Basics of Tango (Part Two)

By 31 May, 2011

Last week Luz Sinatra, our Tango expert, told you about the history and benefits of tango. This week we look into what it takes to become good at tango and hit the milonga floor. These are some interesting points to consider before you go and buy your first pair of tango shoes.

The Learning Process

Perseverance is a must

Be prepared for boredom. And frustration. And aching feet. No pain no gain, baby. You’ll have to repeat those 8 basic steps a million times until the sequence becomes just as natural as breathing. And you’d better not dare step into a milonga if you still have to think about which step comes next because you’ll be setting yourself up for the embarrassment of a life-time. Remember, as a milonga goer, you’ll eventually need to be able to design the dance sequence as you go and guide your partner to do what you have in mind if you’re male – or be fully present to understand and follow your partner’s guidance if you’re a female – make sure you don’t bump into other fellow dancers or step on their feet as you’re doing your moves, hold a casual but coherent conversation, and all of that while there’s most likely a reasonable amount of alcohol running through your system. So yes, non-multi-taskers, better just keep grooving it to the Bee Gees.

Bear with diversity

There will always be a mixture of talents in any class. And you’re going to be encouraged to change partners several times per class. So be prepared to have to cope with everything you can think of. Some of your classmates will have great memory for the steps, but no rhythm at all. Others may hold a fantastic balance, but will be bossy. Some others will always be doubtful about how the sequence goes, but will have bad breath. So you see, it’s not just tango you learn in a tango class, you learn about tolerance and advanced social survival skills too.

Try different classes

Even though it is recommended to find a good teacher and stick with it for at least 6 months at the beginner stage, it is also a great experience – once you’ve mastered the basics – to try out different open classes in order to have a broader perspective on how the learning can be approached. Some milonga places have pre-milonga classes for different levels. They are usually quite affordable and do not require your commitment to them. Try a few out, but beware of stepping out of your ‘just a witness’ role when the full-on milonga starts, if you’re not ready for the heat quite yet!

Don’t rush it

Be patient with yourself and with the process. This dance is quite complex and the mental learning you will be doing in class needs to become a cellular-level knowing before you can even start to enjoy the potential deliciousness of it all. So don’t expect to be flying high on a passionate tango trip for the first year or two. Yes, it is complex and it takes lots of practice, but the rewards can be uniquely fulfilling. If the practice you do in class doesn’t feel enough (it usually doesn’t), do gather with your classmates within the week to put some extra hours in. There’s always someone with a big enough living-room that is willing to move some furniture around for the sake of getting the ‘step of the week’ right.


Tango is not to be thought, but to be felt. Yes, that also applies to the male role. And yes, learning the basic template, the ‘side moves’, the marks, the sequences, the steps and their names, the possible combinations, the different rhythms… all of that does involve the thinking process. So the only way to reach the ‘beyond thought’ level is by thoroughly practicing everything you’re taught until your body is able to do it on its own, without the intervention of your thinking mind. In tango, practice not only makes perfect, it’s what makes magic possible.

The Club Goer Stage

Milonga Protocol:

There is a standard protocol to milongas and you need to become familiar with it before you step into one. Unless you don’t mind asking strangers around and figuring it out on the spot, oh and also being frowned upon for doing so. It is also true that times are changing and new generations are quite busy breaking the moulds, so don’t expect tango to be so starched-up anymore.

But as an overall preview, this is pretty much how it goes, on a square-ish basis:

  • There is the dance-floor, and usually there are tables around it. People remain seated at their table unless they are dancing. They can walk around the venue, but never wander around on the dance-floor, which is sacred and reserved only for the dancing couples.
  • Women must wait for men to invite them for a dance (unless some ‘Turnaround Time’ of sorts is announced by the DJ on the less traditional milongas). The invitation can be done either by walking to the potential partner’s table and performing a simple gesture – or by asking directly if they would dance. Or, from across the room – and after having made eye contact – by performing what is known as ‘cabeceo’ which is basically the world-known gesture for ‘let’s go’ which, as we all know, consists of a quick tilting of the head (pointing at the dance-floor in this case) and usually the synchronized lifting of an eyebrow, just to add a charming touch of irresistibleness to the invite.
  • No one is obliged to accept an invite. A simple ‘no thanks’ should do, but sometimes the eagerness to dance mixed with alcohol can make people a bit resilient, especially men. In that case, it is customary to make up a silly excuse like: my feet hurt, my dinner is coming, I’m waiting for my partner to show up, I’m a bit dizzy at the moment, and so on. Also, no one is obliged to keep on dancing with the same person for more than one piece if they didn’t feel comfortable. Once the piece is over, again, a simple thank you (coupled with a smile and a little bow, followed by a determined walk towards your table) should do.

Room to dance

Seems quite an obvious remark, but maybe it’s not. The lack of venues and the spreading of the trend can make milongas quite crowded sometimes. When the dance-floor is so packed that you find yourself locked up with your dancing partner in a sea of bodies, rhythmically switching your body’s weight from one foot to the other, just waiting for a single tile to open up and step on it… you’re not tangoing my friend… you’re dancing something else, and it’s called merengue. In that case, you can wait for a few hours sitting at your table (if you luckily got one) until the masses start heading back home and the dance-floor becomes sacred land again for the few committed ones that are willing to wait all night for a worthwhile piece or two. Keep in mind that stink bombs are not allowed in certain venues.

Take it easy with alcohol

Even though it doesn’t get any more heart-melting than dancing tango with a lover and a tipsy head, overdoing it is never recommended. Keep yourself decent at all times, because ruining your reputation in the tango scene is a thousand times easier than anywhere else. Plus, milongas do not abound and you don’t want to run out of venues where you can attend.

The read the first part of Basics of Tango click here.

We recently launched a tango directory here at Sounds and Colours for anyone wishing to learn tango in London. So whether you’re looking for a class or you’re a tango school and want to be listed just click here.

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