A beginner student of ours recently revealed that he had gone to a milonga.
For the uninitiated, the “milonga” is the club where we dance tango socially. In fact, it is what it’s all about: what we go to classes to be ready for. And there are many milongas, not just in Buenos Aires, but in London and around the world.
And in class, to a certain extent, we recreate the conditions of the milonga. We dance in an anti-clockwise direction (the line of dance), try to avoid collisions with other couples and learn to improvise so that our steps can adapt to the ever-changing shape of the dance floor. We even change partners at regular intervals - by eye contact - just like in the milonga.
A question I’m often asked is how long one should wait before going to the milonga for the first time. A question I always find tricky to answer.
The first thing to know is that there is no such thing as a “milonga licence” (like a driving licence) gaining you entry to the milonga. Anyone can turn up and dance. But whether you would want to without a bit of experience first is another matter.
As it happens, the beginner student in question hadn’t asked me when he should go to the milonga. After 3 or 4 classes with us, he simply decided to go.
And how did it go? “It was really traumatic”, he reported smiling ruefully “I couldn’t remember anything, everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and there was this guy behind me who kept tutting at me like I was getting in his way”.
I was quite struck by his description of his experience as traumatic and it was this that inspired me to write this piece. After all, we dance tango for pleasure, therapy and as an antidote to the stresses of everyday life.
Don’t get me wrong, I know he wasn’t genuinely traumatised - but let’s just say he definitely didn’t enjoy the experience. And no doubt it knocked his confidence a little and put him off returning to the milonga for quite some time.
This is something that as a tango teacher - and we as a tango community - should definitely want to avoid. Luckily, the guy in question hasn’t let the experience put him off, has come back to classes and is working doubly hard on his tango.
So when is the best time to go to the milonga for the first time and how do we make sure it is as positive an experience as possible?
Why Is the Milonga So Different?
Theoretically, going to the milonga shouldn’t be so different to going to class. And if you can get round the dance floor in a class without too many collisions and improvise your steps, it shouldn’t be that big a deal to go the millonga …right?
As we so often find out, theory does not always translate into practice. It seems it is quite common to get a bit of “stage fright” when we go to the milonga, however irrational we know it to be. We know that everyone else there is just getting on with having a good time. We know there is no panel of judges who will be giving us the thumbs up … or the thumbs down. And yet, we can’t seem to shrug the inescapable feeling that this is the REAL THING. We don’t want to let our partner down. We don’t want to get in the way of the others on the dance floor. And are those people on the sidelines enjoying a quiet drink or are they watching us? Our palms begin to perspire …
So When to Take the Plunge?
Listen to your teacher and listen to yourself. Most students start to go to the milonga after a few months of classes. They may be encouraged to start by someone they have met in class and it may all just seem to happen naturally.
Everyone is different. I’ve had students who haven’t waited at all. I’ll never forget one happy-go-lucky guy who just threw himself into the deep end in his first week of tango without any trauma at all. But it was his nature to let very little ruffe his feathers. Another (very competent) dancer could not bring himself to go for more than a year, despite regular classes and our regular prompting. Again, it was just his personality to take a more cautious approach and he wanted to wait until he felt truly comfortable.
Illusion of Expertise
One thing most people report feeling when they go to the milonga for the first time is that everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.
I remember feeling exactly the same myself. I hadn’t been dancing tango for very long at all and I remember staring at all the couples on the dance floor, wondering how on earth they knew where to put their feet. They all seemed like experts to me.
Now, I’m not denying that there will be good dancers on the dance floor. However, in most milongas, this will not be universal. Yet, somehow our eye only sees the group as a whole and filters out those who are less experienced or even struggling a little. If you look a bit more carefully, you will spot those people and it might help you feel less conspicuous.
It is also important to realise that right now others may seem impossibly advanced to you but in a few months’ time, they will appear less so. And after a few more months still, you may seem impossibly advanced to another newcomer. Don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen many times before!
Knowledge of the “Codigos”
It’s not the purpose of this piece to explain the “codigos” (milonga etiquette) in any detail. Most teachers will mention them in classes. And there are many articles out there on the web.
But in fact, you may find you know some of the most important ones already.
In class, you will have been dancing in an anti-clockwise direction and it is amazing how quickly this becomes entrenched. We rarely see people walking in the wrong direction even in our Absolute Beginner classes.
And a lot of the other codigos are quite logical and would apply in every day life, like for example trying not to bump into other people or if someone doesn’t accept a dance with you, not harassing them about it.
The rest you’ll be able to “learn on the job” and you’ll probably find the extent which they are applied in practice varies from milonga to milonga, so you will need to play it by ear a little.
But just to be on the safe side, here are a few definite DON’TS for the dance floor that should help smooth your way for your first time at the milonga:
1) Don’t walk across the dance floor at any time - always walk around edge of the dance floor even if the music has stopped.
2) Don’t have a chat while dancing. Wait until the music comes to an end for the small talk!
3) Don’t stay on the spot for too long. Be conscious that there will be people behind you as well as in front of you.
4) Don’t ask someone to dance without hearing the music first. You don’t want your first dance with the girl of your dreams to be a milonga tanda (group of three or four songs where the music is much faster!). Even if you’ve studied milonga and you’re ready for it, more experienced dancers usually wait to hear whether they like the music before asking someone to dance.
5) Don't correct your partner’s technique on the dance floor.. This is fine in a class (when done tactfully) but the milonga is the place where we simply enjoy ourselves and it is considered inappropriate to correct someone.
First Time Survival Guide
Here are just a few tips for making sure you have a positive first experience:
Keep it simple, stick to what you know and keep your eye on the road ahead!
Believe me, your partner will be more than happy if you simply walk with her and stop before you bump her into the couple ahead of you. Tango is in its essence a beautiful, harmonious walk. Never underestimate how lovely this is.
Your partner will be rather less happy if you try steps that you haven’t fully mastered yet. Contrary to what you may think, this will do the opposite of impressing her! Those steps are you for to experiment with and polish in class. You can think of them as still being in the “workshop”, and not yet “milonga-ready”.
Remember you have just as much right to be on the dance floor and enjoy the experience as anyone else. In fact it is often said that dancers who have just a little bit of experience can be more disruptive to the “ronda” (flow of the dance floor) than Beginners as they try and do more elaborate steps without yet having the control to do them without obstructing the dance floor.
It is all about the eye contact! Something that as Londoners we may not be very good at!
Like me, you may find that your first instinct is to look down as soon as someone looks your way. But although eyelashes fluttering downwards never stopped a Disney heroine getting her prince, they don’t cut it in the milonga!
It’s hard at first, but try to get used to holding someone’s gaze and not looking away. I personally must have missed so many lovely dances before the importance of this dawned on me! If you do this, it means one thing and one thing only: “I would like to dance with you. If you ask me to dance, I will accept.”
No leader enjoys being turned down for a dance and so this tiny little look could be all the encouragement he needs to ask you to dance.
Don’t put yourself under any pressure to dance. Be happy to sit and observe. No one will know or care if you don’t get up and dance.
It can actually be a pretty fascinating (as well as instructional) experience watching others dance. It’s one of my favourite hobbies (when I’m not dancing myself of course!)
Our Nights Out
Keep an eye out on our website for our next Student Night Out, which we organise every few months. They are very sociable evenings when the whole of Tango Movement gets together, but they are also invaluable for the brave Beginners that join us. It is much easier to enjoy yourself at your first milonga if you are accompanied - and supported by - people you’ve already met (and probably already danced with) in class.
So let’s raise a glass and toast to your happy - and very untraumatic - first milonga experience!