Perhaps you were asking yourself: Why a Tango School?
When I receive a new student in my class I know that he or she wants to learn to dance. But teaching involves not only showing the moves, but also giving the student a sense of placement, making him or her aware that you cannot just do any move at any time. So, I must give the new students a sense of Tango as a whole, make them understand that they are learning a culture. I heard someone calling Tango a “sub-culture”. I do not agree. All the elements I have learned while studying Tango are substantial in the general society, and the broader world culture. I learned the importance of my body as the root of my existence. I learned a lot about my interaction with others, how my happiness or unhappiness affects everybody around me. In sum, I learned that everything I do affects everybody in this world. I have realized the importance of teaching the beauty of Tango. In my classes I teach all the elements you may have in your checklist, that every Tango instructor claims to teach. Name your favorite element, I do teach it. However, more important than the element itself is the meaning that the move carries within. A week ago, I attended an event related to Tango. I was chatting with a couple. They told me they took some tango classes. They asked me if in my classes I made my student change partners. I replied that, yes, but that it was not obligatory, as I knew many couples liked to remain together during the class. Then they said they were learning “ganchos” in one class, and that they found uncomfortable doing “ganchos” with other people. Well, I told them that, anyway, learning “ganchos” did not make much sense because if they went to Buenos Aires’ milongas, they would find out that you were not supposed to perform “ganchos” there. They were surprised, and, I think, a little incredulous of my assertion. Since they never went to Buenos Aires, they could not tell for sure. But I do. In my 15 years of teaching Tango in the Bay Area (and 19 years teaching Tango in Argentina and worldwide), I have discovered that the main obstacles in teaching a new student is to overcome all the previous ideas about Tango he or she brings to the class, and change them into what Tango really is. Now, you are probably asking: What Tango is in reality? My answer is: Tango is what happens in the milonga. And when I say milonga, my image is that of the very best of the most authentic milongas in Buenos Aires. This is what guides my instruction, and that is why, along with others who are after the same goal, I created the Escuela de Tango de Buenos Aires.
When I go to the supermarket, I buy groceries, take them home, and then do with them pretty much whatever I want.
The same happens with any merchandise I purchase.
If I decide to become a member of a Club, I only take home my membership card and the pride of belonging to my beloved Club. The Club stays where it is, and I come to the Club for whatever activity (social, sports, etc.) it is for.
When I come to the Club I belong to, I have to observe behavior For example: taking a shower before getting into the swimming pool, no diving, no smoking…
If I do not follow these guidelines, I will first receive a call, and eventually will be expelled from the Club if I keep ignoring these warnings. When I come to the milonga, I first pay at the entrance. What am I getting for my money? A dance? A glass of wine? A snack?
I may get all that, but I am also receiving something more important. All these are elements that the organizers of the milonga provide you with the intention of enhancing the experience of attending.
The money I pay at the entrance is used to organize it: pay the rent, arrange the chairs and tables, clear and clean the dance floor; the lighting, the ventilation of the room, the DJ, the sound system, the personnel that takes care of everything, and for all the freebies organizers give you to make you and all the milongueros and milongueras feel more than welcome to the home of Tango.
The milonga is where Tango lives, where Tango is kept alive.
When you are at the milonga, whether a well-known milonguero/a or a new good student, you are making it possible that Tango lives. You bring Tango to life, in your body, in everything you do with your body, not by dancing only, but by everything you do.
Once we start dancing, we realize that everything we do is dancing. Dancing feels so natural, It makes us feel so at home in our bodies that it makes sense to see all aspects of our life from the point of view of being at the milonga.
The fee we pay at the entrance of the milonga is not the price of what we are getting for that money. The $10 does not make a milonga a profitable business. The true organizers of true milongas do it for the passion of Tango, not as a business. With that $10 you just contribute to the necessary setup of the milonga. But in reality, the milonga is pretty much made by you.
Since it is you who actually makes the milonga, the milonga will be the way you are: the quality of the dance, the behavior, the outfits of the dancers, the ambiance, all these characteristics of the milonga are what you bring with you.
Not liking the milonga you attend is comparable with living in a neighborhood that you do not like.
Everyone at the milonga is essential. So everyone must be aware of having the responsibility of making the milonga a good place, even and especially, for having fun, as we are responsible for the world we live in, and particularly, for being happy.
I began learning to dance Tango about three and a half years ago.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and when I started I had no idea how large the Tango community here was, and was impressed by the number of classes, teachers and events.
Recently I learned that the Bay Area Tango community is the oldest and perhaps the largest in the US.
Despite the mass and history of the Tango community in Bay Area I heard repeatedly that “the experience of dancing Tango in Buenos Aires is amazing”.
I left the Rio de la Plata almost four decades ago, without ever going to a Milonga on either side of the river; and thus, needless to say, I was skeptic about the greatness of the Tango seen in Buenos Aires; a cultural trait I guess.
About two years into my Tango experience I met Marcelo Solis.
I had many conversations with Marcelo about Tango, the music, its history, anecdotes, and tales he shared about the Tango community in Buenos Aires and the Milongas.
Through these conversations I learned that Marcelo’s love for Tango is indisputable and contagious, and I confess that they began to spark my curiosity and interest.
However, my sense of scarcity, financially and in my dancing abilities, was big enough to prevent me from even dreaming on going to Buenos Aires to dance Tango. Nevertheless, an opportunity to go on Marcelo’s Tango Tour to Buenos Aires materialized last November. I took it.
Buenos Aires Tango
It is undeniable that in Argentina Tango is a well-developed and sophisticated industry, particularly in Buenos Aires; and not only in La Boca, a neighborhood where some say Tango was born; even though its well established that Tango originated on both sides of the Rio de la Plata sometime during the second half of the nineteenth century.
I am not a stranger to Buenos Aires, its people or its culture; in fact I have friends and family there.
Though I had never been to a milonga in Buenos Aires I went without preconceived ideas on the Tango Tour, other than I’m going to have the time of my life. I wasn’t disappointed.
During the Tour I got to meet, dance, and hang out with some of the best known milongueros in Buenos Aires, such as Alicia Pons, Blas Catrenau, Enriqueta Kleinman, Marta Famá, Monica Paz and Néstor La Vitola, among others.
I learnt a lot; from their instruction, from watching them dance, and from their tales and appreciation for Tango that each shared with us.
Friday was our first night at Buenos Aires, and the first milonga we went to with the Tango Tour was at Confiteria La Ideal, a Buenos Aires icon in operation since 1912. We arrived at around 7.00 pm. I believe that secretly the group experienced a sense of anxiety, with each of us thinking “How will my dance skills measure in the Mecca of Tango?”
La Ideal is located in the Centro de Buenos Aires area; it has sumptuous high ceilings supported by columns and a décor that takes you back to the beginning of the past century.
We were greeted at the door by the host and promptly escorted to a set of tables arranged next to the Bar for our group. Our table was at a vantage point from where we could see the complete dance floor, and after ordering a drink I took a deep breath and began contemplating my surroundings.
Who was there? How are they dancing? Who would I like to dance with?
The Friday crowd at La Ideal is a mixture of locals and tourists.
Although it’s not the most renowned milonga all the patrons observe the milonga codes.
Everyone there was appropriately dressed and groomed, nothing fancy.
People sat at their tables socializing with their party while attentively looking for a potential dance partner.
From the distance and from afar people would exchange head-nods (cabeceo) to express interest in dancing.
Couples flocked to the dance floor at the beginning of a tanda.
Two lines of dance were clearly defined, and you could sense the room moving and vibrating at an unstructured though coordinated rhythm. After dancing a couple of Tandas I realized I had received the right training; I knew the rules of the game and my skills were good enough to get out there and play; or better yet, to Tango.
Going to La Ideal was a great introduction to what a Milonga in Buenos Aires is all about, but the best was still yet to come. At around midnight we left La Ideal as a group. Most went back to the hotel but I was ready for more so I jumped into a cab and headed to Salon Canning. Buenos Aires, here I am.
On Saturday we went to one of Buenos Aires most prominent Milongas; Cachirulo at Villa Malcom.
We arrived early, around 8.30 pm, and there were a good number of people already there. At the door we were greeted by Cachirulo who arranged tables and chairs for our group.
Our tables were on the hall adjacent to the rectangular dance floor.
Tables and chairs framed the dance floor, with women occupying two adjacent sides and men occupying the opposite two. After ordering drinks and some food I began to sink into the Tango atmosphere at Malcom, watching the dynamics in and out of the dance floor. I observed women dancing and admired their ease of movement, inherent beauty and grace. From the distance I caught the attention of a pair of eyes in a body I had been gazing at; I nodded and received a head nod in return.
I was on my way to dance with ‘Salmon’, a tall slender woman wearing a beautiful salmon colored dress (thus the nickname) that danced like an angel. She was from Madagascar.
Something that caught my attention was how, during the cortina, women were extra attentive in search of a dance partner they wished to dance with. I was also on the prowl for dancing and noticed that many of those attentive eyes would look away or just look through me when I glanced intently at them.
Yikes, completely invisible, but that is what cabeceo is all about; it’s a basic code that frames a safe environment for accepting or declining a dance invitation.
In the Bay Area I hear followers and leaders whine about practicing cabeceo, and unfortunately many resist recognizing that practicing the code of cabeceo is essential in promoting better Tango dancing.
As the night progressed, and considering the times I was invisible to many of the women there, I had several good dances. At around 1.30 am the group went back to the hotel, but I remained.
Noticing I was alone and that the crowed had thinned, Cachirulo offered me a Table by the dance floor. Sitting in my new vantage point I looked attentively for potential dancers…but it seemed I was even more invisible; and yes, it was frustrating. It took a while until I got an accepting nod during the second song of a Tanda.
During the small talk that takes place in between songs my dance partner shared that she decided to ‘risk’ dancing with me for half a tanda because she did not know me and had not seen me dance.
She was Argentenian and I realized that she was the first Argentenian I had danced with that night. Inadvertently, this woman conveyed the essence and function of cabeceo and I am grateful for that.
The experience gave me confidence that all the drilling about the embrace and musicality I received from Marcelo had given me the tools to swim the waters of the Milongas in Buenos Aires, and I was grateful for that too.
One night, hanging out with Marcelo and Blas Catrenau, Blas shared his thoughts and feelings about how Tango is usually taught now days.
Paraphrasing Blas, he said something like, …because Tango begins in your ears, when you start hearing the music. Then it goes to the eyes, as you search for and find the woman you want to dance with.
Then you feel the music and the moves it provokes in your body as you walk towards her; when you reach her you offer a gentle but firm left hand and you establish connection by completing her embrace; and then, and only then you move your feet.
Now days most Tango instructors teach Tango in the opposite order, they start with the feet and usually omit the music, the embrace, and the connection.
While listening to Blas I began to associate his account with the experiences I’ve had as an incipient Tango dancer, and I agreed. While many Tango instructors in the Bay Area talk about musicality, my experience is that most focus on teaching (or performing) steps (believed by many to be the selling points) and pay little or no attention to the connection involved and required for dancing Tango.
Experience Tango in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is a vibrant City, particularly at night.
November is spring in the southern hemisphere and people of all ages hit the streets way into the night hours. For many the night begins after 11 pm and for some it does not end until dawn, or later.
I found men and women of a wide age range in the Milongas I went to. Although age is not a factor determining dance skills, some of the best dancers I saw were into their sixties and beyond, and in the 10 days I spent in Buenos Aires many of these geezers were at most of the Milongas I went to.
No coco and TV for these guys; they were out dancing the night away every night.
At one of the Milongas Marcelo pointed out a short thin man with few white hairs, he suggested me look at him dance.
His name is Ricardo and he was amazing; elegant, musical, subtle, and about 89 years old.
Needless to say that I got distracted with the many allures at hand, however my admiration for Ricardo solidified later, at a Milonga in El Beso.
That night at El Beso, I had been dancing for a while when Ricardo showed up; Blass introduced us and I received a warm and firm hand shake. Soon thereafter I began dancing a milonga on the packed dance floor.
I was kneading my moves with the music and the crowd when I spotted a woman glancing with a mischievous smile at someone on the dance floor right in front of me.
Her look was as hot as she was and my curiosity was sparked, so I paid attention to the dancers she had her attention on…and there was Ricardo Suarez, dancing with a statuesque European amazon (I had danced with her earlier) that was melting of joy as her ass jiggled rhythmically to Ricardo’s lead.
Did I mention my admiration for Ricardo? Caramba, I want to learn to lead that kind of jiggling, I want to provoke that sense of joy.
I had a great experience with Marcelo’s Tango Tour to Buenos Aires and I am thankful to him for sharing with us his beloved Buenos Aires, his friends and instructors, and his passion for Tango.
I look forward to going back, and this time I’ll remember to enjoy more the warmth and the experience of the milongueros, watch more how they dance, and dance when I can.
In the meantime, I’ll do my best to share and recreate my Tango experience in Buenos Aires with the men and women in the Bay Area Tango community.
Several 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.
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 (San Francisco Bay Area) 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.
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?
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.