Milongas and Practicas: Cultural Tradition and Evolution in Buenos Aires Tango Social Dance Venues

November 27, 2011

The Practica and the Milonga in the Golden Age

In the Golden Age of Tango, there was clear distinction between milongas and practicas.

The practica was tango practice among men, dancing with other men, typically held in a community center. It involved learning movements and experimentation. It was a learning environment and preparation for dancing with women at the milonga (The Tango Practica, the Practica Nueva and the Tango Dance Party in Buenos Aires). Even experienced men attended practicas, as role models for less experienced men. Instruction was one-on-one, with an experienced man leading a less experienced man in the woman’s role. In most or possibly nearly all cases, there was no designated lead instructor, no formal structured lessons; there was no payment to an instructor for transmission of tango knowledge.

The milonga was the social environment in which men and women met each other and danced tango together. The milonga had defined codes of behavior, which were similar to the codes observed in milongas in Buenos Aires today (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics). There were two somewhat distinct kinds of milongas – La Milonga del Centro (the downtown milonga) and La Milonga del Barrio (the neighborhood milonga): [Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’)]. In the club de barrio, many of the people attending a milonga knew each other from the neighborhood. Several generations of family members might attend. Young single women were accompanied by chaperones, usually mothers or older female family members. The downtown milongas, typically held in a confiteria in the early 1950s, were places where men and women met after work for dance and possible romance (See Tango Chamuyo).

In both downtown and neighborhood milongas, there were observed customs for the milonga – the structuring of recorded music into tandas with cortinas, spatial segregation of men and women, use of the cabeceo for dance invitation, brief conversation at the beginning of a tango prior to dancing, the formation of a ronda, clearing the floor during the cortina, respect for the space of other dancers on the floor and prohibition of exhibitionist moves. Dancing couples consisted of men leading and women following. Milonga attendees wore appropriate dress – suits, white shirts, and ties for men and dresses for women.

One of the main differences between milongas of the Golden Age and contemporary milongas was that in the Golden Age, except for the confiterias (which were too small), it was common for live music to be provided for dancing, usually with a tango orchestra and also an orchestra that played other dance music, with (American style) jazz being particularly popular.

The Practica and the Milonga after the Tango Renissance

After the tango renaissance in the mid 1980s, the traditional all-male practica was not revived to any significant degree. Instead, practicas with both sexes present started to appear. They became more formal in structure, with a specific designated instructor or instructors and, in many (perhaps most) cases, payment for instruction. Tango instruction in general became more formalized, with group classes organized in community centers and eventually tango academies, a rarity in the Golden Age. The practica became more the place for practicing what was learned in structured group classes and less the primary venue for learning tango. Learning tango became more of a group activity, where learning was through observation of an instructor and less of a direct one-on-one learning experience with an experienced dancer as had existed in the Golden Age.

Milongas increased in number after the tango revival – during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. During this period, there were some notable differences from the milongas of the Golden Age. For the most part, dancing to live tango music had disappeared. Attire became somewhat more casual. The age range of milonga attendees was more limited, with dancers under 40 comprising a much smaller proportion of dancers. Although there were fewer young women attending milongas, those who attended no longer needed to be accompanied by a chaperone.

However, several constants remained in the milonga – spatial segregation of men and women, the cabeceo as the accepted method for dance invitation, men leading and women following, dancing to classic tango music from the Golden Age, the structure of recorded music into tandas with cortinas, brief conversation at the beginning of a tango prior to dancing, formation of a ronda, respecting the space of other dancers on the floor, absence of exhibitionist movements, and clearing the floor during the cortina.

Practicas and Milongas in Buenos Aires in the 21st Century

The first decade of the 21st century has resulted in significant changes in the milongas and practicas of Buenos Aires. There have been several recent developments that have been the driving forces for these changes.

(1) Tango Nuevo: Developed by Gustavo Naveira, Fabian Salas, Chicho Frumboli and others during the 1990s, this analytic approach to the study of tango movements (Tango Nuevo: Definition of the Dance) has gained popularity and attracted new people to dancing tango. It has created a new style of dancing (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?).

(2) Gender Neutral Tango: Increased tolerance towards open expression of homosexuality in Buenos Aires has provided, in part, the impetus for establishing tango social dance venues where partners of the same sex could dance openly with acceptance. Accompanying this, in part independent of sexual orientation, has been a movement promoting gender neutral tango, in which the sex of the participant is freed of traditional gender roles in tango such that, in a social context, women could be leaders and men could be followers and partners of the same sex could dance with each other. (See Queer Tango / Gay Tango / Gender Neutral Tango: Alternatives to Traditional Gender Roles in Tango)

(3) Tango Tourism: The devaluation of the Argentine peso in January 2002 (from equivalency with the US dollar to 3 pesos to the dollar) made Argentina an economically attractive option for tourists. Since then tango tourism to Buenos Aires has increased significantly, and the proportion of foreigners in milongas has grown. Tango Nuevo and Gender Neutral Tango have provided attractive new options for tango tourists seeking tango social dance venues in Buenos Aires.

(4) Youth Tango Involvement: In the last 10 years the number of young porteños (in their 20s and 30s) learning to dance tango has increased. This is due to a large degree to the attractiveness of Tango Nuevo to young people. Part of the influx of young dancers to tango in Buenos Aires also has been due to young foreigners attracted both to Tango Nuevo and to the Youth Tango scene in Buenos Aires.

(5) Relative Economic Stability: In the last decade (since the 2002 peso devaluation) there has been relatively steady economic growth in Argentina. The increased stability has provided more disposable income for Argentines which could be spent on tango activities, although increasing inflation in recent years has limited this to some degree. The relative economic stability in Argentina in the past decade is a stark contrast to the economic instability that characterized most of the latter part of the 20th century (Wikipedia).

These changes have also shaped the tango landscape in Buenos Aires, mainly by expanding it, by creating new venues with new characteristics.

The advent of Tango Nuevo required a new tango environment, one with expansive space that allowed experimentation, one that did not require conformity to traditional milonga customs (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?). Thus was born the Practica Nueva, a practice space for Tango Nuevo. The longest lasting representatives of this type of venue for dancing tango are Practica X and the practicas El Motivo and Tango Cool! at Villa Malcolm (link). These Practicas Nuevas were designed to be different from Milongas, as stated in Andres Amarilla’s Guide to Tango Nuevo in Buenos Aires, written in 2006:

What do we mean by the “nuevo tango scene” in Buenos Aires?

One of the best things about dancing tango in Buenos Aires is the variety of “scenes” to choose from. If you go to Club Sunderland on a Saturday night, for instance, you’ll see that everyone is dancing in a close embrace and more than 75 couples may be crowded on the floor. Although some younger dancers go to Sunderland, most of the attendees at this milonga are over 50. Both the music and the dancing are firmly grounded in tradition. It would be totally inappropriate to open the embrace here or to lead moves like ganchos or boleos, which require more space. Rather, it’s best to relish the opportunity to dance on the same floor with—and in the same style as—these extraordinary dancers, many of whom have been dancing for decades.

More and more, however, young dancers in Buenos Aires are interested in dancing in environments where there is space to dance in open embrace and to try new steps. If you walk into Villa Malcolm on a Friday night, for instance, you’ll see about 50 couples—mostly in their 20s and 30s—flying around the dance floor. One pair will be trying to make their new “colgada-then volcada-straight into two ganchos” combination work, while another pair may be incorporating lifts taken straight from contact improvisation into their tango. If you talk to these dancers, some will say they are dancing “tango nuevo”; others will say that they are simply dancing tango. Since these kinds of movement and exploration are often called nuevo tango, we have adopted that terminology for this guide.

In Buenos Aires, nuevo tango is generally danced in practicas, as opposed to milongas (although there are a couple of milongas aimed at the nuevo tango dancers). The practica scene in Buenos Aires has exploded in the last two years. Whereas in 2004, there were only a couple of practicas each week, now you can choose among two or more different practicas on some nights. If you want to see the famous younger dancers when they’re in town (people like Chicho, Cecelia Gonzalez, Eugenia Parilla, Ezequiel Farfaro, etc.), you’re more likely to catch them in one of the practicas than in the milongas.

Milongas in general have experienced significant growth in Buenos Aires in the last decade. For the most part, this growth has occurred while maintaining the culture of the milonga, the customs that define it [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)]. Nevertheless, a changing sociocultural environment has led to the creation of new tango social dance venues that have deviated from the Traditional Milongas (i.e., those that maintain milonga traditions) to varying degrees.

The first of these to appear on the tango scene were the youth-oriented Informal Milongas – La Viruta (founded in 1994), the outdoor milonga La Glorieta (founded in 1996) and La Catedral (founded in 1998). Developing along another non-traditional line, the first gay milonga in Buenos Aires – La Marshall – was founded in 2002. These tango social dance events, labeled as ‘milongas’, were not designed to follow closely traditional milonga customs. For example, separate seating of men and women, use of the cabeceo for dance invitation, couples comprised only of a man as leader and a woman as follower, prohibition of exhibitionist elements in dancing, playing only classic tango music from the Golden Age, and structuring of music into tandas with cortinas were some milonga customs that were no longer universally or even partially observed. However, until recently these have been special niche milongas designed for a particular type of clientele.

Increased tango tourism has also altered the tango landscape. This, in itself, could be the subject of a blog post, so only a brief description of this phenomenon can be made here. The impact of tourists on the environment of tango social dance venues has been variable. In some cases, tango tourists have attempted to blend into the traditional milonga environment. However, there are also some milongas that have become particularly popular with tourists (e.g., Niño Bien, Porteño y Bailarin, Confiteria Ideal, Parakultural, the outdoor Milonga del Indio in Plaza Dorrego) that have retained some of the most salient milonga traditions (most notably, the classic tango music played for dancing tango, structured into tandas with cortinas; formation of a circulating ronda; clearing the floor during the cortina), while relaxing some other milonga traditions (clearly separated seating sections for men and women, universal use of the cabeceo for dance invitation, keeping the feet on the floor while dancing, prohibition of exhibitionist movements). Tango tourists have also attended Informal Milongas and Practicas Nuevas in significant numbers. It is reasonable to assume that tango tourists select tango social dance venues to attend based on their own cultural preferences and recognize to some degree the differing cultural environments. Thus, tourist support for cultural alternatives to Traditional Milongas has, to a significant degree, shaped the evolution of the tango social environment in Buenos Aires.

The Most Recent Developments in the Social Tango Scene in Buenos Aires

When Andres Amarilla wrote in 2006 about the Tango Nuevo scene in Buenos Aires, there were about one half dozen Informal or Gay Milongas in Buenos Aires (La Viruta, La Catedral, La Marshall and the outdoor milongas La Glorieta and La Milonga del Indio), i.e., tango social dance venues that were labeled as ‘milongas’ but did not follow the traditional milonga codes. In the last 5 years there has been considerable change in Buenos Aires with respect to the characteristics of tango venues labeled as practicas and milongas. The primary driving forces for these changes have been Tango Nuevo and Youth Tango Involvement, with maintained Tango Tourism and Relative Economic Stability playing a supporting role.

An early harbinger of this change was apparent in the changing character of the Practicas Nuevas, although the claim to milonga status of La Viruta and La Catedral may have actually established the model. In the Golden Age, practicas were not designed to be social events (although they undoubtedly cemented social relationships among men). Naveira, Salas, and Frumboli, in their Tango Investigation Group originally conceived of Tango Nuevo as a pedagogical tool for understanding tango, a method for exploring its structure, and expanding upon its possibilities for movement. The early Practicas Nuevas (Practica X and those at Club Villa Malcolm) implemented this approach in that, in the tradition of practicas, there were prominent instructional and practice components. An important difference was that instead of being preparation for the milongas, as was the purpose of Golden Age practicas, the Practicas Nuevas were an end unto themselves because the need for space for experimentation, expansive use of space, and lack of formation of a ronda are incompatible with the customs of the milongas (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?).

Over time, social interaction has increased in prominence at Practicas Nuevas, although a formal structure for social interaction among strangers (i.e., use of the cabeceo for dance invitation) has not been adopted to any significant degree and the informal social tango social dance venues (Practicas Nuevas, Informal Milongas, and the like) have been described as being not being particularly open for interaction among dancers who don’t already know each other (see Blake, 2010: pp. 143-146), in contrast to the Traditional Milongas. With the growth in popularity of these informal tango social dance venues among the ever growing number of young tango dancers (both Argentine and foreign), the roles of education and experimentation in the informal practicas has decreased relative to the social dancing aspect, so that someone entering an informal practica an hour after the lesson has been completed may not recognize it as a practica (i.e., with a learning and practice component) but rather as a tango social dance event lacking the characteristic customs of the traditional milonga (i.e., gender segregated seating sections, cabeceo, tandas with cortinas, lack of exhibition elements in dancing).

Nevertheless, although becoming more social in nature, what the organizers of the Practicas Nuevas have not done to any significant degree (one exception being Soho Tango at Villa Malcolm on Thursdays) is to make the bold tradition defying move of labeling their noticeably more social events that do not observe milonga codes as ‘milongas’, as have the organizers of La Viruta, La Glorieta, La Milonga del Indio, La Catedral, and La Marshall.

However, in the past few years numerous other youth-oriented tango social events not following traditional milonga codes have arisen and been advertised as ‘milongas’. Many of these so-called ‘milongas’ have come and gone within a few months, but some have persisted. One Informal Milonga that has persisted for several years and attracted many dancers is Milonga10 Saturdays in Club Fulgor de Villa Crespo. Associated with this is Praktika8, held at the same location on Tuesdays. These youth-oriented tango events at Club Fulgor are not specifically associated with Tango Nuevo; in fact, Carlos & Rosa Perez, who are identified with Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza, are recognized as important influences for the instruction given at this practica (link). Currently the term ‘Praktika8’ is only loosely associated with the Tuesday tango event at Club Fulgor, which is now also called Milonga10. Tango Queer, a gay-friendly tango venue supporting Gender Neutral Tango in general, was listed in Andres Amarrilla’s 2006 Guide to Nuevo Tango as a practica, but this Tuesday night event that deviates from traditional milonga customs is now advertised as a ‘milonga’. Additional tango events not adhering strictly to traditional milonga codes that are advertised (e.g. by La Milonga Argentina or by El Tangauta) as ‘milongas’ include (Mondays) Bendita Milonga (review), (Tuesdays) Zona Tango Milonga (website) (video), (Wednesdays) Maldita Milonga (review), (Thursdays) Soho Tango (website) (video) El Gardel de Medellin (website) (video), (Saturdays) La Independencia (website) (video), and (Sundays) Loca! (website). None of these Informal Milongas existed 5 years ago. It is difficult to predict whether they will be in existence 5 years from now and, for those that survive, what their characteristics will be.

Although there has been growth in the informal social tango scene in Buenos Aires within the last 5 years, it does not appear that this has come at the expense of the traditional milonga component of social tango dancing in Buenos Aires (although this is subjective and awaits a formal analysis, if possible). Even though many aging dancers are no longer dancing, there are new attendees at Traditional Milongas. Many of these are tourists (and even some foreigners who have moved to Buenos Aires). Traditional tango is not dying in Buenos Aires, although even in Traditional Milongas, adherence to milonga customs are becoming more relaxed, particularly when interacting with tourists.

Implications and Consequences of the Propagation of Informal Tango Social Dance Venues in Buenos Aires

During the Golden Age and at the start to the Tango Renaissance in the late 1980s and early 1990s, using the term ‘Traditional Milonga’ would have been redundant, because observance of milonga codes was customary at events advertised as ‘milongas’ in Buenos Aires. The only significant distinction to be made was between La Milonga del Centro and La Milonga del Barrio [Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’)], which differed mainly in social structure in that the later was a gathering of families, friends and neighborhood acquaintances, and the former was a locale where men and women who usually did not know each other well outside of the milonga met to dance tango and explore relationship possibilities.

Even with the advent in the 1990s of the youth-oriented tango social dance venues La Viruta, La Glorieta, and La Catedral, and the outdoor La Milonga del Indio, as well as the opening of gay-friendly La Marshall in 2002, all of which have been advertised as ‘milongas’, these have been special niche tango social dance venues, until recently outliers among more than 100 milongas in Buenos Aires in terms of observance of the traditional milonga codes. Even though the first Tango Nuevo oriented practicas at Club Villa Malcolm, as well as Practica X, added a significant social dancing component to tango instruction and practice (the variable tango style Cochabamba 444 practica also has had that), the organizers of these events did not lay claim to the ‘milonga’ classification, so that 5 years ago in Buenos Aires, calling a tango social dance event a ‘milonga’ indicated with near certainty that milonga customs would be observed.

The extensive self-labeling of informal tango social dance events as ‘milongas’ that has occurred in the last 5 years has not changed the customs in the Traditional Milongas to a significant degree (although influx of culturally uninformed tourists may relax milonga codes to some extent). Calling an event that does not follow traditional milonga codes a ‘milonga’ does not change milonga codes, it just creates a new category of milonga, one that does not follow traditional tango culture. Also, what has changed is not the number of Traditional Milongas, but the proportion of milongas that can be classified and advertised as ‘traditional’ versus ‘informal’, a labeling distinction that was not necessary in the past because non-traditional events did not classify themselves as ‘milongas’. Thus, today in Buenos Aires, there are Traditional Milongas and Informal Milongas. (See Blake, 2010).

The current coexistence of two very different types of tango social events with different customs and different demographics is not a point of confusion for most porteños who dance tango, because they are part of the tango culture and learn through friends the characteristics of the two different classes of tango venues (or at least of the one type of tango social dance venue in which they choose to participate). However, since tango dancers are separated by age to a significant degree and the younger dancers are developing their own tango subculture in which traditional milonga codes are not observed and often not learned, one can only speculate what lies in store for the future of tango culture in Buenos Aires; i.e., will younger dancers switch to attending Traditional Milongas as they age and maintain the traditional milonga customs, or will the informal tango social dance venues just increase in average age, or even segregate by age, as the current cohort of young dancers ages, without a significant change in the informal atmosphere? Time will tell.

The spread of the informal tango social dance subculture does have significant implications for the global tango community. Milonga codes serve an important function in regulating social interaction and dancing etiquette in the crowded milongas of Buenos Aires, where strangers meet to engage in an intimate dance. There is also the cultural history embodied in tango music that shapes the character of the dance. To dance Tango Argentino is not merely an exercise in producing movements associated with tango dancing on a social dance floor. Tango Argentino as a dance has an associated culture, not only contained in its music, but also in the codes observed in the social dance environment. A complete appreciation of Tango Argentino as a cultural entity requires an immersion in the dance, the music, and the customs associated with the social environment in which tango is danced. Modification of tango to coincide with the cultural perspectives of the foreign host culture removes the Argentine culture from the dance, making it, at best, a hybrid of Argentine and foreign culture or, at worst, a complete transformation to lose its identification with the culture of origin, for example, as has been accomplished with Ballroom Tango.

The rise to greater prominence of informal tango social dance venues in Buenos Aires also complicates the transmission of Tango Argentino in its traditional cultural form to a foreign audience. It is no small task to teach culturally naïve foreigners that tango is more than a dance, that it is defined by the music associated with it, and that it only becomes comprehensible as a unique cultural phenomenon when understood within the context of the culture it which it has evolved. Until recently, it was possible to represent Tango Argentino in its traditional cultural form as that which was practiced virtually universally in the milongas of Buenos Aires. However currently, with the relaxation of traditional customs, the informal tango social dance venues in Buenos Aires, as the videos referenced above indicate, resemble closely the tango social dance events in foreign cultures. Tango tourists travelling to Buenos Aires who attend only informal tango social dance events (and it is possible to do this every night of the week) can return to their culture of origin and report that tango in Buenos Aires is similar to what exists at home, perhaps only with more people and more skilled dancers, so therefore no revision of the foreign culture modified tango social environment is necessary. Travelling Argentine instructors who do not teach tango culture, including socially appropriate styles of dancing, only reinforce further the ignorance regarding traditional tango culture.

The causes, implications, and consequence of this bias in cultural transmission will frequently be the focus of discussion in future Tango Voice posts (See inaugural Tango Voice post 2 years ago: Radio Free North America / The Voice of Tango Argentino).

Reference in Print

Blake, Sally. Happy Tango. Pirotta Press, Warrington UK, 2010.