Milongas are not all the same …

We all have our own ideas about what makes an enjoyable or successful tango dance event. They come in a variety of forms: evening milongas, afternoon tea dances and that strange hybrid, the practilonga (which usually turns out to be a relatively informal milonga of limited duration, and not really a practica, at all).

Wherever we have a choice, we naturally tend to gravitate towards events that suit our preferences. Sometimes the music will be 100% traditional, and sometimes it will be anything but. Often, it is mixed: particularly at low-key local events.

I have a series of preferences, and they can be summarised very simply: the music must be excellent; the atmosphere must be friendly and welcoming; and the space should be arranged and lit to create pleasant conditions for social dancing. Permit me to say a little more about each of those factors …

the music must be excellent

My tango is a very simple dance, improvised in the moment, and growing directly out of the music. So the music is of paramount importance to me. I usually look for events that offer 100% traditional music, recorded by the great tango dance orchestras and singers of the Golden Age. Within that genre, the music needs to be carefully selected to present a range of styles, periods and moods, and to keep me wanting to return to the floor, tanda after tanda.

I want to be able to relax, knowing that the DJ is thoroughly competent; both in the art of selecting good music for dancing, and in the craft of presenting it well and letting it speak for itself. Good music for dancing is a prerequisite for good dancing. I believe that if you seek out events where the music is consistently good, you will find yourself in the company of the most discerning dancers. Inevitably, the converse is also true. Abundant cake is never enough.

the atmosphere must be friendly and welcoming

Organisers set the tone: if they are friendly and welcoming, telling newcomers where they can leave coats and change shoes, where to find the toilets, about the refreshments and about any local customs regarding seating or anything else, people will respond positively. It all helps to create conditions for good dancing. Discerning dancers notice these things.

The organisers also set the tone of the event by the style of music they present and whether they actively encourage dancers to observe the traditional codes of milonga etiquette (the codigos). In my view, the traditional codigos make for better dancing and more sociable behaviour. Better dancing is the result of there being an unspoken shared understanding of the purpose behind the codigos; and in acknowledging their enduring usefulness in creating a safe, relaxing environment for dancing tango. Far from being a prescriptive list of ways to behave, imposed on a reluctant group of dancers by a tyrannical organiser, they should be viewed as a commonly understood framework, based firmly in courtesy and respect for each other.

the space should be arranged and lit to create pleasant conditions for social dancing

Seating and lighting is important. The use of mirada/cabeceo is the traditional way to arrange dances. Catching the eye of a prospective dance partner, even from across the room, is a subtle and efficient way to arrange partner rotation. I don’t intend to say more about the merits of cabeceo here, but its general use is probably the one single factor that marks out the sort of milongas that I want to attend from all the others.

If the room is in half darkness (why do people want to dance in the dark?), cabeceo becomes difficult, or may be impossible. The seating needs to be arranged to give the majority clear sight lines around the room; and the lighting needs to be sufficient to read facial expressions and small gestures clearly. The lack of flexibility of the lighting at hired venues can make life difficult for organisers; but a satisfactory solution can usually be found.

Where the dance floor is crowded, the other cabeceo is important too: where a man wishing to join the ronda first catches the eye of the approaching leader, and only enters the floor having been acknowledged.

Finally, having somewhere to change shoes and leave bags/coats away from the salon is civilised. Some venues don’t always allow a separate space, but all of my favourite milongas are arranged in venues that do; and perhaps those organisers have just been more fastidious in choosing a suitable venue in the first place.

Ten steps towards better tango DJing

Only play really good dance music

  • Opinions will vary about what makes good tango dance music, but the Golden Age for traditional music was, roughly, 1935-55. A very high proportion of the best dance music was recorded in the first half of that period, and a good starting point is to select lots of the music you play from that decade.
  • Be highly critical of your own music collection. Almost every tango CD or download album contains weak songs or poor transfers. Don’t play them just because you have them.
  • Dancers want to dance to good music, and the familiar is usually preferred to the unknown. Novelties and specials should be played very sparingly, but no one will miss them if you don’t play them at all.

Play coherent, balanced tandas

  • Be conservative in selecting groups of songs to combine into tandas. The general principle is to select songs by the same orchestra, with the same singer (if any), with a similar mood or feel and from roughly the same period. Mix tandas sparingly: the usual convention has stood the test of time and is more durable than you think.
  • The opening song of a tanda needs to make people want to get up and dance. Aim to continue or develop the mood and feel of the tanda with the remaining songs.
  • Even if you know the music very well indeed, only compile your tandas ‘live’ once your experience means that you could no longer compile better ones in advance. DJs who select their music during an event are not as common as you might think, and the results can sometimes be comical.

Sequence your tandas carefully

  • Follow the convention of playing tandas in a cycle of tango, tango, vals, tango, tango, milonga. Tango tandas usually have four songs, but three can work if the event is of short duration (say, less than three hours). Vals tandas can have four songs too, but it is very common to play three songs; and three is the most common number for milonga tandas.
  • Each tanda should offer something different: certainly a different orchestra, and frequently a change of style or period. Contrasts (unless they are jarring ones) are good, but do seek an overall balance between styles, periods, orchestras – in fact in everything.

Play really good music right from the start

  • Dancers will not attend events from the beginning unless the DJ is playing music that makes them want to dance, right from the beginning.
  • If you are known to play junk for the first hour, don’t expect anyone to come for the first hour.
  • Even if there is no one in the room at the start of the event, play a good tanda. Experienced dancers will recognise good music, as they arrive, and it creates the right atmosphere. Aim to be playing something that makes everyone wish they had come earlier – next time, they might.

Play for the dancers, not your ego

  • Don’t play games with the energy or emotions of the dancers. You are there to play the music, not the crowd. Always remain at the service of the music and the dancers – they are the stars, not you.

Don’t upstage the tango with intrusive cortinas

  • Vintage recordings usually have a restricted frequency and dynamic range. The ear is very forgiving of such shortcomings, particularly if the sound quality is fairly consistent; but selecting loud pop music, in punchy, bass-heavy, stereo sound for your cortinas constantly draws attention to the limitations of vintage sound and can be counter-productive.
  • Choose cortinas carefully, and play them at a volume that doesn’t break the flow of the dance music.

Sound matters: use decent professional equipment

  • The internal soundcards of most budget laptops do not provide a very high quality audio signal, and may be poorly shielded from hums and interference. Instead, use a high quality external soundcard/DAC.
  • A recycled domestic hi-fi, or some powered PC speakers will almost certainly sound awful in a large room. Use a professional sound system with plenty of amplification power in reserve, and good quality, full-range loudspeakers. If practical, raise the speakers above the dancers’ heads on sturdy stands.
  • The weakest link in your audio chain determines the overall sound.

Sound matters: play high quality transfers

  • There is a huge variation in sound quality between different sources of vintage recordings. Poor transfers sound dreadful, are fatiguing to the ear and are an insult to the dancers who have paid to attend the event.
  • Seek out, and invest in the best transfers you can find. If you compile tandas in advance, you can often source better versions of the individual songs in high quality transfers, rather than buying complete albums.

Sound matters: equalise replay volumes between songs

  • Not achieving consistent replay volume from one song to the next is lazy and incompetent. Many software utilities, such as ReplayGain, can help automatically. There is no excuse, ever, to have one song blasting out uncomfortably loud, followed by one that is barely audible.

Sound matters: manage gaps between songs properly

  • Not ensuring that there is an appropriate break between the songs that you play is just being lazy and incompetent. You can edit many digital sound files to have a consistent 2-3 seconds of silence at the end; you can use software that automates the process; or you can have short tracks of 1, 2 or 3 seconds of silence that you can build into your playlist.