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).