By Valorie Hart and Alberto Paz
Excerpts from Gotta Tango. Copyright (c) 2007-2013. All Rights Reserved
Did you know that in Buenos Aires there is an official definition of what constitutes a “milonga?” You’d need to meet specific criteria to obtain a permit to operate a milonga. By definition, a milonga is a place where the dance of tango and its codes of conduct are taught and practiced.
In a milonga, the dance floor is clearly demarcated from and surrounded by the area occupied by tables and chairs where the public remain seated, except when they step onto the dance floor to dance.
The structure of this type of dance requires sufficient space for its execution as well as the additional space for the circulation around, which is also preordained by this dance. That determines its capacity. The number of tables and chairs needed to accommodate everyone in attendance and the need for circulation corridors for the waiters to take care of servicing the tables result in an especially low density of participants in relation to other popular dance venues, where agglomeration is the norm.
The public is mainly adult, with a certain level of education. They are local habitues and foreigners who come to practice or to perfect the knowledge of the dance.
The atmosphere is familiar, similar to a social club, where the majority of people know each other. There are particularly demanding codes of conduct and courtesy, which are as important as the knowledge of the dance itself.
The lighting, unlike in typical dance halls, must be relatively high to allow all the participants to get a good look at all the premises.
The music must have a low decibel level in order to avoid affecting the auditory capacity of the public engaged in normal conversations at the tables. (Normal is considered approximately 75 decibels; 130 decibels is the level at a disco, which is barely bearable for less than 15 minutes without causing a reduction in the level of hearing.)
The dance is done exclusively in pairs.
The presence of live music does not modify any of these parameters. The patrons remain seated at the tables or dance on the floor with conduct identical to that acceptable for recorded music. In other instances, when a singer performs or professional dancers give a dance exhibition, the duration does not exceed the length of a tanda and the patrons remain seated, without crowding any areas or exceeding capacity of a space.
All these conditions (lighting, sound level, characteristics of the music, quality of the dance, codes of courtesy, and age of the patrons) contribute to an atmosphere of intimacy at the milonga that is conducive to calm and friendly behavior, diametrically opposed to what is characteristic of other places of dance.
Most important, they contribute to create something unique to any other social dance. It is called the dynamics of the “milonga.”
Now, we don’t live in Buenos Aires, we live in New Orleans, and let me digress by saying thanks God. So our promise to you is that we’ll work hard to recreate the dynamics of a “milonga” every Thursday night at the Planet Tango milonga.
The Concept of the Tanda and the Dynamics of a Milonga
The TANDA (TAN-duh), or La tanda is a tango Spanish word that defines a set or group of songs of similar rhythm, generally by the same orchestra, and preferable from the same time period.
The tanda originated in the early days of radio programming when music was played from 33⅓ rpm microgroove vinyl phonograph records introduced in 1948. It made sense to play a few songs in a row from the same album without interruption. That became known as a tanda musical (musical tanda). The concept was also applied to commercials played in a row without interruption. They became known as tandas comerciales (commercial tandas).
The musicalizadores (music men spinning the music) at dance halls and clubs soon found it very practical to play a block of music or tanda from each LP. After a tanda, they would play a sort of musical curtain (cortina musical) or separator that allowed them to change the LP for the next tanda. This necessary routine served an unintended purpose as well. The cortina reminded dancers to clear the floor for a short interval to allow the ladies to be accompanied back to their seats, to allow the waiters to take orders and serve food and beverages to the tables, and to allow for a rest room visit.
The structure or dynamics of the milonga allowed men and women in between songs of a tanda, the opportunity to know each other, share a conversation, and perhaps arrange for furtive dates at a later day, because the social mores of the time didn’t allow women to freely socialize or consort with men at public places. It had something to do with virtue and good name. A shared ‘tanda’ afforded a dancing couple fifteen minutes of total intimacy in front of everyone.
People attending social dances dedicated to the tango (including milonga and valses, of course) were aware and abode by the codes and protocols of the milonga.
- Invitations to dance were made and accepted during the cortina, the first or second song of the tanda.
- Invitations on the third song of the ‘tanda’ were mostly for showing a newcomer’s skills for others to see, for example or for fulfilling a social family obligation such as “dance with your cousin, please.”
- Invitations on the fourth and last song were very rare. Dancing the last song of a ‘tanda’ was equivalent to dancing only one song.
- Dancing just one song of a tanda was understood by everybody that either one of the dancers, man or woman, couldn’t wait to get away from each other for whatever reasons. This sent a clear message to the rest of the room that something was ‘wrong’ with either one or both of them. The one who was
perceived to be the worst dancer would in all likelihood not set foot on the floor for the rest of the evening.
For a milonga to have dynamics is not necessary to know Spanish, or to behave like an Argentino. However, respecting others and the dance floor by not staying on the floor during cortinas and being aware of which order in the tanda is the song being played is.
Personal Behavior Affects the Dynamics of the Dance Floor
Every generation of tango dancers in Buenos Aires since the late 1930’s has passed to the next generation a wealth of knowledge that includes codes, protocols, and role models. We lack such connection to a strong root filled with tradition and behavior. You may call it the grandfathering of the eternal tango.
About five years after the first generation of dancers in the United States received their inspiration and passion from a wave of milongueros who taught for the first time at the 1995 Stanford Tango Weeks, the influence of American ballroom dancing rules and protocols began to infiltrate the places where the devoted, militant, and purist tango dancers held their daily celebrations of the joy of dancing tango.
Being unable to impose the strict ranking structure of ballroom dancing on an foreign urban dance characterized by improvisation and creativity, people quickly regressed to high school or junior high mindset and began to write about tango etiquette for new dancers, such as “bathe, protect you breath, remove odors,” or “indicate your desire not to dance by taking off your shoes,” and occasionally “don’t be a dick.”
Today, there is tango activity all over the world, in big cities, small cities, at big milongas and in exclusive house parties. The genie is out of the bottle and it’s only with the hope that more adults won’t get discouraged and leave, that we share our two decades of experience with tango in North America.
In Argentine Tango dancing personal behavior affects the dynamics of the dance floor. The enjoyment, safety and satisfaction of the participants as a whole far outweighs one individual’s desire to use the common ground to impose on others his or her personal efforts for self-definition. Before being imported from Argentina, tango was an adult activity where nobody was entitled to a dance, and everybody was expected to know how to dance.
Selfish and insensitive people generally justify their disruptive behavior with arguments such as, “I would tend to go with whatever you feel you’re doing. I’m totally for each person defining themselves.”
These tend to be code words for “I’m ignorant,” “I’m socially challenged,” “I can’t stand not being the center of attention.”
Most places around the world tend to adopt some form of orderly presentation of the music to the dancers. We can claim with pride our commitment to respect the flow of the dance by always selecting and playing tango, milonga and vals music suitable for dancing arranged in logical sets of three or four.
Those who trust their formal tango education to us are exposed from their first day to the best available music for dancing, delivered in coordinated sets that make it easier to identify orchestras and recognize songs. We do that in a non-judgmental way, suggesting not dictating, paying judicious attention at how everyone reacts to the various musical offerings.
In order to be the best you can be as part of the dynamics of the dance floor, consider these suggestions,
- If you can recognize that the orchestra or the rhythm has changed, think of respecting the order of a ‘tanda.’ Recognize a cortina because it shouldn’t sound like a tango or use the same instruments used in the tango. Leave the floor and return to your seats. Don’t hover or crowd around the tables or seats where women are seated.
- Be prepared and willing to dance a minimum of two, preferably three and optimally four songs with the same partner. One to get acquainted, two to get friendly and three to let it rip. The fourth one is reserved for the proverbial ceiling staring, cigaret smoking state of mind.
- If at all possible ladies should point out to their partners that the dance floor is not the appropriate place for a quickie lesson. A man who is not capable to make the best out of a lady’s current expertise is asking for a one dance stand. Women should give it to him.
- If at all possible, ladies should mind their body language to avoid sending conflicting messages. If you avoid eye contact and refuse to be friendly to people you see every night or every week, do not say to anybody at the end of the evening, “missed dancing with you, you owe me a dance, or save me a dance next time.”
- If at all possible, face the room, focus your attention on the people around you, across the room, on the dance floor. Make eye contact for a friendly lip synched ‘hello’ or walk up to a person and exchange a couple of polite pleasantries. Don’t be shy to indicate your desire to dance.
- If at all possible get to know people with experience, native milongueros from Buenos Aires, and others who travel often. Leave your hang ups outside and do not forcing them to break long embedded codes and coming to your ask you to dance verbally.
- If you can walk, you can’t necessarily dance, but if you can look the chances improved dramatically.
- If at all possible ladies should send a clear message when they don’t want to be bothered with an invitation to dance by,
a) having their backs turned away from the dance floor,
b) reading a book,
c) knitting a sweater,
d) using their cell phones,
e) listening to their iPods
f) frowning and crossing their arms tightly in front of their chest,
g) showing to be having a lot of fun talking their heads off with somebody else who they want not to be bothered with a dancing invitation either.
- Regardless of how many songs are danced, men should walk the ladies back to the general area where they found them at the beginning of the ‘tanda.’
- If at all possible, interrupting an obvious conversation between two people should be avoided, but if must be done, the polite thing to do is to acknowledge the person who is going to be left behind by using your favorite form of etiquette, “Do you mind?” “Please excuse me while I ask…”
- If at all possible, when it is obvious that a couple have a personal relationship and are seating together, before asking one of the members of the couple for a dance, acknowledge the presence of the other member of the couple using eye contact and lip synching something like, “May
I..?” indicating your intention to ask the other half for a dance.
- By the way, extending a hand like a beggar is not very cool. Even when standing in front of the person being asked, smile and use a gentle motion of the head to point to the dance floor, or lip synch something that includes the word dance.
- If at all possible, don’t apologize for any reason nor voice any disclaimers about your skills,experience or expectations before, during or after the ‘tanda.’
- If at all possible, do apologize to anybody, including your partner,
whom you cause harm, inconvenience or outright pain.
- Don’t go to a tango dance party to support. Go expecting fulfillment, enjoyment, and quality. The only way organizers get the message that they need to improve or change their offerings is by not falling for the tribe, herd, or family mentality that makes others stay home.
These are some common sense practices understood and liberally practiced at many tango places around the world. They’re aimed to mind the ‘tandas’ and to encourage responsible behavior for preserving the dynamics of the dance floor.
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