Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A guide to milonga etiquette

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If you are going to write about tango, at some point you have to write a guide to tango etiquette. So here is mine.

There is a right way to enter the milonga, to invite someone and to join the dance-floor traffic flow. 


The universal rules of courtesy and good manners apply to milongas. The reason for codes of conduct is not to limit or restrict people, but, on the contrary, to ensure that a pleasurable time can be had by all and not just a select few. Beyond the universal rules of courtesy, respect and good manners, there are some rules that apply specifically to social dancing and even more specifically to Argentine tango dancing.
New dancers can use this list as a guide to their first milongas. Others can use it as a reminder, or as a starting point for discussion if there are points about which you feel strongly one way or the other. I certainly did not invent these codes of conduct, but I stand by them. Well, most of them. I have included some “rules” that I don’t wholeheartedly support, and have of course included my reasons why. As always, feel free to give me your feedback!


When you enter a milonga, or need to cross from one side of the dance floor to the other, always go around, not through, the dance floor.

Photo: Jacques Guibert
Whom to invite? And how?


The cabeceo:
I am only now mastering the art of this traditional method of inviting, which involves nothing more than eye contact and a nod. In Buenos Aires, pretty much everyone uses it, but not here in North America. It was not really used in Montreal when I started tango back in the late 1990s, so it is a relatively recent discovery for me. That being said, I think the cabeceo is wonderful and has many advantages, as well as a couple of drawbacks.
In terms of advantages for leaders, there is none of that embarrassment of crossing the room to be rejected for all to see.
For followers, avoiding eye contact is an easy way to say no without having to actually say no … or make up excuses (see below for more on this). I believe the technique also empowers women. Some people still frown upon women doing the inviting, but with the subtlety of the cabeceo, it is sometimes hard to tell the inviter from the invitee. After all, if I want him to invite me, I am the one who has to look him in the eye... then he nods and I smile, or was it me who smiled and then he nodded? It all feels much more like mutual agreement. This subtle assertiveness is not always easy for us shy types, but if we master the technique, we may actually overcome some of our shyness at the same time.
Of course, nothing is fool-proof. The one major drawback to the cabeceo is the risk of confusion. If the room is large or dark or very crowded, it can be hard to tell who is looking at whom, so when someone nods toward your table, it may be hard to discern the target. Guys, if you nod at someone and the wrong person accepts, the polite or gentlemanly thing to do is to dance the tanda with your unintended, and hope you are more on target next time.

The verbal invitation: While I encourage the increasing use of the cabeceo, I believe there are many instances in which it is just fine to verbally invite someone. If you happen to be standing right next to someone and want to dance with them, it makes sense to use words. If you are having a conversation with someone and a great tanda starts up, of course you would ask the person verbally. And, because the cabeceo is not an ingrained custom in Montreal or the rest of North America the way it is in Buenos Aires, not everyone knows how to use it, so it’s hard to use it with everyone.

Leaders, what you need to know:
There are an increasing number of women out there who are what one might call cabeceo snobs, meaning they will reject an invitation for the sole reason it was done “incorrectly,” as in verbally. Also, if you are going to go the verbal invite route, there are definitely some rules, and some instances in which you should just not go there:

  • She is deeply involved in a conversation with someone. She is clearly having a tête-à-tête, or holding hands, or sitting on somebody’s lap. It seems obvious that this would not be the right moment to invite her, but what seems obvious to some...
  • She seems to be purposely avoiding your gaze. No matter what you do, you cannot attract her attention. Why risk it? If it looks a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck...
  • The shoes are off. This means her feet are tired and she’s either taking a break or done for the evening. Or she wants you or someone else to think her feet are tired and she’s taking a break. Either way, ask at your own risk.
Whatever you do, don’t hover. If, despite any or all of the above signs, you are determined to try and dance with this person, just go ahead and ask. Don’t stand in the periphery of your target’s vision, shifting your weight around, being distracting and making everyone feel awkward.
And please, always give your invitee a choice, and accept that choice. While I thoroughly support the cabeceo, I wholeheartedly discourage what another teacher once described as the "grabeceo." It is unfair to just grab someone by the arm and pull her on to the dance floor without asking her first. It is also bad form to accost someone on the dance floor just as she is finishing a tanda with someone else. If you ask and she says no, accept her answer with grace; don't pester or demand an explanation. That just makes everyone uncomfortable – and will definitely not up the chances of her accepting next time.

Followers, to accept or not to accept: This is basically a non-issue when the cabeceo is used, which is one of its biggest advantages. Because you have to make eye contact in order to invite or be invited, if you don’t want to dance with someone, just don’t make eye contact.
But in my view, just because someone makes a faux-pas does not mean he or she doesn’t merit a minimum amount of respect. Women who say it’s the cabeceo or nothing say the guy who goes the verbal route deserves to be rejected because he’s asking the wrong way. I think it is unfair to outright punish dancers for using the less-favoured technique. Inviting verbally is a faux-pas in Buenos Aires, but here it is not, at least not yet. And even if it were, is it an unpardonable one?
In any case, if you choose to accept an invitation, as a woman or man, leader or follower, you accept and move on to the next step: the dance floor (see below).
If you choose to reject, there is an etiquette to that, too. My best advice is two-fold: First, be nice about it. Rejection is hard to take, and there is rarely a good reason to be unkind. Second, (and I admittedly don’t always follow this one myself) don’t lie. Whatever your reasons for the rejection, you are not obliged to provide them; a simple “No, thank you,” should suffice. It’s not always easy to be that candid, however. Most of us do care about other people’s feelings, so we like to soften the blow of rejection with a reason – tired feet or some such thing. That’s OK if it’s true, but common decency requires you to stand by your excuse and sit out the rest of the tanda, even if the best dancer in the room, the one you have been waiting weeks to dance with, asks you.
And then comes the question of whom to accept or reject. Of course, we all dance in order to have a good time, and we all ultimately have the right not to dance with whomever we choose. But I have some views and suggestions on the matter.
For me, the choice comes down to personality and attitude more than skill level or strict adherence to code.
I am a big supporter of dancing with beginners. After all, we were all beginners once, and we all get better when we occasionally get to dance with more advanced dancers. I don’t like the attitude that advanced dancers are somehow above dancing with beginners.
I generally don’t refuse people based on skill level but rather on attitude and dance floor etiquette. Leaders I avoid are those who push, pull and generally manhandle me so I have to spend every second fighting for my balance. I also try to steer clear of those who show a complete disregard for the other dancers on the floor. Leaders who use their partners like shields or weapons on the dance floor are really, really stressful and impossible to connect with, because their followers spend all their time and focus looking over their shoulders trying to do the leader's job of avoiding collisions. Also, dancers who correct or teach their partners on the dance floor are high on my list of those to avoid, as anyone who read my blog post on the subject knows well.
As advanced dancers, if we accept regardless of skill level, we will help beginners to work on their skills. Meanwhile, if we reject based on bad behaviour, we may help some dancers to work on that.
In terms of enjoyment as a follower, and therefore likelihood I will accept or seek out future invitations, things I look for, in this order, are: connection to me; attention to dance-floor flow and safety; musicality – with a basic sense of rhythm being enough and anything more a treat. Creative figures and fun moves are definitely on the list, but not if they get in the way of the aforementioned items.
I hear there is an attitude in some milongas that we should not dance with people we don’t know until we have seen them dance with someone else. You know, to make sure they’re good enough for us. After all, we wouldn’t want one of the “good,” “cool” or “in” dancers to see us dancing with someone beneath us, who might make us look bad and tarnish our reputation. I hope you can read the irony in my words, because this is an attitude I find outright ridiculous. It just reeks of snobbishness and self-importance, and I am proud to say the opposite phenomenon occurs at my milonga, where newcomers are welcomed with a smile and, before long, an abrazo.
I have taken risks by accepting dancers I had not studied previously. Now and then I suffer for it, for 12 minutes. But I have also had some lovely rewards and discovered some wonderful new connections.

Women inviting: Is it done? Yes. Is everyone comfortable with the evolving roles and women doing the asking? No. But it’s up to you to decide what you are comfortable with.

Cutting in: Just no. Certainly not during a song, or even in between songs. As mentioned earlier, it is not even good manners to grab someone during the cortina when he or she hasn’t yet left the dance floor after the previous dance. You just can’t invite someone who’s already on the dance floor. Period.

Asking third-party permission: When you approach a dating or married couple, is it necessary to ask permission of the other when you want to ask one of them to dance? Many would say yes, but I say no. Maybe it's the feminist in me talking, but I don't like to feel I need permission from my man to dance with someone or to do anything else. However, I do feel it is important to acknowledge the other person – and this applies not only to couples but to anyone sitting at the table. Say hello or even just smile. No one likes to feel invisible or ignored. And, as mentioned above, if the couple in question is obviously enjoying a "couple" moment, it's better to wait. Tango dancers need to be good at reading body language both off and on the floor.


When entering the line of dance with your partner be careful not to cut right in front of an approaching couple. Unless you can easily merge leaving several paces free in front of the next couple, make eye contact with the approaching leader before you merge.

Photo: Jacques Guibert
Avoid large movements and backward kicks when the dance floor is crowded.


The tanda: Tandas are sets of three or four songs by one orchestra or of a similar style. Tandas are separated by cortinas, clips of non-tango music that last up to a minute. Normally we are meant to dance the full tanda with the same partner. Being left partway through a tanda feels bad. Period. So, barring extreme circumstances, remember, a tanda lasts 9-12 minutes of your life. Even if it is unpleasant, you can probably grin, bear it, and remember to say no next time. However, there are three instances in which it is acceptable to stop dancing partway through a tanda:
1. Both partners came to a mutual agreement before the dance began.
2. An injury or other emergency occurs during the dance.
3. The partner’s behaviour is so rude or disrespectful as to merit their being offended and publicly humiliated by being abandoned mid-tanda.
The cortina is our opportunity to change partners. While in the most traditional milongas in Buenos Aires everyone leaves the dance floor during the cortina, here in Montreal it is OK to stay on the dance floor with our partner if things are going great and we have agreed to dance another set. The cortina is also our cue to say “Thank you.” While we should always thank our partners for the dance, we should only thank them at the end of the dance. This is one of those things I hear all the time from novice dancers after their first milonga. They naively said “Thank you,” after the first song and were bewildered when their partner walked away! The cortina can also be the time to scout out your next partner. Most dancers wait to see what music will play next before actually inviting someone, but it’s a good idea to plan ahead and act fast, otherwise everyone will be taken by the time you’re ready to make your move.

No teaching on the dance floor: As anyone who read my blog post on the subject knows, this is a big one for me. Please, avoid teaching or correcting your partner. Dance to the level of your partner, and when something isn't working, try to improve your own technique. Corrections are the job of teachers, and should be saved for class time. (This applies to teachers as well.)

Less talk, more dancing: In general, just save the conversation for when the music stops. Constant apologies for every misstep are almost as annoying as corrections. And if you want to chat about the weather or discuss your day, have a seat at the bar.

Quality, not quantity! It's the connection that counts. Limit your large movements (ganchos, boleos, jumps, etc.), especially when the dance floor is full.
It has been said that the tanguero who dances non-stop for three hours straight doesn’t really love tango, he just needs to keep moving, and that a “real” dancer chooses his music and his partner – often one as a consequence of the other. I’m not sure how on board I am with this line of thinking. Sure there’s a difference between he who fills his plate with everything he can find and the discerning gourmet who wants nothing but the finest dishes, but they both love food, don’t they? Each in his own way. As long as they are following the rules of traffic flow, why shouldn’t people dance all night if that’s what they want to do?

Keep an eye on the road: Leaders, follow the line of dance, avoid weaving from one line to another, look ahead of you in order to avoid collisions, and look before you back up. Followers, stay with your partner and avoid kicking up your feet unless you know there is room. This means that if you dance with your eyes closed, you really shouldn't ever be kicking your feet up behind you. If your eyes are open, be the eyes in the back of your leader's head. It's OK to stop him from taking that step backward if it means avoiding a collision.

No hit and runs! Accidents happen. Never mind whose fault it was; it's just good manners to say sorry and make sure the other person is OK.


                  It’s tango. You are going to be in close contact with lots of people. And you probably want those people to want to be in close contact with you.
                  Some things should go without saying, but they don’t always, so here it is:
                  If you are going to be wrapping your arms around people, holding hands with them, breathing close to them and putting your face against theirs, you ought to be paying pretty close attention to your personal hygiene.
                  Shower before you go dancing. Wear a clean shirt. Wear antiperspirant or deodorant if you need to, and you should know if you do.
                  Brush your teeth before heading out the door and, if necessary chew gum or suck on a breath mint.
                  Sweat a lot? If you have to head to the washroom between tandas to dry your face, do it. If your shirts get soaked through after an hour, carry an extra or two with you and change as needed. Lots of people do this, and it is much appreciated by their dance partners.

Thank you for helping all your fellow dancers enjoy their tango experience to the fullest!

1 comment:

  1. On hygiene.
    Ladies, you like your perfume but it may not be the case for those around you. So please, restraint from using it or if you must, use it in micro doses. Same goes for gentlemen. Gentlemen be careful to lock the buttons of your shirt, because when dancing with slitty shorter partner, your chest is in front of the follower face, least to say how unpleasant is to have your body hair in front of someone's nose or face.