Are you ready to attend the milonga? The answer might surprise you.

(This post is purely my opinion, and I speak only for myself.)

Last weekend during a quick stop 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 same studio buying a tango dress for his girlfriend; walking out, she looked happy, and he looked stoked that he’d gotten her something that she clearly liked. Later at the milonga, he’d tried cabeceo-ing me, but he was too close, so I looked away. I waited until the music was not-so-demanding and the floor was emptier. I cabeceo’d him from a good distance; he tip-toed his way towards my seat in case he’d gotten it wrong!

The tanda was pleasant. Really. He was a little self-deprecating about his skills, but not so much that it defined him. Between songs, we chatted about his visit to Montreal and where he was from. While dancing, he paused a lot, he walked a lot, and his embrace was decent. He showed that he was enjoying his time with me.

It probably helps that his girlfriend is a more experienced dancer. He’s been well-taught about how to be at the milonga.

He could walk and lead some ochos and the cross, and 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.

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 milonga at a festival. It wasn’t scary because I was with my friend, who’d started teaching at my university simply to “grow” dancers he could go to milongas and prácticas with (my school was about 2 hours away from the nearest tango community, and gas was expensive for students on a budget). I think he taught me what I needed to enjoy the milonga on my own, so he didn’t have to baby-sit me.

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. It’s that curiosity that drives people to explore and eventually fall in love with social tango.

I think the answer to “Is so-and-so 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 at least two of the following apply to you:

  • You have an curious, open, and positive approach towards your skills and those of other dancers.
  • You’re ok to sit and chat or enjoy the music, and watch others dance.
  • You enjoy regular practice outside of class, whether it’s alone or with a partner (be honest re: the words ENJOY and REGULAR).
  • You see the milonga as a place to take pleasure in what you have learned, rather than a place to show what you have learned. (As I write that last one, I know I’ve gone unexpectely into the deep end!)

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 whether more experienced dancers enjoy dancing with you will be up to them.

If a few of the following feel familiar:

  • You think that you’re a terrible burden to dance with because you’re a beginner, and are super self-critical.
  • You don’t like to practice; you just want to dance.
  • You need your teachers or advanced dancers to dance with you so that you can have fun.
  • People keep telling you to relax your arms or that your embrace feels hard or that (god forbid) your embrace hurts them.
  • You believe that the number of tandas danced is positively correlated to success (or believe there is such a thing as “success” at the milonga, for that matter).

You might not be ready to go to the milonga. Tension (mental or physical) can create unpleasant experiences for both you and your partner.

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 have struggled with these negative issues, and continue to do so. Fortunately, these attitudes can be unlearned with experience and by acknowledging that learning to move well 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 things and take risks. You’ll take responsibility for your enjoyment and learning, rather than depending on teachers to “download” their knowledge into your brain.)

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!

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 follower’s skill level, saying, “You’re not very good. All I can lead you is box steps for the rest of the tanda.”
  • After one song, a follower who’s not been dancing for very long saying, “I. Simply. Cannot. Understand. What. You. Are. Trying. To. Lead. Me,” to an intermediate leader, as if he were a complete dum-dum.
  • A follower describing in minute detail an “amazing” tanda she’d had at the milonga the night before with someone else, while I was leading her at a milonga. (The fact that I didn’t have her full attention as we were dancing bothered me.)
  • A leader saying to someone, “Do you want me to sit in your lap? Get out of my seat,” at a milonga without assigned seating.

These are isolated incidents. I just put them up as examples of how attitude can affect people’s experience at the milonga. For myself, I would decline to dance with people who behave this way, and it has nothing to do with their steps or technique.

Why the long-ass blog post?

We’re getting ready to have another 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.

Ottawa dancers: You can find details here.

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, dive into the social side of 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 water or snack table and say “Hi.” There’s usually one or two curious people who will come up to you simply because they haven’t seen you before. Be nice – because hopefully you will be socializing with this group of people for years to come – and be open to the unexpected.

For the most part, tango dancers look out for each other – so let your new friends help you enjoy!

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