Robert Youngson & Patricia Petronio are dedicated to the improvised tango danced socially in traditional milongas of Buenos Aires. Their classes focus on developing musicality, connection & sound technique, as well as confidence with milonga etiquette.
Let's face it, most of us take the trouble to present ourselves well at a milonga. We take care with our personal hygiene, do our hair and make-up (at least some do!), avoid strong perfumes (and other noxious food and body odours), and wear nice clothes. Most of us want to make a good impression, don't we?
But sometimes, despite our best intentions things can go wrong...
Some time ago, I was about to leave the ladies' room, to return to the milonga. Thankfully, one of the other ladies called out to me in Spanish: Tu pollera! (your skirt!) Had she not been thoughtful enough to do that, I would have strolled into one of my favourite milongas with part of my silk skirt tucked into my underclothes!! Now that would have made an attractive sight.
Not so much embarassing, but not a good look was a mature-aged gentleman in a nice suit happily dancing with his partner. Unfortunately, he was oblivious to the fact that his suit jacket was tucked into the back of his trousers.
A few words of caution to ladies keen on wearing short skirts. A while ago, a woman arrived at a milonga, obviously doing her best to present herself as a something of a vamp in both her theatrical arrival and the way she dressed. Some men were immediately drawn by this, and invited her to dance. However, her dress was so short, that her underwear was on display to all, when she took up the man's embrace. Observing reactions around the milonga, she was clearly the source of comment. It didn't take long for one of the organisers to have words with her. Returning from the ladies room, she was wearing thick black tights.
At a recent BsAs milonga, I was sitting out a tanda and watching the dancers, when something suddenly caught my attention. It wasn't the male dancer's great skill or musicality. I had to look again a couple of times to ensure what I was seeing was not what it seemed. With great relief, I realised that it was only the end of his tan-coloured belt which I could see. The last 10 centimetres or so of the belt had come adrift, and was hanging from the centre-front of his trousers. Mercifully, the belt was soon tucked away out of sight. Perhaps someone kindly told him.
Moral: Check your attire carefully before going out and before leaving the bathroom. PP
In April, before leaving for Buenos Aires, the Adelaide tango community came together to support a very disadvantaged northern region of Argentina which had suffered devastating floods in early 2018, where the mud-brick homes were destroyed. Our monthly Comme il faut at the gorgeous Mt Osmond Golf Club, became Adelaide's own Milonga Solidaria.
In Buenos Aires, Hugo Maffi and Mary Aragon coordinate the very successful Milonga Solidariawhose aim is to support a different worthy cause each month. All milonga services are donated, meaning every peso taken at the door (including donations) goes directly to where it is needed. Last year, our very own Milonga Solidaria in Adelaide raised enough funds to buy half of the personal water filters needed in a remote community in Santiago del Estero! Together with the funds raised at the BsAs milonga in May 2017, this meant that the goal of supplying unpolluted water to that community was achieved. (Scroll back through their Facebook for more details.)
Last March, Hugo and Mary's milonga supported the Mil Techos para el Chaco Salteño project, raising money for two roofs in that flood-ravaged area. This year the Adelaide tango community raised US$1,150 (about 24,600 pesos) to support that project - enough for two more roofs. Fundacion Sí is the not-for-profit organisation, staffed entirely by volunteers, which is running the Mil Techos project. Last week, we were able to meet with Paola and Adriana, two of the key Fundacion Sí volunteers in Buenos Aires, to deliver our donation and hear more about their activities.
Almost two weeks of this stay in Buenos Aires have already passed, and attending various milongas (all traditional) makes us reflect on tango experiences here and at home. Here is the first musing, with more to come:
I rarely dance more than half the tandas at a milonga, and wondered what determines my milonga experience. Some aspects are very practical, others are personal.
Venue - Does it inspire an invigorate? Or is it boring and lacking in energy?
Hosts - Do they welcome you, ensure you're seated comfortably and make you feel that you belong? Or are you ignored after paying your money?
Set-up - Does the arrangement allow those sitting a chance to engage with the ronda? Or is there a separation between dancers and those seated?
I have barely sat down, but already these things are influencing my mood.
Dancers - Do they dance well, connect with the music and navigate with consideration to other dancers? Or is the dance-floor a struggle, not allowing me to relax and dance intuitively?
Partners - Are there dancers there that I want to dance with?
The milonga - Does it run smoothly with high energy amongst the dancers? Or are there some long interruptions and a generally low energy pervading?
And and absolutely fundamental issue:
Music - Does it call me to the floor? Or is it often uninspiring, or even irritating?
Even before any of this has an impact, another question is how I am feeling when I arrive. Am I physically tired or mentally drained? Or am I energised? The factors above may turn my mood around - for the better or for worse.
Casting an eye over these factors I notice that many of them can be heavily influenced by the milonga organisers. Others rely on the dancers having put effort into developing their dance.
A good milonga with lots of good dancers will get people on the floor with the energy at a high, but that doesn't mean dancing every tanda. For me, there needs to be time to watch, listen and reflect (all enhancements to learning) and, of course, time to socialise with friends. And then there are the tandas that are unmissable, and have to be danced, no matter how tired I may feel. That might mean dancing half or at most two thirds of the tandas, but they will be to music that I love and with partners that are meant for this music.
How you respond to a milonga is very subjective. What suits you may not suit me. In Buenos Aires, our favourite milongas tick all the boxes, while others tick only some boxes. In those cases, my response may very well depend on how I feel before I arrive. The good milongas will carry me along regardless ... but I'll still only dance a certain number of tandas. I need watch-listen-reflect time ... and to rest a little, so that I can give my next partner my total focus and energy. She deserves no less! Bob
Life seems to be full of interesting contradictions and paradoxes. Have you noticed that tango is no exception?
Music and lyrics The music suggests one thing, and the lyrics often say another
Looking into the music and lyrics of tango, you might be rather surprised by the apparently contradictory elements. The lyrics of tango are highly emotive, frequently melancholy and sometimes simply tragic. On the other hand, the accompanying music is physically engaging, often surprisingly upbeat - thus beckoning us onto the dance-floor (at least with a good DJ at the helm).
Originally, of course, these lyrics were written to tell human stories that the everyday person could relate to. Perhaps the music's contribution is there to enable us to experience universal human emotions through dance - also allowing us to dance away our cares for a while?
Expressing of emotions and personal space Publicly we experience and express emotions in the arms of another person - possibly not our life partner
It comes as no surprise that social tango brings with it seemingly conflicting demands. At the root of this, perhaps is the expression of emotion in a public place. There is also the intimate physical contact with, at times, a stranger. When two people connect through the feeling in the music, their passing, shared intimate experience may be exposed to observation and to potential comment.
So, it makes sense that the following codes (etiquette) evolved, and still have merit:
Despite the intense and emotive nature of some tango music, the expression of it through dance is contained. Dancers are led by the music, so the couple may experience a powerful response. But this is not overtly demonstrated for all to see.
When a tango comes to an end, the couple does not maintain the embrace in any way. It is no more than a three minute romance, with no further implications. At the end of even the most romantic tanda, the lady is escorted back to her table, the man returns to his - and that is that.
Some might reject the codigos as having no place in our modern tango world, far the Buenos Aires of old. But I find that these elegant strategies allow us to enjoy the dynamics of the milonga. We are not hampered by any expectation that the three minute romance will continue beyond the dance-floor. Nor are we concerned with any speculation by onlookers about actual or imagined romantic liaisons. The couple and the others in the ronda A couple dance together, but they also dance with the other couples
Social tango allows each dancer to surrender to their partner and to the music. The dance is not primarily for the benefit of onlookers, but rather for the couple's enjoyment. Abandoning oneself like this can lead to a profound sense of satisfaction and joy.
Yet, a dance-floor full of couples giving unbridled expression to the music sounds downright dangerous! To avoid chaos, a couple dances with other couples in the ronda. They enter the ronda with care, the leader navigates, they move in harmony with the music, and both dancers contain their movements out of consideration for those around them. How else would it be possible for everyone on the dance-floor to enjoy themselves - without distraction and without fear of injury? When these competing demands are managed well, the ronda is blissfully harmonious. And being a part of that can feel almost magical.
Other 'contradictions' come to mind, such as:
the benefits of disciplined technique, in order to improvise spontaneously
how a good 'leader' actually follows the 'follower'
Perhaps you can think of others ...
It seems to me that the resolution of these competing demands has actually created (rather than limited) the possibility of rich experiences for dancers. Perhaps, this could in part, explain the deep attraction of social tango.
A: "There she is. She's a beginner - she needs some advice. I'll give her the benefit of my expertise. After all, she'll feel grateful that someone with my experience is getting her up to dance." (Why do some people feel the need to do this??)
B: "I was pushed and pulled all over the place. He was showing off, trying to get me to do his tricks. I had no idea what he wanted me to do, and I was made to feel like an idiot with everyone watching. He was in my ear all the time, telling me what to do - I couldn't focus on the music. Then, he used the breaks in the tanda to demonstrate figures to me. I'm new to tango and simply didn't know how to deal with the situation. I love the music, the dance, the connection, but after that, I just felt like going home."
Of course, there's an equivalent scenario with the roles reversed.
The fundamental element missing above is RESPECT. A good tango dancer (not necessarily one with lots of years of experience) will respect his/her partner - won't give unsolicited advice in the milonga, and will dance in a manner that is appropriate to the partner's current ability. The good dancer will, in fact, be able to enhance his/her partner's dancing as the tanda progresses. Yes, we may want to give our partner the benefit of our expertise, but that can be achieved through HOW we dance with them.
A good male dancer, for example, will start the tanda with a new partner by walking with sensitivity to the music - monitoring his partner's responses and accommodating, in order to instil confidence. Then maybe some small backward ochos, taking time to ensure that she completes her pivot before the next step, and being very explicit with the leads. The focus is on his partner, ensuring that she is comfortable and that the communication is working. Above all, a good dancer will respond to the music so she FEELS it through his body and his movements. During the tanda he'll check that she's feeling OK. You may ask: What about him? Well, this tanda is all about HER, as he does his best to convince her that tango is a dance of love - in many aspects.
So, how could a beginner deal with the humiliating treatment described earlier? She doesn't want to be labelled a snob by turning men away, thereby possibly reducing the chances of men inviting her to dance. On the other hand, she doesn't want to feel like someone's plaything.
Think of it this way: when it comes to unwelcome behaviours, tango is no different to other social situations. If she doesn't like what's happening to her, she doesn't have to put up with it. She could say something like:
"I'm sorry, but I don't feel comfortable with this right now. I'd rather sit down."
"I'm really not able to talk and dance at the same time."
"Thanks, but I need to sit down."
And in future, it's best to avoid the situation by actively using the cabeceo, and avoiding the gaze of certain people. It also pays to be armed with a response for unwelcome direct approaches - commonly used on beginners. If you'd rather not dance with someone, try something simple like: "Thanks, but not right now."
BTW. What do I mean by a 'good tango dancer'? Someone who respects his/her partner and strives to make the tanda a positive experience; understands and practises the codes of the milonga; feels, connects with, and expresses the music in his/her dancing, and has the skills to execute tango movements which are appropriate in the social, sometimes crowded, context. So, in the opening scenario, could you spot the real beginner? Bob
Would you like to dance more? Or with other partners?
When it comes to choosing partners, do you feel powerless?
Do you feel that the milonga is a man's world?
Well, I'll let you into a little secret: Women can be very influential in this situation, if they play their cards right. Here are a few handy tips: If you want to dance ... DO ... look like you want to dance when the new tanda starts
... look at prospective partners, so they know you are interested in dancing with them (cabeceo). You could smile, too
... make an extra effort and invite a friend to the milonga to improve the gender-balance (rather than relying solely on men who came alone or with their own partners)
DON'T ... approach potential partners directly (rather than looking). They may not want to dance with you or to that music. And did you realise that many ladies become annoyed with this behaviour, and see it as a form of queue-jumping or partner-poaching?
... spend precious time checking messages, etc. on your phone
... remain engrossed in a conversation when the music starts, and later complain that you didn't dance much!
Follow these tips consistently, be patient, and things will improve! You may not get to dance with everyone you'd like to (most men don't, either), but your milonga satisfaction will certainly grow. PP
My wonderful porteña teacher of Spanish, who grew up listening to tango, once challenged me to name a tango which wasn't melancholic, sad or downright tragic. Considering the common tango themes of loss, nostalgia, betrayal, and heartbreak, Gabriela had a point.
Yet, one of my current favourite tangos is an exception. Have you listened to the intensely romantic and danceable Éste es tu tango? It's so full of hope.
Imagine this scene in a milonga: a nervous young man smitten with a special young woman. Her eyes show her interest. But he's too shy to look her way. All this is observed by the singer, who urges him to take this precious opportunity for happiness.
Listen to this gem of a tango, while reading the lyrics, kindly translated by El tango te espera
Este Es Tu Tango - Enrique Rodriguez Canta Armando Moreno (1945) - YouTube
Definition: "The basic and most important reasons for doing or believing something" Cambridge dictionary
The social tango I know and love has many facets. The numerous posts on this blog alone attest to that. Some posts dealing with topics such as milonga etiquette may attract controversy. Yet, when you distil the various issues, I believe they can be traced back to three fundamental truths.
Music is the leader The music's rhythms, melodies and emotions guide the couple's movements. Music is the reason and basis for their dance. Golden Age dance music provides an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
Primacy of the embrace A comfortable, trusting embrace enables a couple to share their intimate, emotional response to the music, allowing them to move as one. Respect for others As a social activity, all behaviour, including on the dance-floor, is moderated by its effects on others. It follows that our behaviours shouldn't impact detrimentally on others, in fact our behaviours should enhance their experience. Hence the milonga codes, which evolved over decades, help us to negotiate the sensitivities of others.
Now, this may sound a little stern, but I believe that as social tango dancers, teachers and milonga organisers, our activities should stem from and be consistent with ALL three principles. In social tango none can be ignored or neglected. PP
Tango means different things to different people: music, a dance, performance art, social club, business, culture, fun. And this may determine how each person approaches it.
When it comes to social tango, there appears to be a series of layers that dancers may or may not progress through - depending on their personal pursuit. Something like peeling an onion (tears and all!). Here's one way of looking at it:
The outer layer - the thin veneer that coats the onion. It's the initial discovery of tango - often through being dazzled by seeing others dance and thinking "I want to do that"
Then comes the time to take the plunge- wanting to emulate what was observed. Numerous layers involve learning skills - posture, walk, a range of simple movement combinations useful in the milonga. It can take years to achieve true competence. Can dancers be content to remain here?
Along with this comes further cultivation of the embrace, clear body communication, navigation, subtle leads and unhurried responses, as well as milonga etiquette. This begs the question: How established does the previous foundation need to be in order to progress more deeply into these layers?
Beneath this we have an even sweeter layer: Musicality, which means using the body memory, not the head, responding intuitively to the nuances of the music; navigation that flows and is immediately responsive to any change encountered. The earlier layers are essential for success here, because this heralds the growth of improvisation, varied dynamics and pauses. What was once familiar now starts appearing in different forms. Is this the layer that many dancers see as their final goal?
Perhaps the core has yet to be reached. We get closer to it when we start dancing the feeling. Moving from the external to the internal seems a good description of where this layer takes us: where we rely on the emotions evoked by the music. How much better is this if we also understand the lyrics?
I'd suggest that there's perhaps one last layer - or the core - which involves embodying the culture of tango whenever we step into a milonga. Is it possible to achieve this without immersing oneself in the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires?
It's not difficult to imagine the unpacking of matryoshka (Russian dolls) as another metaphor for tango's challenging journey of discovery. Bob
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