tango steps from this period.)
In any case, by the early 1990s there was no one dancing in Buenos Aires who was old enough to have been dancing in the “Canyengue” period, or whose dance style was one that they themselves would have described as Canyengue. But many people, like me, were asking about it, and one dancer, Rodolfo Cieri, remembered some steps that his father had taught him when he was 7 years old. His father was a mature man, and so would have seen people dancing in the Canyengue way when he was young. Rodolfo and his wife Maria (who was several years younger than Rodolfo) started to do little demonstrations including those steps, genuinely trying to help satisfy people’s thirst for knowledge. The demonstrations were an instant hit, and people wanted to learn the steps they were doing, even though to begin with they were reluctant to teach them as they knew that they could only give a flavour of Rodolfo’s childhood memories of his father.
Rodolfo was a fabulous dancer, with a very individual way of dancing. The success of Rodolfo and Maria’s demonstrations of these Canyengue steps owed a great deal to the charm and personality of this delightful couple. But the memories of one man of some steps that his father showed him when he was 7 are not enough to resurrect a complete style, as they themselves would have agreed.
Another couple, Marta Anton and Luis Grondona, began teaching some steps very similar to the ones Rodolfo and Maria were doing at about the same time. Interviewed on the cable television station Solo Tango they explained how they had been playing around one evening and had come up with these steps, and had since started teaching them.
It is not surprising that the style inspired by Rodolfo and Maria and championed by Marta and Luis became very fashionable amongst young dancers looking for the authentic Tango in 1996. It was danced in a close hold similar to the one used in dominant style of the Tango Renaissance, but was more playful and choreographically inventive. So people took to it to spice up their dancing.
Oddly, the music most commonly used by people dancing this new style is music from the 1970s, although sometimes music from the early 1930s (the period dominated by singers when there was very little dancing taking place) is used. The style does not seem to sit so comfortably with recordings from the second decade of the Twentieth Century, when Tango had the 2/4 rhythm, usually referred to as Canyengue.
Undoubtedly this new style is very charming and attractive. However, the use of the name “Canyengue” for it may be slightly misleading, as people think that when they are doing it they are doing an authentic early Tango style. It would be nice if another word had been used to describe this charming new Tango style which emerged in the 1990s.
If we genuinely want to discover what the original Canyengue was like, there are a few sources available to us. My own studies have led me to examine a number of books published in the years running up to the start of the First World War – the period of the height of Tangomania across the world, and also the period of the music with the 2/4 beat. Many of these are clearly filled with the fantasies of the particular author, or with steps taken from other dances. However, one stands out from the others that I have seen.
This was a book published in 1914 called Secrets of the Tango and it is clear that the steps in it were recorded by an Argentine of good family, who had come to London to study engineering, but had found himself instead making a handsome living teaching and performing Tango. He claims to have learned Tango on his grandfather’s farm, but this is very unlikely. Presumably he did not want people to find out exactly what kind of place he had been visiting to practice his dancing!
The earnestness and seriousness with which he approaches his subject, and the apparently genuine and deep desire for people to learn the real Tango rather than steps made up in London or Paris, or imported from other dances, seem to me to make him either a fabulous liar, or the most genuine, authentic witness we will ever find for the early Tango danced in Buenos Aires to the music of the Guardia Vieja (the old guard, the term used for the great musicians of this period), and probably the only style that deserves the name Canyengue .