Because tango involves intimate physical contact and emotional exchanges, it can affect people deeply on many levels and should not be taken lightly. The enjoyment of tango relies not only on the dance skills of the dancers but also on their relationship and the environment of the milonga impacted by each and every participant's conduct. 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 others 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 close embrace, therefore personal hygiene is important. You need to take a shower, wash hair, brush teeth and change cloth before going to a milonga. Smells from your hair, mouth, body or cloth can make your partner uncomfortable.
You should not use hair oil, hair coloring and heavy makeup because your head will touch your partner's face and outfit and both of you may sweat in the dance. Wear perfume with a pleasant fragrance and avoid odd scents. Be mindful that some people may be allergic to certain chemicals.
3. Dress code
Your outfit should match the beauty of the dance, not reduce it. Men look better in suits, not T-shirts and jeans. Women look better when dance in dress or skirt - not too long or too exposed. Do not wear ornaments that may rub your partner's chest in close embrace. Men should wear leather shoes. Women should wear high heel tango shoes. Sneakers and sandals are inappropriate.
When guests enter the milonga, they are cordially received by the host, who then takes them to their seats. In a small venue, men and women are seated separately on different sides of the room. In a large venue, men and women sit at different tables but the tables are mixed to facilitate cabeceo. Unless a request to sit together is made, couples and friends who come together are seated apart to ensure everyone the same opportunity to invite others or be invited by others.
Women change in the ladies' room, not at the table. Men, too, go to the men’s room to prepare for the dance or to fix themselves between tandas. This is not only for looking good but also for showing courtesy and respect to others and the dance.
6. Dating couple
A couple who come for dancing and not dating should not sit together, otherwise people may avoid disturbing or inviting them out of respect for their relationship. A dating couple only dance with each other, thus should not occupy a table that is easily accessible. Such seats should be left to people 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 not be discrimination and coterie. Cliquing is inappropriate in the milonga because it causes segregation, making it difficult for others to invite the members of the clique. Women should not sit with their male friends and dance only with them. Separate seating helps to prevent cliquing.
Part Two: Invitation
1. Verbal invitation
A verbal invitation may put a woman in the dilemma of either accepting it unwillingly or saying no to the man, thus is not the best way to invite a woman to dance. But in places where tango culture has not been established, that often is the way men use to invite a woman. In that case the woman should respond in an amicable manner, especially if she does not accept the invitation. Arrogance and rudeness do not conform to the spirit of tango.
The correct way to invite a woman to dance is nodding at her from a distance. The woman may nod her head to accept the invitation or she may turn her head away to decline. This way of inviting a woman to dance is called cabeceo. Cabeceo gives the woman the freedom to accept or reject the invitation without being obligated to dance or causing public embarrassment to the man. (See Women's Role in Cabeceo.)
3. Active participation
For cabeceo to work women must participate in the invitation process. Women should not sit there talking to each other, browsing on mobile devices, or wearing a blank face and ignoring men. Rather, they should actively make eye contact with men and be responsive to men's cabeceo. (See Tango Etiquette: Eye Contact, Talking, Clique and Hierarchy.)
The light in the milonga, therefore, must 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 a romantic air, which only does a disservice to the milonga.
5. What if you made a mistake
When doing cabeceo, you need to make sure that the person is nodding at you and not someone behind you or next to you. However, in a crowded milonga errors could occur. Sometimes a man thought that a woman has accepted his cabeceo, only to find that she goes to join another man. In such case he has to quickly cabeceo someone else while on his way to pick up the woman, or go to the men's room instead. Sometimes two women at the same table both think they are cabeceoed by the same man. To avoid confusion, the man picking up the woman should look into her eyes while walking towards her and avoid making eye contact with the other woman. (See The Issues on Cabeceo.)
6. Rotating seats
Cabeceo could be hindered by distance, crowd, dim light and bad eyesight. As a remedy you may rotate your seats in different parts of the room if the seats are not fixed. If the seats are fixed, 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 invite a woman but she is talking with someone - which unfortunately is a frequent occurrence in the US, you should move closer to where she can see you and wait there patiently while look 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 cabeceo a woman but she turns a blind eye, what does that mean? "She did not see me, I should go to ask her directly." Wrong. She turns a blind eye because she does not want to dance with you. If she wants you she will let you know. You should not force your way to her seat to ask her, as which may put her in a dilemma that she might 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 verbally asks a woman to dance and she replies "I am resting my feet", what does that mean? "She wants me to allow her few minutes." 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, 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 she would hurt the feeling of the man who asked her first. Neither should another man go immediately to invite her. 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
You should avoid being inconsiderately blunt. For example, instead of saying "No" to a verbal invitation, you may say, "I am taking a break now, may I dance with you later?" Such polite decline gives the inviter a way out without feeling being rejected and humiliated in front of other people. Women who are resting may take off their shoes. That way, no men will bother them.
12. Going all out
Some women accept an invitation for fear of hurting the inviter’s feeling, but then they dance perfunctorily without emotionally involved, letting the man feel disappointed. This is also improper. If you do not want to dance with the man, you should not accept his invitation. If you accept the invitation, then you must spare no effort to assume your role as his partner. Declining an invitation is normal. Perfunctoriness, on the other hand, antagonizes the spirit of tango. Of course, all such errors could be avoided if cabeceo is used as the way of invitation. (See How to Get More Invitations in the Milonga.)
Part Three: Dancing
1. Taking a detour
The woman who has accepted the cabeceo should sit at her seat and wait for the man come to take her into the dance floor. To avoid interrupting the people already dancing on the dance floor, the man picking up the woman should not walk through the crowds but should take a detour around the dance floor to where the woman is.
2. Seeking permission
Before taking the woman into the dance floor, the man should make eye contact with the leader of the oncoming dance couple and get his permission. Forcefully squeezing into the floor is impolite. If the approaching 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. Experienced dancers will leave a gap for you to enter, and it is safe with such people dance after you.
3. Dancing social tango only
There are different styles in tango, some are suited to social dancing in the milongas, others are not. (See The Styles of Tango.) Dancers should avoid styles that are not designed for social dancing. 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
Tango music is played in a set of three or four songs, called a tanda. Between two tandas is a short interlude, called cortina, which is used to clear the dance floor and change partners. One should dance the entire tanda with the same partner. Unless you have a very good reason, calling off in the middle of the tanda is impolite.
5. One tanda a time
You have danced one tanda with a woman and felt very good, could you ask her to continue for another tanda? While this is up to the two of you, keep in mind that other people are waiting for dancing with her also, or her male companion may feel uncomfortable because dancing multiple tandas in a row with the same woman indicates you like her. For a woman, accepting such a request signals the reciprocal feeling. It is wise not to encourage the man if you have no intention to get involved.
6. Brief conversation
Dancers often start to dance after the prelude in order to figure out the rhythm of the song. People customarily use this short period of time for a small talk. This brief conversation, however, sometimes becomes too long. Some people stand there talking even after others around them all started to dance. As a rule of thumb, when the rhythm of the song becomes clear, or when people around you start to dance, you should begin to move to avoid causing obstruction to traffic.
7. Do not advise your partner
Criticizing or correcting your partner while dancing puts yourself in a superior position and may hurt your partner's feelings. 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 on the dance floor, as that could oblige him/her to do things they should not do in the milonga. (See The Art of Love.)
8. Complying with navigation rules
The outer edge of the dance floor is divided into two or more lanes, just like the racing tracks of a sport arena. These tracks or lanes are for skilled dancers who can keep up with traffic. Those who want to practice new steps should do so at the center floor to avoid causing obstruction to traffic. Zigzagging between lanes or dancing against the line of dance can easily cause collisions with others and should be avoided. (See Spot Dancing in Tango.)
9. Keeping a proper distance
Each dancing couple should maintain a proper distance and not be too close or too far apart from other couples. Beginners often forget to slow down when necessary, causing collisions with the people in front, or focus on doing steps in place, causing obstruction to traffic. These are all inappropriate. (See Cadencia and the Flow of Tango.)
10. Safety first
The man who leads the woman has the responsibility to protect her and prevent her from being hit, kicked or stepped on by others. For the same reason, he should not lead her do things that may hurt her or others, such as high boleo, kick, gancho and lift.
11. Safeguarding the dance environment
All dancers should behave in the best manner - friendly, respectful, polite, considerate, cooperative and accommodating. If someone behaved disrespectfully to others, the rest of the crowd should boycott him/her for a while to let the person feel the public disapproval, as milongueros all do in the milongas of Buenos Aires. This will help to keep the dance environment healthy.
12. Evacuating the dance floor
The cortina between two tandas lasts only for thirty seconds or so. This very short interval is used to clear the dance floor and change partners. Dancers should leave the dance floor during the cortina. Lingering and talking on the floor will hinder the preparation for the next round of dance.
13. Escorting the woman to her seat
Some women may become disoriented on a crowded dance floor. Escorting them back to their seats after the tanda is a common practice in Buenos Aires. However, the man should not talk with the woman after sending her back lest delaying her being invited for the next tanda.
14. The last tanda
Near the end of the milonga the DJ usually will announce 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 to the woman, unless her male companion is too tired but she still wants to dance. Your good manner will be a blessing to the community.