Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search 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 community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

December 25, 2013

Milonga Codes

Tango is an intimate dance that involves intent physical contact and emotional exchanges between dancers. Such an intimate activity can affect people deeply on many levels and hence should not be taken lightly. One's tango experience relies not only on one's dance skills but also on one's relationship with other dancers and the social environment of the milonga impacted by each and every participant's conducts. With the evolution of tango, codes of conduct have been developed 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 in which the partners touch each other's body, 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 the hair, mouth or cloth will make your partner uncomfortable.

2. Makeup
You should avoid using heavy makeup, oil and hair coloring because in the dance your head will touch your partner's head, body or outfit and both of you may sweat. You should select a perfume that has a pleasant fragrance and avoid odd smells. You should be aware that certain scents or chemicals may cause allergic reaction to others.

3. Dress code
Your outfit should enhance the beauty of the dance, not reduce it. Men look good in suits, not T-shirts and jeans. Women look good in skirt or dress - not too long or too exposed. Women should avoid wearing ornaments that may scrap the outfit of the man or rub his chest. Men should wear leather shoes and women should 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. 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 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 instead of at the table. Men, too, go to the men’s room to comb hair, tidy tie, change shirts, or put on perfume between tandas. This is not only for looking good, but also for showing courtesy and respect to others and the dance.

6. The couple
If a couple are not dating, they would be better sit separately, 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 seats easily accessible by others. 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 creates segregation, making it difficult for others to invite members of the clique. Women should avoid sitting with male friends and dance only with them. Separate seating helps to prevent cliquing and create integration.

Part Two: Invitation

1. Active participation
Women should not sit there talking with each other and wait 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 men's cabeceo. Everybody must behave in a friendly, respectful and polite manner and be considerate of other’s feelings. Indifference, arrogance and rudeness do not conform to the spirit of tango.

2. Cabeceo
Dancing tango involves repeated change of partner and hence a frequent partner selection and invitation process. In a place where tango culture has not yet formed, people tend to use verbal invitation, which could put the woman into the dilemma of either accepting unwillingly or saying no to the inviter. The correct way to invite a woman to dance is nodding at her from a distance. The woman may accept the invitation by nodding her head, or she may turn her head away to decline. This way of invitation 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. 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. Women need to know that making eye contact with men is crucial because men can only cabeceo those who look at them. In order not to miss the opportunity to be invited, women must stop talking with each other and must pay attention to men who are looking at them, 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 special effects, which only does a disservice to the milonga.

5. What if you made a mistake?
When doing cabeceo, you need to make sure that a person is nodding at you and not someone next to you or behind you. However, in a crowded milonga, error 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, or change direction and go to the men's room instead. Sometimes two women at the same table both thought they have been cabeceoed by the same man. To avoid confusion, the man needs to look 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. (See The Issues on Cabeceo.)

6. Changing seats
Cabeceo could be hindered by dim light, distance, crowd and bad eyesight. As a remedy you may consider rotating 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 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 would see you. You should not force your way to her seat to ask her, as which may put her into the 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 give her a 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 now" to one man should not accept another man’s invitation right away. She should at least wait until the next tanda, otherwise she could hurt the feelings of the first inviter. Neither should another man go immediately to invite a woman who just rejected someone. 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 guessing or misunderstanding is to be honest and considerate. For example, the woman may friendly say, "I am taking a break, may I dance with you later?" Such polite decline gives the inviter a way out without feel rejected and humiliated. Women who are resting may take off their shoes. That way, nobody will bother them.

12. Going all out
Some women have accepted an invitation for fear of hurt the inviter’s feelings, but then they dance perfunctorily without emotional involvement, letting the man feel disappointed. This is also improper. 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, all such mistakes 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 to 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 is.

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 do not know how to 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 dance behind you.

3. Dancing social tango only
There are different styles in tango, some are suited to 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 continue for another tanda? While this is up to the two of you, you should keep in mind that there may be others who are waiting for her, and that her husband or boyfriend may not feel comfortable 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 a request signals the reciprocal feeling. It would be wise not to encourage the man if you have no intention to get involved.

6. Brief conversation
The prelude of a tango song often does not have normal rhythm; therefore, dancers usually begin to dance after the prelude. People customarily use this short period of time for a small talk. But this brief conversation sometimes becomes too long. Some people stand there talking even after others all start 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 traffic.

7. Do not advise your partner
Criticizing or giving advice to your partner in the milonga 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 there, 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 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 the flow of traffic. Beginners who want to practice new steps should do so at the center to avoid causing obstruction to traffic. Zigzagging between lanes or moving against the line of dance can easily cause a collision and should be avoided. (See Spot Dancing in Tango.)

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

10. Safety first
Novices may think that dance is the most important thing on the dance floor. 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 dance too close to others and do things that could hurt others, such as high boleos, kicks and ganchos. The woman, too, should be considerate of the people dancing nearby and avoid doing things that may put other's safety in jeopardy.

11. Maintaining a good dance environment
A successful milonga depends on the efforts of all participants. Everybody in the milonga must behave in his/her best manner - friendly, polite, respectful, considerate, cooperative and accommodating. Misconducts should be subject to public opposition. 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 the milongas of Buenos Aires to let the person feel the public disapproval. This can help to create 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. Talking without leaving the floor would hinder the preparation of the next round.

13. Escorting the woman to her seat
Some women may be 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, “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 to the woman, unless her company is too tired but she still wants to dance. 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 added some contents and canceled some contents that are culturally difficult for the Chinese. Unfortunately, the original American humor is lost as a result. Those who want to read Word's article please click here.

December 8, 2013

Women's Common Mistakes in Tango

1. Refusing to surrender
For two people to dance as one coherent body, one of them must take the lead and the other must follow. Otherwise the two will be conflicting with each other and impossible to reach oneness and harmony. The woman must overcome her ego, surrender to the man and follow his lead. Novice women often have a strong ego and refuse to surrender, just like a young bride still so accustomed to her single status that she needs some adjustment before becoming a qualified wife. It is often more comfortable dancing with a married woman than with an unmarried girl, because the latter is still too self-centric. For a woman, learning tango is much more than learning steps; it is also learning to surrender and be one with the man. Women who focus on themselves and do not surrender cannot dance tango well. (See Tango Is a Relationship.)

2. Leaning backward
A woman not surrendering often tries to keep a distance from the man by leaning back rather than leaning forward into him. This creates two problems. First, in absence of bodily contact the two partners have to use their arms and hands to lead and follow, resulting in communication problems, confusing signals, coercing, discomfort, lack of intimacy, lack of sync, etc. Second, when the woman leans back, the man cannot lean forward against her and has to adopt a vertical posture also, causing a gap between them. The original A-shaped frame thus is changed to an H-shaped frame, and the dance that emphasizes intimacy and synchronicity is transformed to one that focuses on individual performance. (See The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)

3. Interfering with the lead
Individual performance is particularly evident in societies where there is a strong presence of individualism and feminism that advocate the independence of the woman, disapprove her surrender to the man, and encourage her to interrupt the lead and insert her own steps. Such propositions are in clash with a dance that emphasizes unity, synchronicity and harmony of the union rather than personal performance of the individual. In tango, the action of the woman is not initiated by the woman, but is brought out by the man. The woman's job is to beautify the dance, but her movements and embellishments must be in unison and not in conflict with the lead. She should not initiate the steps or interfere with the lead. (See The Gender Roles in Tango.)

4. Anticipation
After a step is made, a novice woman often takes the next step automatically at her own anticipation. For example, she hastily chases the beats and cannot slow down, or makes the second, third and fourth ocho after the first one until the man has to stop her. Although an experienced man is able to lead her accordingly, her initiation could derange his intent. If the man is unskilled, then there could be frequent conflicts. The woman must stop speculating and develop the habit of waiting and dancing step by step according to the lead rather than her own anticipation.

5. Using arms and hands
Surrender means relaxing your body to allow the man to lead you easily. An unskillful woman not feeling at home with her craft often concentrates on the steps, so her body is prone to tension and stiffness. In her nervousness she often grabs the man subconsciously and relies on the help of the arms and hands to execute the steps. Without knowing who has the jitters she blames the man for her sour wrist even though that is caused by her own tension. Dancing tango requires the dissociation of the arms and hands from the body, that is, let the arms and hands be completely relaxed and execute the steps only with the torso, hips and legs without the help of the arms and hands. Using the arms and hands not only causes her own discomfort, but also causes the physical exertion of the man. In my experience that is the most common and disturbing problems in tango. Once the dancers stop using the arms and hands and switch to using the torso, their experience will be greatly improved. Of course, the woman still needs to learn how to follow the lead with the torso in order for her arms and hands to be truly relaxed. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.)

6. Spaghetti body
Dancing with a soft spaghetti body is also a common problem among novice women. An inexperienced woman tends to curve her body easily, which looks wilt and inelegant. The correct way is to keep the body tenacious and straight and move the center of the body so the whole body moves as a whole. The man leads the woman by using his torso to actuate her, but she should not just move the part of her body that receives the lead. For instance, when she feels that the man pushes her on her chest, she needs to move her whole body back and not just bends her torso backward. When she feels that the man tilts her torso to his side, she needs to move her whole body to his side and not just bends her torso to his side. She should dance with a straight body, not a curved spaghetti body.

7. Heaviness
Another common problem is heaviness. Heaviness may be related to the body weight but more often it is the consequence of technical errors, such as grabbing the man to put forth her strength, holding on to the man for her own stability, resorting to the help of the arms and hands to execute the steps, resisting or wrestling with him, etc., which not only make it hard for the man to lead her, but also cause discomfort, fatigue and loss of interest on his part. In order for the man to enjoy dancing with a woman, she needs to surrender herself, relax her body, maintain her own balance, be agreeable and nimble, synchronize her movements to his, and not physically exert herself with the help of the arms and hands, clutch him and use him for her stability, or disobey or wrestle with him. A woman who is light and easy to lead is much sought after by men. (See Balance and Lightness.)

8. Breaking the connection
However, if the woman is too light, that is, if her body is too void to be felt, it could cause problems also because in close embrace the man cannot see her movement and must feel it to know where her axis is, whether she has switched foot, whether she has completed the hip rotation or embellishment, etc., in order to decide how to lead the next step. If he cannot feel her, it is easy for him to take a conflicting lead. Novice women often focus too much on the steps that they forget about the embrace. Some deliberately lean back to evade the bodily contact with the man. Others fail to keep the tenacity of the body so it becomes too void. Still others do not follow properly, such as fail to do the cross in position five, fail to swivel the hips in back ocho, fail to return to the home position after a step, fail to change weight when they should or add a step when they shouldn't, etc. due to the insufficient connection that impedes the communication. Women having this problem need to change their attitude, improve their embrace, increase the tenacity of their body and meliorate the connection to allow the man to feel them better and allow themselves to feel the man better.

9. Not returning to the home position
Since the torsos of the partners are connected in the embrace, the woman needs to swivel her hips in order to step around the man. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) After she completed the step she needs to turn back her hips and collect her free leg, that is, return to the home position, in order to take the next step in the opposite direction. A novice woman often fails to turn back her hips and collect her leg, which not only causes the delay and rush of the next step or even makes it impossible, but also causes her body to seem loose and miss its elegant line. A woman must develop the habit of returning to the home position in a timely manner after each step to stand ready for the next step in any direction.

10. Unrefined musicality
Tango steps can be divided into two groups: that of featured steps, such as the forward step in ocho, the rock step in ocho cortado, etc., and that of ancillary steps, such as the collection of the leg, the unwinding of the crossed leg, pivot, the swivel of the hips, the switch of the foot, embellishment, etc. A novice woman tends to focus only on the featured steps and overlook the ancillary actions. She may be able to step on the beat, but her pivot, hip rotation, weight change and embellishments are often made off beat. A woman needs to understand that dancing to music is not just stepping on the beat. All movements of her body, including that of ancillary and decoration, must all match the rhythm, tempo and mood of the music perfectly. Cultivating refined musicality is a long-term goal, but it is the most important and fundamental skill of a dancer that she must make efforts to develop.

11. Lacking of agility
Tango music has four beats in each measure. The first and third beats are the downbeats, the second and fourth beats are the upbeats. Dancing tango, one normally steps on the downbeats - the main action is on the first beat, the ancillary action is on the third beat, in the speed of doing two actions in each measure. However, it is often necessary to do two actions, such as taking a forward step and then immediately making a rotation, or stepping back and then immediately crossing one leg in front of the other, or taking a step and then immediately changing weight to the other foot, etc., on two consecutive beats - the main action is on the downbeat, the ancillary action is on the upbeat, in the speed of doing four actions in each measure. Sometimes the main action and the ancillary action even need to be completed on a single beat, in the speed of doing eight actions in each measure. The ability to act swiftly is particularly important in the advanced level that involves very fast leg movements. Skilled dancers are prepared for continuous actions and can move swiftly, ready at any time for the next step, thus can dance at ease and have time to do adornments. Beginners, on the other hand, are often too reluctant to act. Their movement is heavy, and they can only step on the downbeat but not on two successive beats, let alone taking two actions on one beat.

12. Passivity 
Following is not passively responding. It is an active action that requires focus, agility, wit and creativity. The woman must follow with feelings, sensitivity, concentration and responsiveness. She must not follow passively and indifferently. Novice women often are reserved and reluctant to act. Some take a perfunctory attitude, others are not focused or not emotionally involved, still others hold back their originality and personality and become the shadow of their partner. With such passivity it is impossible to dance tango well. A good follower is actively engaged, totally committed and going all out. She fully displays her emotions, musicality, creativity and personality while being in complete unison and harmony with the man in the dance. (See Activity and Passivity in Tango.)

13. Gender neutrality  
Some women are too egotistic and independent in the dance thanks to the influence of individualism and feminism. They replace the embrace with an open dance hold to remain independent, refuse to surrender, deny gender differences, disobey the lead, hanker for individual performance, reverse gender roles and advance same-sex partnership, etc. If that kind of tango is what you are after, then good luck. However, if Argentine tango is what you want to learn, I suggest that you respect its essence of intimacy, oneness and harmony. In Argentine tango, the woman assumes the feminine role. She surrenders to the man, follows his lead, expresses her feelings and femininity, comforts the man with her body and shines the dance with her colorful footwork. By these she will be fully repaid because her efforts will make the man cherish her, care for her, reciprocate the hospitality and fulfill his responsibility as her partner, supporter, protector and leader. In tango, the relationship of the two sexes is only meaningful when they remain who they are as man and woman. Without femininity tango will lose not only its splendor and charm, but also its value of existence. (See The Gender Expression in Tango.)