Minding the red flags: The setup for milonga success

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:

  1. 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;
  2. Dancefloor – the dancefloor is not be too crowded or full of dancers who are overactive;
  3. Partners – there should be potential partners who are suitable in terms of body type (height and weight), and skill level;
  4. Invitation – invitation by way of a cabeceo rather than direct invite by someone you don’t know or aren’t with;
  5. 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;
  6. Alignment – check in with your alignment and posture;
  7. Elbows – elbows float up;
  8. Embrace – partners enter into a square embrace.

The big small: courtesy

Recently I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of the big small: small things that make a big difference. These are things that seem really small and insignificant but actually make all the difference in terms of success and failure. In learning to dance we tend to focus on dancing skills and these are to an extent important. But what one sees all too often is that as skills go up the manners correspondingly go down (if they were there at all). One goes to a dance event, whether it’s tango or some other social dance, and one can tell who’s been attending a lot of lessons and workshops from the attitude. Yet precisely having an attitude is a sure way to end up dissatisfied and defeats the purpose of learning social dancing (as opposed to competitive dancing, I guess).

There are at least two important and closely related reasons to be courteous to people at social tango events. The first reason has to do with energy. An event is enjoyable and productive when it generates positive energy. When there is a lack of courtesy and people exhibit an attitude, distance, aggressiveness or aloofness, this basically sucks the energy out of the event and the atmosphere becomes stifled and uncomfortable and we no longer want to be there.

The second reason has to do with managing relationships. Social dancing is not merely dancing with a single partner. One needs to be able to get enough satisfying dances from a number of people. People are generally quite sensitive to the attitudes of the other people at the event. Small courtesies go a long way in building a positive and lasting relationship. Equally, small discourtesies go far in alienating and damaging the relationship. At some point its a race to the bottom as the number of potential partners rapidly diminishes. Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing whether and how much you value the relationship.

Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing how much you value the relationship.

A significant source of the problem is excessive emphasis on dancing skills, and corresponding lack of attention to social skills. At a certain point learning more dancing skills becomes an end in itself and can actually become a source of anxiety, frustration, competitiveness and end-gaining (see Posture). Social tango, by contrast, requires patience, understanding and generosity (to yourself and others). Investing excessive effort on gaining more skills is not always conducive to an easy-going, friendly atmosphere, and to building and maintaining positive relationships.

Courtesy is the big small because it often takes a very small amount of effort to be courteous but the results may be quite big. As a child I was taught that good manners simply means saying ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’, and ‘please’ or ‘do you mind’, etc. I see at many milongas that dancers stop dancing and just walk back to their chair without expressing warmth or gratitude. The atmosphere at such events starts to resemble more of a physical workout or perhaps a nightclub scene. Often people confuse the energy produced by the DJ cranking up the volume to the max and activities like taking selfies or networking for the energy of an enjoyable milonga with positive relationships.

Equally dysfunctional are scenes where ostentatious expressions of gratitude is a way of marking the membership an ingroup, an inner circle, usually of a teacher and his students. This can leave people who are not part of the club as well as visitors feeling alienated as the outgroup. There are also fake rituals such as announcing the names of visitors from other countries. This only helps to distance and exclude. All of these dynamics indicate that the tango scene is not really functional and the ‘community’ is fake.

A good way to start is to express gratitude: to your teacher, students, partner, the DJ, and organiser, etc. Show that you enjoyed the class or the event, and show appreciation for their effort. Just this relatively minor effort will repay manyfold whereas failing to do so will leave people cold and unappreciated if they made a genuine effort. If, on the other hand, you feel that you cannot genuinely express gratitude, but that instead they should be thankful to you for bothering to turn up, you’re better off leaving the scene because you are probably not enjoying it and sticking around would be defeating the purpose. No amount of dancing skills can equal the feeling of genuine appreciation and inclusion, lacking which would in the end be defeating the purpose of what traditional tango is really all about, namely, to share the enjoyment of great music in a friendly social atmosphere.

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