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.