I was born in Argentina. Through my family and the community that saw my upbringing, I have been intimately involved with the culture of Tango all my life, and have been an Argentine Tango dance performer, choreographer and instructor for over 30 years. I profoundly love Tango dancing, music, and culture, particularly that of the Golden Era. I am a milonguero.
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).
“Códigos”, “cabeceo”, “cortinas”, “tandas”, and line of dance
“Cortinas” & “tandas”
“Cortinas” are small pieces of non-tango songs that separate different sets of tangos, milongas or valses (“tandas”).
Each “tanda” contains four tango songs, four or three valses, or three milongas, in general played by the same orchestra and recorded in the same time period. 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, and by listening to the first song you know what to expect for that tanda.
The “cortinas” are also a call to the dancers to go back to seat and clear the dance floor. The etiquette requires to dance with the same partner until the end of the “tanda”. So, when the “cortina” starts to play you can say “Thank you” and accompany your partner back to her table -if you are a leader- or let your partner accompany you back to your place -if you are a follower.
The “cortina” makes clear that the “tanda” is over. You will have to wait for the next “tanda” to begin before to ask any other partner to dance.
“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 “cabeceo” (making eye contact) as the proper way to ask someone to dance. They look at the person they want to dance with.
This applies either for men a women.
If a person wants to dance with someone, one will let the other know by looking at that person and nodding the head when the other person looks back, making it a clear invitation to dance.
If that person wants to dance, she or he will answer back with an assenting sign with the head. After these subtle signs, the leader will go to the follower’s table (or where she is) and offering his hand, 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 simple not respond.
This is a very simplified way to describe it. Reality is more subtle and complex. In any case, it is a good start if you are new to Tango.
Tango is a SOCIAL dance. The milonga is a place not only to dance, but also to meet new people, chat with friends, etc. It is seeing as a very inconsiderate attitude that someone comes to where you are to invite you to dance. It will be almost like saying: “I just want to dance with you and I don’t really care about you”.
While Tango is a dance that requires a situation of intimacy between the partners, asking to dance from a distance shows respect for the other person and her or his right to choose if that person wants to share the intimacy that Tango requieres with you.
There are many benefits of these “códigos”. 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 an important requirement to have a good dance. They are not dancing because they have to.
Line of dance
The line of dance existed from before Argentine Tango.
The line of dance was already in the European dances in fashion of that time (1800’s). The counter clockwise direction was already used in waltz, the most popular dance before the appearance of Tango, and was used in other dances as well.
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.
At Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires we are committed to provide you with a complete Argentine Tango experience.
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.
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.
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 “cortes y quebradas” and a musical genre 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 Biagi 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: happiness, homesickness, passion, wittiness and much more…
“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.