Tango is an intimate personal experience 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. In fact, one's tango experience depends not only on one's dance skills but also on the personal relationship with other dancers and the social ambiance of the milonga impacted by each and every participant's conducts. With the development of tango, codes of conduct have also been consummated 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
Because tango is danced in close embrace in which the partners touch each other's body, personal hygiene is important. You need to take a shower, wash hair, brush teeth and change cloth before going to a milonga. Dancing with smells from the hair, mouth or cloth will make your partner uncomfortable.
You should avoid using heavy makeup, oil and hair coloring because your head may touch your partner's head and cloth, and both of you may sweat during the dance. Be aware that some people may be allergic to scents or chemicals in certain hair sprays, makeups and perfumes.
Your outfit should enhance the beauty of the dance, not reduce it. Men look better in suits, not T-shirts and jeans. Women look better 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 wear high-heeled tango shoes. Sneakers and sandals are inappropriate.
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.
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 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 the couple are not dating, it would be advisable that 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 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 others 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 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 chatting 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. (See Activity and Passivity in Tango.)
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 are accustomed to verbal invitation, which could put the woman into the dilemma of either accepting an invitation unwillingly or saying no to the inviter. The correct way to ask a woman to dance is to nod at her from a distance. The woman may nod back to accept the invitation, or she may turn her head away to decline. This way of inviting a woman 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 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 not to miss the opportunity to find a partner, women must stop talking with each other, especially at the beginning of a tanda, and must actively search and make eye contact with men. (See Tango Etiquette: Eye Contact, Talking, Clique and Hierarchy.)
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 behind you or next to 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 went to join another man. In such case the man 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 that 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. 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. (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 will see you. You should not force your way to her seat and ask her, as which could oblige her to dance, putting her into a situation 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 wait." 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 a lack of integrity on her part is exposed. 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
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 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, 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 there wait for the man 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 crowd, 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 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 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 to continue for another tanda? While this is up to the two of you, you should keep in mind that there are others who also want to dance with her, or her company 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 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 steps should do so at the center to avoid causing obstruction to traffic. Zigzagging between lanes and moving against the line of dance can easily cause collisions 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 step may forget about slowing down or speeding up as needed, often cause collision with the people in front, or block the people behind. Those 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 their exhibitions. These are all inappropriate. (See Cadencia and the Flow of Tango.)
Novices may think that dance is the most important thing but in fact the most important thing in the milonga 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 movements that may put other's safety in jeopardy.
11. Maintaining a good dance environment
A successful milonga depends on the efforts of all participants. Everyone must behave in his/her best manner - friendly, polite, respectful, considerate, cooperative and accommodating. Misconducts should be subject to public rejection. 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 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. Talking without leaving the floor could 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 dance 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, except that 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 made a lot of additions and skipped some contents that could be culturally difficult for the Chinese. Unfortunately, the original American humor also has lost as a result. Those who want to read Word's article please click here.