I am fortunate to be part of at least two vaguely subversive subcultures - argentine tango and social knitting. If I mention knitting, practically everyone will know what it is. "Tango," however, is ambiguous and needs to be explained.
I usually say that ballroom tango is to argentine tango as baseball is to cricket. There is a well-known historical relationship, and there are features that show you the common ancestry. But no-one who played either, or watched both, could ever confuse them for a moment. It occurred to me recently that an even better analogy might be the relationship between American Football and Rugby Union. American Football is carefully planned, episodic, and highly dramatised. Rugby Union should be fluid and continuous, and to get a good game, every single player must be able to improvise. But of course they have a very recent common ancestor, certainly within the 20th century.
There is no reason why a person can't play both games (either set) or do both dances at the social level, but anyone who does will tell you that although some of the skills are the same, most of them are different, and the general character of what you're doing diverges very much. The chances are that a person will prefer one or the other as a means of self-expression, depending on your environment, but also on your personality if you have the choice.
A very misleading feature is that both dances can occasionally be danced to the same music, although I think that would rarely give a satisfying result.
I'm going to show you a couple of short videos to explain. These are peformances, so the activity these people are engaged in is necessarily different from the kind of social dancing you'd do in the appropriate club; but in this context the difference won't put you on the wrong track. First, here is an attractive couple dancing a ballroom tango. I don't know who they are, but the video makes a good illustration.
Notice that their connection is at the hip or lower ribcage, and with the arms, and both maintain a very firm, consistent, outward-leaning frame, as though they were posing as a vase of flowers. The upper part of the frame doesn't alter unless it is opened entirely to do some kind of spin or dramatic accent. You can see that their hands stay in the same place. I think of this frame and posture as characteristic of all the dances known as "ballroom". Notice also that they're looking away from each other and their heads are far apart. Consequently, it makes sense to do accents and ornaments with the head, and this happens a lot. It makes the general character of the dance formal and dramatic, for people in evening clothes.
The music has a very strongly-marked regular beat, like a march.
Next, here is another attractive couple dancing an argentine tango. They are Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, quite well-known teachers in the USA.
Notice the completely different embrace. They look very nice, but nothing like a vase of flowers; the most obvious feature to the uninitiated would probably be how the eye is drawn irresistibly to her bottom by every move. That's because their connection is not at the hips but with the upper torso, near the shoulders; it can often be between the woman's left underarm and the man's right shoulder, although you don't really see that in this case. Both stand with their torsos fully upright, and the frame is not rigid, but fluid; see how they open out from 01:50 to 02:09, and then close again. While they open, she grasps his right upper arm so she still has a connection to his shoulders, which is where the lead is coming from, and he releases her with his right hand, then gathers her in again. They dance with their heads close together, often actually in contact (02:20-02:30), and her eyes are always within his frame. In this embrace it makes no sense whatsoever to do dramatic accents or ornaments with your head; it would break the frame completely; anything of that kind that's detectable to anyone but the couple themselves must happen between hips and ground (02:50 onwards, but also throughout). It would be rather pointless, and risky, for her to wear a long dress - although you will often see some truly spectacular shoes down there.
The music is also more fluid; it has the same quadruple beat, but the beat is not spelled out in the same way; it's there, and you can see it in their feet, but the melody and instrumentation wind around it like convolvulus.
There is actually quite a bit of variation in the embrace. Often you will see a more directly front-on embrace in which the follower will face over the leader's shoulder, but she will still be looking inwards rather than out, and it is very common and natural for the follower to close her eyes. You will also sometimes see a couple leaning quite sharply inwards, balancing against each other at the shoulder with their feet quite far apart. There is an in-between I do with some people in which our heads do not quite make contact, but I'm staring fixedly down his ear canal; that tends to happen with men who wear glasses, and it's the result of me slightly changing the angle of my embrace to avoid accidentally bending them or hurting myself on a corner.
Even if you are absolutely clueless and you have never danced anything, I think you will now be able to tell the difference, should you unexpectedly come upon a dance called Tango.
If you'd like to fit it on a small piece of paper, I suggest the following diagnostic tests, roughly in descending order of conclusivity:
- Are they making a vase of flowers, or a display cabinet for her bottom?
- Is there any fancy stuff happening above the neck, or is it all between hips and floor?
- Do her eyes point outwards or inwards?
- Do their heads come into contact at any time?
- Is every beat clearly sounded in the music, or am I expected to fill it in myself? (Not always conclusive - argentine tango is also danced to music that sounds a lot like clubbers' lounge - but often a good clue)
I don't think that will leave you in doubt.