Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics

There are some variations in what is being described below, but these are the standard characteristics of milongas in Buenos Aires today. This description of the basic customs and codes (codigos) of milongas in Buenos Aires will be the basis for comparison in future postings, both from the point of view of deviations from customs that occur in Buenos Aires milongas and in comparison to milongas in North America.

Table Placement and Assignment

Upon entering a milonga, the host or hostess escorts the guest to a table. Typically tables are placed around all 4 sides of the dance floor, although there are exceptions (e.g., Nuevo Salon La Argentina, where one side is a stage). There are sections of tables for men only, for women only, and a section for couples and mixed groups. If entering as a couple, the man and woman are asked if they want to sit together or sit separately. The men’s and women’s sections start at the edge of the dance floor and occupy the rows closest to the dance floor. Couples and mixed groups sit away from the dance floor, although in some large milongas (e.g., Centro Region Leonesa) there may be a section at one end of floor that may be occupied by couples and mixed groups. The men’s and women’s sections can be directly across the floor from each other (as in Plaza Bohemia) or perpendicular to one another (as in El Beso and Lo de Celia) or men’s and women’s sections form an L-shape section along two adjacent sides of the floor (as may occur in Centro Region Leonesa). Dancers who are regulars at milongas have their reserved table, typically at tables adjacent to the dance floor. (Others can reserve tables in advance by calling the milonga organizer or representative earlier on the day of the milonga.) A stable reserved table allows other dancers to locate them quickly if initiating an invitation to dance. In general, the best dancers get the best tables, close to the dance floor, but good dancers unknown to the milonga host may be placed in a table more distant from the floor. As a dancer comes to a milonga more frequently, he or she may be moved to a table closer to the floor.

All seats at a table are positioned so that the dancer can face the dance floor, so there are no seats on the side of a table closest to the dance floor. Seats may be placed perpendicular to the dance floor but dancers can turn their bodies to face the floor. Tables are rectangular and are placed with their sides parallel or perpendicular to the floor, i.e., not diagonally with edges jutting out onto the dance floor. Thus, the dance floor is clearly defined by straight lines which are the edges of the unoccupied sides of the tables.

The Music

Live music is rare in milongas in Buenos Aires today. The music played in milongas today is almost always recorded tango music from the 1930s, 1940s and (less frequently) 1950s with a clear rhythm for dancing, as compared with the tango canciones from this period (e.g., Carlos Gardel), which were intended for listening, not dancing. Rarely more contemporary tango music from orchestras playing in the style of the Golden Age (30s-50s) will be played (e.g., Villasboas, Color Tango). Music is structured into sets (tandas) of 4 tangos, typically 4 valses (occasionally 3), typically 3 (occasionally 4) milongas. Tandas of tangos are almost always from the same orchestra from the same time period (recorded within a few years of each other). Tandas of valses and milongas can be from the same or different orchestras, but are generally matched for tempo. There is a tendency for tandas of tango to have all instrumentals or all having vocal accompaniment (usually with the same singer), although tandas of tangos are sometimes mixed vocal and instrumental. Tandas of milonga and vals are more likely than tango to be a mix of instrumentals and vocals. Tandas are separated by cortinas of non-tango music usually lasting a minute or longer, long enough to clear dancers off the floor. The standard sequence of tandas is TTV TTM and repeated, although there is some variation in this pattern, occasionally the addition of a third tanda of tangos in the sequence. The last tango of a milonga is ‘La cumparsita’, and this signals the end of a milonga. At almost all milongas in Buenos Aires sets of non-tango music for dancing are also played, typically tandas of tropical music (most likely cumbia, although salsa and merengue can also be played at times) or ‘swing’ (jazz and rock and roll), and Argentine folkloric music (chacarera and paso doble are standard), to which dancers dance their variations of salsa, swing, and Argentine folk dances. There is apparently no regular pattern of insertion of sets of non-tango music into the sequence of tandas, and the frequency of sets of non-tango music varies from milonga to milonga and from DJ to DJ. However, to be called a ‘milonga’, it is dictated by the current Buenos Aires law that at least 70% of music played is tango, milonga, and vals. There are dance gatherings where more non-tango music is played and these are called ‘bailes’.

The Line of Dance and Respect for Space

For tango, milonga, and vals, movement is in a line of dance (la ronda) counterclockwise around the dance floor (la pista). The man leads and the woman follows. There is an outermost lane that is clearly defined. Inner lanes are typically less clearly defined. In the outermost lane, passing of other dancers is considered impolite and dangerous. Dancers are expected to respect the space of other dancers on the pista by not moving quickly into and out of lanes of the ronda, and by not colliding with other dancers either by stepping, kicking, or moving their bodies into the space occupied by other dancers. Dancers should also not persistently occupy a position in a moving ronda; they are obligated to move with the forward movement of the ronda. Movements characteristic of tango for the stage, such a ganchos and high boleos, are frowned upon if used at milongas and one rarely sees them used by porteños.

The Invitation to Dance and the Duration of the Partnership

Invitation to dance is by use of the ‘cabeceo’. When the music for a tanda begins (and not before, in order to recognize the rhythm and possibly the orchestra), from their positions seated at their table (i.e., not wandering around the room) men and women search for a partner across the floor by looking at a potential partner. There is sufficient light in a milonga for dancers to see across the room. When glances meet, typically the man does a slight vertical nod of the head and/or a raising of the eyebrows as an invitation to dance and the woman reciprocates. Avoiding eye contact is an indication that one does not wish to dance with a particular person. After the cabeceo is reciprocated, the man rises and walks to in front of the woman’s table or, if a woman does not have direct access to the pista from the table, to edge of the pista by the aisle where she will enter the floor. In approaching the woman’s table, the man will maintain eye contact with the invited partner. The woman should not rise from her seat until the man has reached the table or the aisle where she enters the pista, because she may have misinterpreted a cabeceo directed at another women nearby and this could create an embarrassing situation. When the invited woman reaches the man at the edge of the pista, the couple should not enter immediately into the ronda if another couple is approaching, waiting for free space before entering.

Invitations to dance may also occur at the beginning of the subsequent songs in the tanda, although this is somewhat more difficult because the line of sight for invitation may be blocked by dancers on the pista. (In this regard the placement of men’s and women’s sections at right angles makes it easier to find a partner.) After the end of all but the last song of a tanda and continuing into about 30 seconds or so of the next song, the dancers converse before starting to dance again. The re-initiation of dancing by all couples on the pista should occur more or less simultaneously. This not only allows new couples to enter the ronda more easily, but also allows dancers to have a brief conversation. They do not converse while dancing.

Regardless of when a couple started dancing in a tanda, it is considered polite to dance with this partner until the end of the tanda. To break the partnership before the end of the tanda is a severe rejection, which could be due to poor dancing or inappropriate behavior. At the end of the tanda, when the cortina is played, the man is expected to escort the woman back to her table or to the aisle where she entered the pista. All couples exit the pista during the cortina.

Men and women sitting separately do not dance consecutive tandas with each other. In fact, it is not unusual to dance only one tanda in an evening with each invited partner. Dancing several tandas with the same partner is a signal that this couple is together for the evening and this will result in fewer invitations to dance.

It is considered impolite to approach a table directly and ask someone to dance. It is standard to reject such invitations. Exceptions are dancers who know each other well and who may greet each other upon entering a milonga, although even after such greetings an invitation will typically come later in the form of a cabeceo. Couples who attend a milonga and sit together typically dance only with each other. It is considered rude to ask a member of a couple sitting together to dance, even if you are friends.

These are the standard characteristics of milongas in Buenos Aires. Deviations from these characteristics will be discussed in subsequent posts.

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5 Responses to Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics

  1. […] you’re interested, here’s a detailed description of some codes , and here’s a UK-centric version, and for more reading, I also co-authored […]

    • tangovoice says:

      The primary objection to milonga codes stated in this article is to the cabeceo:

      “What I personally think works less well are rules about how to get dances – how to ask for, how to accept and how to reject invitations. In traditional tango, these rules are lumped together under the heading of “cabeceo – mirada” (invitation – acceptance). The idea is that these rules create a relaxed situation allowing all attendees to pick and choose who they dance with. … But the problem is that these rules are trying to regulate emotions, they’re trying to tell you how you should react to other people. They’re trying to make you feel in a certain way; and the more you’re told how you “should” feel, the more unhappy you feel if you don’t conform.

      Asking for / accepting / rejecting a dance can be emotionally-fraught anyway; it’s arguably the main reason people avoid going to milongas at the start. We’re afraid, basically. And then we get told by our teachers about this whole complex situation of secret signals that we have to obey, otherwise we’ll be cast out into the endless darkness or something – so we add yet more anxiety to the whole situation.”

      In the absence of the cabeceo, the man approaches a woman and risks not only the possibility of being rejected, but being seen by others as being rejected. The public viewing of this rejection adds to the feelings of disappointment, low self worth, and similar emotions engendered by the rejection experience. For the woman, she might feel obligated to dance with someone with whom she would rather not dance. She may suffer the unpleasantness of dancing with someone who is rough, or who engages in unwanted flirtation or transgresses the boundaries of physical contact.

      The advantages of the cabeceo are well known. It allows silent and nearly invisible acceptance of invitations to dance without anyone being embarrassed by rejection or feeling obligated to engage in an unwanted experience. Another advantage of the cabeceo is that it should, in theory, eliminate unnecessary traffic on the dance floor because only men who have had an invitation to dance accepted will enter onto the dance floor once a tanda has begun.

      It is difficult to teach tango dancers outside Argentina to use the cabeceo for dance invitation, because it is something outside their understanding, outside the usual rules for dance invitation in their culture. However, after some initial hesitation, many dancers enjoy the benefits of selecting partners to dance with by using the cabeceo. Tango instructors and milonga organizers should encourage its usage.

      • Chris , UK says:

        A UK dance teacher wrote: “What I personally think works less well are rules about how to get dances … The idea is that these rules create a relaxed situation allowing all attendees to pick and choose who they dance with … we get told by our teachers about this whole complex situation of secret signals that we have to obey, otherwise we’ll be cast out into the endless darkness or something.”

        The reason the cabaceo system works poorly at “allowing all attendees to pick and choose who they dance with” is that actually its purpose is to prevent that. This is because the Argentine milongas in which it originates are fundamentally exclusive – they are for people who really dance tango. In UK milongas following that tradition, the system works well, to the same end. Where the system is as unpopular as described above is in the kind of UK milongas that are described (most often by their promotors) as INclusive – which to be honest means inclusive of people who don’t really dance tango. Ironically the only milongas that have teachers telling people of these “rules they have to obey” are the inclusive kind – because inclusive milongas are the only kind that have (and need) teaching, period.

  2. […] hosts, for the DJs, for single dancers, and for couples. A very extensive list can be found at the Tango Voice. There is a trend in some milongas outside of Buenos Aires to relax the traditional codigos. Many […]

  3. El Polaco says:

    TangoVoice, I would like to use your articles on the codes and customs of the milonga, possibly to edit for ease of reading and publish on my blog with source attribution in English and Chinese.

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