The practica is the learning environment for dancing tango. It has been the partner to the milonga in the development of tango. In the history of tango in Buenos Aires, the practica has taken on different forms and, in recent times, it has taken on an additional social function and, in some cases, has become an end unto itself. This variation of tango practicas in Buenos Aires is described below.
A. The Practica in the Golden Age
Probably the most extensive written description in English of the characteristics of practicas in the Golden Age of Tango (mid 1930s – mid 1950s) is that provided by Christine Denniston (biosketch) (2007, web article).
The practica, usually held in a community center or ‘club de barrio’, was where men learned and improved their tango dancing with other men. This was due in large part to the societal norms during this period that generally prevented women of good reputation from freely associating with men outside of a highly structured social environment. Women typically learned tango at home with family members (as did many men).
At the all-male practica, a man new to tango would start as a follower for a period of about a year before becoming a leader. At some point thereafter, after a man had reached a satisfactory level of development, one of the more experienced men would invite him to go to a milonga. Even after attending milongas regularly, he would still go to practicas to experiment, to try out new combinations. Unlike the milonga, where making mistakes was costly, the classic practica de tango was a safe place to take risks and make mistakes. It was an environmental for learning and improving. However, it was also a group activity, in which more experienced men taught less experienced men, without there necessarily being a specific lead instructor.
Although details do not appear to be readily available, it is reasonable (and almost logically obvious) to assume (perhaps by absence of mentioning) that practicas lacked certain features (customs) characteristic of milongas, such as separate ‘seating’ sections for leaders and followers, use of the cabeceo to invite someone to dance, structuring of music into tandas and cortinas, and perhaps even a defined ronda for dancing. The code of dress for practicas was also more relaxed, in contrast to the expectation of men wearing suits, white shirts, and ties to attend a milonga.
Interviews by Monica Paz of milongueros Walter Dominguez, Osvaldo Centeno, Omar Ruberto, Ricardo Franquelo, Rodolfo Diperna, Raul Capelli all mention all-male tango practicas as part of their own tango history.
B. The Practica in Contemporary Buenos Aires
There are 68 tango practicas in Buenos Aires listed in the July – September 2011 issue of B.A. Tango; 58 of these are listed as preceded by a lesson. However, when only 1.5 – 2 hours is set aside for a lesson (typically ‘all levels’) plus ‘practica’ (as listed in B.A. Tango) this is just a lesson followed by some practice time. The September 2011 issue of La Milonga Argentina lists 32 additional practicas not listed in B.A. Tango, with very little overlap between the two publications. El Tangauta lists 22 additional practicas; i.e., there are a minimum of 122 advertised practicas per week in Buenos Aires.
Each Buenos Aires practica has its own personality, determined to a large degree by the organizer. However, as far as can be determined, the traditional all male practica no longer exists in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless there are some more or less common characteristics of contemporary Buenos Aires practicas that differentiate them from milongas.
The conventional contemporary Buenos Aires practica, usually preceded by a lesson, consists of both men and women dancers (usually, but not always with men leading and women following), practicing their tango skills, often incorporating movements that have been learned recently or are still in the developmental stage of learning. This is possible in large part because the floor density is typically lower than at a milonga. Partners are often familiar individuals, often someone with whom particular movements are being learned together in a more structured learning environment, such as a class or workshop. It is not unusual to practice dancing with only one partner during a practica. There may be a ronda, although this is not always strictly observed, in that dancers may stop and discuss aspects of their practice. Often this discussion involves an instructor, either actively intervening or summoned. Typically there is a single instructor or an instructor couple that supervises the practica; sometimes there is a team of instructors with an identifiable chief instructor. If there exist practicas in Buenos Aires without this instructional hierarchy, they are probably not listed in the aforementioned tango publications.
There are chairs for seating, although tables may be absent. Attendees seat themselves. There are no designated seating sections for men, women, and couples, and the cabeceo is not normally used to invite someone to dance. It is possible that gender roles may not be clearly defined in the assumption of leading and following roles. Dress is casual. Food and drink are typically available, although the variety may be limited compared to a milonga. Table service provided by waiters and waitresses is not typical.
The music at practicas may be structured into tandas with cortinas or it may lack these qualities. Even if there are tandas with cortinas, terminating dancing with someone before the end of a tanda (or even a song) is not generally considered impolite, nor is remaining on the floor during a cortina, should it exist. The custom of conversing a half minute or so before starting to dance at the beginning of a song may or may not be observed. Thus many of the codes and customs of the milonga are not observed.
Description of some practicas in Buenos Aires will reveal some of the variation that exists among contemporary Buenos Aires practicas, as well as some common patterns.
1. Practica at Sunderland Club
An example of a contemporary conventional practica in Buenos Aires is that held by Carlos Perez and Rosa Forte, Monday and Wednesday evenings at Sunderland Club (Tango Pilgrim report) (Terpsichoral report) (video) in the Barrio of Villa Urquiza. (Note this is not the basketball court where La Milonga del Mundo is held every Saturday night.) Perez and Forte and recognized as instructors of ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’ (Tango Estilo del Barrio). The practica begins with about 45-60 minutes of solo technique exercises, with men and women separated, followed by dance practice with active instructor participation. The music is structured into tandas with cortinas. The average age of the dancers is younger at the Sunderland practica than at the Saturday milonga. The level of dancing at the Sunderland practica is high. The total duration of the practica is approximately 2 hours.
2. La Practica de la Academia Tango Milonguero
Another conventional practica is that is currently held Mondays by La Academia de Tango Milonguero at El Beso in Congreso. The 2 hour practica is preceded by a 2 hour lesson in Tango Milonguero at the beginner to intermediate level given by the instructional staff at La Academia Tango Milonguero. There is a separate admission for the lesson and the practica. The practica itself is considerably more casual than the traditional milongas held at El Beso. The instructional staff is available for consultation, but does not actively intervene during the dance practice. (Active direct intervention occurs during the lesson.) The level of dancing is variable. Gender role reversal is permitted. The music is divided into tandas with cortinas, but does not generally follow the TTV TTM format characteristic of music programs in Buenos Aires milongas. Occasionally there are demonstrations given at this practica, something that is rare at milongas at El Beso.
A somewhat unique type of milonga is the PractiMilonguero hosted by Monica Paz (currently Tuesdays at El Beso, prior to the Cachirulo milonga), where milonga codes are taught and practiced with the context of tandas with cortinas, with instruction occurring between tandas. Milongueros are regularly interviewed and taped at this practica, with the interviews placed on YouTube and made accessible from the practica website. Admission is free.
4. Practica at Cochabamba 444
The Practica at Club General Belgrano at Cochabamba 444 in San Telmo, currently on Thursday and Friday, has been running continuously since the early 1990s. There is a 1.5 hour lesson prior to the practica, and the practica itself lasts about 4 hours (video). Admission is free with donations solicited (‘a la gorra’, or ‘pass the hat’). Over the years, this practica has been supervised by well-known tango instructors such as Pepito Avellaneda, Mingo & Ester Pugliese, Gustavo Naveira & Olga Besio (link1) (link2). The style of dancing has reflected the instructors hosting the practica.
In an El Tangauta interview, the current instructor on Fridays, Alfredo Garcia, describes some of the characteristics of the Cochabamba 444 practica. The atmosphere is casual and friendly, and someone coming alone is likely to dance. [The cabeceo is not used to invite someone to dance. (Tango in her Eyes report)] According to Garcia, Tango Nuevo is not danced at this practica. There are many beginner level dancers, mostly young; many foreigners visit. The music played is mostly classic tango music (before 1950) plus (very rarely) Piazzolla, but no electrotango; there are tandas, but no cortinas.
5. Practica X
Practica X, organized by Pablo Inza, Rail Masciocchi, and Gabriel Bortnik, has been a popular practica for dancers of Tango Nuevo for several years. It is popular among young dancers and among tourists. The practica lasts 4 hours, and is preceded by a lesson of approximately 1.5 hrs. Exhibitions are common at Practica X.
When Practica X was in a large hall (Sitio Palermo) in Palermo, there was plenty of room to practice and moving in a ronda was not obligatory (video 1) (video 2). After a visit to Practica X in December 2009, Shahrukh Merchant reported some of the features of Practica X. The music played was structured into tandas, but without cortinas; thus, movement of couples off of the floor did not follow a predictable pattern. About 90% of the recorded music was classic tango music from the Golden Age. A live orchestra (Los Reyes del Tango, which plays in the style of the 1950s D’Arienzo orchestra) was playing that evening. About 80% of the dancers were dancing what could be classified as Tango Milonguero, about 20% Tango Nuevo. As floor density increased, navigational hazards were apparent. There was no apparent instructor summoning or intervention during the practica. From this description Practica X has the characteristics of a milonga without the milonga traditions of arranged seating, use of the cabeceo, cortinas for the music, and respect for the space of other dancers on the pista.
In August 2010, Practica X moved to Viejo Correo in Caballito, a locale where traditional milongas have been held for years. The dance floor is much smaller there and the higher floor density has increased the risk of navigational hazards (Yet Another Dance Addict report) Here is a video of Practica X at Viejo Correo. This video reveals a higher proportion of Tango Nuevo dancing than reported by Merchant for the larger Palermo location.
6. Other Popular Practicas
Practicas where Tango Nuevo is typically taught and practiced are held at Club Villa Malcolm in Palermo on Mondays (El Motivo, with instructors Luciana Valle, Valencia Batiuk & Dina Martinez) and Fridays [TangoCool! (website) (video) with instructor Gabriel Glagovsky]. Pedro Benavente (El Indio), whose range of tango styles is diverse, is the instructor at the TangoLab practica in La Catedral in Almagro on Mondays and Thursdays. There are classes prior to these practicas. These practicas are frequented primarily by younger dancers. They regularly have exhibitions and sometimes have live music.
C. The Tango Practica: The Environment for Learning
Both in the Golden Age and in contemporary Buenos Aires, the tango practica has had a significant instructional component. Most practicas in Buenos Aires today are preceded by (or begin with) group guided instruction. The practica has also been an environment for experimentation, for trying out new things that have not been perfected enough for use in the milonga. Whereas making mistakes at milongas may be costly, at practicas making mistakes is the first step to tango improvement. The practica is the environment for learning, to prepare the tanguero for the milonga.
In contemporary Buenos Aires, the practica has become highly visible in the Tango Nuevo community (as indicated by conspicuousness of advertising and dedicated websites). Meredith Klein has commented on the importance of the practica to the development of Tango Nuevo. The need for space for experimentation and the relaxation of milonga codes, particularly that relating to maintaining a circulating ronda, makes the practica a suitable environment for Tango Nuevo, whereas in contrast Tango Nuevo is maladapted for the milonga. (See also Andres Amarilla’s ‘Guide to Tango Nuevo in Buenos Aires’.)
D. The Practica Nueva as a Social Environment
The traditional practica (during the Golden Age) was not designed to be a social event. However, to varying degrees, the contemporary practica is also a social event, more relaxed than the traditional milonga in dress, seating arrangements, invitations to dance, and mixing among people for social interaction in general. In particular, the Practica Nueva (where Tango Nuevo is taught and practiced) is a social tango environment, a tango dance party without the restrictive codes of the milongas. The transformation of the environment of the Practica Nueva typically occurs over the course the evening, from the formal lesson to the informal practice event with instructor involvement, and it usually progresses to a tango dance party. The Practica Nueva provides many of the same social amenities as the milonga, without the structure and strictness of milonga codes. It is an environment that is attractive to young people, a place where they can learn tango, practice, and interact socially with friends and meet new people.
E. The Tango Dance Party as a Milonga Alternative in Buenos Aires
With each passing year, more and more tango social dance venues labeled as ‘milongas’ appear, in which the traditional milonga codes are relaxed or virtually absent. These informal ‘milongas’ are, for the most part, tango social dance venues for young people; in the relaxation of milongas codes, they are similar to the social dancing time at practicas, so much so that today the boundary between practicas and milongas has become more difficult to define. The longest running informal milonga of this type is La Viruta in Palermo, founded in 1994 (video); paradoxically, La Viruta advertises its social dance as ‘una auténtica milonga porteña’ (‘an authentic Buenos Aires milonga’), while listing it on its schedule as a ‘practica’. (El Tangauta includes La Viruta under both its milonga and practica listings, while B.A. Tango lists La Viruta only under its milonga listing.) Another long-standing informal milonga in Buenos Aires is La Catedral (video) in Almagro, known for its camp warehouse-like environment (report). Other popular youth-oriented tango social dance venues in Buenos Aires advertised as milongas include Praktika8-Milonga10 (video) in Villa Crespo, and Loca! in Palermo. All of these informal milongas are preceded by tango lessons. Within all of these informal tango dance venues (practicas nuevas and informal milongas), various tango styles (tango nuevo, tango estilo del barrio, tango estilo del centro) may all be danced simultaneously on the same pista. Whether this mixing of styles and indistinct separation of venues by name and style represents a view of the future of tango evolution in Buenos Aires, or is merely an evolutionary experiment, remains to be seen. However, at this moment it is primarily a niche occupied by young Argentines and tourists (also mostly young, but including a wider age range).
F. Perspective and Summary
At least since the Golden Age of tango (1940s), the practica has been the training ground for the milonga. The practica is a place for experimentation, with making mistakes permissible, but not all that is practiced at the practica is ready for use at the milonga, because at the milonga observed mistakes can lead to the refusal of dance invitations. In contrast to the practica, the milonga is a strict environment, where selection of dance partners is controlled by observation and acceptance implemented through the cabeceo. The practica also does not require adherence to certain customs of the milonga – the observance of the ronda, the structure of music into tandas with cortinas, and separate seating sections for men, women, and couples. Although contemporary milongas in Buenos Aires do not enforce a strict dress code of women wearing dresses or skirts and men wearing suits with ties, contemporary practicas have an even more relaxed dress code, usually permitting zapatillas (sports shoes), jeans or cargo pants, and tee shirts.
Within the last decade or so, as a new genre of tango – Tango Nuevo – has evolved and gained popularity, the practica, with its allowance of experimentation and availability of more space for movement, has provided a public home for the practice of Tango Nuevo. Because Tango Nuevo is maladapted for the milonga, in the absence of this outlet for a social environment for the dance, the Practica Nueva has evolved into a social event, without the adoption of the codes of the milonga. Informal milongas lacking the strict milonga codes (such as La Viruta and La Catedral), mostly frequented by young dancers, have risen in parallel with the Practica Nueva; these venues labeled as ‘milongas’ were already existing social environments for dancing tango without the enforcement of milonga codes. Today the distinction between the Practica Nueva and the informal milonga has blurred, as all styles of tango have been incorporated into this venue class (The Social Practica or Tango Dance Party), so that the Practica Nueva as a distinct class of tango social dance venue may already be an inappropriate appellation in the moment the term has been coined; Practica X, El Motivo, and TangoCool! may still be the most popular places to dance Tango Nuevo socially, but these events are no longer exclusively and at times not evenly primarily Tango Nuevo enclaves. The blurring of the lines of distinction between ‘milonga’ and ‘practica’ may also indicate or even necessitate a change in how the term ‘milonga’ is defined within the Buenos Aires tango community. Now, for accuracy in communication, it may become necessary to formalize the term ‘una milonga tradicional’ (‘a traditional milonga’), which has been used somewhat informally (e.g., Blake, 2010), to describe and classify correctly a tango social dance venue that maintains the traditional milonga codes.
Blake, Sally (2010) – Happy Tango. SallyCat’s Guide to Dancing in Buenos Aires. Pirotta Press, Warrington, United Kingdom. (See also Update Blog)
Denniston, Christine (2007) – The Meaning of Tango. The Story of the Argentinian Dance. Portico Books. London.