The goal of best practices in tango is to support you in having the best experience possible. There are some specific items, and actions, that can be considered so that your knowledge sets you up for success and connection.
Getting ready for class
-Shoes and clothing
You can check in with the teacher(s) ahead of time, and ask them if there is a dress code for clothing or shoes. Most teachers will post the details on their website or class invitation, however, checking in with them and getting clarification may be helpful. Some studios have specific requests for dance shoes compared to street shoes in certain rooms. It can be helpful to check in with teachers on that item as well.
Beginner students starting in open embrace will have less restrictions in clothing than in close embrace. Once in close embrace, we need to pay attention to any item or fabric on our chest, for lead and follow, that may rub uncomfortably on our partner. Some pieces of clothing on the back of the partner’s outfit may get in the way of the hand sliding during the dance. It will be helpful to pay attention to any string, strap, or openings getting in the way.
We must also be mindful of jewelry that may get in the way of the connection, or rub uncomfortably on ourselves or our partner. Rings, bracelets, low hanging necklaces and voluminous earrings may have to be reconsidered.
Personal hygiene is especially relevant in tango as dance partners stand very close to each other. The points of contact are also numerous, continuous, and in close proximity (torso, arms and face). It is highly encouraged to develop a precise bathing routine when planning to attend any tango event.
Fragrance is to be used sparingly, if at all. A scent that may be pleasurable to one person may be distracting to another, and get in the way of the learning experience. Most classes switch partners and, as the goal is to have the best experience possible, with as many people as possible, a strong scent can be a deterrent rather than a motivation for connection. Some people are also extremely sensitive to artificial scents and chemicals, which would create a very uncomfortable experience for them.
The use of breath mints is highly recommended. The use of gum is discouraged as the jaw movements may be distracting to our partners.
-Injuries and mobility issues
Students are invited to share in advance any injury, current or past, that may need consideration for the student’s comfort, and the teacher’s expectations. The goal is to have fun and be comfortable at the same time.
The traditional social way of dancing tango has been in the past very heteronormative: men lead, women follow. That tradition is evolving to meet the needs of some communities and dancers. Some classes will give a choice to the students to learn the role they want, others won’t. Some teachers will demand that all students learn both roles, others will give a choice. Those expectations are not as widely shared in class descriptions so it can be helpful to ask the teacher in advance what their expectations are, and what are the choices available.
During the class or workshop
Every teacher is different, in their teaching and values. It can be helpful to ask for clarification before assuming any conclusion. A statement, or exercise, that may be confusing at the beginning of the class may make complete sense at the end of the session, or not. It’s encouraged to be curious, and ask questions all the while trusting the teacher’s direction. If the curriculum as a whole is still confusing after one or several classes, this may be the indication that it’s not a good fit. There can be a need for a different style of teaching altogether, and that’s alright.
Getting ready for a Milonga
-Shoes and clothing
In addition to the information about getting ready for class (see above), checking the description of the event, or asking the organizer about any expectations or restrictions will be helpful. Some Milongas have dress codes, others don’t. Some milongas are inside, others are outside. Outdoor milongas may have a concrete or tile floor which would require smooth sole shoes compared to suede. Seasoned organizers will share details, others may forget. It’s alright to ask for more information about the floor so you can be best prepared to enjoy yourself, and take care of your feet. The intention of going to a Milonga is about enjoying the experience, and you can dress accordingly.
Dressing up is one of my favorite things about tango, however, buttons, beads and sequins may get in the way of the connection, or become uncomfortable for our partner. We can be mindful of the texture of the fabric, or the decorations of our outfit, so it doesn’t get in the way of the movement, or become a source of skin irritation.
Dancing at a Milonga may be more intense than in class. Spending hours dancing will beg for the appropriate shoes. I highly encourage, especially if you dance in high heels, to acquire comfortable, well fitted shoes. It can be quite an investment, but in hindsight, I would have made that investment earlier in my tango career, as much for comfort as for ease of movement. Bringing an additional pair of shoes may be helpful in case of shoe malfunction, the desire to switch to a cooler shoe, a different heel height, or flats.
Same as in class (see above), personal hygiene is paramount. The teacher can be of immediate support in class, however, we are more on our own at Milongas when we start our dancing journey.
At the Milonga
Developing precise awareness for scents and considerations will earn us more dances for sure. Finding confidence in receiving feedback from our partner will build us a reputation of someone who has ownership and consideration for others. Asking our partner if they notice any body odor or if we need a mint will also showcase a higher level of ownership and care that will be appreciated. These conversations may feel awkward at first but they will demonstrate a strength of character that is highly appreciated and give our partners the space and confidence to communicate with us if needed. Many dancers have stopped inviting others because of body odor or bad breath that they didn’t feel comfortable mentioning. We can create more ease of communication by normalizing the subject, and we’ll get more dances as well as strengthen our friendships
Having a lot of fun at a Milonga may generate a certain amount of sweat. We have no control over how much we sweat, we do have control over where it lands. A person that sweats profusely is encouraged to carry a handkerchief to remove excesses between dances. There may even be a need for a wardrobe change halfway through the event. There is also the option to switch to an open embrace to avoid sweat landing on our partner and lower our body temperature.. One of my favorite meme is: “I love you so much that I would hug you after bikram yoga”. Unless you know for a fact that person you’re dancing with loves you that much, and in that sweaty way, it will be best staying aware of perspiration.
The wide assumption at Milongas is still that men lead and women follow. More and more organizers allow and/or invite role switches at Milongas. If in doubt, you can check with the organizers ahead of time. It may take some time observing or finding out people’s preferences when it comes to gender role, however, that is part of the discovery process in any relationship and patience is always rewarded.
-Invitation and Cabeceo
Another unique item in the world of tango is the Cabeceo, or invitation to dance. It originally became a tradition as fights would ensue between men over their desired dancing partners. For that reason, men started to glance at their desired partners waiting for a nod of the head as a positive reply to their invitation instead of several dancers walking up to the same person and starting a physical argument.
Cabeceos can turn into small moments of art and playful intimacy, however, for the sake of clarity and ease of use, we’ll contain the cabeceo to 3 elements:
-polite distance from the desired partner (a minimum of 10 feet)
-making eye contact without staring
-a gentle side nod of the head towards the dance floor
The invitation is considered accepted if the desired partner replies with an equal nod towards the dance floor, a huge smile or an affirmative nod. It is then allowed to walk towards the partner, extend a hand and lead them to the dance floor. It is ideal to wait until the beginning of the tanda (see below) so both partners are aware of the type of music they’re agreeing to dance together: it can be fast, slow, a favorite composer, a tango, a vals or a milonga. We eventually develop a preference for certain partners with specific music.
What we want to avoid is to ask verbally for the dance, extend a hand as a direct invitation or staring at a person. Peripheral vision is wide. A person avoiding to make eye contact means they are not ready for the dance. Standing too close, staring for a long period of time or several times a night, sitting next to a person hoping they’ll dance with us, are major faux pas and extremely invasive. The idea is to invite in a relaxed mannered, not force our desires upon others. Although verbal invitations and staring at dancers to invite is still widely used at some milongas, it is vastly a turn off to the invitees and leads to resentment at best, a lost friendship at worst.
Once the invitation has been accepted, the leader can walk to the invitee, offer hand and lead them to the edge of the dance floor.
-The Gentleman Cabeceo/ Leader’s Cabeceo
Because tango has a moving flow of dancers, entering the dance floor requires awareness and communication too. The gentleman cabeceo is the agreement from a leader already on the dance floor to make time and space for a leader getting ready to enter. It is called the gentleman cabeceo in consistency with the heteronormative lexicon currently used. I personally call it the leader’s cabeceo to be fair and inclusive regardless of the leader’s gender. That cabeceo has two purposes.
First, checking in with the active dancer to enter their space will give them time to adjust how they plan to use the space in front of them. They can adjust their speed and movement in consideration of the space now occupied by the entering couple. It is obviously less relevant on a sparingly crowded floor and more relevant on a very crowded floor.
Second, it assures the person leading right next to you has the awareness of the dance floor. Would you like to be driving next to someone who doesn’t know you’re there? Of course not. A dance floor works the same way. A leader that ignores an incoming couple’s request may ignore other things, like space and safety, and would be best avoided. It is customary for friends to dance next to each other at milongas so they know the couple in front and behind them respect their space.
Another specific aspect of the Argentine tango is in the structure of the dances. The songs are organized in sets of tandas separated by cortinas. A tanda is a set of three or four songs so that when we agree to a dance, we actually agree to a tanda, with several songs. That agreement can be revisited at any time for any reason, especially if it involves discomfort or any kind. That being said, I encourage patience and understanding. On many occasions, it took me three songs to finally find a satisfying connection with a new partner. I wouldn’t have found that connection at all had I danced just one song with them. Tango is a dance of patience, not instant satisfaction. On the other side of the spectrum, I also stopped dancing in the middle of a tanda or a song because the experience was that unfulfilling. The traditional code to end a tanda early is to say “thank you”. It shows gratitude for the intention and time as well as an easy way to end the agreement. The awkward aspect of that rule is when beginners are not aware of it. I was reminded several times as a beginner to not say “thank you” between songs during a tanda as it can be confusing to the leader (I was obviously enjoying myself and not walking back to my seat). To honor gratitude to the fullest, we can reserve all of it for the end of the tanda.
The cortinas, or “curtain” mark the end of the tanda. They’ll typically be around 15 seconds long and will be in a different music genre. At that time, the leader can walk the follower back to their original spot and thank them for the experience. That’s also a period of time when we can invite, or be invited by, our next potential partner.
Tandas are also organized by style with the following sequence: Tango – Tango – Vals – Tango – Tango – Milonga. Some DJs will honor that sequence, others won’t. It becomes very handy when we develop a circle of favorite dancers so we can manage our energy and dance sets. For example, if I know my favorite partner to dance milonga with is present, I may rest the tango tanda before hand to have the energy for a wonderful milonga. Type A planners love Argentine tango for that reason, we love to organize our flow for the evening.
It is customary to dance one tanda at a time with a partner, not two tandas in a row. It is also customary to dance one tanda per partner per night. Anything more is usually practiced by intimate couples, close friends or dance partners, but seldom by people that meet each other for the first time. There is no expectation to keep dancing with the same person unless you absolutely want you, and if they wish the same.
We’re going to find ourselves at a social gathering so small talk skills may come in handy. There will be a short quiet time between songs during the tanda so knowing a few small talk sentences will help. Compliments always work, non invasive questions are great too. Sharing how we enjoy certain aspects of a particular composer, the venue or how wonderful the host is also works. We’ll avoid complaining and talking ill of others. Awkward dead silence or invasive conversation may turn off our partner and cost us future dances.
Talking while dancing can be considered an infraction in some Milongas that have a no talking-while-dancing policy. It’s generally tolerated as long as it doesn’t become a distraction for the partner or the other dancers in the room. Being able to connect fully to our partner, and the music is the goal. Too much talking can get in the way of the experience. Sharing verbal information like warnings of incoming impact with another dancer, or a compliment about a specific step, is always welcome. The idea is to respect the dancers’ focus on the dancing and disrupt as little as possible.
-The first and last dance
This is a custom that may or may not be embraced by everyone but one to know about out of pure practicality and respect for those who do embrace it. Couples that arrive together typically dance the first and last tanda of their evening together. It’s practical to know so we avoid inviting to dance someone who has just arrived and who has company. The same goes for the last tanda of the evening. We can refrain to invite someone who arrived with company or who has a significant other present. Some couples, intimate or not, choose to wave that custom out of personal preference. It’s always productive to ask, just in case, and observe the existing relationships in the community. It can be very counterproductive to cabeceo someone who is not even looking around as their first or last dance is already spoken for.
La cumparsita is a famous tango song that is played as the last song of the night. The DJ will typically announce the last tanda of the night as well so the dancers know it’s their last opportunity to dance that evening.
Dancing tango is immersing ourselves in a new world, a new environment. It may feel overwhelming at first to navigate all the guidelines, however, nothing wonderful ever happens just by chance, I want you to have the most amazing experiences possible, and it will take a little effort to get there.