Milonga Etiquettes

(Courtesy of Vivatango)

Personal Hygiene – is essential for an enjoyable dancing experience. Bad breath, body odor, and excessive perspiration are common offenders. Be sensitive to your fellow dancers. Excessive use of cologne, or any chemical  can be just as offending, and never a replacement for bathing and antiperspirant.  If you have a cold or flu, please stay home until you are better.

Tanda – Tango music is played in sets called tandas. The DJ will play a tanda consisting of 3 or 4 songs by the same orchestra from the same period. Generally you will hear 2 sets of 4 tangos, 1 set of 3 valses, 2 sets of 4 tangos, and 1 set of 3 milongas, in repeating cycles or 4 tangos, 3 valses, 4 tangos, 3 milongas, 4 tangos, a few alternative or neotango songs, and all over again.  Accepting an invitation to dance carries the obligation to dance with your partner until the tanda ends and a cortina is played. In short, Dance to the End of the Tanda then Move On.

Cortinas –  the DJ will usually play a cortina (Spanish for curtain) between tandas. A cortina is a 30 second long piece of non-tango music that tells the dancers this tanda is over. The next tanda will be a different style of music and is normally danced with a new partner. The beauty of cortinas in Buenos Aires is that absolutely everybody thanks their partner and leaves the dance floor. This means that you can now choose who you will dance with next from among everybody present in the room.  It is best to completely get off the dance floor during a cortina. Dancing to the cortina in Buenos Aires will brand you as a barbarian; around here it merely looks awkward. In short, Don’t Dance to the Cortinas.

Cabaceo – In Buenos Aires, it is only the men who ask for a dance.  Most big cities follow the Buenos Aires custom.  The accepted way to invite a person to dance is to catch someone’s eye, smile and nod, perhaps raising your eyebrows in an inquiring expression or directing a nod towards the dance floor. The response, if the invitation is accepted, is to smile and nod back, whereupon both people walk to the dance floor and dance.  The purpose of the cabeceo, is to make the invitation to dance less stressful and the possibility to decline more discreet. Essentially you can avoid receiving or having to say a harsh verbal “No”. It spares everybody’s feelings.  It is also acceptable for a gentleman to “walk-up” and ask someone to dance, but be sensitive to that person’s body language/eye contact in case they don’t want to dance.  If you don’t succeed in catching a person’s eye and eliciting a smile, please don’t resort to  positioning yourself squarely in front of a person so they can’t avoid looking at you. It is considered very rude. In short, Ladies, Don’t Ask.

Saying No –  There’s a double standard here. We didn’t make the rules. The best way to avoid dancing with someone is to avoid eye contact.  If that doesn’t work, then a lady should say no sincerely and put herself in a time out for the remainder of that tanda.  A gentleman may say “I’d love to dance with you later.  I’ll come and get you when I’m ready” or “I’m flattered but my masculine ego demands that I do the asking” and then immediately ask someone else to dance. Certain people will never dance with you. Nobody has an obligation to dance with everybody. It’s very much a consensual privilege and not a moral duty.

Thank You –  Thank you is customary at the end of a tanda.  It is the code for “I’m finished dancing with you.”  If you say it in the middle of a tanda, it’s over. If you want to keep dancing with the same partner for the rest of the tanda, express your pleasure in different words. If neither person says thank you at the end of the tanda, you are likely to continue dancing.  If there happens to be a gender imbalance, maybe you want to show community spirit and give your friends a chance to dance with your partner. Of course none of this applies to dancing with your significant other or your special date.  The proper response to “thank you” is “thank you”, not “you’re welcome.”

Floorcraft – You are dancing with everyone on the floor, not only your partner. Each person should be consciously aware of who is around them, and is responsible for keeping the floor safe. Dancers already on the dance floor have the right-of-way. Limit passing. Don’t hold up traffic. The floor is constantly moving forward. Don’t be the cause of a traffic jam. Make moves that are appropriate to the conditions on the dance floor.  In a crowded situation keep your feet and your partner’s feet close to the floor, no ganchos or boleos. When two couples bump into each other on the floor, it is polite to apologize regardless of who is at fault. Traditionally, in Argentina, the error is always laid on the leader’s shoulders.

Interrupting – Don’t interrupt people while they are dancing.  Don’t interrupt your own dance to go talk to someone,  not even to say hello when you or they arrive or leave. If you must acknowledge someone, a quick nod is the maximum.. It’s rude to talk to someone while you or they are dancing. Your dance partner deserves your undivided attention. If you have some urgent need for information exchange, at least wait until a moment between songs, and keep it very brief.

Talking – Some people like to concentrate on the dancing while others chatter constantly. If you are one of the former, it’s perfectly OK to say “sorry, I find it hard to talk and concentrate on the steps at the same time.”  Talking while dancing is especially inappropriate when there is a live band.  In general both conversation and dancing improve when not done simultaneously. You are encouraged to chat between songs in a tanda.  Often people introduce themselves or just exchange pleasantries. If you are talking to someone off the dance floor, be careful not to block their cabaceo and prevent other people from asking them to dance.

Milonga – a term with 3 different meanings.  A milonga is a social dance party for Argentine tango where you dress for the occasion,  refrain from practicing or teaching any steps and display your best tango etiquette.  A milonga is also one of the three forms of Argentine tango dance (tango, milonga, vals) patterns.  It is the fastest form and is characterized by small steps, bent knees and a much looser upper body than tango.  A milonga is also any piece of tango music that employs the characteristic beat of this fastest dance.

Practica –  A tango practice session where you are encouraged to try out new steps you haven’t mastered, repetitively do the same step over and over, ask for advice and guidance or do whatever it takes for you to improve your tango skills.

Teaching – Teaching your partner is never acceptable during a milonga. It interferes with the line of dance and diminishes the atmosphere for others. During a practica it is perfectly acceptable if and only if your partner asks you to.  If you feel you must say something during a practica, be gentle and ask your partner if it’s OK to give a hint.

Teachers –  You are encouraged to ask teachers for advice and help during a practica. Asking them to dance a tanda with you is something else.  Unless your tango skills are equal to the teacher’s, it’s probably not a good idea to invite them to dance. This is how they earn their living. While they will frequently be gracious enough to dance with you, you are essentially asking them for a free private lesson.

Beginners –  Welcome them. Be nice to them. Dance with them.  Tell them a little about tango etiquette and customs.  You were a beginner once yourself. It’s payback time. An experienced lead or follow can make a beginner feel as if they can really dance. We all need that kind of encouragement.

Close Embrace –  It is common but not required to dance tango in close embrace.  Beginners usually dance only in open embrace until they’ve attained some level of mastery. Generally it is the woman who decides whether to dance closely or not.  If she doesn’t want to she places her left hand on the leader’s bicep.  Dancing close is not an invitation for inappropriate behavior. The tango embrace should be considered a privilege and not an opportunity. Be sensitive to your partner’s comfort-level with regard to personal space. In between songs in a tanda, you let go of your partner because it feels a little odd to remain locked in the embrace when there is no music

Gentlemen –  Leaders behave like gentlemen. They escort their partners on and off the dance floor.

Followers’ Tricks – If you are sitting down and having a genuine conversation with a leader about a subject that interests you both, that’s one thing. If you are standing at the edge of the dance floor engaging a leader in conversation in the hopes he will ask you to dance, that’s another thing. Boring someone to tears until his easiest means of escape is to dance with you is not the best way to get an invitation.  If he hasn’t asked in the first minute or two, move on. Asking a leader to show you a step is perfectly acceptable in a practica, but not in a milonga. However, you shouldn’t take it as license that he intends to dance the rest of the tanda with you or the next one. Walking into someone’s arms while he’s coming off the dance floor is not acceptable. If you’ve accepted a cabaceo from him, wait at the edge of the floor until he comes to escort you. Grabbing someone, on or off the dance floor, is also not an acceptable means of getting a dance. Asking or grabbing a man who has already said no to you once is extremely annoying for him. Loudly announcing that you’re leaving and it’s the last chance for anyone to dance with you will work once or twice.  After that everyone knows it’s a trick.

Leaders’ Tricks –  Some leaders will sweep the room with their cabaceo, making 3 or 4 women think they’ve been invited to dance.  The leader then picks the best one who has acknowledged him. It’s far preferable to have eyes only for the follower you want to dance that tanda with and to indicate your preference clearly.  If she refuses you, only then should you move on to the next one. Standing on the dance floor in a come-and-get-me pose is not very attractive to most followers.  Ask someone to dance then go escort her onto the dance floor and off again so you don’t appear to be putting yourself up for auction. Sometimes a leader will sit down next to a woman who has just refused him and “babysit” her until she’s ready to dance. Be sensitive to whether a follower is genuinely interested in dancing with you and is just momentarily fatigued or is simply trying to say no politely.

Dress – Dress appropriately for the occasion. For milongas that means dress up.  For practicas dress comfortably.  Wear shoes with heels that tilt your weight to the balls of your feet so you can pivot easily. If you wear jewelry or accessories or glasses, make sure they do not harm your partner while dancing.

Respect – Respect your partner, your partner’s level of dancing, the people around you, the music and band, the culture and heritage of tango. Respect the line of dance. It is counterclockwise.  If you are interfering with it, move to the middle.