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The following are my answers to a questionnaire from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology of Palo Alto, made in 2011.

1. What qualities characterize a good Argentine tango leader during the dance? MS: Secure, precise, smooth, gentle, patient, adaptable, smart, elegant, musical, respectful, protective, spontaneous, unintentional, efficient and aware.

2. What qualities characterize a poor Argentine tango leader during the dance? MS: Insecure, imprecise, rough, impatient, rigid and single minded, silly, ignorant of the music, disrespectful, intentional, calculative and unaware.

3. What behaviors and attitudes are demonstrated by a good Argentine tango leader? MS: Asking to dance according to the etiquette, entering the floor acknowledging others, following the line of dance, listening to the music and knowing it well (knowing the song, the orchestra, the singer, the year of the recording, etc.), letting the dance just happen rather than trying moves and steps, not talking or chatting while dancing, talking nicely between songs, at the end of the tanda accompanying his partner back to her place, not insisting on a second tanda.

4. What behaviors and attitudes are demonstrated by a poor Argentine tango leader? MS: Asking to dance in an inappropriate way making the other person feel obliged, entering the dance floor at any time and place without acknowledging other dancers, not following the line of dance, not listening to music, not caring to learn about it, trying to do moves and steps, talking while dancing, being mean to his partner, correcting or teaching her, leaving his partner on the dance floor at the end of the tanda or insisting on another tanda.

5. What behaviors and attitudes are demonstrated by a good Argentine tango follower? MS: Listening to music, knowing it well, waiting for the lead but also dancing (not just following), being present in the moment like someone who takes a challenge, being patient.

6. What behaviors and attitudes are demonstrated by a poor Argentine tango follower? MS: Not caring about music, moving by herself without waiting for the lead or just plain following without any life in the moves, being absent minded (for example, thinking about the next leader she wants to dance with), impatient, asking you to dance or making you to feel obliged to dance with her.

7. What qualities characterize a good Argentine tango follower? MS: She really likes the music and knows it well, she is elegant, natural, and spontaneous.

8. What qualities characterize a poor Argentine tango follower? MS: Does not care about music, is exaggerated and calculative.

9. By what criteria do you judge a good dance? In other words, how do you know when you have experienced a good dance? MS: A good dance is when everything happens without any intention.

10. How do you know when you have had a bad dance? MS: I never had a bad dance. If it is not going to be good, I know it beforehand, so I pass.

11. As a teacher who has many opportunities to observe couples, what do you look for—or what do you see—in a good dance? MS: No intention.

12. What do you see in a bad dance? MS: The dancers try too hard.

Written by Marcelo Castelo and published in ArgenTango magazine #2.

Translated by Olga Matveeva

Throughout the years milonga organizers hear continuous complaints from women: “Tonight I danced very little”, “There are no men”, or “I am not asked to dance”.

The reality is, in general, in many milongas the quantity of women is larger than men. Adding that the men also take breaks between tandas to get a drink or perhaps smoke a cigarette, it lowers  the women’s possibility of getting a dance. However, women also wonder: what they contribute from their part to the fact that they dance less or more?

To help all those women here are some suggestions that, albeit obvious, are worth repeating, and, perhaps, would increase their possibility of dancing in the milonga.

1) Learn to look

It is known that in the traditional milonga the invitation is made by the man by means of cabeceo. So it is essential for the woman to learn to observe and notice these looks and gestures. Sometimes we see women in the beginning of the tanda getting distracted, not paying attention to the man’s signals, so the latter changes his mind and chooses to invite someone else. In other cases, for shyness or intimidation, women refuse to look directly at men, and end up sitting. Hence, stay alert under the men’s glances, especially at the beginning of each tanda.

2) Put on your best face

The milonga is a place where people want to relax, forget their everyday problems. For that reason, men will keep away from a woman with a sour facial expression. Your most attractive feature is your smile. Be in a happy mood, others will perceive it. A good moment to show your cheerful disposition would be a salsa break. In my personal opinion, this is the most important advice.

3) Care where you sit in the room

Often women keep asking to be seated in places that are far from being the best in order to get more dances. Being in the first row, closest to the dance floor is not always the best. When there are no men on the sides or in front within reasonable distance, women will have to wait till someone walks closer to their table. Once you got a seat, study the best angle to direct the glances at prospective partners.

4) Do not always expect the best

That one illustrates very well the paradox of the dancer: the better one learns to dance, the less possibilities occur to apply it, for the lack of suitable partners. It is inevitable one wishes to dance with somebody better than him/her, but if it were always the case, nobody would ever dance with anyone! Try to go to the milonga with no expectations beyond having some good time, and do not get super selective with the occasional partners. Also, dancing is not everything, lets not reject the opportunity to meet interesting people just because they do not fulfill our expectations as dancers.

5) Improve your dance level, take lessons

A recurrent saying among milongueros is that everyone believes to be a better dancer than he or she really is. It does not matter what you think about your dance level, it matters what your partners think. When one dances better, she gets invited more. Therefore, take lessons!

6) To be and to appear

Any woman who frequents the milongas cannot help but notice: when enters a well dressed man, wearing an elegant dark suit, impeccable shoes, he always attracts women’s attention. Same goes for women. Hence, if you go to a milonga where people don’t know you, the more you look the part, the better. Dressing with elegance, carrying yourself with poise, behaving like a milonguera will secure you a number of invitations to the dance floor. Of course, all that has to come with a decent level of dance.

7) Become a regular

If you jump a lot from one milonga to another, know that you always have to pay “the floor due” before people start recognizing you. Men tend to invite partners they know, otherwise they wait for someone else to ask a woman, so they can observe her dance level. Upon entering the milonga, give greetings to the men you had danced with in other places. Becoming a regular in a place is the most convenient way of securing dance invitations ( providing you paid attention to all the above mentioned advice).

“Cortinas” & “tandas”

“Cortinas” are small pieces of songs that separate different sets of tangos, milongas or valses (“tandas”). Each “tanda” contains four songs by the same orchestra. In this way, you know that after the “cortina” a new set, played by a different orchestra, is coming, usually a different rhythm and style than the set played right before. The “cortinas” are also a chance to change partner. The etiquette in Buenos Aires is to dance with the same partner until the end of the set. So, when the “cortina” starts to play you can say “Thank you” and go back to your table. The “cortina” makes clear that the set is over. You will have to wait for the next set to begin before to ask any other partner to dance. Once you and your partner get into the dance floor, you want to make sure what kind of rhythm (slow, fast) is being played, so please don’t start to dance right away! “Tandas” of Latin rhythms, Swing and Argentine Folklore are also played in Buenos Aires milongas.

“Cabeceo”: eye contact . Asking someone to dance

Facing the fact that to be rejected is always painful, the Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) developed the “eye contact” as the proper way to ask someone to dance. They just look at the person they want to dance with. This applies either for men or women. If the man wants to dance, he will let the woman know by a nod of head towards the dance floor. If she does not want to dance, she will deny with the head. If the woman wants to dance, she will answer back with a smile or an assenting sign with her head. After these subtle signs, he will go to her table (or where she is) and take her to the dance floor. If the other person does not want to dance (man or woman), when the “eye contact” occurs, he/she will look to a different direction. Another way to ask a woman to dance, and this one is maybe for the more braves, is to go to where she is at and introduce yourself (if you don’t know each other from before) and/or start a conversation. After exchanging some words, you can ask her if she would like to dance with you.
Tango is a SOCIAL dance. It is not a sport, so the milonga is a place not only to dance, but also to meet new people, chat with friends, etc. In Buenos Aires if a person come out of the blue and asks you to dance, it is considered a very aggressive attitude. It will be almost like saying: “I just want to dance with you and I don’t really care what you think about that”. There are many benefits of these “techniques”. One is that it takes in consideration the feelings of both partners, so when the dance finally happens, they both know they are where they want, which is the most important requirement to have a good dance. They are not dancing because they have to. Also, it is part of the ritual of tango which is a very intimate dance. I think that if you are learning to dance a foreign dance, like tango or any other, you have to try to understand the codes that come with it, because for sure you will find out they have some kind of sense.

Line of dance

The line of dance is not an Argentine invention; it did not begin with Argentine Tango. The line of dance was already in the European dances in fashion of that time (1800’s). The counter clockwise direction roots in ritual dances that proceed even the social dances that originated during the Renaissance. The Argentine Tango dancers just adopted it. In Argentine Tango the line of dance is an expression of the dance itself, understanding it as a way of walking. Also, it is the result of an agreement that shows the respect among the dancers on the dance floor.Seeing it from a practical point of view and making analogy: it is like traffic on the freeway, without the speed, but everyone is going in the same direction in your lane of traffic.

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On learning tango. Starting out in milongas.

by Olga Matveeva on Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In my opinion, starting Argentine Tango should not be different from entering any social community for the first time. Before traveling abroad, we try to find out about some specific local rules and customs that, if not observed, paid attention to, could put us in trouble. When we begin at a new job, we do not start by saying that things had been done wrong (even if it seems so at times), and by teaching everyone new ways. When we start socializing with any unfamiliar party, we listen, look around, pay attention, learn.

All teachers I have taken lessons from spoke about the rules, at least to certain extent. It might not be happening everywhere in every class people go to. I believe that instructor must speak about such matters as line of dance, navigation, social etiquette, in their classes. If your tango instructor never mentions that during lessons, then, perhaps, he or she is not qualified to teach tango, or does not intend to prepare the students to be social tango dancers. If your goal is to attend milongas, you better find another class. Behaving as an adequate member of the tango community right from the start is more important for your success than knowing fancy steps.

Unfortunately, some people who take up lessons, attend milongas, are not interested in a social aspect of tango. For them tango means putting on a vintage dress with sparkles or a fedora hat, and become a passionate, exotic night creature that in real life they are not. Of course there is nothing wrong in dressing up and having fun per se. The problems begin when they bump into (pun intended) those for whom milonga is not a Halloween party, but a place where they open up, look for genuine connections, a social ritual where the codes of behavior are not arbitrary. The rules of etiquette are in place for good reasons. They ensure that all the participants enjoy themselves in a safe environment, minimizing negative feelings and frustrations that may arise from social interactions in close quarters.

Understanding a culture, becoming part of it might be a fascinating journey, but it takes time and effort. Tango is a culture, and as such, should be approached with sensibility and respect.

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Argentine Tango is a dance originated in the poor neighborhoods of the largest cities in Argentina and Uruguay at the end of the XIX century. It represents the cultural mix of immigrants and the established population. In the 1800’s, Buenos Aires and Montevideo had a population of 25 % to more than 50 % of Africans each. They were servants of the most influential families of these cities and were more integrated to the life of these families and the society in general than the Africans of other societies like North America. “Tangos” were called the black people celebrations and places of meeting since the beginning of the XIX century. Is in these places where the dance known today as tango began the development of its choreography and music. Other African terms directly related to tango are “milonga” and “candombe”. “Milonga” is a Quimbanda expression that means “words” and referred originally to a kind of duel between two countryside singers called “payadores” that playing guitar will improvise verses of eight syllables with a structure type question/answer; while “candombe” is a Bantú word that referred originally to the rhythms and dances made by the Africans in their tango meetings and also to these meetings.

When they were given freedom (1853) they created several associations -kinds of   unions- to help themselves, and placed them mostly in the area of the   neighborhood of Montserrat. During   carnival, they used to go out on the streets with bright colored costumes and   big-feathered hats, dancing many hours to the monotonous rhythm of “candombe”—   the music they played at these events. Different associations competed for the   supremacy and this developed into bloody incidents in the streets. The   repetition of the violence forced the police to close many of those associations   in 1877. It was the end of black people’s carnival. The consequence of this was   the creation of several dance centers where they developed a kind of couple   dance called “tango” using the same choreographic elements they used before in   their candombes. But that tango was not an embraced couple dance. They danced it   separately.

Other influence in the origins of tango comes from a typical character of the Argentine Pampas: the   “gaucho”.The “gaucho” is the product of the mix between the first Spanish   arrived to the lands later called Argentina, and the natives. They were very   skillful in the techniques needed to survive in the countryside. They liked to   live far away from populated cities and towns, had not regular jobs,   occasionally get hired by the owners of the “estancias” (farms), and knew the   secrets of the knife fencing and horse riding. They had a strong morality of   independence and, if needed, faced the arbitrarily police. These “gauchos” had a   very important participation in the battles for the emancipation against the   Spanish Kingdom. They symbolized the ideals of autonomy, courage and justice   without arbitrariness.

After the Constitution of 1853 the ideas of modernity and progress start to   shape the new country. The “gaucho” did not fit in this project and began to   suffer a persecution. The lands where the gaucho used to wander were confiscated   and given to others. Having not other option they moved into the poor suburbs of   the city and got jobs as butchers, herdsmen, horse-breakers or cart drivers. Even though the gaucho goes under a metamorphosis, leaving the horse,   shortening his knife to hide it better because it was not allowed in the city,   changing his clothes and getting the new name of “compadre”; he still keeps the   same ideals of justice, independence and courage. His new neighbors start to   admire him and many times came to him looking for protection or advice. The   young men of these poor suburbs start to imitate the attitudes of the compadres   and soon got for themselves the name of “compadritos”. Although the gaucho, transformed in compadre, brought the “milonga” to the   slums, he did not dance. His inheritors, the compadritos, did dance. They took   the choreographies of other dances which had arrived from other places of the   world and were danced in the port of Buenos Aires and Montevideo such as polka, mazurka, waltz, and habanera; and danced   with them to the music of the milongas. Further more, they also incorporated   elements from the black people’s dances, from their “tangos”, most of the time   with racist sarcasm. This originated a way of dancing called either “tango” or   “milonga”. Although the gaucho, transformed in compadre, brought the “milonga” to the   slums, he did not dance. His inheritors, the compadritos, did dance. They took   the choreographies of other dances which had arrived from other places of the   world and were danced in the port of Buenos Aires and Montevideo such as polka, mazurka, waltz, and habanera; and danced   with them to the music of the milongas. Further more, they also incorporated   elements from the black people’s dances, from their “tangos”, most of the time   with racist sarcasm. This originated a way of dancing called either “tango” or   “milonga”. When these dances arrived to the port of Buenos Aires in the second half of XIX   century, the embrace technique was known as “dancing to the European fashion”.   The compadritos adopted this technique and incorporate it to the movements they   took from the African’s tangos. Until this moment, all the embraced dances were   of continuous movement, which means that one time the couple starts to move will   not stop until the end of the song. On the other hand, the African’s tangos, as   well as the other not embraced dances, used “figures”, which means that one or   both partners will suddenly stop and take a position called figure. In order to put together these two different ways of dancing – the embrace and   the figures – the compadritos had to go further into the embrace technique and   create the “close embrace” technique. Before the tango, there was space   in-between the partners in all the embraced dances. With tango there are not   space in-between partners anymore. Tango incorporated the close embrace technique that allows the “figures” in the   embraced dance: one partner will stop while the other keeps moving or both will   suddenly stop for a while and restart the movement a few beats later. The   close embrace was enough for tango to be disapproved by the serious society. In   addition, the compadritos liked to play with the scandal and with a mocking and   unconcerned attitude making provocative movements in the dance for the amusement   of some and the shock of the others. The 1853’s   Constitution opens Argentina to the immigration. Millions of immigrants,   mainly Italians and Spanish, arrived to the country and changed it radically.   Tango was influenced by the immigration too. Its rhythm slowed down and its   melodies acquired a nostalgic flavor in contrast with its original joking   attitude. Its choreography also changed, leaving its provocative character and   tidying up its figures. A novel instrument was incorporated to the tango music,   the bandoneon, created in   Germany, which fits perfectly with the new shape of tango. Soon, the bandoneon   became the icon of tango music. All this will prepare tango for its acceptance in the Europeans ballrooms.   The 1913 was the year of its highest popularity in Paris. This made it return to   Argentina, its natural country, from the “big door”. Rejected before by the high   society as a product of the slums, it became praised for everyone thanks to its   international fame. Everybody wanted to learn to dance tango at this   time. Only the 1917 World   War will stop the popularity of this dance in Europe, but just for a while. The same year, 1917, a countryside singer, included in his repertoire the first   tango with a lyric, creating the way of singing tangos. This man was Carlos Gardel, and even he   died in 1935, he still reigns as the model of the tango singer thanks to his   1500 records. The WWI, the post war crisis and the bright presence of Carlos   Gardel eclipsed tango as a dance for a while. This was the period of the   popularity of the “tango-canción”(tango-song), good for listening but not   necessarily for dancing. In 1935 Juan   D’Arienzo incorporated the piano player Rodolfo Biaggi in his orchestra and with a fast and playful rhythm which reminded the origins   of tango, started to attract thousands of dancers back to the ballrooms. The   acceptance of this orchestra was so big, that other orchestras begun to imitate   its characteristic rhythm.  At this point, tango was a mature artistic expression. Music, dance and poetry   reached its pinnacle and developed during the 1940’s in what was known in   Argentina as the Golden Age of Tango. During these years, tango defined the   shape we know today. Three decades of dictators made tango blur in   Argentinean’s life, especially tango as a dance, but was not enough to make it   disappear. 1984 was the year where the democracy came back in Argentina and it   also the year which tango revived. The worldwide acceptance of Astor Piazzolla music, who knew how to integrate tango to other musical   expressions as classical music, jazz and rock, incorporating electronic   instruments; the triumph in Russia of Julio Bocca, an international known Argentine ballet dancer who danced to Piazzolla music; and   the amazing success in Broadway of the show “Tango Argentino” which presented   the greatest tango dancers at that time; all of these plus the freedom of   expression that democracy brought to Argentineans, made possible what we are   able to see today: a strong presence of tango not only in Argentina, its natural   country, but also in the whole world. Why did tango triumph all over the world? It is not easy to find one absolute   answer but maybe has to do with the necessity of expression and Tango is a dance   where all the range of human feelings can be expressed: happines, homesickness, passion, wittiness and much more.

Bibliography:

“Crónica general del Tango”, José Gobello. Editorial Fraterna, Buenos Aires,   1980. “La historia del Tango”, tomo 2 “Primera época”, Roberto Selles y León   Benarós. Editorial Corregidor, Buenos Aires, 1977.

More about Argentine Tango: www.todotango.com, Argentine tango in Wikipedia

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