Tango Etiquette (Codigos)

This is the third and final piece about the traditional etiquette of tango events (the codigos). The first was about how the tanda system helps us to dance with a variety of partners. The second was about the use of mirada and cabeceo to extend and accept invitations to dance. Now, I’m going to set out, briefly, some other conventions that it is useful for every dancer to understand.

Joining the dance floor

When first joining the line of dance, the man (leader) should judge whether he will impede the progress of the approaching couple. If he will, he should first catch the eye of the approaching man (leader), and wait for the man’s acknowledgement before joining the line of dance. If the floor is half empty, this convention (sometimes known as the leader’s cabeceo) is completely redundant. However, be aware that while in some areas it is ignored altogether, in others, everyone is expected to observe it all the time. Watch what others do – and fit in.

Starting to dance

Every dancer embraces their partner in a slightly different way (and most options are valid ones). The majority of social dancers dance in a close embrace that requires body contact. Sometimes they stand directly opposite their partners and embrace straight on. Sometimes couples embrace in a V-shape, with the open side of the embrace looking towards the clasped hands. There are considerations of relative height and build too, but the aim is to be comfortable. A man (leader) should always respect the preference of a woman (follower) in the physical closeness she is comfortable with. If you are a woman who prefers to keep some space between the bodies, then you will have to accept that in some tango communities you may not dance very much.

However, always treat your partner with respect and courtesy. An obvious thing to do is to be fastidious about personal hygiene. Be clean, fresh and as dry as possible. If you tend to perspire when you dance, carry some spare clothes, and change if you need to. Make sure that you have fresh breath and avoid wearing overly strong fragrances.

It is never acceptable to instruct your partner on the dance floor, nor to offer unsolicited feedback about their dancing. The place for instruction and feedback is the practica – but even there, be cautious. Many practicas are informal milongas in all but name. If you observe the majority ‘just’ dancing, then observe the milonga codes as far as you can. Some men think that on the strength of six weeks of classes they are more than qualified to offer ‘advice’ to every experienced follower, but generally, they are mistaken.

It is usual to chat to your partner between the songs of a tanda. Simple, non-controversial topics are best. Once the music begins again, the chat continues for some time. This is never more true than in communities with the utmost respect for the music and for the tango codes, although it puzzles the inexperienced. When in doubt, delay beginning to dance again until you see others around you doing the same.

Navigating around the dance floor

When we dance tango we don’t just dance with our partner, but with everyone around us. All of the tango family (tango, vals and milonga) are danced in a progressive manner. The dancers make slow but steady progress in an anti-clockwise direction around the room, rather than dancing on the spot. Think in terms of a slow-moving river, the current of which carries all the dancers along. Usually, the busier the floor, the slower the progression.

The object is for all couples to move in a predictable manner, with everyone sharing the available space. The path that each couple takes around the room is called the line of dance (la ronda). If the dance floor is quite small, or when there are not many dancers, all the dancers may form one continuous line around the room. If the floor is larger, and there are enough dancers, a second (and sometimes even a third) inner line of dancers can form. These separate lines are usually referred to as lanes, and the basic rule is that you stay in your own lane (as far as possible). For the purpose of navigation, the man (leader) is concerned only with the couples in front and behind, but not to the sides. The lanes can move forward independently.

Each couple should maintain their place in their dance lane, avoiding overtaking or changing lanes. It is fine to pause or to dance some rotational element in place, but take care to move forward when there is space ahead to do so. However, don’t dance so close to the next couple that they have no room to pause or to turn, themselves. If a large space opens up ahead of you, there is a good chance that a jam is forming behind you. Be very cautious about stepping backwards, against the line of dance, into someone else’s space. Each couple should aim to maintain forward progression, carried by the gentle current of the unseen river, without causing splashes or ripples that would affect the other dancers.

If a collision occurs, then acknowledge it with a brief apology (regardless of fault), and resume dancing, if possible.

Dancers should be content to dance according to the available space. When there are many dancers, forward progression may be very slow and there may be very little space between couples. Steps should be kept small, feet should stay close to the ground, and elbows should point down to the floor, tucked against the body. No one is entitled to more than a fair share of the available space, but skilled social dancers can dance perfectly happily in crowded conditions. Those that can’t are a menace.

Ending the dance

When the cortina marks the end of the tanda, all dancers should clear the dance floor completely. Men normally escort their partners back to their seats, before returning to their own.

It is natural to show appreciation to your partner for an enjoyable dance. However, avoid saying ‘Thank you’, particularly part way through a tanda. In this context, ‘Thank you’ is understood as a non-confrontational way of saying that you are finding a dance so unpleasant or uncomfortable that you are ending it immediately.

Click here for the first article in this series (The musical anatomy of a tango event). Click here for the second article in this series (Mirada and cabeceo).

Mirada and Cabeceo

Tango has various codes (codigos) that govern our etiquette or behaviour at dance events. The codes have a long history and first came into use in an earlier age and in a culture that can feel very remote today. However, they continue to find widespread support, being firmly based on ideas of mutual courtesy and consideration. Those who are relatively new to dancing the tango may find the whole subject of dance etiquette baffling, and sincerely believe that such ‘rules’ work against them; but if you want to be accepted into any social group, you need to learn to fit in – so whatever your personal feelings about the codes, it’s worth learning the rules.

Getting dances

One of the first things that anyone notices about tango is that the method of inviting and accepting invitations to dance is usually based on non-verbal signals. This confuses lots of people – particularly if they are used to the very different system of, say, modern jive. There, everyone is free to ask another prospective partner (man or woman) directly if they would like to dance. Usually, the acceptance is for just one dance (three minutes or so), but there is also a presumption that an invitation will only be declined for good reason – after all, what’s three minutes in a whole evening? This is a clear code, in itself: we’re all here to dance, so just ask, and accept if you’re asked.

Tango is different and for several reasons. One is that an invitation is not for just one song, but for a group of dances (called a tanda) typically lasting around twelve minutes – so the mutual commitment is greater. Another is that there is no presumption that an invitation ought to be accepted. We are free to decline invitations and need offer no explanation for refusal. Of course, no one likes to be refused – it can be embarrassing – particularly if the refusal is seen by others, so an alternate means of arranging things has arisen, known as mirada and cabeceo (often referred to as just cabeceo).

How does it work?

At the end of each group of dances, the DJ usually plays a short piece of non-tango music (not intended for dancing) called a cortina. It announces the end of the group and signals that all the dancers should leave the dance floor completely so that all who wish to dance the next tanda have clear sight lines around the room.

As soon as the cortina is heard, anyone who wishes to dance the next tanda will make that plain through their body language. They may have been in conversation, or be checking their phone, or getting something to eat or drink, but now they give the rest of the room their full attention. They sit up (if they were slouching) and look around them with obvious interest, to see where their own friends and regular partners are sitting, or perhaps to locate new people that they think they might like to dance with. They will also try to notice who else is also actively looking around, and thus draw up a shortlist of prospective partners for the next tanda. This preliminary process applies equally to men and women: it is wholly gender-neutral.

As the music begins again, so does the actual business of arranging a partner to dance with. Each dancer will now look towards their preferred partner for a few moments and see whether their glance is returned. If not, they transfer their gaze to another, and then back again, or move on to another, until eyes do meet. If you have accidentally met the glance of another and don’t wish to dance with them, then you hold their gaze just long enough for them to register your response and then look away – there is no need for any further gesture. If you do wish to dance, then each offers the other a small gesture of acknowledgement. Typically the man may cock his head slightly towards the dance floor, perhaps raising his eyebrows, and the woman will nod in agreement (or it might be the other way around). An agreement has now been reached (and if it was a refusal, it was discrete, and not observed by anyone else). While no one wants to be rejected, equally, no one wants to be someone’s second or third choice, so a hidden benefit of this process is that as no one saw the first refusal, equally, no one knows that they are not the other’s first choice. This process also applies equally to men and women: it is wholly gender-neutral.

With the agreement reached, the man now goes up to the woman, walking right around the floor, if necessary. The woman waits until the man presents himself at the woman’s table (partly to avoid the possibility and embarrassment of having mistaken an invitation intended for another), then she rises from her seat to be led onto the dance floor and the couple embraces to dance.

This process: the mirada (or glance) and the cabeceo (or nod of the head) is a very civilised and efficient way to arrange dances. But it doesn’t end when the first couples have taken to the floor. A second round of active glances around the room may well result in several more couples joining the dancing. This process can continue to at least the beginning of the second song of the group, or even later. Sometimes, if you think that you might like to dance with someone, but are not sure. Perhaps a whole tanda seems too much and you might deliberately delay an invitation until later in the tanda. Of course, the other person will know that you have chosen to dance only part of a tanda (and may feel the same way towards you) but is still happy to be dancing, rather than not. If the dance has gone well, it is perfectly OK to ask whether your partner would like to continue to dance the next tanda too, but there is no obligation. Just take care to leave the dancefloor, briefly, between tandas (or at least to make sure that you are not blocking anyone else’s sight lines).

Mirada and cabeceo are not used when you are already sitting or standing by the person you want to dance with:  it’s not practical to ‘catch their eye’. A verbal invitation may be the only option, but other gestures might also serve.

One vital thing that facilitates this whole process is that the organisers have arranged adequate lighting. If you can’t see your prospective partners easily, you can’t use mirada and cabeceo. It’s amazing how often organisers get this wrong. And who wants to dance in the dark?

Click here for the first article in this series (The musical anatomy of a tango event). Click here for the third & final article in this series (Tango etiquette (Codigos)).

The Musical Anatomy of a Tango Event

If you are new to tango, you may be confused about how a traditional social dance event, a milonga, is structured.

It can be a bit intimidating to go to a milonga. Everyone else seems to know the ropes, but nothing is said. People arrive, find seats and seem to know how the music is organised and when to start and stop dancing. They appear to get up from their seats, and moments later, be dancing with someone who was sat across the room – with never a word spoken. It’s as though the whole thing is highly organised, but no one explained the rules.

There are, indeed, lots of different things going on. None of them are complicated, individually, but the musical structure is easily explained. The music is arranged to provide variety and to enable dancing with a range of partners.

Songs are played in groups

The DJ will arrange the music into groups of three or four songs, related to each other stylistically or thematically. Typically, they will have been recorded by a particular orchestra, and will work together as a more-or-less coherent group. The group of songs is called a tanda. The analogy isn’t perfect, but you could think of a typical tanda as the movements of a classical symphony. Well-arranged, the songs will tell some form of story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

We hear the opening bars of the first song. In a moment or two we decide whether we would like to spend the next twelve minutes or so dancing. If we would, we look for a partner. A glance and a gesture of response is all that is needed and couples take to the floor to dance.

Each tanda is followed by a cortina

After the last song of a tanda has been played, the DJ will normally play a short piece of non-tango music that is not intended for dancing. This is the cortina: a signal that the group has ended and that the dancers should clear the floor. As the last dancers leave the floor, the DJ fades the cortina to silence. After a few moments, a new tanda begins, and the process of selecting a new partner is repeated.

Tandas are played in a predictable cycle

Three types of music are always played at the milonga: tango, vals and milonga. The tandas rotate in a standard format: two tandas of tango are followed by one of vals, then two tandas of tango are followed by one of milonga. That cycle will repeat for the duration of the event. So if you listen carefully to what is being played either side of a cortina, you will have a pretty good idea of where you are in the cycle.

The cycle may not begin right from the start of an event. Dancers can be slow to arrive in significant numbers, or may choose not to begin dancing immediately. DJs frequently play straightforward and undemanding music at the beginning of an event, hoping to entice dancers to take to the floor for the first time. As the dancing gets underway, the DJ will judge the right moment to introduce the first vals tanda. After that, the tanda cycle usually continues, unbroken, to the end.

Most DJs will aim to organise the tandas so that the evening ends with tango, rather than vals or milonga. It is common to announce the last tanda. This signals that the event is drawing to an end, and allows those who have a particular partner to end the event by dancing together. By convention, a version of La Cumparsita is the last song played. It might be the final song of a tanda, or be played on its own, straight after.

Click here for the second article in this series (Mirada and cabeceo). Click here for the third & final article in this series (Tango etiquette (Codigos)).

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.