by Naomi Harris
In a milonga, it's rude to get up and ask someone to dance, “thank you” does not mean “thank you,” and unusually prolonged eye-contact is entirely legitimate.
I left the first milonga I attended after—maybe, at my most conservative guess—an entire seven minutes. In those seven bewildered and embarrassed minutes, I quit tango, hated all humanity (well, that’s nothing new), and had an existential crisis. In short, the experience was harrowing. If I had had the sort of high school nightmares of ignorantly overstepping unspoken-and-yet-unspeakably-vital social conventions, they would have returned to me in all their going-to-school-naked mortification. Not, of course, that I actually attended the milonga naked; the horror was that I had been entirely polite and yet somehow managed to offend several people. So, in order to spare you the soul-searching aggravation that I went through, I will tell you this now; tango has its own etiquette. In a milonga, it’s rude to get up and ask someone to dance, “thank you” does not mean “thank you,” and unusually prolonged eye-contact is entirely legitimate. How perfectly intuitive, right?
Here’s my breakdown of the most important things to know about los códigos (the tango rules of etiquette), and my very own compilation of “What People Should Have Told Me But Didn’t So Now I’m Telling You and You Can Thank Me Later”:
TANDAS AND CORTINAS:
Just so we’re all on the same page, the music during the milonga is broken down into tandas, which are bundles of 3-4 songs organized by music style (tango, milonga, or vals) and orchestra (di Sarli, D’Arienzo, Caló, etc.) Normally, the order is 2 tango tandas and then a vals or milonga tanda (alternating vals and milonga throughout the night). Tango tandas are usually made up of 4 songs, and milonga and vals tandas only 3, but this is subject to the whim of the DJ. Each tanda is separated by a cortina, meaning “curtain.” Originating in the days when curtain drops heralded the band’s break, the cortina is a roughly thirty-second piece of non-tango music that denotes the end of one tanda and the start of the next.
You should only leave the dance floor in the middle of a tanda if you are in pain, your mother is dying, or if your partner has overstepped the rules of common decency.
That’s all fairly straightforward, right? Well, now we get to the juicy part. When you stand up to dance with someone, the understanding is that you dance with them until the end of the tanda. If you only want to dance two songs with them, you have to wait until the tanda is two songs from the end to invite them to dance. The alternative, known as “breaking the tanda,” is considered extremely rude. You should only leave the dance floor in the middle of a tanda if you are in pain, your mother is dying, or if your partner has overstepped the rules of common decency. You should not do this if you decide you just don’t really like the way your partner dances or for any other non-threatening situation, because breaking a tanda reflects very badly on the person whom you’ve left, suggesting that they have somehow behaved wrongly. These rules seem fairly extreme and a bit ridiculous, but they actually serve a very useful purpose; if someone hurt you or behaved inappropriately, you can call them out on it and subtly warn others from dancing with him or her.
CABECEOS AND THANK YOUS:
Have you been to a milonga? Yes? So you’ve noticed how people silently pair off and move towards the dance floor as if by magic? Maybe you were going to ask your friend to dance, but before you could get to her, she got up to dance with another guy from across the room and HOW DID THAT HAPPEN HE WAS ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE ROOM?????
Or, maybe you asked that dashingly attractive man in the corner to dance, and he looked at you as if you’d just asked to pee in his shoe? Yeah. That’s why we have the cabeceo. You should really get acquainted; the cabeceo is going to be your best friend.
Strictly speaking, the cabeceo comes from the Spanish word for head (cabeza), and is something like a nod; in effect, it’s a wordless way of asking to dance, using eye-contact, nods, and smiles. Evolving from the traditional dance halls, where men sat together on one side and women sat on the other, the cabeceo evolved as a means of asking quickly and saving face. It’s a beautiful thing; it’s as fast as looking across the room, saving you from getting up, navigating the edges of the dance floor, and asking in person. It also saves you from the embarrassment of walking all the way back to your seat if the person you wanted to dance with declined your invitation.
Here’s what you do:
Look around the room for the people you want to dance with. (That’s called the mirada.) When they look back at you, nod or smile to invite them to dance. If they nod or smile in return, you’re set! Keep eye contact, meet them on the edge of the dance floor, and have fun! If they look away, they have politely declined. If you don’t want to dance with someone who is cabeceoing, (that’s totally a verb now) then you just break eye contact.
Aha. Now we get to the tricky part. How do you know if they saw your cabeceo and don’t want to dance with you, or if they just legitimately didn’t see you in the darkness and movement of the milonga? You don’t. If you think they didn’t see you, you can move closer or make sure they have a clearer view of you and try again, but that’s it. Otherwise, you have to accept that they don’t want to dance. All right, that’s fine, but what if someone is looking over and you want to dance, but you’re not sure if they’re cabeceoing you or your neighbor? That’s where keeping eye-contact becomes important; as they move closer to you (traditionally the guy gets up and walks closer to the gal), it should be more obvious where they’re looking. If you’re still in doubt, wait until they’re right in front of you. If you get up to meet them and it becomes obvious that they’re not cabeceoing you after all, don’t freak out. Just keep walking and visit your friends on that side of the room like a pro, because that’s totally what you meant to do all along. Be cool, yo.
The main thing to remember is to be brave with your eye contact; it might feel a bit awkward to stare, but you absolutely cannot do the cabeceo if you’re shy about looking at people.
The main thing to remember is to be brave with your eye contact; it might feel a bit awkward to stare, but you absolutely cannot do the cabeceo if you’re shy about looking at people. Right. So, staring is cool, asking people to dance is rude, and “thank you”…? “Thank you” means “goodbye.” Yeah, you didn’t see that one coming! Only say thank you when you’re done dancing. If you say thanks in the middle of a tanda, your partner will think you’re breaking the tanda with them. Oh! And I know you’re smart enough to never ever respond with “you’re welcome,” because it implies that dancing with you is a favor you’re bestowing, when the whole point of dancing is mutual enjoyment. Instead, be as charming as you can, and say “It was my pleasure,” or something equally delightful.
And finally, some miscellaneous things that I think you ought to know: the first is a bit more important in Argentina, but some people still follow it here, so it’s good to be aware of so nobody gets into awkward situations. (I totally found this one out the hard way.) While you may dance as many tandas as you like with however many people you like, the number of tandas you dance with a particular person can have connotations outside of the dance floor. Two tandas in a row with one person means, quite obviously, that you like dancing with each other, but it can also mean that you like each other, like you’re asking them out for coffee. Three tandas means “skip the coffee—come over to my place after the milonga.” The moral of the story here is to dance as many or as few tandas as you’re comfortable with, but now you won’t be caught off guard in case one day someone starts asking you if you’re faithful to your wife.
Offering advice or criticism—no matter how good your intentions are, or however helpful your suggestions—belittles your partner, which defeats the purpose of sharing the respect and mutual enjoyment of a tanda.
Also—and for me this is possibly the most important—it is the height of uncouthness to teach on the dance floor. The milonga is where people enjoy themselves irrespective of their dancing level. Offering advice or criticism—no matter how good your intentions are, or however helpful your suggestions—belittles your partner, which defeats the purpose of sharing the respect and mutual enjoyment of a tanda. Likewise, don’t put your partner in an awkward position by asking them for advice. No matter your level, it’s a privilege to dance with you; asking for feedback (beyond “is this comfortable?”) is like inviting them to your wedding and then asking them to criticize your fiancée. They are sharing a tanda with you because it’s an honor and a joy, and if they notice that your back ochos are a bit wobbly, they wouldn’t insult you by critiquing your dance during the milonga. In short, it’s really wonderful that you’re eager to learn and improve, but the milonga is not the place to do it. Save it for the practica and class, and keep the milonga sacred.
Finally, tango is a social dance. You are not only dancing with your partner, but also with all the other couples on the dance floor. Accordingly, make sure to observe the line of dance, don’t weave between couples, and don’t pass anyone. This ensures that the dance floor flows and that no one gets hurt.
There. I’ve shared everything I can think of to help you navigate the social codes in the milongas. Of course, like all rules, their usefulness varies according to the situation, so don’t be surprised when the friend you’re sitting next to and talking to asks you to dance instead of cabeceoing. Good luck!
Illustrations: © Les Pas Parfaits, Dessins Véronique Paquette