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About three and half years ago, drawn by my love for and interest in Tango music, I began pursuing learning how to dance Tango.  Little did I know about the experiences this new practice would bring me or the paths it would take me through.  Like most incipient Tango dancers of the twenty first century, I thought dancing was a sequence of steps requiring a great level of mastery.  Consequently, I sought popular instructors that gave the impression of doing graceful moves across the floor on their dance studios.  These wonderful instructors showed me do a bunch of steps; the ocho, the cross, the rock-step, the boleo, the molinete… all off course with Tango music in the background.

Although I had the steps under my belt I did not feel I was dancing…something was missing and I had no clue of what that was.  Pursuing the feel of dancing I began going to all the Milongas I found within a 20 miles radius.  In doing so I soon noticed that none of the popular teachers were at the Milongas.  At the time I did not think much of it, I was a novice after all, but time it made me wonder.

Over a year after I began my Tango adventure a friend invited me to join her to a class.  I had heard of the teacher but I had not met him.  The class was small and the exercises were different.  No steps.  The emphasis was exclusively on musicality and connection.  Following the lead of our instructor we moved, weighing the beat of the music and keeping engaged with our dance partner.  Such approach was radical compared to previous Tango instruction I had received, and I confess that initially, the relevance and importance of being fully engaged when playing the game of dancing Tango passed way over my head…but eventually I came around as I began to realize and accept that the right attitude is essential for truly dancing Tango.  A person’s attitude towards Tango is reflected in many aspects of his or her behaviors:  our posture, how assertively and in synchrony with the music we move (or not), how we emphasizing the beat with our steps (or not), and even how we choose to dress when going out to the Milonga depict and reflect our attitude towards Tango and our dance partners.  Tango is an experience, it’s an experience of engagement with the music and with our dance partner; and once I began to realize this I began to experience Tango for what it is, when you dance Tango you experience connection.

It’s been funny to realize that I’ve learned as much Tango by talking with seasoned Milongueros about the dance, the music, and the curious or funny anecdotes of singers, players, or orchestra directors as I’ve learned from dance instructors.  During these conversations I learned and began to accept that, first and foremost, Tango dancing is an act of self-expression; I learnt that Tango lives and develops at the Milonga; and I learnt that for many, dancing Tango is sacred.

The Embrace

Repeatedly I’ve heard that the embrace is the most important aspect of Tango dancing. Being in close physical proximity to another person brings to surface many emotions; that may explain why many dancers don’t pay attention to their embrace, as if tightly holding a body you chose to embrace was a chore and not a pleasure.  Tango is connection, connection with ourselves (we must be fully present to dance), connection with our partner, and connection with the music; the embrace is where followers rest and how leaders provide assurance and guidance, and the music is the excuse for dancers to keep embraced; intermittently for about three minutes at a time; moving through the dance floor, or barely not.

A good embrace holds many paradoxes; it is firm and flexible, it gives structure and freedom of movement; a good embrace allows two to become one, only if each part is accountable for its own.  When dancing closely embraced I juggle many emotions; I want to allow and fully enjoy the sensations that arise embracing my dance partner, and at the same time I want to provide her with comfort and assurance while she is in my arms.

The Tango embrace represents the juice of human relations, we offer ourselves to our dance partner and to the dance floor, and whether we like it or not, part of our emotional being comes out naked.  Thus, if we believe this and the embrace brings to surface so many emotions; how do we choose who to dance with?  Seasoned milongueros and milongueras agree that when they are not engaged dancing or socializing at the Milonga they pay attention to the dancers on the floor: who is moving gracefully?  Who is musical? Who is having a good time? Is their dance partner having a good time?  All this information is processed consciously and unconsciously, and the result is our decision of who we want to dance with…or not.

The Milonga and its Codes

The Milonga is a social event where people gather to dance Tango.  The Milonga provides more than the physical structure, such as the quality of the dance floor, the way tables and chairs are arranged around the dance floor, or the music played by the DJ.  Like Tango, the Milonga is about attitude, and a good Milonga fosters an attitude that promotes safe dancing rendezvous.  This attitude is determined by big and minuscule details; from how you are greeted by the host to the venue’s seating arrangements; from the lighting of the space to the way the patrons dance, their social skills, and the way they cared for themselves for the occasion.  On top of all that, another essential aspect of a Milonga is the adherence to the codes of the Milonga.

The codes of the Milonga are simple – music is organized in Tandas of three or four songs by the same orchestra, tandas are separated by cortinas (a non sequitur song), and dancers dance in the line of dance, counter clock wise.  Another important code is ‘cabeceo’.  Cabeceo, or head nod, is the way you indicate another person you are interested in dancing with them.  Unfortunately, this etiquette protocol is often overlooked locally; in fact, many local dancers and resist this cultural aspect of the Milonga, and refuse to accept that cabeceo is essential because it promotes better dancing.

How does cabeceo promote better dancing? You may ask; the answer is simple.

Cabeceo:  Establishing eye contact with a potential dance partner and nodding your head indicates you are asking that person to dance.  If the person being nodded wants to decline the invitation, he or she discretely stops or avoids establishing eye contact; instead if the person wants to accept the invitation, he or she maintains eye contact and gives head nod in-turn to confirm.  Once the willingness to dance has been established, the leader walks towards the follower, looking for her sight and maintaining eye contact when possible.  The follower remains on her seat, once the leader has approached and has nodded again she gets up and proceeds to accept the dance.

Let’s say you are a seasoned Tango dancer at a Milonga.  A new Tanda starts with one of your favorite songs, ‘Te aconsejo que me olvides’ played by Troilo and sang by Fiorentino.  You know this song by heart, and you start feeling the melody slowly creeping inside your body and you start looking for the right dance partner.

Who is the right dance partner?  Is it the first available follower at sight? Is it the first leader that nods you?  Well, maybe.  Sometimes those are our best options and we take them; however, more seasoned dancers usually don’t.  The Milonga is a social event, not a practice, and in general we want to dance with partners of our own dancing level, a partner that we are confident will understand how we move and respond accordingly.  When there is a big gap between dance partners’ abilities, it is likely that one is enjoying it more than the other, and this gap means that degree of self-expression is distorted.  Although we learn much by dancing with a more experienced dancer, the Milonga is not a practice.

Going back to you, seasoned dancer, at the Milonga where ‘Te aconsejo que me olvides’ just opened the Tanda; you look around and see followers and leaders scaning the room for potential dance partners.  So, who do you want to dance this Tanda with…maybe someone with whom you’ve already enjoyed dancing Troilo with, maybe a leader with a melting embrace, maybe a soft and sensitive follower that is like a cloud flowing with the slightest breeze.  The beauty of cabeceo is that it clearly sets the difference between a practica and a Milonga; it allows dancers to respectfully decline an invitation, or to accept without uttering a word.  Because dancing Tango is personal, and I am ready to show it.

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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