The movement of Argentine Tango
: An ethnography of improvisation and transnationalism

  • Federica Banfi

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Argentine tango is a global social dance genre. This dissertation is a multi-sited ethnography of how this dance moves, both on the dance floor and transnationally. Research was carried out using multiple methods as ethnographic and autoethnographic data were collected through observant participation, sensory ethnography and interviews. Fieldwork took place between July 2017 and July 2018, of which the first six months were spent in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the rest on multiple European tango festival locations.

Throughout this thesis I analyse and follow several tango journeys, starting from the learning journey of dancers to the transformative movement of old tango object into heritage. I approach these journeys through the lens of improvisation. The characteristics of improvisation in dance apply to everyday actions, career choices and transnational movements of my research participants. Just like choreographic choices in the moment form improvised dances, life choices form life stories between opportunities, constraints and unpredictable outcomes.

The first journey follows the serious leisure career of aspiring tango dancers. The sensoriality and the emotionality of the learning process of dancing is revealed through experiences of tango students and autoethnographic material. Tango is (re)produced in the process of producing tango dancers in various kinds of dance classes. I contribute to the debate around improvisation and creativity by analysing dancers’ creative process on the milonga dance floor. The dance emerges as a co-creation between dance partners making their choice of moves while finding opportunities among material, physical and socio-historical constraints. Improvisation in tango is an enskilled practice born out a mix of expected and unexpected elements, dancers taking risks and developing flexibility and perpetual readiness.

I then follow the trips of dancers into their professional careers. I devise a new analytical model to study creative labour, consisting of four dimensions: physical, emotional, aesthetic and organisational. A discussion on legitimacy sparks from the realisation that the route to professionalism in tango is not institutionalised. To understand the transnational movement of tango, I focus on the intersection between the festivalisation of tango and the mobility of professionals. From the case studies presented, it emerges that transnational movement of tango teachers is the result of the intersection between life histories and personal agency with opportunities and constraints. Investigating issues of authenticity and authority, I discuss the role of the world championship, the Mundial, in affirming Argentines as the rightful owners of tango and in creating a particular aesthetic that is globally revered. At the same time, tango professionals use this competition to promote themselves internationally and expand the horizons of their careers.
This thesis proposes a new theory of movement as improvisation. Its multiple dimensions (bodily, choreographic, social, economic, and geographical) emerge throughout my analysis. This thesis also contributes a new model to study creative labour, identifying four main facets: the emotional, the aesthetic, the organisational and the physical.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorMaruska Svasek (Supervisor) & Ioannis Tsioulakis (Supervisor)


  • movement
  • improvisation
  • dance
  • Argentine Tango
  • labour
  • enskilment

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