Getting dances: the practice milonga, distance invite and musical chairs

For social dancing lessons to be worth anything (beyond the lesson itself) there must be social dances. Why would you take social dancing lessons if there is no social dancing events where you can dance socially (other than “to meet people” as a sort of speed dating)? Let’s take the goal of social dancing lessons at face value, namely, to dance at social dances (I know that’s a stretch, but . . . ). But for there to be social dances you need enough people to attend such events, otherwise they will be uninteresting and uneconomical. But for people to want to come to social dances they need to have a reasonable expectation that they will be able to dance. But to be able to dance they need to be able to get dancing partners. The reality is that on the typical tango scene this is the main bottleneck and a well-concealed reality: it’s really hard to get a dance.

Social dances can function only if people are able to get partners to dance with. Otherwise people will stop coming and the social dancing scene will collapse and will become stale and boring, consisting mostly of a lot of beginner classes, private lessons and practice sessions, with milongas organised only as a necessary formality to keep up appearances, or for the students of the teachers. It is relatively easy to dance with the person of the opposite sex who is your companion or someone you know from the class. But it’s also boring to dance with the same people all the time. People go out to social dances because they enjoy variety and novelty. If you came alone to a social dancing event you then you have no choice but to dance with people you don’t know.

Experienced dancers know well that the direct invitation to a dance has many disadvantages. Being turned down is never pleasant for the man even if he was not all that interested in the woman. Then the woman may feel uncomfortable turning down a man because either she doesn’t want to cause him to have an unpleasant experience, or because turning him down may stop him from asking her again, and she may want to dance with him on another occasion, or because it may stop other men who have witnessed this from asking her, and so on and so forth. Then the man who asked the woman directly knows that even if she accepts, this may be more because of these ulterior reasons than that she actually enjoys dancing with him. It creates a psychological Catch 22.

In the class situation the teacher determines the arrangement for changing partners. The most typical systems are either (1) no changing of partners, whoever you happen to be with at the beginning you’re stuck with for the whole class, or (2) the teacher tells either men or women to move to the next man every few minutes. The first approach only works in the unlikely scenario that there is gender balance. The second approach means that if there is gender imbalance everyone gets to dance with a person of the opposite sex. The problem is that, while it satisfies the requirement of running a lesson it doesn’t reflect the real world conditions, in other words, it’s not something you can do in a social dancing situation outside of the dancing lesson.

In the milonga the system of using gaze and gesture at a distance (“cabeceo“) to invite partners lets you dance with different people without the risks inherent in the direct invite. But the dancing lesson does not teach people how to do that and as a result people don’t use this system even if they know about it. There may be different reasons for this. Typically, people with little experience in social dancing fail to see the reasoning behind this and simply assume that a direct invite is the easiest and most efficient thing to do and that it works. Because of their lack of experience they often fail to see why it doesn’t work and that it is neither easy nor efficient.

Because people are either unpracticed in its execution, or unconvinced of the need to do it, or both, the distance invite (cabeceo) is not applied consistently. It’s not enough that people know about it. What you need is a consistent use of this as the only proper system for inviting partners. Unless everyone is convinced of its utility and necessity, practiced in its execution, and reminded and encouraged to use it, then the system will fail. This is in fact the normal situation.

When the distance invite (cabeceo) is not applied consistently several things seem to happen. First, people often seem to use the distance invite concept to avoid dancing. This may be for a variety of reasons. Some people are mainly interested in the classes or in performing and only come to a milonga to please their teacher or to be seen with him, or to maintain a profile on the tango scene, but are not interested in social dancing per se other than with their teacher or to show off their workshop moves. Often the milonga is full of people who are there for the networking or just to hang out because they have nothing else to do, but aren’t interested in dancing.

Second, people know about the distance invite (cabeceo) concept but are seated or positioned in a way that does not allow for it to work, eg., they’re seated at the wrong angle to the other people. In other words, people are not mindful of the need to be positioned in a way that facilitates the invite at a distance. The organisers don’t pay attention to this issue when arranging the space. Furthermore, while during the lesson the focus is necessarily on the movement and dancing, in a milonga it is easy to become distracted with conversation or staring at the people on the dancing floor etc. and to become inattentive to people trying to get a dance. I often look around to find partners and find women at the crucial moment at the beginning of the tanda either (a) sitting with their back to the dancing floor or any potential partners, (b) sitting away from where all the action is, (c) absorbed in conversation with their companion, (d) absorbed in looking at the people dancing, or (e) looking at their phone, etc.

Clearly, the mere knowledge about the concept of the distance invite (cabeceo) doesn’t solve the problem of getting dances if additional factors are not functional, including (a) a seating arrangement that makes facilitates invitation by the distance invite; (b) a seating arrangement that discourages excess socialising and encourages dancing, (c) the ingrained habit of getting dances by way of the distance invite, and (d) the habit of focusing on getting a dance at the beginning of the tanda. When these conditions don’t exist (and outside of BA they typically don’t) what we find is several de facto alternatives to both, the distance invite and the direct invite, including:

(i) The “direct cabeceo”, a sort of hybrid of cebeceo and a direct invite, where a man stands very close or directly in front of a distracted woman and stares at her intently for an extended period of time to the point where she can no longer ignore him;

(ii) The “despondent woman”, which is a woman who is bored and passive aggressive in some way because as a woman she can’t do the “direct cabeceo” so she refuses to play (chats, stares at the phone, pouts, engages in loud socialising and networking, etc.);

(iii) The “conversational invite” where men engage women, or vice versa, in conversation in order to loosen the defences and reduce the risk of being publicly turned down;

(iv) The “I’ve-given-up-on-dancing-with-men invite” where women start habitually to take on the role of the leader and ask other women.

Clearly, while the direct invite is completely dysfunctional, the invite at a distance by itself is not the solution. For it to work you need additional infrastructure. What you need is

  1. a seating arrangement where the seating is around the dancing floor, as placing the seating away from the dancing floor creates a separate space which is not focused on dancing and distracts away from it;
  2. men and women sitting across the dancing floor from each other, and as much as possible facing each other;
  3. people to be in the habit of doing the distance invite from a seated position, or at least from the distance,
  4. people to be attentive to other people sending out the invite from across the room;
  5. focus on the dancing and encouraging the idea that the event is primarily intended for dancing and that the tandas are an opportunity to change partners and not to stop dancing until I’m bored again or someone intimidates me again into dancing;
  6. discouraging the idea that a milonga is a place to hang out and meet people as there are already many places to do that (pubs, restaurants, clubs, etc.);
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The practice milonga

Given the importance of being able to get partners at the milonga why would we not teach these things at a tango lesson or practica but leave them to the student to figure it out? I have found from talking to students that they find this quite difficult. It may be that there are personal or cultural factors involved. But there are personal and cultural factors in learning many things, like foreign languages. This should not be a reason to just ignore the issue but precisely the opposite, it is something that the teacher needs to address directly. If the students find a certain area of learning difficulty then it is best learned and practiced in a safe environment that only a structured lesson or practice session allows.

Now, I think that the the best and perhaps the only way to teach the basics of tango and to teach essential skills like the distance invite and moving in the line of dance is not the standard teacher-fronted choreography and technique lesson but a sort of practica-milonga hybrid. Now, these days people organise so-called “practilongas”. I don’t like the sound of this neologism. But what is worse is that it typically seems to refer to a a type of social event which reduces the formalities such as moving in the line of dance or changing partners.

Nonetheless, I think that a sort of practica-milonga hybrid is probably the best system for teaching social tango dancing because this is the best and probably the only efficient way of teaching the formal aspects of milonga such as moving in the line of dance and changing partners by way of the distance invite. The standard so-called “practilonga” is only useful if you believe that the purpose is to practice steps and that this is best done with a single partner without having to worry about changing partners or moving in the line of dance. If on the other hand you believe that the main thing to learn is precisely how to change partners by way of the distance invite and to learn the habit of moving in the line of dance because tango is a social dance and not a performance, then it seems that a “practice milonga” should focus on these things and not on practicing steps.

So because of the potential confusion due to an already established meaning of words like “practica” and “practilonga” I will use the term “practice milonga”. It has a better ring to me and seems to effectively convey the meaning precisely without being overly cumbersome. It also nicely suggests that it’s actually a practice for a milonga, which in my view is the correct framing. Of course the standard “practica” is theoretically supposed to be a practice for a milonga, but in reality it’s just practicing steps, which is not what you need for a milonga, it’s actually the opposite of what you need for a milonga.

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Practice milonga musical chairs

I suggest a sort of a musical chairs type activity to (i) get people used to changing partners, (ii) get people used to choosing a partner from across the room from a seated position, and (iii) use gaze and gesture to communicate their intention at a distance. To run the practice milonga musical chairs you will need the following:

  1. Arrange the chairs on the opposite sides of the dancing floor, spaced out about one chair width apart.
  2. Men will sit on one side of the room, and women will sit across from them.
  3. They wait until the tune begins. No one gets up from their chair until the music starts.
  4. When the music starts the men look at the woman they will dance with next and then walk over to her and they start practicing whatever movement/technique is being taught.
  5. The woman should wait until the man comes over to her side of the dancing floor.
  6. Each time they dance with a different partner. The rule for selecting the partner is this: the man dances with the woman to the left of his immediately previous partner.
  7. When the tune stops students sit down in the same chair. Don’t change chairs between songs.
  8. Once students get better at dancing they can change partners once every two tunes and then once every three or four tunes. The teacher can have a mini-cortina inserted between tunes to facilitate this process. For beginners we can even make this a way of changing partners even more often, say half way through the tune. The teacher can phase out the music using a mixer console. the dancing space may need to be made suitably smaller to reduce the time it takes to get to the chair simply by placing the chairs closer to each other across the room.

The goal of this exercise is to use repetition to ingrain the habit of choosing the partner from a seated position, at a distance, across the space. Most teachers expect students to learn this at the milonga. This is a mistake. There is really no better way to do it than with a lot of repetition that is done in the safety of a practice session that is supervised by the teacher.

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Post Scriptum

The importance of repetition and recall to learning is not adequately recognised by most teachers. I highly recommend reading Brown, Roediger & McDaniel Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning [Amazon]. Here is a nice review and summary of some of the concepts but people serious about becoming better teachers are advised to read the book itself.