All about milonga

Milonga has its own rhythm and its own style of dancing.  In traditional milongas 1 in 6 tandas are milongas, so it’s well worth learning for that reason alone. Here are some pointers to get you started.

The milonga rhythm

The most distinctive property of milonga music is its syncopated rhythm. Here’s the rhythm written out in musical notation:

Milonga rhythm

If you try to say it you’ll probably say DUM – di – DUM – DUM, DUM – di – DUM – DUM, stressing the first, third and fourth beats. The pattern of beats is based on the habanero, from Havana, Cuba, a style of music that has strong African roots. 

Have a listen to Milonga Sentimental played by Francisco Canaro’s orchestra and notice the clear, driving rhythm.

Dancing to milonga 

It’s possible to dance to milonga ignoring the syncopation altogether. If we label the DUM – di – DUM – DUM rhythm as 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, you can simply choose to dance on beats 1 and 3.

Another variation is to dance on the strong beats, on the 1, 3 and 4. This involves including a slight pause after beat 1 and adds interest to the dance. 

You can also dance every beat without the syncopation, stepping on 1, 2, 3 and 4 without worrying about the pause between the first and second beat. The melody of the milonga will often take on this pattern even when the bass maintains the syncopated rhythm.

What we think works best is to combine all of these approaches and change which rhythm you dance to during the course of each song, perhaps following the melody from the vocals or the most prominent instrument in that section of the music. Remember that pauses add texture to your dance – and make it easier to avoid letting the driving milonga beat run away with you.


Most milongas have very clear phrasing, which helps to make them very danceable. Often a musical phrase is played over 8 bars and repeated back over the following 8 bars to create a 16 bar phrase.

Listen to Milonga Sentimental again. You can count out the bars and identify clear 8 and 16 bar phrases all the way through, but it’s easiest to do during the vocal sections. Here are the timings on the YouTube video where they start:

Vocals solo - First 8 bar phrase - Starts at 1.10

Vocals solo - Second 8 bar phrase - Starts at 1.23

Vocals duet - First 8 bar phrase - Starts at 1.35

Vocals duet - Second 8 bar phrase - Starts at 1.48

You’ll notice that the vocals are followed by an interlude, then 16 bars of instrumental sections (2.02-2.36) and then 16 bars of the full orchestra (2.36-3.02).

The starts of these phrases are good points at which to change your your pattern of steps. When dancing milonga, most dancers simply repeat the same pattern of steps for each 8 or 16 bar phrase.

Learning to dance milonga

At at Simply Tango we teach milonga in our intermediate classes on Wednesday evenings at St Paul’s, Cambridge. You can also practice during our weekly practicas. Or book a private lesson with us to go over the basics or to add to your fluency when dancing. We love dancing milonga and we love sharing how to dance it with our students.

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