Monday, October 16, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 13: The milonga has rules and we should follow them

To achieve a ronda that flows smoothly, we must treat the other couples on the
floor not as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing.

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To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned about and through this dance that encompasses a whole unique universe, full of its own traditions and customs.

Lesson No. 13. The códigos exist for good reason

I believe more firmly in tango's códigos (codes of conduct) every day, and I reinforce them more and more in my teaching. The reason for these rules of etiquette is not to limit or restrict people's freedom or enjoyment, but, on the contrary, to ensure that a pleasurable time can be had by all.

In addition to the universal rules of courtesy and good manners, there are some that apply specifically to social dancing and even more specifically to Argentine tango.

I wrote a longer post on this topic a couple of years ago. This is an updated version that I hope will serve as both a guide for beginners going to their first milongas and a friendly reminder for those who have been dancing a while.


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


I am an increasingly strong supporter of the mirada-cabeceo invitation system. Mirada means "look," cabeceo means "nod," and together they make up the traditional, non-verbal and most widely accepted way of inviting and getting invited to dance tango. Basically, leader and follower look directly at the person they wish to dance with and, hopefully, catch each other's eye. Then the leader nods or motions with his/her head and the follower nods or smiles his/her acceptance.

It's worth practicing it because it works.

As a follower, it means you're not sitting around passively waiting to be chosen by whomever decides to walk up to you and ask. And to accept or not to accept becomes a non-issue. Because you have to make eye contact in order to invite or be invited, if you don’t want to dance with someone, you just don’t make eye contact. No need to outright refuse or make up excuses. I believe the technique actually empowers women. There are still people out there who frown upon women doing the inviting, but with the cabeceo, the line between inviter and invitee is blurred. After all, if I want to dance with him, 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?

As a leader you're not asking directly and risking outright rejection or maybe getting a reluctant "yes" from someone who doesn't really want to dance with you but doesn't want to hurt your feelings either.

So this system means each dance is a mutual agreement. This subtle assertiveness may not always be easy for shy types, but if you master the technique, who knows? You may actually overcome some of your shyness at the same time. And the mirada-cabeceo system is assertive on both sides. You need to look directly at the person you want to dance with and he or she needs to look right back. Then the nod and you're off, both having chosen each other.

Of course, nothing is fool-proof. The one drawback here 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. If you nod at someone and the wrong person accepts, the kind and polite thing to do is to dance the tanda with your unintended, and hope you are more on target next time.

In any case, this all should take place after the tanda starts and not during the cortina (though feel free to plan ahead and be ready). Why? Because you are supposed to choose your dancers and the music in relation to one another. In my case, there are some dancers I like very much dancing tango with, but not so much quick, rhythmic milongas. I save most waltzes for a few specific partners and dramatic Puglieses for others. Sure, there are dancers I will happily dance anything with – my own partner for one – but they are the exception. Connection is just as much about the music as the person in your arms, and when the two fit well together it can be magical.

The verbal invitation: While I encourage the use of the cabeceo, there are 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.

Whom to dance with: I generally don’t avoid or 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 stressful, because their followers spend all their 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 advanced dancers, if we are sure to accept at least a few dancers regardless of skill level, we will help beginners to improve their dancing. 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 personally look for are: connection to me; attention to dance-floor flow and safety; musicality. Creative figures and fun moves are on the list, but not if they get in the way of the aforementioned items.

Cutting in: Nope. Not during a song, not in between songs. 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 aren't supposed to invite someone who’s already on the dance floor.

Entering the dance floor: Please do not forget this second, equally important use of the cabeceo. When entering the line of dance with your partner, you must be conscious of oncoming traffic and avoid cutting 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 leader before you merge and wait for his/her acknowledgement. When you are dancing, be aware of the dance floor's entry points and allow other couples to merge as needed.


The tanda: Tandas are sets of three or four songs by one orchestra or of a similar style. Tandas are separated by cortinas, short clips of non-tango music. Normally we are meant to finish a full tanda with the same partner. Being left partway through a tanda feels bad. So, barring exceptional circumstances, remember that a tanda lasts but 9-12 minutes of your life. Even if it is unpleasant, you can probably grin and bear it. 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 or embarrassed by being abandoned mid-tanda.

Respect the ronda: Leaders, follow the ronda, or line of dance. This means not weaving randomly from one line or lane to another and not speeding around the floor cutting in front of all the other couples. Ideally, every couple should finish each song positioned ahead of and behind the same couple as when it started. Also, always look ahead of you rather than down in order to avoid collisions, and back up infrequently and with care. All this is probably one of the most difficult parts of learning to lead, but I think it is a little less difficult when we see the other couples on the floor not simply as obstacles to be avoided, but as an integral part of our dancing. We should dance with the other couples, not against or despite them. Imagine the whole dance floor moving as one, each couple unique, but together. What a flow there would be.

Followers, stay within the space your partner creates for you and avoid kicking up your feet unless you are sure it is safe. This means that if you dance with your eyes closed, you really shouldn't ever be kicking your feet up behind you. Meanwhile, if your eyes are open, it's OK to stop your partner from taking that step backward if it means avoiding a collision.

Less talk, more dancing: As anyone who has 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. In general, just save the conversation for when the music stops. Constant apologies for every misstep are almost as distracting 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, especially when the dance floor is full. And, once again, don't lead or execute any off-the-floor boleos without first ensuring you have plenty of room to do so.

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: that a “real” dancer chooses his music and his partners discerningly – as mentioned earlier, often one as a consequence of the other. I think there is definitely room for both types of dancer in every milonga, but try not to get discouraged or bitter if you didn't get as many tandas as you hoped. Some nights are like that, and one great tanda is sometimes enough to make your night.

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


I updated this article in May 2020 during the global COVID-19 lockdown. I was editing the French translation of my post, and decided it was an opportune time to add a couple of paragraphs about hygiene, since things like handwashing have become more important than ever in recent months.

I kind of hate that I even have to tell people that it’s important to do things like shower, brush your teeth and wear deodorant before heading to tango class or the milonga. But there are still some people who either don’t know or don’t care that stale breath and other body odours are unpleasant to others and might very well make the difference between a mirada and an averted gaze. I hate even more that I have to tell people to wash their hands after using the toilet, but I know for a fact there are women and men who don’t; I have seen it with my own eyes.

Right now, as a pandemic rages across the planet, handwashing and hand sanitizing are all the rage and for good reason. Clean hands prevent the spread of all kinds of infection and disease, not just coronaviruses. When one day in the hopefully not-too-distant future we once again can hold live social tango events, we will not only remind you to wash or sanitize after using the bathrooms, but also as you enter and exit the premises and in between every tanda. And we will insist you stay home if you have cold or flu symptoms. Who knows? We might all be wearing masks for the first months back as well. But even one long-awaited day when this crisis becomes a thing of the past, I hope we will all remember to wash our hands often for the safety of all … and to freshen up regularly for the comfort of all.

If this all sounds like a lot to think about, it is at first. But with practice the codes and customs will become as integral a part of your dancing as walking, embracing your partner and following the rhythm. After all, when you learn to drive a car, operating the vehicle is just a small part of the package. On the road you have to follow the flow of traffic, be aware and respectful of everyone else around you and avoid collisions. Shouldn't it be the same on the dance floor?

Previously: Lesson No. 12: Be good to your feet
Next: Lesson No. 14: It is as important to be kind and generous as to follow the códigos

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