I often get asked what are the differences between Argentine Tango and Finnish Tango. In this post, I write some reflections based on my experience of this 15 years dancing tango and 8 years living in Finland. It would be wonderful to engage in a debate or to receive feedback that can improve this piece: you are very welcome to comment below!
Argentine Tango and Finnish Tango: My perspective
My perspective is the one of an Argentine Tango dancer and instructor who has lived both in Argentina and Finland and taught Argentine Tango (and not Finnish tango) in Finland for the past 8 years. Why do I say this? As obvious as it sounds, my perspective is probably different from the perspective of a musician: I am a dancer and even though I am deeply interested in the music, I probably focus more on the aspects of the music that are more directly connected to the dance. It will also be different from the perspective of a Finnish Tango dancer, who will probably have a better understanding of the cultural aspects surrounding Finnish tango than me as well as the technicalities of the dance, whereas I will have a better understanding of the cultural underpinnings of Argentine Tango and its technical aspects.
Although, I have only been once to a “lavatanssi” (Finnish traditional dance parties where Finnish tango is danced) and danced there Finnish tango (as well as other Finnish traditional dances), I have watched Finnish tango dance in competitions as well as other events here, listened and talked about it in different occasions. And more importantly, I see the Finnish tango danced in the way that people who come from these background dance at my tango lessons.
Argentine Tango and Finnish Tango: a common past and a separate present
To explain the relationship between these two musics and dances, I like to use a metaphor: Finnish Tango is to Argentine Tango like that cousin who left to a far away country at a very early age. As time passes, that old cousin was raised, learned to speak, attended school, and grew up in that distant country. Even though there is a common past and common features, the cousin grew to be a completely different person: she has a foreign accent, dresses different, even holds up slightly different values, and doesn’t even like the same food!
So too, tango arrived to Finland around 100 years ago and developed in a completely different and separate way, receiving different influences, including different aesthetic changes that now make it look different from Argentine Tango. It is actually a different dance and music with a separate story and embedded in a different culture (see for instance: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18925633)
Argentine Tango and Finnish Tango: A few differences
Since I started to teach here in Finland, I began to observe differences in the way people moved. It was not until I actually went to a traditional Finnish dance that it all made sense: people where moving as if they were dancing traditional Finnish dances! So, just like when we learn languages we may have an accent, here I was observing a “movement accent” in the way people moved when they learned Argentine Tango (to be clear, this is not present in all people who start dancing Argentine Tango, but mostly among those who have been practicing lavatanssit for years). I think most of the differences in terms of movement actually come from the fact that there has been an important influence from european competitive dances (Ballroom dances) in Finnish tango.
The standing posture is different:
In Argentine Tango we try to use a more straight posture. We do not keep the knees completely bend or completely straight: sometimes they are bent sometimes they are straight and we are mostly moving from one position to the other. We also relax the hips a bit more in a natural way so that they are not completely blocked but not so much emphasised like in other latin dances, such as salsa. And we stand one in front of the other, feet facing each other as a standard position (from which we can move to 3 lines of dance). In general, one can say that all this has the function to let the weight go to the floor: Argentine tango is quite grounded.
In Finnish tango, instead, the knees are more flexed and the hips going a bit backwards like slightly sitting. Feet are often in different lines and there might be some thigh connection in the dance (which we don’t really use in Argentine Tango). The embrace also looks a bit more like the ballroom-style embrace, with a bit more of space in between the dancers and the elbows of the open side pointing diagonal back rather than towards the floor.
In my view, it is the standing posture which makes the dance to have a different “accent” that often reveals that the dancers come from a different dance background. The “Finnish-tango accent” has a different flavour that looks foreign to an experienced Argentine Tango dancer. However, when I visited a lavatanssit, I was mesmerised at how wonderfully beautiful the dance and this particular posture looked to that music: this is where this movement belonged and, in my mind, it fit there like the missing piece of a puzzle.
The cross system and the parallel system:
Argentine Tango has developed in a way that, sometime around the 40s (according to what I’ve heard from some maestros) the so-called “cross system” was introduced. This means that the dancers are not always standing in the same side leg which opens a lot of new possibilities in terms of movement. Today the cross system is a commonly used feature of the dance. And because the dance is highly improvisational, it means that the leader needs to be always aware of “where the four legs are” in order to understand what the possibilities are. The follower doesn’t need to correct the standing when she or he notices that the weights are in crossed legs, because it is completely possible that this was the intention of the leader.
In traditional Finnish tango the so-called “cross system” never was introduced, which makes sense given that this was something that developed after the tango arrived to Finland. Whenever I introduce the cross system to beginners - for instance, when teaching back ocho - one of the difficulties is to get followers to stop correcting their standing and change weight “automatically” when they feel that the weight of the partner is in the opposite-side leg.
The great difference: The music
If one listens to pre-war Finnish tango, one might notice that it is not so unlike Argentine Tango (take for instance this example of the tango “Sinua Kaipaava” - Missing you - from 1939). However, sometime after the war, drums were introduced to Finnish tango, which changes completely the feeling of the dance (take for instance this example of the famous Olavi Virta, “Muistojeni tango” - Tango of my memories - from 1964).
From here onwards, the differences reveal a different story. Finnish tango has been alive and healthy with a strong dance culture and also music that accompanies this development. Even thought it is said that it’s golden years were also the 40’s and 50’s. Since 1985, every year in Seinäjoki - a small city in the mid-west part of Finland - takes place the famous Tangomarkkinat, the oldest and biggest tango festival in the world (yes, in the world). With a singing and dancing competition, the event has also been broadcasted in television.
Argentine tango, instead, has suffered from some difficult periods that have taken it to the current time where it enjoys of international attention and it’s practiced widely around the world. While it’s golden years were the 40’s, towards the 60’s and 70’s the popularity of the dance decreased, affected by political situations, among other factors. During the 80’s there were few remaining nostalgics who still danced it, while at the same time there was a popular dance show in broadway which is often credited for its slow recovery and international popularity (here is an interesting documentary from 1993 by National Geographic about Argentine tango's decay).
Tango is so popular in Finland that when one talks about “tango” with no other precision, people will understand it to be Finnish tango. It is part of the Finnish culture just as much as Argentine tango is part of the Argentinian culture. I do believe that Argentine tango has historically been enjoyed by larger audiences in Europe (Finland included, of course!) and around the world, so that today Argentine tango is slowly becoming an international cultural product, much like jazz or salsa. On the other hand, Finnish tango has not have this international quality, which makes it much more “mysterious” to those from abroad who hear about it. In a strange way it also makes it very authentically Finnish.