Everything you wanted to know about Argentine Tango but were afraid to ask

Okay, okay, not everything but this should get you started, and let us clear up some misconceptions.

Isn’t tango that dance people do with a rose in their mouths?

Nope. Tango is one of the most wildly misrepresented dances in popular media. Be honest! The last time you saw that kitsch rose-in-the-mouth thing was on Looney Tunes or some god-awful car commercial, wasn’t it?  Seriously, if you put a rose in your mouth, we’ll banish you forever. We see you. Leave the rose at home.


What the hell’s a malanga?

A malanga is a root vegetable common to South American and the Caribbean.  Did you mean a milonga? It’s pronounced mee-LONG-ah, which can refer to two tango related phenomena, if you will.  A milonga means (1) an older form of tango music danced to an upbeat tempo with a 6-count step pattern, or  (2) a tango dance gathering, party or event where dancers just dance – no teaching occurs on the floor and dancers typically avoid experimenting with steps they haven’t firmed up in practice.  This is to respect the ronda (round), that is, the line of dance that moves counter clockwise on the floor.  Why? Because in tango, you dance not only with your partner but with the entire room, so dancers are advised not to create traffic or a bottleneck in the ronda by futzing around with moves they don’t quite know yet.

Also, at milongas, music is played in tandas, which are sets of 3 to 4 songs of the same style (tango, waltz, or milonga), and each set is demarcated with a short non-tango piece called a cortina, or curtain, because back in the day, the curtain would drop between different musical acts performing on stage.  In tango, you dance the entire tanda with the same partner, and only change once the cortina signals the end of the set.  This is why it’s vitally important that DJs really understand and respect the music, because dancers often choose a partner based on the style, tempo and character of the first song of the tanda. Each song in the tanda thereafter should transmit a similar energy and character of the first song. This is helpful to dancers because the tanda creates a mood, facilitating pair ups based on preferred interpretation. Essentially, your favorite partner for a Di Sarli tanda may be different from your preferred partner for a Donato or Canaro tanda.

I’ve been to a malan-, sorry, milonga, and people seem to find dance partners without speaking. What the deal?


These dancers are using the cabeceo, which just means a head nod (from cabeza, meaning “head” in Spanish). Really, there’s no need to mystify it beyond that. In some communities, the cabeceo is de rigueur, and other tango communities are more flexible. Also, the politics of the cabeceo vary by community.  We take a very pragmatic approach. Why? The cabeceo was designed at a time when milongas were attended by young men and women who were forbidden to sit on the same side of the room, and young women always had a chaperon for nights out. So, in packed dance halls, it only made sense to nod across the room to signal an invitation to dance.  It’s still useful at some heavily attended milongas or festivals when walking across the room to invite may leave you in the lurch – because another dancer beat you to the punch.  If you’re at a laid back milonga, you’re among good friends, at the same table, in a small room, etc., a cabeceo may not be in order, quite frankly, so don’t sweat it. Check the vibes at each community to see what’s kosher.

At milongas, I’m desperate to dance/be swept off my feet/party like a rock star, and dammit, this is supposed to be fun, so why are people turning down my cabeceos and invitations? Is more of this delicious box wine the answer?


Oh my, where do I start?

First, don’t beat yourself up and abandon tango entirely. The reasons can vary like the wind over the Caspian Sea… Here are a few possibilities:

  1. Fatigue: Maybe, just maybe, when someone says they’re tired, they’re really just tired. They’ve danced for hours and their feet hurt, so if they say save a tanda for the next milonga, then chill. They’ll catch you next time. If not and they actively avoid you, see numbers 2-7.
  2. Cabeceo: Some dancers will accept nothing other than a cabeceo, so if you deign to open your mouth and proffer your hand, you’ve committed a grave sin against the tango enforcement gods.  Again, don’t sweat it! Choose your battles, amigo. Do a cabeceo or go live your life.
  3. B.O.: Yes, I said it, ladies and gentlemen!  Tango is danced in extremely close proximity, folks! And I loves me a juicy close embrace. When in doubt, check your breath or body odor. This includes applying waaaaaaay too much cologne or perfume because some folks have fragrance allergies.  Always carry mints and attend classes, practicas, and milongas Zestfully clean.
  4. Technique: Lack of enthusiasm for your groove might be blamed on your technique. Now stay with me … are you attending practice to supplement classes?  Without focused feedback, it’s hard to know if your lead is too mechanical, you constantly disrupt a follows axis, your embrace is missing that certain je ne sais quoi, or you’re off the beat all the time!  As a follower, are you murdering your lead’s right arm by pulling back for the duration of the tanda? Are you too heavy? Too light?  Ahead of the music?  Pretty much all dancers are afraid you might make them look bad and ruin their chances at more tandas with different partners.  Commit to better dancing so you can dance to your heart’s content with all your tango crushes. Go to practice (they’re cheap and awesome), take group and private lessons, and get focused feedback from better dancers.
  5. Spousal Commitments: Pretty much self explanatory: some people only ever dance with their lover, girlfriend/boyfriend, wife, husband, partner, yada, yada.  In such cases, they look pretty content with what seems to be their preferred partner. That’s cool.  Same works in reverse. If you’ve give off spousal commitment vibes, other dancers assume you’re not there to dance with them, only with your main squeeze.  Want to dance with other folks? Open up, be friendly, invite other tangueros to dance.
  6. Intimidation (Part 1): We’ve all been there: A newbie dripping wet behind the ears and, man, we wanna jam to that killer waltz but all we know is the 8-count and the front ocho. In short, we’re afraid of boring more experienced dancers to tears with our limited vocabulary.  (Yes, more dancers feel like this than you can imagine.)
  7. Intimidation (Part 2): And then the most bad ass tanguero/a sashays into the room, and you feel like a uncoordinated wild boar in a leotard two sizes too small, so the bad ass hardly gets asked to dance because the rest of us are feeling out classed and self conscious. Sometimes, yes, every blue moon, you’re the bad ass in the room, and other dancers feel like losers that night because you’ve got fancy tricks.  (Again, yes, more dancers feel like this than you can imagine.)
  8. Class is class, practice is practice, milongas are milongas: Know the difference (because knowing is half the battle).  This relates to #4. You may not be the dancer you think you are.  If you’re keen on teaching a complete stranger during a milonga, time to kill it. Just stop; it’s a milonga, not a class.  The person who agreed to dance with you did not agree to a 10-minute crash course. Are you still avoiding class and practice but your caminata (walk) is rocky? Stop kidding yourself. All the moves you (think you) know don’t matter if you cannot walk, maintain your balance, and dance SIMPLE STEPS in a comfortable embrace with another person TO THE MUSIC.  If you regularly look as though you’re two rock steps and a lápiz away from tumbling onto the floor, I would avoid dancing with you too.  Again, practices are cheap and awesome.  We recently attended a workshop with Nito and Elba, where Nito revealed that, as a young man, he didn’t go to a milonga for 2 years because he was so nervous and wanted to practice to be a better dancer. Some might say he was needlessly fearful, but we believe Nito clearly respected the milonga tradition and prepared himself at practice to dance well. Time and again, you’ll hear tangueros say they practiced for a year or more before ever setting foot in a milonga.  Hell, Geraldine Rojas said her parents made her walk for 2 years when she started dancing.  Even my first tango instructor made us walk to music for 30 minutes before every single class before anyone touched each other.  Why go to class if you don’t practice? Why go to milongas if you don’t practice? No one, I mean no one, is above practice.

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