Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating idea, philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. In many ways, tango is a metaphor of life. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a people or species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. We are humanists. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. If you share this conviction, please join the conversation and let your voice be heard, which is urgently needed and long overdue.

Together we can awaken the world.

December 25, 2013

Milonga Codes

Tango is a very personal experience, which involves intent physical contact and emotional exchanges between dancers. Such intimate activity can affect people deeply on many levels and hence should not be taken lightly. A good tango experience depends not only on dance skills. In fact, it depends largely on the personal relationship and social ambiance of the milonga affected by each and every participant's conducts. With the development of tango, codes of conduct have also been established and become an important part of the dance. Learning these codes and mastering the proper way to behave and treat each other in the milonga is an essential part of a dancer's education. The following are things you must know when you go to a milonga.

Part One: Preparation and seating

1. Personal hygiene
Tango is danced in a close embrace in which your partner can smell the odor of your body. Therefore you need to take a shower, wash your hair and brush your teeth before going to a milonga. If you dine on the way, don't forget to rinse your mouth after the meal. Dancing with smelly hair and a mouthful of food odor will make your partner uncomfortable.

2. Makeup
Using light makeup and avoiding using fair coloring, because your head will touch your partner's face and both of you may sweat when dancing. Be aware that some people are allergic to certain scents and chemicals in hair sprays, makeups and perfumes.

3. What to wear?
Your outfit should match the elegance and beauty of the dance. Men look good in suits, not T-shirts and jeans. Ladies look good in dress or skirt, not too long or too exposed. Some women come to the milonga in exotic costumes, which to me is a little odd. Women should avoid wearing ornaments that will scrap the outfit of the man or rub his chest. Men wear leather shoes. Women wear high-heeled tango shoes. Sneakers and sandals are inappropriate.

4. Seating
In Buenos Aires, when the guests enter a milonga, they are cordially received by the host, who will then take them to the seat. In a small venue, men and women are seated separately on different sides of the room. If the venue is large, men and women may sit at separate tables, but the tables are mixed to facilitate the invitation. Unless a request to sit together is made, couples and friends who come together are seated separately to ensure everyone the same opportunity to invite others or be invited by others.

5. Changing
In Buenos Aires, women change shoes in the lady’s room rather than at the table. Men, too, go to the men’s room to comb the hair, tidy the tie, change a shirt, or put on some perfume between the tandas. This is not only for looking good, but also for courtesy and showing respect to others and the dance.

6. The couple
If the couple is not dating, it would be better if they do not sit together, otherwise people may avoid inviting the lady out of respect and courtesy. A dating couple only dance with each other; therefore, they should not occupy a table easily accessible by others. Such seats should be left to those who need to do cabeceo. In Buenos Aires, a dating couple usually sit at a quiet corner. They do not dance with others, neither do other people bother them.

7. Equal opportunity
With the exception of dating couples, all dancers have equal opportunities to dance with anyone else in the milonga. There should be no discrimination and coterie. Cliquing is inappropriate in the milonga because it causes segregation, making it difficult for others to invite members of the clique. Women should avoid sitting with male friends and dance only with them, and vise versa. Separate seating helps to create integration and prevent cliquing.

Part Two: Invitation

1. Active participation
Women should not chatting with each other and waiting passively for men to come to invite them, but should actively participate in the invitation process by paying attention to men’s eye contact and being responsive to their cabeceo. Everyone must behave in a polite and friendly manner and be considerate of other’s feelings. Indifference, arrogance and rudeness do not conform to the spirit of tango. (See Activity and Passivity in Tango.)

2. Cabeceo
Dancing tango involves repeated change of partners and hence a frequent partner selection and invitation process. In a place where tango culture has not yet formed, people commonly use verbal invitation, which could put a woman into a dilemma that she may not want to be put into. The correct way to invite a woman is to nod at her from a distance. The woman may turn her eyes away to decline the invitation, or she may nod her head to accept it. This way of inviting a woman to dance is called cabeceo. Cabeceo gives women the freedom to accept or reject an invitation without being obliged to dance or causing public embarrassment to the man. (See Women's Role in Cabeceo.)

3. Making eye contact
For cabeceo to work, women must participate the process. If women sit there chatting with each other and pay no attention to men, then men cannot cabeceo them even if they want to. Women need to know that making eye contact with men is crucial because men can only cabeceo those who look at them. In order to seize the opportunity to find a partner, women must stop chatting with each other or on the phone, and must make eye contact with men, especially at the beginning of a tanda. (See Tango Etiquette: Eye Contact, Talking, Clique and Hierarchy.)

4. Lighting
The light in the milonga, therefore, should be bright enough for people to see each other and do cabeceo. Some milonga organizers set the light too dim, or use the flashing light of a disco room in order to create certain effect, which only does a disservice to the milonga.

5. What if you made a mistake?
When doing caceceo, you need to make sure that a person is nodding at you and not someone behind you. However, in a crowded milonga, errors could occur. Sometimes a man thought that a woman has accepted his invitation, only to find that she went to join another man. In such case the man has to quickly cabeceo someone else while on his way, or change the direction and go to the men's room instead. Sometimes two women at the same table both thought that they have been cabeceoed by the same man. To avoid confusion the man needs to look directly into the eyes of the woman that he is inviting while walking towards her and avoid making eye contact with the other woman even if the latter stares at him. Some women feel offended by this and stop making eye contact with the man afterwards, which is totally unnecessary. An understanding woman can always catch the man’s eyes again if she wants to dance with him.

6. Changing seats
Cabeceo could be hindered by dim light, distance, crowds, or bad eyesight. As a remedy you may consider rotating seat in different parts of the room, that is, if the seats of the venue are not fixed. Otherwise, you may temporarily leave your seat and walk to where you are able to make eye contact with the person of your choice, and then do cabeceo.

7. How to invite a woman who is talking?
A gentleman does not interrupt a woman when she is talking. If you want to dance with a woman but she is talking with others – which unfortunately is a frequent occurrence in the US, you should move closer to where she can see you and wait there patiently while looking into her eyes until she notices you, and then seize the opportunity to cabeceo her. If she keeps on talking without paying any attention to you, then you should give up on her and search for another woman.

8. Do not oblige a woman to dance
If a man tries to make eye contact with a woman, but she turns a blind eye, what does that mean? "She did not see me, I should go directly to ask her." Wrong. She does not see you because she does not want to dance with you. If she wants you she will see you. You should not force your way to her table and ask her, as which could oblige her to dance, putting her into a situation that she may want to avoid in the first place. Instead, you should stay where you are and wait until she makes eye contact with you, and then cabeceo her to see if she will accept your invitation.

9. Listening to what she means
If a man asks a woman to dance and she replies, "I am resting my feet." What does that mean? "She wants me to wait for her." Wrong. No matter how tactful her words are, so long as she does not immediately join you, that is a decline. You should give up on her for the moment and turn to someone else. Do not linger there waiting for her, as which, if she is expecting someone else, could make her feel uneasy.

10. Acting in good faith
The woman who said "I am taking a break" to one man should not accept another man’s invitation right away. She should at least wait until the next tanda. Otherwise a lack of integrity on her part is displayed. Neither should another man go immediately to invite a woman who just rejected someone else. You would break her faith with the first man if she accepts your invitation. Or, you would bring contempt to yourself if she keeps her words.

11. Practicing good manner
The way to avoid guesswork and misunderstanding is to be honest and considerate. For example, the woman may friendly say, "I need to take a break now. Could we dance later?" Such polite decline gives the inviter a way out without feeling rejected and humiliated. Women who are resting may take off their shoes. That way, nobody will bother them.

12. Going all out
Some women accept an invitation for fear of hurt other’s feelings, but then they dance perfunctorily without emotional involvement, letting the inviter feel disappointed. This is also impolite. If a woman does not want to dance with a man, she should not accept his invitation. If she accepts the invitation, then she must spare no effort to assume her role as his partner. Declining an invitation is normal. Perfunctoriness, on the other hand, antagonizes the spirit of tango. Of course, none of the above would happen if cabeceo were used. (See How to Get More Invitations in the Milonga.)

Part Three: Dancing

1. Taking a detour
The woman who accepted the cabeceo should sit there wait for the man to come to take her into the dance floor. To avoid interrupting the people already dancing on the floor, the man picking up the woman should not walk through the dance floor, but should make a detour around the dance floor to where the woman sits, if that is feasible.

2. Seeking permission
Before taking the woman into the dance floor, the man should make eye contact with the leader of the approaching dancing couple and get his permission. Forcefully squeezing into the floor is impolite. If the oncoming couple are novices who cannot slow down, it would be better to let them pass. Dancing in front of them does you no good, because they are likely to cause a rear-end collision. Skilled dancers will leave a gap for you to enter, and it is safe with such people dancing behind you.

3. Dancing social tango only
There are different styles in tango. Some are suitable for social dancing, others are not. (See The Styles of Tango.) A milonga is a social tango party and should be free from styles and behaviors that conflict with its purpose. Dancers should observe the milonga codes and dance only social tango in the milonga. Using the milonga to demonstrate and promote performance tango does a great disservice to the milonga. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

4. Tanda and cortina
In the milonga, tango music is played in a set of three or four songs, called a tanda. Between two tandas is a short interlude, called cortina. One should dance the entire tanda with the same partner. Unless you have a very good reason, withdrawing in the middle of the tanda is impolite.

5. Dancing only one tanda
You have danced one tanda with a woman and felt very good, could you ask her to continue for another tanda? While this is totally up to the two of you, you should keep in mind that someone else may be waiting for her, or her significant other may feel uncomfortable because dancing multiple tandas in a row with the same woman means you like her, whether that is beyond normal or not. For a woman, accepting such request signals the reciprocal feeling. It would be wise not to fall into it if you don't want to get involved.

6. Brief conversation
The prelude of a tango song often does not have a normal rhythm; therefore, dancers usually begin to dance after the prelude. People customarily use this short period of time for a small chat. But in recent years this brief conversation tends to become longer. Some people stand there talking even after others all started to dance. As a rule of thumb, when the rhythm of the song becomes regular, or when people around you start to dance, you should begin to move to avoid blocking the traffic.

7. Do not advise your partner
Giving advice to your partner during the dance puts yourself in a superior position and may affect the relationship. Milonga is where people come to enjoy dancing with each other. Teaching should be left in the classroom. If you admire a master, attending his/her class is a good idea, but do not ask him/her to teach you, as which could oblige him/her to do things that they should not do in the milonga. (See The Art of Love.)

8. Complying with navigation rules
The dance floor is divided into two or more lanes, just like the racing tracks of a sport arena. Dancing couples move counterclockwise in their respective lanes. The lane at the outer edge of the floor is for skilled dancers who can keep up with the flow of traffic. Less skilled dancers who want to practice what they have recently learned should dance in the slow lane near the center. Zigzagging between lanes or moving backwards could easily cause collision with others, and should be avoided.

9. Keeping a proper distance
The couple behind should keep a proper distance and not be too close or too far away from the couple in front. Beginners concentrating on doing the steps may forget about slowing down or speeding up as needed, often cause collision with the people in front, or block the people behind. Dancers who like to show off may intentionally keep a large distance from the couple in front, or stay at the same place doing their exhibition. These are all inappropriate. (See Cadencia and the Flow of Tango.)

10. Safety first
You might think that the most important thing in the milonga is to dance. In fact, that is safety. The man who leads the woman has the responsibility to protect her and prevent her from being bumped, kicked, or stepped on by others. For the same reason, he should not lead her do things that could harm others, such as high voleos, kicks and ganchos. The woman, too, should be considerate of people dancing nearby and avoid actions that may put others' safety in jeopardy.

11. Maintaining a good dance environment
A successful milonga depends on the efforts of all participants. Everyone in the milonga must behave in his/her best manner - polite, friendly, respectful, considerate, accommodating and cooperative. Misconducts should be subject to public resistance. If someone behaved disrespectfully to others, the rest of the crowd need to boycott him/her for a while, as the milongueros all do in Buenos Aires, to let the person feel the public disapproval. This can help to maintain a healthy dance environment.

12. Evacuating the dance floor
The cortina between the two tandas lasts only for thirty seconds or so. This very short interval is used to clear the dance floor and change partners. All dancers should leave the dance floor during the cortina. Chatting without leaving the dance floor could hinder the preparation of the next round.

13. Escorting the woman to her seat
Some elderly women may be disoriented on a crowded dance floor. Escorting them back to their seats after the dance is a common practice in Buenos Aires. However, the man should not stay there talking with the woman after sending her back lest delaying her being invited by others for the next tanda.

14. The last tanda
Near the end of the milonga the DJ usually will announce, “This is the last tanda.” If you share a table with a couple, it would be nice to let the couple dance the last tanda and not preempt the invitation, unless the husband or boyfriend is too tired but the woman still wants to dance with you. Your good manner will be a blessing to the community.


This post is written in reference to Mark Word 's article, Tango Etiquette: The Pocket-Sized Version. I originally wanted to translate Word 's article into Chinese. In the translation process I felt the need to make some changes to suit Chinese readers. The result is this version, in which I made a lot of additions and skipped some contents that may be culturally difficult for the Chinese. Unfortunately, the original American humor also has lost as a result. Those who are interested in reading Word's article please click here.

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