Demystifying milongas—how to enjoy yourself!

by D.J. Carlitos

Milongas have their social codes and expected behaviors which, as is often the case, have developed to make things work more smoothly.  But they can be baffling to new dancers and, unfortunately, are seldom taught in group or private classes.  Here we try to demystify these.

1.  The invitation to dance.

Traditionally, the invitation is with eye-contact and a subtle head-nod (cabeceo).  If you don’t want to accept, just don’t make eye-contact or acknowledge the cabeceo. If you do want to accept, then just return the glance with a nod and a smile.  If you’re a follower and would like to be invited, the approach is similar. You cast your gaze (mirada) toward the leader you’d like to dance with and if s/he agrees, then the cabeceo will come your way.

Sometimes at  North American practicas, we’re not so subtle.  Asking “Would you like to dance?” may work, but most experienced dancers exclusively use the cabeceo, which is the norm at any milonga.  One thing that’s for sure is that a dancer who is looking at the floor or is deeply engaged in a conversation is unlikely to be invited to dance by whatever means.

2.  The music

The music is played in sets, called tandas, of three or four songs, separated by a cortina (curtain).  The songs within a tanda are invariably of the same rhythm (tango, vals, milonga) and usually by the same orchestra.  The cortina is 30-60 seconds of obviously non-tango music.  It’s time to walk (or be walked by) your partner to her/his seat, and change partners for the next tanda.  That means you shouldn’t try to dance to the cortina, and you shouldn’t stay on the floor with your partner!

Generally, you dance the entire tanda with the same partner.   It’s fine—even expected—to make conversation in between songs; you don’t have to start the next dance the instant the music starts.  Finish your thought—the music is often designed with a little intro section for just that reason.  Odd as it may seem, you shouldn’t say “thank you” until the cortina.  Doing so earlier in the tanda will be interpreted as “Goodbye.  I didn’t enjoy this, and I’m ending it now.”

3.  Your lane

As you move in the line of dance (counter-clockwise), imagine you are in a lane, like on a highway.  Your lane is only about one-and a-half times your shoulder width.  Typically there is an outer lane (right side of the floor) and just one inner lane, with an big open space in the center of the dance floor.  To make sure that your dancing doesn’t disrupt anyone else’s dancing (or even hurt someone), you should always stay in your lane.   Your motions need to be forward (or rarely backward) or circular within your lane.  But if you are moving any distance sideways–more than a single comfortable side-step, for instance–that spells Trouble.  Leaders take note!

4. The room

One of the glories of dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires is the way the whole room moves in coordination.  You’re dancing with your partner as well as the couple ahead of you and behind you.

No matter where you are, or how new you might be, respect the line-of-dance, moving counter-clockwise around the room.  Don’t pass. Period. Don’t.

At the same time, remember that if just one couple is not moving, or is slower than the others, this causes everyone to slow or stop.  (Are you doing your Big Move while everyone else has to wait?).  If there is open space in front of you, move into it, fill it up and create room for that couple behind you, and the one behind them, and … In other words, don’t tempt anyone else to pass you because you’re holding things up.

There you go.  I hope this helps you enjoy this wonderful tango journey.  ¡La vida es una milonga!

If’d you rather watch than read, here’s a worthwhile 15-minute video by Cristina & Homer Ladas that covers these same themes:[/youtube