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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:

For Leaders

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.

For Followers:

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.

For Both:

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!

1) You never leave the house without your tango shoes … just in case you get an unexpected chance to dance.

2) Hugging a complete stranger and nonchalantly walking off after 12 minutes is now a normal part of your daily existence.

3) You find yourself unconsciously doing little tango movements - under your desk, on the tube, in the lift. You half wonder whether it looks strange but you don't stop (you need to practice!)

4) When out with non-tango friends, you have to keep reminding yourself not to talk about tango the whole time.

5) You can no longer watch Hollywood or TV versions of tango without being filled with indignation.

6) Normal (non-tango) clubs now seem alien (and loud!) to you and you feel the absence of tango sharply.

7) You don't bother buying clothes that you can't dance tango in.

8) Most of the music on your playlist was composed before 1950.

9) You have considered getting rid of furniture to create space in your living room for practice.

10) When visiting a tango friend's house for a first time, you'll comment on the space they have to practice in

11) Small talk on a night out will usually include how sticky/slippery the floor is.

12) You know your friend won't think you're rude if you break off your conversation midway to accept an invitation to dance.

13) No one bats an eyelid if you comment on how pretty someone’s feet are.

14) Wherever you go in the world, you'll check out the local tango scene. And you're always planning your next trip to Buenos Aires.

15) The world is now divided into two: those who dance tango and those who don’t.

16) You secretly feel a bit sorry for those who don't.

17) The prospect of not dancing for more than a few days has become unthinkable.

18) You've briefly considered ignoring doctor's advice recommending that you don't dance for a while.

19) Your Facebook Newsfeed is gradually being taken over by tango-related posts, videos and events. Yes, even Facebook knows you’re an addict!

From the outset, I knew this was going to be a wedding dance like none other I had choreographed before.

Philippa and Daniel. Neither of them had danced tango before. Philippa had taken some salsa lessons, but Daniel had barely danced a step in his life. Philippa was incredibly excited about the dance classes …. Daniel, well let’s just say he had his reservations!

So nothing new there. And I would even go as far as saying that it was a pretty typical scenario. But there was something different this time.

Philippa and I had been close friends since we were 11 years old.

I still remember Philippa when we met on our first day at secondary school: thick rimmed glasses, knee high white socks and a navy blue skirt way below the regulation length. Unrecognisable from the beautiful woman with the hour-glass figure who walked down the aisle at the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge, in November 2014.

Choreographing her wedding dance was going to be an exciting and emotional experience for me. Not only because of what it meant to me to see one of my oldest friends find her soulmate but because also for the first time I would actually watch one of my first dances LIVE!

Gulp! Would they forget what I had taught them? Would she get tangled up in her dress (she had warned me that her dress was VERY voluminous)? Would they be all the more nervous knowing their teacher was watching?

We had agreed that I would choreograph their wedding dance months beforehand but as so often happens when a wedding is being planned, things got left a little to the last minute. With four weeks to go to the wedding, Philippa and Daniel realised the only day they could both do was a Sunday. Four classes? I reassured them they would be fine!

I always love to be involved in someone’s wedding dance. Maybe it’s because I remember how important it was to me on my wedding day. But I also see it as a privilege to be able to contribute to something that I know the couple will cherish forever. I get excited about the prospect of them amazing their friends and family and always feel slightly disappointed that I won’t actually be there to watch the dance!

My challenge is to find movements that will make my couple - who usually have no dance experience - look wonderful, but without overwhelming them. Most couples already have enough on their plate in the run-up to a wedding without losing sleep over a complicated choreography! The trick is to choose movements that have the wow factor but which are actually deceptively easy. And to adapt and listen to the individual couple: what kind of dance do they want? Are they going for tender romance? Or do they want something dramatic and sexy? No one couple is the same and that is both the challenge and fascination of the job!

This time, I wouldn’t have to get to know my bride-to-be. I knew Philippa well and knew that she would want something with timeless elegance. But I didn’t know Daniel so well and I certainly didn’t know how he would respond to the classes.

I started off cautiously. It was the first class and Daniel, it seemed, had the jitters. A few times, he stopped and said he wasn’t sure he wanted to go ahead. He wasn’t sure he would remember the steps in such a short time. Crisis! I knew how important this was to Philippa!

So I gave him the simplest of steps: side step to the left, side step to the right. Philippa, I reassured him, will be doing the fancy steps. Philippa will be wearing the beautiful white dress! Don’t worry, all eyes will be on her!

And then something happened that surprised all of us (including Daniel). Daniel was actually GREAT at remembering steps! Before too long he was even reminding Philippa what she had to do! And he wanted a little bit more than a side-step to the left and a few steps forward. So we tweaked the choreography to give Daniel a few of his own moments to shine.

We had four amazing Sundays together that I’m sure we’ll all remember for many years to come. Lots of laughs, some nerves and most of all so much anticipation for the big day.

So when the day finally came, how did it go? Well, let’s say I had a few butterflies when the band struck the first few notes. I grabbed onto David’s hand and squeezed it. Philippa looked in my direction and smiled nervously.

Did it all go according to plan? Almost! They did forget a few of the details we had worked on. Did it matter? Not at all! Afterwards Philippa and Daniel told me that it had been like they were alone on the dance floor and that the moment had surpassed all their expectations. In their words, it was magical.

And really, there is not much more you can ask for than that!

Congratulations Philippa and Daniel. You were brilliant!

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