Traditional milongas have a lot of customs or codigos. They’ve all evolved for physical safety and social comfort, so that no-one gets trodden on or offended. It can be a bit overwhelming to start with, and please don’t worry if you don’t get everything ‘right’. People don’t expect beginner dancers to know everything!
As part of our 6 week beginner courses at Simply Tango in Cambridge we introduce you to many of these customs, such as the mirada, the cabaceo and the leader’s cabaceo. We also teach floorcraft so that leaders get used to taking account of the dancing couples around them as well as their own partner.
But, in an attempt to demystify your first milonga, here’s a detailed overview of what you’re likely to encounter at a traditional milonga. For more explanation of the terminology, take a look at our Glossary of tango terms.
Tandas and cortinas
The tango DJ plays music in tandas, that is, in groups of 3 or 4 tracks. You dance with the same person for each tanda. The tandas are separated by cortinas, a burst of non-tango music that is played for a minute or so while dancers leave the floor.
It's polite to leave the dancefloor during the cortina. Even if you know you’re going to dance with the same partner for the next tanda, you should stand to the side with that partner so that you don’t block the view between other dancers who may wish to cabaceo each other for the next tanda.
The tandas are usually played in the following pattern: Tango – Tango - Vals – Tango – Tango - Milonga (TTVTTM).
How to invite someone to dance
Unless you know someone extremely well, always use the mirada and the cabaceo to invite someone to dance at a milonga. This is explained fully here: An invitation to dance
How to enter the dancefloor
Once you have agreed to dance with someone, you need to join the other dancing couples. The leader stands on the edge of the dancefloor and makes eye contact with the leader in the next approaching couple. Only when the approaching leader has made eye contact and nodded should you join the line of dance. This is known as the leader's cabaceo.
The leader steps onto the dancefloor first, facing the line of dance. The follower joins them, they embrace and join the ronda.
Some other dos and don’ts at a milonga
Do keep to your dancing ‘lane’ and make good progression anti-clockwise around the dancefloor – make sure you’re not holding up the line of dance.
Don’t walk directly across the dancefloor, always walk around the edge. Always give way to dancing couples.
Do thank the DJ at the end of the evening (if you enjoyed the music!)
Don’t critique your partner’s dancing or try to teach them on the dancefloor. Equally, don’t ask for dance tips while you’re dancing with someone. You’re both there to enjoy the dance together.
Do apologise if there is a collision and take time to make sure everyone is OK.
Don’t make loud or excessive noise, especially during quiet tandas. It’s fine to talk, laugh, etc, just be considerate of the room and the general level of noise.
Do be careful not to spill water on the floor. Leather-soled dance shoes absorb water and it’s difficult to pivot in wet shoes!
Don’t dance in the centre of the dancefloor – again, keep to your lane. In busy milongas there may be two or even three lanes of dancers, all dancing in concentric circles.
Do bring a spare shirt to change into if you know you're likely to sweat a lot. You might also want to avoid heavy makeup, especially if you dance with people who are wearing white shirts!
Don't wear strong perfume or aftershave - it can be overpowering to dance in close embrace with someone who is heavily scented.
Do enjoy yourself and thank your partner at the end of the tanda. Leaders may wish to escort followers back to their seats.
Don’t get hung up on all of these customs – they’re here to help you out, not to confuse you!
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