In order to practice tango, all one really needs is a partner and some tango music. The practice is enhanced if one has a nice floor to dance on, comfortable shoes made for tango dancing, a room with a nice atmosphere, and especially other people who are dancing in the same space. But if one intends to pursue tango as a serious art form, the practice must be organized in ways conducive to that. In this section, I will discuss some simple principles, rules, customs, and attitudes which I believe are useful for that purpose.
There are several forms that the practice of tango can take: private or group lessons, a couple dancing alone in a room or a studio, a group practica, and a milonga – a social dance. Each of the forms has its pluses and minuses.
In the golden age of tango most people learned the dance informally, from each other, but nowadays some lessons are usually necessary to start with. Group lessons are good for getting exposed to various concepts and figures, for dancing a little with a variety of partners, since in most lessons people switch partners frequently. But one usually cannot get a lot of personalized feedback in a group lesson. For that, a private lesson is better. Another advantage of a private lesson is that one gets to dance with a much more experienced dancer, which is a good learning experience in itself, regardless of the quality of instruction. But in order to progress to higher levels, one needs to dance with a variety of partners and skill levels. This is why one cannot learn to dance well just by taking classes.
One way to continue learning is to agree to practice regularly with a partner. This can be done either at a social dance or in a separate studio. Practicing separately in a studio has some advantages – one feels free to study particular figures and aspects of the dance, to stop in the middle of a song and have a discussion. For professional reasons, I have done a good share of such practicing and have seen its difficulties. The biggest one, in my experience, is that all too often partners begin to blame each other when something does not work. In most such cases, it is very hard to know whose fault it really is. Usually, it is the fault of the person who is complaining, for they are the ones with the defensive, instead of the creative attitude. All too often, partners begin to feel that they are being held back by the inferior skill of their steady partner. Both partners can be entertaining such delusions at the same time, for there is no third party to give them feedback. I have argued a lot with my partners and have seen many other professional couples fight bitterly during their practice sessions. I have concluded that in order for such private practices to work well, one must apply strict discipline to one’s own thought process. Most of the time, the partner must be taken “as is”, accepted as the partner, at least for the duration of the practice. Only then one can focus well on one’s own dancing. If there is a necessity to give each other unsolicited feedback, a special time must be set aside for that.
In my experience, tango is best practiced collectively. There is something to be said just for the energy of the group, the inspiration one gets from having many people in the same space pursuing the same art form together. But there are also other, more logical explanations for why a collective practice works better:
- One can learn a lot by watching others; better dancers are noticed and inspire others to improve.
- The fact that one is seen by others curtails inappropriate dancing and behavior.
- The need to constantly respond to the movement of other dancers on the floor trains one’s improvisational abilities, makes one dance more spontaneously.
The above factors have a positive effect even if one chooses to dance always with the same partner. Some people feel that tango is so sensual that it is only appropriate to dance it with their intimate partner. Always dancing with the same partner has some advantages:
- One never lacks a partner.
- One learns to accept and make peace with one’s partner, oneself, and the whole dance relationship. This can be a tremendous and positive challenge for most people, which people of the older generations seem to have handled much better than the present ones.
- A long-term exclusive couple usually develops a unique style of its own. This can be a positive thing, as long as the integrity of tango as a language of communication is maintained.
The steady (though not necessarily exclusive) partner situation may be the ultimate way to practice tango dancing. It provides a more constant base for improvement, while a long-term resonance of artistic sensibilities between two people can create some real magic. However, in order for that mode to work well, one must have a good level of emotional maturity which few people possess. I do not feel quite ready for it myself. In addition, it can be very hard to find a partner with whom one feels enough of an accord in artistic principles and sensibilities. To have a steady partner with whom one keeps enjoying the dance is a significant accomplishment. To have a partnership in which both people are able to grow as dancers is a dream realized by very few. Because of such difficulties, most people nowadays end up dancing with a variety of partners. In that case, group practice has many additional benefits:
- One learns a lot by adjusting to different partners.
- One’s desirability as a partner is a good feedback about the quality of one’s dancing; the freedom of partner choices creates a healthy competition which spurs dancers to improve.
- With a variety of partners, it is easier to monitor one’s progress: if there is real improvement, it is felt across the board - dancing with any partner feels markedly better. If one always dances with one partner, it is never quite clear who is making an individual improvement.
- Dancing with different partners helps keep the integrity of tango as a language of interaction; within an exclusive couple the language can easily become too idiosyncratic.
Most generally, dancing together in the same space is most effective for the sharing of the artistic vision among the dancers, through both watching others and dancing with each other. There are three slightly different forms of group tango practice: a practica, a dance (baile), and a milonga.
A practica is somewhat less formal than a dance or a milonga. In it, people usually feel free to stop in the middle of a song, to share figures with each other, and to freely exchange ideas about the dance. It is a good supplement to the more formal dances and milongas, where there is usually no room for such things. In the golden age of tango, there existed “academias”, where people learned and practiced tango in the afternoons, before going on to a milonga at night. The disadvantage of a practica is that, being less formal, it lacks the quality of a ritual, and usually does not provide the mystical experiences which many find in the milonga.
The “dance” (“baile”) is very similar to a milonga, except that it is for steady couples. For a person without a steady partner, it is hard to get to dance at such a place. It still takes place in some neighborhoods of Buenos Aires which are farther from the center, but it is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
The most common form of collective practice is a milonga, to which most people come expecting to dance with a number of different partners. I have found it to be the best setting at once for improving my dancing and for experiencing the magic that tango dancing can be at its best. On my first trip to Buenos Aires, I was spellbound by the atmosphere of the milonga. I felt that I finally found a meaningful cultural ritual which had been sorely lacking from my life prior to that moment. Most intoxicating was my ability to get swept up in that ritual myself, not simply watch it. The culture of tango, while particularly Argentine in its origin, felt like something much bigger, transcendent of national boundaries. Only several years later did I begin to understand the potential significance of an art form like tango for our entire globalizing culture (more on this in the Tango and Conscious Evolution section). Back then, my infatuation with tango was less logical, more intuitive. My dancing began to transform in ways I could not conceptualize, under the influence of people around me, and seemingly even the dance floors and the spaces themselves. At that time, a good number of people who had seen and lived the tango’s golden age were still alive and dancing. It was an inspiration not only to watch them, but also to be watched and encouraged by them. Many of them were sincerely happy to see younger dancers pick up this art that had seemed to be dying out. In the modern world, where cultures, life styles, art forms transform radically from one generation to the next, I suddenly felt rooted in a meaningful tradition, something that was worth carrying on. I did not at that time understand exactly why it was worth it, but I felt it very clearly. I felt it in the dancing and in the very attitude of the old-timers, in the quality of the 60-year-old dance music which has no equal in today’s world, and also in the simplicity and the functionality of the ritual. In contrast to how most social dancing was structured (or rather unstructured) in New York City at that time, the milongas of Buenos Aires adhered to several basic rules. These rules ensure smooth functionality to a milonga, providing a structure and a rhythm to the whole night. Without that minimal structure, a milonga becomes too chaotic, where people inconvenience each other by starting and stopping to dance at random times and often have difficulties inviting or being invited to dance. Fortunately, little by little, New York City milongas are adopting these few rules. But they are still unknown or misunderstood by many, which is why I want to discuss them here.
Traditionally, the man invites the woman to dance. This is somewhat justified by the fact that the man leads in the dance. It is somewhat awkward for a woman to invite someone to lead her. From the point of view of traditional male and female roles, it also makes perfect sense – it is much more acceptable for a man than for a woman to try and get rejected, for example. But from the modern perspective, the custom seems unfair. This is why in Argentina there developed a way to invite with the eyes. First, eye contact is made. If neither of the two people looks away, the man makes a questioning nod which acts as a discreet invitation. The woman nods affirmatively, and only after that the man walks over to her and accompanies her to the dance floor. Not only does it save both people from a potentially embarrassing rejection in front of everybody, not only does it let people say “no” in the most discreet way possible – simply by looking away – but it also lets the woman essentially invite, for she is just as free to initiate eye contact as the man.
There are only a couple of difficulties with this type of invitation. One is that everybody must be aware of it, otherwise the looks and the nods can be easily misinterpreted. The other is that the room must be set up just right. It either needs to be small enough that people can make eye contact across the floor, or it must be comfortable somehow for people to roam around. On the whole, however, the invitation with the eyes contributes greatly to a smooth working of a milonga, and especially to a more equal freedom of choice for men and women.
Tandas and Cortinas
Traditionally, the music at a milonga is played in sets, which are called “tandas”, separated by brief fragments of non-tango music called “cortinas”. There are usually four tangos in a tanda, but only three valses or milongas. All songs in a tanda are usually performed by the same orchestra. At the sound of a cortina, everybody leaves the dance floor. All these customs have precise meaning for the functioning of a milonga. The span of four tangos is an optimal time period during which a couple can have a satisfying experience. During the first two songs the partners gradually get attuned to each other, becoming freer and more expressive in the last two of the set. A tanda is not too long, so even if dancing with someone is not great, it is just a minor portion of the evening. Because everyone is expected to leave the dance floor after the tanda is over, everyone is free from the need to decide when to stop. When there are no cortinas, one of the partners is going to be the first to take a break, and that is going to show clearly who was enjoying the experience more. Cortinas mercifully prevent such clarity. This is why it is very desirable to leave the floor at the sound of a cortina, even if one is going to dance again with the same partner. Respecting tandas and cortinas is also absolutely essential for the ease of changing partners – this way everybody becomes available at the same time. Otherwise, any two given people may always switch partners at different moments and never get a chance to dance with each other, or even to find out if the other wants to dance with them. Another reason to respect the tandas is that one may not want to dance Pugliese with the same person as one wants to dance D’Arienzo. Experienced dancers distinguish between the orchestras and wait to hear which of them will be played next before they choose their partners.
For all these reasons, tandas and cortinas seem like such sensible things, yet it is amazing how few people in New York City respect them, and how many milongas do not even play the music in that format. I hope that this is due to a lack of understanding, not a lack of care for the functionality of the ritual.
The Line of Dance
Tango is a dance that moves around the floor in the counter-clockwise direction, like waltz or foxtrot, just not quite as fast. The ability to navigate the floor without bumping into other couples is an art in itself. Most men who understand the importance of dancing in harmony with others eventually develop a sense of good floor craft. In Buenos Aires, some dance floors are so crowded that at any one moment there is only one space into which a couple can move. There one does not have a choice but learn how to follow the line of dance together with everyone. When the floor is sufficiently large, in addition to the main outer circle, there is one or more inner circles, which do their best not to intersect. Outside of Argentina, dance floors are often a lot less orderly. It is especially true in New York, which has become notorious for bad “drivers”. If tango is to grow and improve here, the floor craft needs to improve accordingly. The following are some tips for navigating the floor:
- Pick a “lane” and move at the same rate as everyone else in it, without being on anyone’s heels or falling behind. When you fall behind, you stall everyone behind you and invite someone to pass you or to cut you off.
- Do not make more than one back step against the line of dance – it is very likely that someone is right behind you. When the floor is very crowded, it is best not to step against the line of dance at all.
- When in the outer circle, do not pass other people in it on the right.
- When in an inner circle, stay in it; do not cut back and forth across the “lanes”.
- On a crowded floor, refrain from large figures like high voleos and ganchos.
- In order to be aware of the people around you, try to use peripheral vision, relaxing the eyes, not focusing on anyone or anything in particular. (This also helps relax the whole body.)
- If possible, do not touch heads with the partner, for that cuts the range of vision in half.
For the most part, people just have to be mindful of others on the floor and adhere to the line of dance, for then good floor craft develops instinctively. It helps to keep in mind that most often it is one’s female partner that gets hurt in a collision.
The following is a summary of good tango etiquette, some of which relates to the abovementioned customs, while the rest is some other desirable behavior (or the abstinence from some undesirable behavior) which may not be immediately obvious.
- Respect the line of dance, do your best not to bump into others; if a collision happens, assume it is your fault for not having evaded the collision.
- Complete the tanda with the same person, unless you seriously dislike dancing with them. If someone stops dancing with me in the middle of a tanda, I assume that it was a bad experience for her, and probably will not dare ask her to dance again in the near future. Saying “thank you” at the end of a dance is usually a signal that you want to stop dancing, whether it is at the end of a tanda or, if needs be, in the middle of it. It is customary to thank each other at the end of a tanda, but not after each song – that will be misinterpreted by many.
- It is customary for the man to accompany the woman back to her seat after the end of the tanda. This is done both for her safety while walking through the crowd, as well as due to the fact that some women get disoriented during the dance and can have a hard time finding their seat.
- It is important to dress neatly, since one often dances in a close embrace with a stranger. For a man, it is preferable to wear a jacket, so as to provide an additional respectful layer between the bodies. Careful attention to personal hygiene is important for the same reason.
- Talking while dancing is very disruptive to the dancing, not just of one’s partner, but of everyone around. Above all else, it distracts one from the music. In Buenos Aires, there is a custom to rest for up to about 30 seconds at the beginning of each song and possibly talk at that time. But as soon as the embrace is formed, there is no more talking. It is also very desirable for the people who are not dancing not to talk louder than the music or to sing along with it – it obviously interferes with the dancers’ enjoyment and concentration, yet some people do not seem to know it.
- It is tremendously important not to engage in any even remotely sexual behavior in the milonga. It debases tango, making it seem just like another extravagant form of foreplay – an unfortunate notion fostered by much of the media. Tango is a very close and sensual dance, which makes it all the more important never to cross the line into sexuality. In this dance, people sometimes open up their hearts and their bodies to complete strangers, and it is extremely important not to take advantage of it sexually. Sexual feelings may arise in the process of dancing, or even when watching others dance. But such feelings are to be kept to oneself until one is outside the realm of the milonga. To some men, it may seem impossible not to get sexually excited while being that close to a woman, but it is just a matter of mental focus. In time, most serious dancers have no problem keeping sex out of their minds. However, if they catch a glimpse of someone on the sidelines sitting on each other’s lap or worse yet: kissing or caressing, that can be awfully distracting and disorienting. It can easily derail the focus of the whole activity.
- One should absolutely refrain from unsolicited feedback, unless it is purely positive. This is a very important principle which even some of the more experienced dancers do not seem to understand. A milonga is not a place for teaching. There is no time or space to teach anything in the breaks between the dances, and most people do not come to a milonga expecting to be taught by fellow dancers. I hesitate to give feedback even when a partner asks me for it – I do not want to think about my partner’s shortcomings, for that makes me dance worse, as I have mentioned repeatedly (see, for example, intention in the General Principles section). Besides, I know that in order to explain anything I would need a lot more time. It is acceptable to do this in a practica, but not in a milonga, where one must be much more mindful of others. People who begin teaching on the dance floor break the flow of the collective ritual, talking over the music and doing other things which are distracting to people around them. Besides, they are usually embarrassing their less experienced partners by exposing their lack of skill to others. If one feels a need to criticize or teach one’s partner, it is better not to dance with him or her at the milonga. Most of the magic of the milonga happens through the non-verbal communication between the dancers.
The general attitude of the practitioners towards each other, the expectations with which people go to a milonga largely determine the quality of everyone’s experience and progress. It is natural to want to dance with the best dancers available. As I have said, it creates a healthy competition that helps the general level of dancing improve. But a big mistake is to separate people into “good” and “bad” dancers and only want to dance with the “good”. Experienced dancers often fall into such counterproductive attitude. As a result, they begin complaining that there are not enough “good” people to dance with, and even stop coming to the milongas for that reason. Ironically, I have heard this complaint over and over again from both the men and the women in New York City! If the men think there are not enough good women, and the women think there are not enough good men, it can only mean one thing: many people think that they are much better than they really are. In order to keep enjoying the milongas, I have had to humble myself and learn how to dance well with many different people. I believe that the true skill of a tango dancer can be measured by how well he or she can dance with a beginner. For this reason, I often make it a point to dance with an inexperienced dancer. After that, an average dancer feels great! In addition, a beginner woman can sometimes have a great natural rhythm, untarnished by any artificial technique, and it is a pleasure and a thrill to be able to lead her easily into figures she has never done before.
For both men and women, it is no sin to want to dance with the best – but the best of whoever is present! If not enough “good” people seem to be at hand, one should take personal responsibility for that fact: either one has not been able to make them want to come back, or one has not done enough to create good dancers, or (which is most likely) one has not yet reached a good enough level at which one no longer needs an extraordinary dancer in order to enjoy the experience. If good dancers are present, but do not seem to want to dance with you, that can only mean that you are not good enough yet. This, in my opinion, is a healthier attitude, which leads more directly to everyone’s enjoyment and improvement. People to whom such philosophy does not make sense should probably find a steady partner to dance with.
I have tried to describe some principles which, in my opinion, allow for the most unhindered practice of tango dancing. Most of them are fairly simple considerations, easy to put into practice. However, it is above all one’s fundamental attitude that makes or breaks one’s practice and sometimes the practice of others around him. If one sees tango as light entertainment, or just an excuse to socialize, one will probably not care to follow any rules or principles, or consider what the most appropriate conduct at a milonga would be. But if one sees it as a serious art form, one naturally tends to such behavior that lets this collective practice function well, and hopefully fulfill its potential as a meaningful ritual and a culturally significant artistic pursuit.