The fundamental problem of global tango: too much floor space

“In Buenos Aires …”

At the traditional milongas like those held at the iconic Salon Canning the floor is packed with dancers shoulder-to-shoulder. When I first arrived it was an intimidating sight but once I got over that and plunged in by the end of my stay I was addicted. There you are with your partner and there is really very little you can ‘do’ and really nowhere you can ‘go’ or ‘walk’. You are stuck in a tiny space and all you can really do is make tight turns until the couple in front moves half a step for you to progress. By the end of my stay this experience has completely changed my understanding of tango and in turn my approach to dancing it. If for no other reason you should go to Buenos Aires at least once to have this very experience. Here is what I learned.

It’s a steep learning curve as stepping onto the dance floor you discover that you need to radically augment your dancing normally adapted for at least twice the amount of space. You need movements you can do in a close embrace that are tight enough and controlled enough such that you can stop at any point due to there being another couple in the space that a moment ago you thought was available. You are basically required to learn the skill of those acrobatic dancers doing tango on a small tabletop but the tabletop is moving under you.

As a leader I soon learned a couple of things. One is that because there is really nowhere to go and no space for loud flinging movements I was soon falling into monotonous repetition. There is only so many turns (giros), stops (paradas), ochos and sandwiches available. I was running out of material usable under these cirumstances before monotony set it. There are as far as I could ascertain only two available strategies. First, you want to make every move count. That means that if the music lets you do one move instead of two or more then you do the bare minimum and you really work it squeezing every ounce of feeling and involvement out of it you can. You really work that movement before you go onto the next one.

Second, because you need to dump a lot of the big walking steps you then need to load up on the tight turns, stops and pauses that you can do in the close embrace in a small area. Because I ran out of material pretty quickly I decided to try to get some more. My first strategy was to attend some classes and see if I can pick up stuff from the local teachers. This was a total failure. All the classes I could find focused on walking and patterns that ate up loads of space or were unleadable in close embrace. The teachers who would yell in your ear to make bigger steps in the class would become a different person when you saw them at Salon Canning.

I now had to confront the reality that I need to rely on my own resources and adapt. I realised that I fell into a pattern that limited my dancing and I need to be more creative by improvising on the dance floor and brainstorming some ideas that I learned over the years, adapting them to this new situation. By the end of my stay I came up with my own ‘package’ of figures that fit the purpose. I was able to avoid dangerous brushes with other couples, protect my partner even from some local ‘show couples’ that insisted on high boleos and extended elbows, lead even relative beginners, and have an emotionally satisfying experience. I was pleased to see that my partners expressed satisfaction at the end of the tanda as well.

While a lot of the standard things touted about visiting Buenos Aires, like the “Paris of South America” meme, great dancers, great teachers, the codigos, etc. came out to be pretty much a nothing burger, the experience of dancing on a packed dance floor was a singular learning experience. Arriving back in Europe I see this: too much movement, too many steps, steps that are too big and too fast. This would not work at milongas in Salon Canning and it is really a different sort of sensation.

Once you experience dancing on a packed floor it will change your perspective on the dance and what it is really all about. I do not believe that this feeling can be replicated on a floor that gives you “adequate” space. Even in Buenos Aires I found dancing at milongas that allowed ample floor space boring and felt like milongas you find anywhere in the world. I was missing the packed crowd of tight dancers.

I also noticed that at Salon Canning, even when the floor seemed packed to the brim, people keep piling in. It is as if space is created out of nothing. I also noticed that when there are couples who take up more than their fair share of space by their manner of dancing this had the tendency to change the mood, sucking energy out of the space. Suddenly you have a young “show couple” with extended elbows and wide leg swipes. A packed floor only provides that unique satisfaction when there is a mutual respect among the dancers and an effort to accomodate. When the dancing of the adjacent couple is either aggressive, actively blocking your progress, or disregards your presence focusing on their own loud dancing you feel it immediately.

Seeing the half-empty dancing floors at milongas in Europe I wonder whether the experience could be replicated outside of Buenos Aires, whether perhaps teachers and organisers could consciously make the effort to provide less space by booking venues that would easily fill up rather than booking spaces that provide “enough” space. Because it seems to me that having enough floor space is actually detrimental. I saw in such venues in Buenos Aires the same thing as I see in Europe: too much movement. Dancing with women used to such conditions I feel pressure to keep moving as they are constantly into the next step before me. Dancing with these sorts of women at Salon Canning I found that they keep brushing up against other people’s feet and elbows and soon learn their lesson and start to slow down and dance more tightly.

I think there are lessons to be learned here for those who want more traditional milonguero style tango in their home communities. When I saw an Argentinian teacher in Poland moving furniture to make more space as more people came in, I pointed out to him that it’s not a packed floor by Buenos Aires standards. He replied tersely: “I’m from Buenos Aires!”. A typical placating response that begs the question: Why is it always necessary to adapt tango to local conditions, or to the apparent requirements of the level of the local dancers? People learn and improve by adapting to the situation not vice versa. If you always give people loads of space for dancing they will get used to taking up a lot of space in their dancing.