Fundamental to dancing with good technique is what I call the setup. That means that the execution of the dance depends critically on what happens immediately before you start dancing. If the setup is poor then the dancing experience is probably going to be mediocre. I can usually predict the quality of the dance before I start dancing because I know whether the setup has been good or not. That means that I can avoid bad dancing. And we want to avoid bad dancing not only because it is an unpleasant experience but because it is bad for your motivation and the desire to carry on learning tango.
The setup can be divided into two phases. The first phase is actually before you even enter the dancefloor and it includes such factors as the quality of the event, the music being played, the condition of the dancefloor, and the options for partners. If these things are not working out then the probability of a satisfactory dance are minimal and you should seriously consider leaving the event or hitting the snack table to recover the costs.
The reality is that most tango events these days are hit-and-miss. There is little mystery as to why most so-called milongas are such low quality events. Most of them are little more than practicas or as we now say practilongas for the students of the organisers, doubling as marketing opportunities to sell classes. Often local Argentinians who have not had any interest in tango suddenly discover that they can use their background to earn some extra cash, make friends, climb the status ladder, etc. With few exceptions milongas are organised by people with little knowledge, experience or professionalism catering to gullible low-information consumers of ethno-dance products. There are some surefire red flags that you’ve found yourself at a practilonga: the snack table is loaded with junkfood, there’s way more women than men, and the music sounds like a bunch of random mp3s downloaded from Youtube of “modern” (ie., non-Golden Era) tangos. Sadly, that probably describes 90% of so-called milongas in the world today.
If, however, you are lucky enough to find yourself in a situation where the music is right, the dancefloor is not packed with leg swingers and there are some potential partners looking available you might proceed to engage in the cabeceo ritual and find yourself hitting the dancefloor. We now enter the second phase of the setup. What happens at this stage will tell you with 90%+ certainty what the dance is going to be like. If you find yourself standing with your new partner facing the right direction, their face relaxed, taking a deep breath, getting your alignment right, and entering a square embrace, elbows floating up, you are in for a good start. Once you lock into that embrace you have the right set up for success and you proceed with the walk.
If on the other hand you find that your partner is wearing a ridiculously big smile, is facing in the wrong direction, their elbows are pointing downwards and then embrace you in the armpit embrace you instantly know that this is going to be painful. Here is what you do: you make the dance really boring, perhaps chatting throughout, and then come up with an excuse to end the dance at the end of the first track (if it’s really brutal I walk off the floor before the track ends) then hurry back to your seat to analyse how you got yourself into that situation in the first place. Finally, and this is really important, never ever give in to the pressure of the organisers to dance with their students. That is the whole idea in organising their pathetic event and they are using you. Don’t do it. If you find yourself at a practilonga you are best to cut your loses and run.
Key point summary
The setup requires the following elements being right and if any of these is absent this is a red flag that the dance is not going to be pleasant:
- Music – music that is suitable for the partner you’re inviting: if this is a new partner, someone you’ve never dance with before, the music should not be difficult since you don’t know their skill level;
- Dancefloor – the dancefloor is not be too crowded or full of dancers who are overactive;
- Partners – there should be potential partners who are suitable in terms of body type (height and weight), and skill level;
- Invitation – invitation by way of a cabeceo rather than direct invite by someone you don’t know or aren’t with;
- Orientation – your partner should enter the dancefloor correctly, namely, the man should check in with other couples that are passing and both partner should stand in the correct orientation with respect to the line of dance;
- Alignment – check in with your alignment and posture;
- Elbows – elbows float up;
- Embrace – partners enter into a square embrace.
* There is little mystery as to why most so-called milongas around the world are such poorly conducted events: usually they are little more than practicas for the students of the teachers who organise the event, doubling as marketing opportunities to sell classes to their friends. Often local Argentinians who have not had much interest in tango discover that they can use their background to earn some extra cash. With very few exceptions milongas are organised by people without professionalism, experience or the deep interest of a connoisseur and cater to gullible masses who know even less.