(This post is purely my opinion, and I speak only for myself.)
Last weekend during in Montreal, I danced with a leader who’d been taking classes for about seven months.
(Sometimes, I like to boost the “tango karma”!)
Earlier that day, I’d seen him at the studio buying a tango dress for his girlfriend; she looked happy, and he looked proud that he’d gotten her something that she clearly liked.
Later at the milonga, he’d tried cabeceo-ing me, but I waited until the music was not-so-demanding and the floor was emptier. I cabeceo’d him; he tip-toed his way towards my seat in case he’d gotten it wrong!
The tanda was pleasant. Really. He was self-deprecating about his skills, but not too much. Between songs, we chatted about his visit to Montreal. While dancing, he paused a lot, he walked a lot, and his embrace was decent.
It probably helps that his girlfriend is a more experienced dancer. He’d been well-taught about how to be at the milonga. He could walk and lead some ochos and the cross; he was only ok when it came to finding the beat. But he was more “milonga-ready” than some dancers I know who’ve been learning for longer and have more moves.
There’s some debate over how many classes a student should take before going to their first milonga. Everyone is different.
The first time I was ready and not ready.
I made fast friends with my first tango teacher, and after 2 months of class and practice, he took me to my first milonga: the Saturday night gala at a tango festival. It was scary even though I was with my friend. I think he taught me what I needed to enjoy the milonga, so he didn’t have to baby-sit me, but I wished I could have gone to a more local milonga first.
I wouldn’t say a student knows enough after three or four classes to keep themselves and their partners safe in the line of dance. But I also couldn’t say, “You need x amount of classes” either. I definitely wouldn’t discourage a student from going to a milonga if their curiosity pushes them. But I would like to give them enough information so that they don’t stress out over the experience.
I think the answer to “Am I ready to attend milongas?” is more about attitude than actual skill.
You might be ready for the milonga if you know the basics of milonga etiquette and if some of the following apply to you:
- You have a positive approach towards your skills and those of other dancers.
- You’re ok to just sit and chat, enjoy the music, and watch others dance.
- You do regular practice outside of class, whether it’s alone or with a partner (be honest re: the word REGULAR).
- You see the milonga as a place to have fun with what you’ve learned, rather than a place to show what you have learned.
If a milonga is a tango dance party, you’ll at least enjoy the “party” aspect, regardless of what happens on the dance floor. You’re more likely to come back for more and allow your community to get to know you. You’ll be relaxed in the embrace, and this always feels better to an experienced partner than the opposite.
If a couple of the following feel familiar:
- You don’t practice,
- You think your teachers or advanced dancers must dance with you so that you can have fun,
- People in class keep telling you to relax your arms or that your embrace feels hard or that your embrace hurts them,
- You believe that the number of tandas danced is positively correlated to success at the milonga,
You might not be ready to go to the milonga.
That’s not to say that you can’t go to the milonga if these thoughts pop into your head or if your embrace is a work in progress; if that were the case, milongas would be empty! Most tango dancers struggle with these issues. Fortunately, these attitudes can be unlearned with experience and by acknowledging that tango isn’t a fast or quick pursuit.
(One side effect of having a good attitude is that it’ll change your approach to your classes. You won’t be so hyperfocused on achievement and you’ll try new things.)
To beginners: Only you can decide when you are ready to attend a milonga. But I wouldn’t leave it too long and let your first milonga become this “big deal” that you have to be prepared for. It’s just a social gathering with dancing in middle!
And let’s be honest: a small tango community needs you as much as you need them.
Approaching the milonga with a good attitude can innoculate you from behaving in ways that turn other dancers off.
In the past year, I’ve seen and heard the following at milongas:
- A leader shaming a beginning’s skill level, saying, “You’re not very good. All I can lead you is box steps.”
- A follower who’s not good at all condescendingly saying, “I. Simply. Cannot. Understand. What. You. Are. Trying. To. Lead. Me,” to an intermediate leader.
- A follower describing in minute detail an “amazing” tanda she’d had at a milonga the night before with someone else, while I was leading her.
- A leader saying to me, “Do you want me to sit in your lap? Get out of my seat,” at a milonga without assigned seating.
These are very isolated incidents. For myself, I would decline to dance with these people, and it has nothing to do with their steps or technique.
Why the long-ass blog post?
Each quarter, we offer a Milonga Primera (“first milonga”) for our beginner students. The evening includes a Q&A about milonga etiquette and then dancing, with teachers to guide them. It’s a way to celebrate the hard work of our beginner students, and it’s the event that I wished I could’ve attended when I was just starting out.
But even if your school or community doesn’t offer a beginner-friendly event, don’t despair.
Start going to prácticas to get used to how the dance floor flows. Talk to people in your class and arrange to go to prácticas as a group so you at least have people to sit with and dance with. Be sure to ask your teachers for help, too – that’s what the práctica is for!
When you do decide to go to milongas, be social about it. If milongas are about dancing with your friends, you have to make friends first. Sit with different people and ask questions, or park yourself next to the snack table and say “Hi.” There’s usually one or two curious people who will come up to you because they haven’t seen you before. Be open to the unexpected.
For the most part, tango dancers look out for each other – so let your new friends help you enjoy!