Milonga Etiquette: 8 Things to Know Before You Tango

Posted on September 16, 2014 by Sharon Salt in ARTS

Article by Sharon Salt.

To many outsiders and first-timers, milongas are uncharted territory: dark and smoky halls brimming with lust, loss, and longing. Everyone, it seems, knows everyone else; and everyone, it seems, knows how to dance perfectly, or at least much better than you.

And yes, some milongas are dark, some milongas are smoky, and some milongas play host to such an old, tight-knit crowd that they will sniff you out in seconds. But I assure you, not everyone dances perfectly and you are definitely welcome, so long as you know the rules. 

I’ve compiled for you here the very basics of milonga etiquette, most of which would otherwise go unspoken:

You Don’t Have To Dance

Why oh why does everyone assume milongas are for dancers only? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve invited a friend to a milonga only to hear: “Nah, I don’t dance.” Guess what? I don’t really dance either. If you don’t want to dance, you don’t have to. In fact, very few people will ask you unless you happen to be wearing tango shoes, and those are very hard to put on by accident.

Keep Your Voice Down

By the same token, some people to go milongas just for the music, particularly when it’s live. If the crowd is too loud, it’s hard enough for the audience to hear the music, not to mention the dancers! So please be quiet and save face, since no one wants to be the one shouting some inane comment across the table to your friends as the band — and everyone else — watches, waiting for you to shut up.

Don’t Mess With The Dance Floor

Don’t walk through the dance floor; walk around it. Likewise, if you’re sitting along the edges, try to keep your bags, feet, and chairs out of the way, as nobody wants to trip or be tripped.

If You Do Dance, Dance Tango

This should go without saying, but in a milonga, there is no YMCA-business or grinding, no matter how many glasses of wine you’ve had. In some milongas, even newer styles of tango – e.g. excessive, wide-sweeping turns – are looked down upon as the old guard clashes with the young. So yeah, no, your peppermint twist is definitely not going to cut it.

Dance In A Counter-Clockwise Direction

This is the only way. Likewise, if you’re a beginner, try to stay in the middle of the dance floor as people generally dance slower here and it will be easier to navigate.

It’s Fine To Say No

You can turn down an offer to dance, but, as with prom etc., it’s hard to say no to Daniel only to turn around and say yes to David. So say no, if you want, but be careful about accepting another partner right after, as this could be seen as a slap in the face. 

Listen For The Tandas

Generally, dancers will wait for a song they know well before beginning to dance. This is made easier by tandas, or sets of songs, which are almost always grouped by style. In a tanda, three or four songs are played in a row before a snippet of a pop or rock song cuts in to break it up. You’ll notice that dancers rarely sit down before the end of the tanda, as couples are expected to dance together for the entirety of the tanda unless they have radically different levels of ability.

Be Sure To Step Away

In between songs, couples stop dancing and take a step away, often chatting before the next song comes on. If you remain touching between songs, beware: you may be sending the signal to your partner — and others — that you’re taken, though whether that means for the next few hours or the whole night will remain unclear.

You’re all set for a milonga now — no more excuses! Go for the music, go for the dancing, go for the people watching, whatever you want, so long as you go. No stay in Buenos Aires would be complete without it.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for these helpful tips, especially as I’m a beginner, hopefully they will go some way to saving me from undue embarrassment!

    The sentence …Tango shoes are difficult to put on accidentally ….was brilliant and brought a lovely chuckle to my day, so thanks for that too.


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