MILONGA ETIQUETTE – hints & tips

We hope these hints & tips will help you and your partner to enjoy dancing Tango
They are based on commonly accepted Tango conventions and etiquette and our own experience

Visiting different Milongas can be great fun, but it’s important to understand what’s going on to avoid embarrassment or feeling intimidated.  This is especially true if your tango experience has been confined to classes a few workshops and Prácticas.

Some Milonga groups are very keen that everyone follows the “Codigos” – the generally accepted traditional rules of tango conduct, and can be quite intolerant of transgressions – even innocent ones.

And much of this information is never taught in classes . . .

If you are not Dancing

Please respect the dancing area:
Avoid standing or talking where you will inhibit the flow of the dancers.  Don’t move chairs where they will be in the way.  Walk around the edge instead of  across the dance floor.  Dancers have priority so please wait for space if necessary for dancers move out of the way.  Take great care if you are carrying drinks or food.

Moving around the Dance Floor

Couples dance around the floor in an anti-clockwise direction.  This is called the “line of dance”, or “La Ronda”, and it is vital that this convention is followed.  If the floor is crowded, and it is big enough, there may be two lines – like lanes on a dual carriageway.   Moving onto the dance floor is like merging onto the dual carriageway – wait for an open space rather than forcing your way into the line of dancers.  As a courtesy, look in the direction of the couple who will be behind you and smile – the leader may nod in agreement to you moving in front of him/her.

Leaders –  If you have learned using the basic eight sequence – beware your first step will be backwards!  If you haven’t looked there is a strong risk of treading on someone and causing injury.  We would advise against backward steps, which can cause a collision with the couple behind.

Generally it is better to stay in the outside lane if you can.  We suggest leaders dance at an outward facing 45 degree angle – almost diagonal – to the line of dance. This improves your visibility and helps you avoid drifting towards the centre.

Once dancing it is important to stay in lane unless you have good reason to change.  It is better to avoid overtaking, although sometimes you have little choice if you (and those behind you) are stuck behind a very slow couple.

Avoid dancing in the middle of the floor, or continuously zig-zagging in and out of lanes.  Zig-zagging is a selfish way of getting more than your fair share of the floor, and is very disruptive to other dancers.

Followers – keep your eyes open, especially until you get to know how your partner dances.  A gentle resistant pressure on your partner’s back or squeeze with your left hand (this is your lead arm) is enough to indicate to your partner there is a potential hazard behind him.

Crowded floors

Keep moving at the natural speed of the Ronda.  Respect the space of the couple in front – it is very unpleasant being crowded from behind.  Don’t, however, allow a big gap to open up in front of you.  If the couple in front of you stops, use something like a cut step, ocho cortado, giro or side step to continue dancing until they move.  This is commonly known as “dancing on your tile”.  Only overtake as a last resort.

Avoid steps and movements that could cause collision or injure other dancers.  Control and contain movements such as Boleos, Ganchos, leg lifts and extensions or , better still, avoid them altogether.

If you do bump into another couple, politely apologise whilst continuing to dance – even if you do not think it was your fault!

Leaders – be aware of the dancers around you and use only the space that is safely available.  It’s your fault, not your lady, if your partner backs into someone.

Followers – it is your responsibility to execute your moves in a responsible manner.  Respect what the leader invites and suggests.  Leaders will avoid dancing with a partner who only does her own thing irrespective of what is led.


Creating an Enjoyable Experience

Tango requires your full attention, so don’t try to have a conversation while dancing; focus on the music, your partner, your dance and the floor traffic.  Keep talking to an absolute minimum.  Under no circumstances teach or stop to practise a step on the dance floor.  The Milonga is for social dancing only.  Classes and Prácticas are the places to work on technique.

Never make personal comments or criticise your partner whilst dancing.  Even well intentioned feedback is not acceptable at a Milonga.  Of course, if your partner is doing something uncomfortable, dangerous or inappropriate, it is OK to ask them politely to stop.

Tandas and Cortinas

Often the music for individual dances will be grouped into three or four numbers by the same orchestra or music of a similar style.  These groups of dances are known as Tandas, and it is customary to dance the whole Tanda with the same partner.  Each Tanda is separated by a different piece of music, usually a 20 – 40 second excerpt, called a Cortina.  The Cortina music is not to be danced to.  It is there to give time to clear the floor in preparation for the next Tanda.  When I DJ, I always choose Cortina music which is clearly not for dancing.  This is to avoid confusion, especially for the benefit of those who are less familiar with the “rules” and may be tempted to launch into their favourite Jive or Salsa!

“Cortina” actually means “curtain”.  It originates from the Golden Age Milongas of Buenos Aires when the stage curtains would be closed after a orchestra had completed their set, so they could clear the stage and allow the new orchestra to come on.

Nowadays the Tandas are often arranged in a sequence, for example:
Tango – Tango – Vals – Tango – Tango – Milonga – Tango – Tango – Vals – etc.
This can be useful in planning who to ask to dance, when to take a break and so on.


Asking for a Dance – and Being Asked

Generally speaking it is usual to accept invitations to dance – after all, that’s why we’re there – but it is not obligatory.  We do not have an automatic right to dance with anybody we choose, so give some thought to who you ask, don’t be offended by a refusal and be careful not to abuse the goodwill of dancers by making thoughtless or unrealistic requests.

Wait until your potential partner has come off the floor to ask for a dance.  However, try to avoid the temptation to pounce on your favourite partner within seconds of them leaving the floor after several dances.  Even the most enthusiastic dancers need time to recover.

There is a charming convention originating in Argentina called the “Cabeceo” and involves requesting a dance from a distance. It has two parts.  The first, called the “Mirada” (the look) means making eye contact with your prospective partner from a safe distance and smiling, possibly with a subtle nod towards the dance floor.  The invitation is accepted by returning the eye contact and smiling back with a little nod.  That part is the actual Cabaceo – the nod.  If eye contact is avoided, the answer is clear, thus saving the embarrassment of an open and public refusal, or the  invitee feeling pressurised to accept an unwelcome invitation. This face saving formula has its merits and is now becoming widespread in the UK, especially at the more traditional Milongas.

At more informal events it is often the norm simply to walk up and ask “would you like to dance?”.  Traditionally it was the men who ask.  Ladies are increasingly asking men to dance, but probably better to men to know, rather than strangers.

Ladies are leading more as well, and now accepted at most Milongas.

Our advice, especially when attending an unfamiliar Milonga, is to do your research beforehand to find out what style of event it is,  Then, on arrival, take your time observing “this is how we do things here” before launching in.

Getting dances

This next section applies partly to men, but it’s especially so for the ladies.  Getting dances can be a bit of a game, and you need a good strategy for a successful evening.  The first dance is the biggest challenge.  Some people, especially the better dancers, will only want to dance with people they already know or whom they have already seen dancing.  Try to get a first dance with someone at least as good as you are.  It helps if there’s at least one person you know who can give you a nice dance early on.

One side effect of the cabeceo system is that to get dances you need to be paying attention and looking around to see if anyone is trying to cabeceo you.  You need to be seen.  Think about where to sit for best visibility.  Move around to be facing different people throughout the evening.  Stand at the edge of the floor and look friendly.  Start a conversation with a likely partner which will sometimes lead to a dance.

Gender imbalance is a perennial problem in Tango, and it’s made worse when three or four ladies travel together then sit in a huddle chatting away all evening. It severely reduces your chances of getting any dances at all. You won’t notice if anyone is trying to catch your eye, and a lot of men won’t want to approach your table or interrupt your conversation.  Then there’s pressure of being expected to ask all of you to dance, having danced with one of you, which many men will also avoid.

Our advice is go with a friend or two for company, but make sure one of them is a leader.

All of this may seem wrong and unfair, but it’s the reality of the tango scene in our experience.  All you can do, apart from being the best dancer you can, is to work the room and try to remain optimistic.  As someone said recently, tango is not for wimps!


Refusing an Invitation to Dance

You have the right to refuse to dance with anyone, at any time. The best way is to say “no, thank you”, with a smile.  However, if you are hoping to dance with this partner at some other time, be sure to say so.  Sometimes people soften the refusal with a courteous excuse such as they are resting or would rather not dance to this music.  If you do this, make sure you keep your word. The person who says “no, sorry, I’m tired” and then accepts another invitation to dance whilst the same track is still playing, probably won’t get asked again.

How Many Dances with a Partner?

At a Milonga we dance the “Tanda” with the same partner, but this is by no means obligatory.  If you are uncomfortable with your partner’s dancing or other behaviour then it’s OK to stop sooner.  It may even be appropriate to leave the floor after one song, or even in the middle of a song in exceptional circumstances. (Note: not every Milonga splits the music into Tandas & Cortinas).   Just say “thank you” and leave the floor.

At Prácticas its slightly different see our article covering this.

At the end of each dance it is customary to say something complimentary, and by all means have a short conversation between dances (not during!)  Another important but simple convention that’s easy for newcomers to get wrong – don’t say “thank you” after the dance, unless you want to stop dancing with that partner now.  “Thank you” is for at the end of the Tanda or because you don’t want to continue dancing.  I’ve known people suddenly being left on the floor whilst their partner has walked off , believing they had been told “it’s over!” by saying thank you.

It is a nice courtesy for Leaders to accompany their Lady back at end of the Tanda to the area where her table is, or where you began your dance, rather than just leaving her in the middle of the dance floor.

The Tango Embrace, Leading & Following

The Embrace is one of the most defining features of Tango, and fundamental to dancing it well.  But apart from looking good it is also the key to the unique connection experienced between the Partners in order to lead and follow.

So, the ability to use a dynamic embrace and to know how to invite one’s partner to is key to have a quality dance.

© Tango Nomads, 2017