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)).