So what is the exact difference between Argentine Tango and Ballroom (International and American) style Tango? Or are they the same thing only with different names?

Most of us have seen film and TV scenes of couples dramatically dragging each other back and forth across the floor with a single rose clenched between their teeth, and may have been led to believe that this was all there is to tango. The reality is that not only is there more to tango dancing, but there are even distinct differences between the different styles of tango.

Ballroom tango is typically split into two categories; American style, which was the result of a mixed Argentine tango with other social dance steps, and was popularized by 1921 by film star Rudolph Valentino. The other style developed in England and quickly spread to other parts of Europe after being introduced in 1912. Infusing their own culture and style into what was once Argentine tango, the English then codified their interpretation of the dance for competitions and synchronous teaching in dance schools. This English version became known as International style, as it became the official standard for showcases and competitions worldwide. Whereas Argentine tango (from which everything else followed), began in Argentina in the late 19th Century during a period of major cultural and economic change. And even this traditional version has seen its own evolution over the decades.
Some key differences between these styles of dance are :

The Music
The music used for ballroom style has sharp, staccato rhythms, featuring accordion in place of the bandoneón, and also accented by heavier percussion. The tempo tends to stay around 120 beats per minute and doesn’t usually vary much. Whereas Argentine tango music has such variation that it is often divided into three categories: “Tango” which is broken into Tango Nuevo or Neo Tango: (a fairly recent trend of dancing tango to alternative, non-traditional music; Vals (Waltz): traditional music in 3/4 time; and Milonga: typically a faster rhythm danced in 2/4 time).

The Movement
Both International and American style tango have a fixed posture and embrace while Argentine tango has varied posture and a flexible embrace.
Leading with their heels, ballroom tango dancers walk parallel across the floor using smooth, sharp movements in a quick, quick, slow rhythm.
Defined patterns are used for choreography for comparative purposes in judging during competitions. While on the contrary, Argentine tango dancers lead with their toes or flat feet as they walk parallel or crosswalk across the floor in a variable rhythm with smooth, staccato flow.

The Embrace
With its open embrace, ballroom tango is synonymous with dramatic head turns and glances. The posture is balanced backwards with the head and shoulders leaning back and couples connecting at the pelvis. Whereas the more intimate Argentine version emphasizes so much of a forward lean that the couples foreheads or cheeks often touch and remain in close proximity throughout much of the dance, as they typically join at the chest in passionate movement across the floor.
Other significant differences are as follows:

Argentine Tango

Focus – Internal. Concentrating on the connection between the couple to structure the dance.

Head Turns – Functional without head snaps.

Elbows – Point Down.

Improvised – Yes. With such variation in musical and dance expression, improvisation is inevitable in this style.

Feet off Ground – Varies by style.

Syllabus – No.

Popularity – Argentina  and worldwide.

Argentine Tango performance


American Tango / International Tango

Focus – External. Emphasizing dramatic, crowd pleasing movements and facial expressions.

Head Turns – Stylized and Sharp with fast head snaps.

Elbows – Point Out.

Improvised – Somewhat, although in most cases no.

Feet off Ground – No.

Syllabus – Yes. This was used to standardize teaching in ballrooms and at competitions worldwide.

Popularity – US Ballroom / England and Europe Ballroom.

International ballroom tango competition

American ballroom tango competition