Why do dancers who love tango like traditional music of the “Golden Era? A short tour of why traditional tango is special
What is Tango?
Far from the highly stylized, ballroom-ish, rose-in-the-teeth Hollywood depiction, the tango is the ultimate social dance.
Why is Tango the ultimate social dance?
Because you will go to a milonga (an event where tango is danced) with the expectation that you may dance both with people you know and maybe with a person you have never seen before, perhaps from another country. You observe dancers to see how they treat their partners and how they express themselves in the elegance of tango, assured of complete control as to when you dance and with whom. However, on any given night you may very well be inspired to the point where a smile appears on your face that is completely beyond your control. /;}
What’s so special about Tango as a dance?
Any tango dancer will bend your ear for hours on this one. Tango is a dancer’s dance. For instance, ballet dancers don’t stop dancing.. they just move to the tango. The freedom of expression is virtually limitless.
And yet, in its essence, the tango is as simple as a walk — together. The dance only defines some basic principles about how two people can move relative to each other in space. After the “lead / response” sensibility is understood, the rest is a journey of exploration into your ability to express yourself with a partner to music you both hear.
The tango requires a connection between partners that is in addition to anything they may be experiencing physically. In other words, other forms of dance rely on frame and tension to maintain a physical connection between partners. At it’s best, the tango turns every beat of the music into an interaction that requires movement of each dancer independently in response to the suggestion of their partner.
Tango is worldwide. If you know the principles of tango, you can go to any major city on this earth (someone is working on a Lunar milonga I’m sure) and many small cities and dance closely with someone, with the mutual understanding that the affair is just for 10 minutes. It is not at all necessary to know the verbal language of your partner to tango.
I’m a woman…sounds dangerous
Somewhere around 1920, the tango became popular and migrated from its seedy roots in Argentina to the upper class both there and in Europe. Over the subsequent 30 years the culture of tango evolved to include a set of behavioral rules of civility that made the dance acceptable to most moms. These customs are unique to the tango, are sometimes downright hilarious (see Cabeceo below), and persist to this day. However, because of these customs, women have control in tango. They decide whether to accept an invitation to dance or not. At any point during the dance or between songs, a woman may simply thank her partner to be escorted from the floor… no questions asked (this happens very rarely). Additionally, there are a few reasons why men will act with complete decorum in the dance. First, they are most often gentlemen and understand the privilege of dancing in a close embrace with a woman. Second, any impropriety on the part of a man will risk his reputation in the community. Given the investment in learning the tango, the risk of becoming ostracized for this reason is simply too great. Lastly, though alcohol is sometimes a part of the usual environment of the tango, it is virtually never abused there, mainly because tangueros and tangueras (tanguer@s) love the dance so much that they are unwilling to sacrifice any physical control at the expense of their tango. Tangueras will spot the exceptions a mile away.
If you are from, say, Maryland and you are not a mom but you have a mom, you can pretty much be assured that your mom will look at this activity with a cocked eye and a healthy, mom-sized dose of suspicion. If you are a Maryland mom and you have a daughter, you can pretty much be assured that your daughter will have exactly the same thoughts about your tango as the tango would, on first sight, appear to be scandalous. In either case, you can assure your mom or daughter that there is a more “prudent” form of the tango called “open embrace” that is becoming all the rage and that they should not worry and go find their own sandbox. /;}
If you are still concerned, the Fundamentals A class is taught exclusively in an “open embrace” so that students can “see” what is going on. Subsequent classes in Fundamentals B will transition to the posture and possibilities of a “close” embrace that is the hallmark and standard of the tango.
In reality, the “fear” of the embrace goes away all too quickly and you are left with the marvelous feeling of closeness that is unique to the tango. Soon, hugging someone becomes very natural and you become sad for people who do not allow themselves the freedom to do it.
Who dances Tango?
Everybody. Well.. not quite. Let’s just say there are certainly no demographic boundaries for the tango. Every age, color, nationality and sensibility is represented. That said, there are a few characteristics that you can spot in tangueros (men who dance tango) and tangueras (women who dance tango).
(Going far on a limb) Men who dance tango, whether they know it or not when they start, like to dance. Men who have meeting women as their only goal will usually not climb the investment hill to learn and will, instead, find a quicker (.com perhaps) path with less effort to accomplish that mission. Men who stick with it will always have a combination of traits that include healthy doses of persistence, curiosity, self-confidence and humility.
Women find that tango it is a great way to have fun and express themselves with grace.
To find out more about who dances the tango, register here.
First, wear shoes with leather bottoms. Here’s why. Pivoting is common in the tango. You need a slight amount of traction to help you push off the floor when you dance. However, if you have too much traction it is more difficult to pivot. The torque it takes to make you pivot gets communicated to your joints (especially your knees). Tangueros wear a variety of different types of shoes.. but they all have leather bottoms of some sort.
Dance shoes for tango, almost always have a chroma suede sole. If they do not, any shoe store can put apply a chroma suede layer to the existing sole. The sole is applied to the front of the sole, not the heel. The nap of chroma suede will naturally “lay down” to become slick on the bottom resulting in a shoe that has some traction but remains slick enough to pivot. However, if you encounter a slick or “fast” floor, you can use a shoe brush to raise the nap of the suede and provide more traction. It is, therefore, an adjustable traction sole. Most experienced dancers have chroma suede soles on their shoes.. whatever the style of upper.
Both men and women can get by with a standard hard leather sole. Women pivot more than men in general, so a fast sole is often most comfortable for them. Women sometimes carry more than one pair however, because if the floor is fast (slippery) the hard leather sole does not provide enough traction. The second pair is usually chroma suede.
Tango shoes for either men or women most often have a heel that is slightly higher than a normal shoe. Why? Because when the embrace closes in tango, each partner will have a slight forward aspect to their posture. The angle of this posture is created at the ankle. A raised heel will decrease the amount of calf stretch required to allow your heel touch the ground. In short, it is more comfortable to dance in close embrace with a raised heel.
Women have other considerations for heel height that include style, comfort, and the fact that a raised heel can offer an increase in height of several inches. Height matching in tango is not essential, but may make dancing close embrace more comfortable and connected.
Another aspect of a dance shoe is that the sole is thinner, allowing the foot to “feel” the floor. In class we talk about being “grounded”. The feeling of your foot feeling the floor is part of this. Padding is sometimes used for comfort, but you’ll want to use as little as possible to keep your foot connected to the floor.
An option if you want to dance in shoes you already own, especially for classes, are Dance Socks.
Dance shoes are not necessary to begin tango, but having the right “tool” for the job can definitely bump up your game when you are ready. We are often asked about tango shoes. No surprise.. they are an important aspect of tango and dancing in general.
How can I get these shoes? (Updated 2/20)
In the past, one had to encounter a shoe vendor, either in travel say, to Buenos Aires or at a festival. This still a reasonable option with the upside that you can try before you buy. One example of a travelling shoe / clothing vendor is Sandra Angel with her Mussa Collection that can be found on Facebook by searching @MussaCollection.
But as most “things” go these days… even for tango shoes…. your best bet is to shop online.
For maybe 15 years, the final destination for women’s tango shoes was the brand Comme ‘Il Faut made in Argentina. However, although this brand is still very popular, Italian shoes of various brands are winning the day, possibly due to better craftsmanship and comfort. Comme Il Faut (women only) can be had by appointment with Julia Bella in DC. Other online vendors for tango shoes are: Mr. Tango Shoes, Axis Tango where the Tangolera brand (among others) can be found and Discount Dance for lower cost options and practice shoes. Christina’s favorite is Lisadore.
Sizes will be European. There are conversion charts on each website but, if you don’t know your european size, there is just no substitution for having your best guess and trying some out. One tip is that tango shoes are better a little tighter than looser. Too tight is not good, but no slop is best. As far as heels go, Christina says go lower to begin… no more than 7 cm high for women.. but at least 2.5 cm is recommended for men. This will feel “different” if you’ve never experienced wearing a shoe with heels… but it’s the way to go. Also — if you need another excuse to start or expand your shoe collection — when dancing at a marathon or festival, it’s always good to have a couple pair to rotate.
No matter how you dance, a good pair of shoes will bump your game up a notch and make you feel fantastic!
The cabeceo is one of several codigos (codes) that developed in the golden era of tango. Describe the procedure to a friend who doesn’t tango and you are sure to get response that you may not be able to hear… because the person is bent over laughing! /:}
No one gets through our Fundamentals series without knowing what the cabeceo is. At that time in one’s tango journey, however, the process may seem somewhere between cute and whacky. This may be the reason why cabeceo/mirada is almost never taught in tango classes. Nonetheless, cabeceo/mirada is an important concept in tango that is often misunderstood.
Some think cabeceo/mirada is stuffy or snooty — a way to be exclusive or cliquey. It is not. What may seem like a contrived ritual barely worthy of a bad black and white movie– is actually about courtesy and respect.
It goes like this:
Between tandas (three or four tangos in a row where partners dance) a cortina(curtain) song is played as a signal for dancers to clear the floor. During the cortina, dancers look around to see where others are sitting or standing. When the music of the next tanda starts, each person who wants to dance that tanda (different orchestras having different characters) will look to a person they would like to dance with and try to meet their eye. If the leader thinks he has captured the eye of a responder, he or she will give a motion of the head (very unique to the person) indicating an invitation to the floor. When the responder sees the cabeceo, she (or ok.. he if he is responding) will give a mirada, a head movement, often a nod, of acceptance. The leader will then make his or her way around the dance floor to the responder who will, only then, rise to be escorted to the floor by the leader.
Partnerships are made only between mutually and equally consenting persons. If a person in either role does not want to dance with someone in the room, they may simply avoid eye contact during the first few measures of the tanda. Boom.
So why is the cabeceo about respect? It’s because this simple process gives everyone some control over their tango experience on any given evening, no matter where they are. A person can go to a milonga without feeling pressure or the need to accept every (or any!) invitation. They need not fear the embarrassment and perception of disrespect that might result from verbally rejecting someone in front of others. A person can choose when they would like to dance –and when they would like to take a break for any reason — without need for a verbal explanation or apology. Anyone can “invite”, whomever they would like to dance with to the particular orchestra playing.
The cabeceo/mirada is efficient because everyone knows at a glance who would like to dance. Anyone not looking up to make eye contact during the first measure of a new tanda is explicitly saying they do not care to dance at that time.
“I can’t imagine not dancing with everyone.”
Keep dancing. There will undoubtedly be people you would rather not dance with. Inarguable examples include the person who will not be happy with your dance and will take the opportunity to instruct you on the dance floor. Then there is the leader who is dancing with him or herself… only to judge the follower by how well they execute their sometimes exotic and half-learned “test moves”. And how about the person who just accepts the dance but isn’t really “into it”. The poor navigator. The leader/responder who has years on the dance floor but is uncomfortable because he/she doesn’t know or care enough about her partner’s experience to get feedback from an instructor at least every year or so.
Though rare, unfortunately there are more poignant examples. It’s ok. The cabeceo is your friend!
Let’s say you go to a milonga where you know no one. You have high hopes of dancing the night with new partners you will remember forever! You want to do everything you can to make the experience great. The first step you can take before you actually take a step is …. and this is specifically for responders……. watch the dance floor! Look to see which leaders are taking care of their partners. Are their partners having fun? Are they in tango bliss or are they wearing a mask of pain?! /:} Spot those leaders who are not navigating well or who are seem to be man-handling their partners. Mirada the leaders you want, avoid the rare but obvious bad actors!
The cabeceo is required by many responders, especially at festivals, who will give an automatic “No” to leaders who ask them directly to dance.. simply because they don’t know enough not to ask verbally. This won’t happen to you because you are reading this!
“I’m shy and I don’t feel I can just say no if someone asks me to dance.”
Instead of a “no”.. you might mention that you observe the cabeceo and ask them if they know what it is. There are good leaders out there who have never been to milongas where the cabeceo is used.
Consider that you are doing neither yourself, nor a partner a favor by accepting a dance you don’t want. This is a situation in every social dance, but is particularly important in tango. Both partners must be “all in” in tango. If you’re can’t be “all in” for any reason, consider not dancing with that person. Get excited! Dance with passion!
“I’m a leader. Will I dance less if I practice the cabeceo?”
You may find that you don’t get the partner you want — when you want — as often.
First off, not gaining eye contact with someone you are trying to cabeceo has some (albeit temporary) degree of plausible denial as in “Maybe she just didn’t see me.” However, beyond that, there are dozens of reasons why someone might not want to tango with you at a particular time.. but would be glad to at another. The music is a perfect example. It might very well matter to someone with whom they tango to the music of late DiSarli. Maybe the next tanda is a milonga and they know milonga is not your favorite. Maybe they want your tanda to be special and they’re “not feeling it” at that moment because their feet hurt. They would rather wait! It’s important to remember that if your gaze is not returned (and sometimes this is obvious) it may simply mean that that person would rather dance with someone else at that time. It’s a mistake to think that it means they never want to dance with you! Don’t grow a tree over it. Give it a rest for a while… but try again later. Who knows? Tango cannot be about “getting” exactly what we want, when we want. The cliche is true. It takes two.
If your dances are far fewer…
Until robots get a lot better, it is an unfortunate reality that we cannot experience what it is like to dance with ourselves. We are destined to be on the side of the partnership where our head is! If you find that practicing the cabeceo yields fewer dances, you may fairly conclude that you have been using a few, “jungle tactics” to get you dances. Ask an instructor how your tango can be a better experience for your partners. As your tango improves, you will feel a joy in knowing for sure that the partner who has accepted your cabeceo/mirada is “all in”. Go ahead then… dance with abandon.
Sometimes we would like reeeeaaaalllly like to dance with someone who never seems to return our gaze. This is frustrating because the apparent rejection is compounded by the fact that we cannot know why. There may be a temptation to force the issue by asking directly. It is important to realize that we can only be who we are and the best dancer we can be… and that a tango with someone who does not, for any reason, wish to dance with us, is a poor tango indeed! It’s plenty ok.
Here are some cabeceo/mirada Dos and Don’ts.
- You must to be able to see. Do wear glasses if you need to during the cabeceo/mirada. Alternatively, a cabeceo relay works. A friend sitting next to you tells you that someone is trying to meet your gaze.
- Don’t cabeceo someone too close to you! Running up 10 feet from someone and giving them puppy eyes is not a cabeceo! A conversation can sometimes be used as a means to the end of “getting” a tango. If you are sitting with someone or talking to them and you want to dance, cabeceo someone at a distance instead. You can cabeceo the person you’re talking to next tanda. Alternatively causally remove yourself to a distance during the cortina and then try to burn a hole in your previously close prospect. Drilling the person sitting next to you with your eyes not cool. You are too close!
- Do the mirada. If you receive a cabeceo, don’t assume that the leader will simply come for you! Do them the courtesy of accepting the invitation with a nod. It tells them you’re “in” and that they should come escort you immediately. The more the mirada is returned, the more leaders get that responders get to choose too.
- Do respect the short time during which the cabeceo/mirada happens. If you are talking with someone in a conversation, be sensitive to the fact that both the cortina AND the first 20 seconds of the next tanda is is the time when partnerships are made. If you or that person would like to dance, suspend or lighten the conversation so that you and/or your acquaintance can participate in the cabeceo. This is a courtesy.
- Don’t worry about or bother those who are in conversation during the first part of the tanda. They are having fun and might like to tango later. Anyone who is not scanning during the cortina and the first part of the tanda is not dancing that tanda.
- Don’t feel the need to explain why you do not want to dance to anyone. You have your reasons and you are entitled to keep them private. Boom.
- No one “owes” anyone a tango. Don’t feel pressured to tango for any reason.
Can there be exceptions to the cabeceo? What if I find myself in a milonga where the cabeceo is not practiced?
It should be rare… but it happens.
In Buenos Aires, the cabeceo is practiced exclusively and held sacred not just as tradition, but for the reasons discussed above. There is a growing number of encuentros in the world these days –festival events where all who participate agree to adhere to the codigos of tango, including the cabeceo. At these places, there are no exceptions.
If you have a partner for which the casual encounter and barely necessary verbal suggestion to dance has become a habit… consider the cabeceo/mirada exercise for them every once in a while.. as a courtesy. They will appreciate that you are giving them choice.
In many milongas, especially in the states however, the cabeceo is either not practiced – or half practiced.
If you are a leader in such a milonga, do you stand looking while others ask verbally? If you are a responder, do you accept verbal invitations?
If you find yourself in such a situation and you are a leader you will not get as many tangos for sure. The early bird will get the responder. If you are a responder who exercises her choice in verbally declining a tango from anyone asking directly, that person will think less of you and you may get fewer verbal invitations as a result. Catch 22? Super frustrating!
Ask: If the cabeceo is a courtesy to others, should we forsake that courtesy just to dance another tango? Or is tango the very place where such courtesies should be offered and practiced… even at the exclusion of a dance when courtesy is not extended by others?
What to Wear for Tango
Comfort for both you and your partner should be a consideration when selecting your dance attire. Keeping the connection with your partner in tango is a crucial step in becoming a comfortable dancer (which is what will get you dances anyway!). The right clothes can help you maintain the connection without distraction.
Women who dance tango are said to be some of the most creatively and sexily dressed women on the planet. So start with that and make it fit your style! With all the twisting and disassociating that we do with our rib cages and hips it is important to factor-in the stretch of the fabric when making your tango wardrobe selections. The freedom to move in the dance is best achieved from both a supple body and the fabric on top of it. Lycra blend is a staple in most tanguera’s closets and it seems to be in everything these days. Try yoga type clothes and other clothes with a Lycra blended fabric for optimal liberty in your molinetes.
Dress and skirt hemlines should not be past the calf or a heel can catch on the fabric. With the aforementioned fabric a snap move could result in a stretch that would put Gumby to shame — treacherous indeed! Often women will refrain from wearing a dress and instead will opt for a tunic like top or short dress to pair with pants. A lovely and danceable alternative.
A tango friend of mine told me that he was dancing with a woman whose pants fell down in the middle of the tanda and before you could blink an eye she had already pulled them back up. He was more surprised than concerned by this until she said that these pants always did that when she danced! Lest you wish to be mistaken for Janet Jackson, leave wardrobe malfunctions for rock and roll royalty.
Pants have become a preferred tango wardrobe staple for their versatility. Wear them shorter and tighter for fun (but remember the stretch factor). Or enhance the line of the body with flowing cuts of pants such as palazzo or gaucho style. The fabric surrounds the leg in a way that adds a graceful quality when walking or executing a snaky leg wrap.
The bodice of a dress or top can be displaced during and after a particularly intense close embrace tanda. To avoid an embarrassing moment or the need for frequent adjustments; choose a style that will stay put. A halter-top can shift to reveal more than you bargained for when executing overturned back ochos and a strapless top could need a chaperon to behave if a high boleo is led.
By all means express your personality with your attire. Funky or elegant rule the fashion front in tango.
Practicas and class can best be accommodated with a relaxed outfit that can keep you both cool and comfy during that 35th attempt at the perfect colgada. Afternoon milongas are danced with a thought to casual elegance in attire while the highly anticipated (by most!) alternative milongas add that ever so cool twist of funk. Evening milongas have a classy and elegant vibe. As long as an outfit is functional for dance, it is almost impossible to be too dressed-up for a weekend milonga, especially a grand milonga at a festival. Late, late night dancing calls for comfort… even pajamas so you can dance your way to sleep…..
Tango Tip: Get a mirror to see the back of your chosen attire. Your back gets as much attention as your feet when you are in tango rapture and the rest of the room is watching you. There are some very unusual and attention getting backs on dresses and tops on the market now to peruse. From spider web-like macramé to costume jewelry designs, a top is just asking to be noticed when you are coming or going.
Jewelry can enhance what you are wearing. Be mindful of chunky necklaces, spiky bracelets worn on the left wrist, jangly wind chime and feather earrings. Each has the power to give your leader an undesired reaction!
It is all about the feminine in us that enhances our movement and flow on the dance floor. Accentuate your own feminine positives with your clothing choices but keep it functional and simple.
The only reason dressing for tango is slightly easier for men than women is that they have fewer shoes to start with!
For men, there are possibly four types of milongas: Formal, weekend evening or special weekday evening, regular weekday evening and other.
Very rarely a milonga is specified as “formal.” This means black tie with a suit (not a sports coat) as the only, second best, alternative.
A weekend evening or special milonga such as a “gran milonga”, one held at an embassy, or any normal milonga held on Saturday night calls for attire that is more “dressy”. Slacks, usually dark, and long-sleeved shirts are customary. Dark “dress” cargo pants are fine, but jeans are not appropriate for a Saturday milonga unless you are a young visiting rock star without room in the rucksack for a better choice!
Whether you are twenty or eighty, unless the event is specifically formal, it is always good form for a gentleman to wear a seasonal sports coat to a milonga. However, consider removing your jacket before you dance…. many women find the extra “distance” created by the coat too great. If it’s chilly though, you can always ask your partner which they would prefer. Sometimes it’s nice to dance all dressed up!
Each weekday evening milonga has it’s own character so they may be more or less casual. If you don’t know the nature of a weekday night milonga, consider erring on the conservative side with more dressy attire. If it’s a milonga attended mostly by young people, casual (like jeans) is cool.
Other milongas include afternoon and outdoor events. Attire spans the gamut at these functions. Comfort is a factor.
Survey says, especially if you are dancing here in the US, both you and your clothes need to be clean when you tango. Perspiration in the summer is a given and is generally not a problem. However, if you sweat profusely at any time of the year, dry out a bit before asking another partner to dance. Pure cotton, especially when it is not tightly woven is one of the coolest fabrics for summer. Under Armour shirts that wick wetness are also good options. Any material that doesn’t “breath” well will be a problem.
A handkerchief is a good accessory to wipe your face with.
Tango Tip: Savvy gentlemen who sweat will bring two or three shirts to milongas in the summer time. A change of shirt feels good and is much appreciated by partners. Short-sleeved shirts are common at outdoor milongas in the summer.
Finally, check the front of you. If you can, put your keys or anything else that you would carry in your front pockets in your shoe bag so your partner is not subjected to them when legs get close when walking. Big belt buckles belong on gauchos (Argentine cowboys), not tangueros!
Dance with the heart and embrace each partner with the intention of being present and connected. Let what you wear be the icing on that cake! Tango represents an all too rare opportunity to “dress to the nines” to show self respect and express yourself with your clothing as you dance!
About Tango Festivals
I wish someone had given me A CLUE before my first few tango festivals. I’m hope this FAQ will help folks to participate… or at the very least… understand what’s going on a little better!
Bear with the description of the Frustration. There is light at the end!
I once got a note from an excellent dancer in DC saying she wasn’t coming to a local DC festival because she found that “she just stands around trying to catch someone” and that “nobody will dance with a local”.
Such a shame, eh? What’s wrong with this picture?
People who attend big festivals can experience Frustration when they see so many dancers having so much fun, yet are themselves relegated to the sidelines. Guys may get refusal after refusal for seemingly no good reason. Women may simply not be asked to dance. The real Frustration occurs when even the usual Tango Jungle parameters don’t apply! At a big festival it may not seem to matter how well you can dance or how young, good-looking, well-dressed or even how well shod you are! /} The whole environment may seem “cliquey” beyond belief… to the point where, as a local, you feel like your space has been invaded and there’s a party you’re attending that you really didn’t get a sincere invitation to. You may find even your local partners will not dance with you… the ultimate blow!
What the heck! An impossible game you say?
Experienced dancers who attend festivals come from a distance with only one or two feet and X amount of energy. Given their investment in time and money, their goal is to optimize their experience by dancing as much as possible with as many people as possible. They are junkies and therefore as predictable as the night. They simply want to string together as many of those effortless, Golden Tango Experiences as they can.
Everyone has had a dance where the experience was not effortless. You know, a dance that caused you to doubt your own skills the whole night… or even longer… because it was so, well, unfulfilling.
The Secret to the Mystery. Experienced festival dancers are VERY reluctant to risk their limited energy X… and, as important, their Karma … even more important their Reputation as a good dancer….and of prime importance… their Safety… on dancing with someone new. Their refusals are likely not personal… they simply do not know how you dance. They just aren’t willing to take a risk while they have a Field of Knowns.
Ok that’s it.. the Game is now officially impossible you say!
Here are some suggestions. I hope they are helpful:
1) Treat a festival just like networking event.
Those in business or sales know how this goes. You take some initiative to make a conversation with a person who is not dancing to get to know someone new. Sometimes this happens best when there isclearly no presumption for a dance. Often, all it takes is a few words to make you less anonymous. Then, somehow, things are more friendly and an offer (or a possibility) to dance presents itself
naturally. This does not come easily to some dancers who are shy. Know that it will not work 100% of the time and do not be discouraged. Try again with someone else.
2) Make a networking opportunity of the dances you get.
Sometimes you know when your partner is having fun dancing with you. If you’re confident this is the case:
“Where are you from” (almost a given for chit chat, eh?)
“Are there other folks here from River City?”
and here’s the kicker… toward the end of the tanda… the referral
“I’ve really enjoyed our dance. You folks in River City really know how to do it! Do you think someone else from River City might like to dance?”
The answer to this question is obviously Yes cuz Everyone is there to dance. The question of whether they want to dance with *you* is implied… and if you were right about your dance experience with your new partner from River City he or she will be glad to make another connection for you. Because: First, as cliquey as the environment may seem, people really want to see everyone have fun. Secondly, folks need someone to talk about on their trip back home to River City. The best part is that your new partner is not likely to steer you wrong. They don’t want to get a bad rep for connecting you to a bad dancer!
3) Consider coming late and staying late.
Many new dancers experience the Frustration and leave early. What may not know, however, is that there comes a special period of time between when experienced festival dancers decide that they have had a sufficient string of Golden Tango Experiences to satisfy their habit… and when they are so exhausted they cannot dance one more song… when they might be willing to take a risk on someone new. Adding to the possibility is that, later in the evening, the floor clears to reduce the chance that poor navigation will lead to an accident — and the experienced dancer does not have to worry so much about Safety with an unknown partner. Exactly when this happens is specific to each dancer and each evening. The more popular the dancer, the later the window of opportunity occurs. For some it is — quite unfortunately — 4 AM. If you yourself have limited energy, you may want to be relatively fresh when the opportunity arises… so consider avoiding the throng earlier in the evening.
4) Become a completely comfortable dancer.
In my opinion this is essential… a sine qua non. Isn’t it really the first and most important goal for any tango dancer?
The definition of “being comfortable” is a bit different on a crowded festival floor.
As we all know, in the Big Huge Line of Dance in Tango Heaven everyone has an upright and forward posture – there is no tension, no mousy lead, no neck hanging, no stepping backward in the line of dance, no extension of the leg farther than what is lead or in any other direction than what is lead. At a big festival, for leads, being comfortable means being competent to navigate — respectful of the line of dance and the dancers around them to keep a partner Safe on a crowded floor. For responders, it means being responsible for posture and movement as interpreted from the lead so that he can feel confident in navigating you Safely as a couple.
If you are comfortable, there is no downside to dancing with you. It is a pleasure for your partner wherever they are from. If you are comfortable there will be a tendency to dance with you next time. The memory of experienced dancer for the fundamental qualities of a partner that might lead to a Golden Tango Experience at some festival, somewhere, at some time in the future is often amazingly good.
When we’re home, we have a world of time to get to know one another. At a festival, I think, it pays to go outside of one’s envelope at bit in order to get to know the larger tango population… that comprising the US and for some festivals — the world. It will take a bit of time to get to know the world, eh? It might be comfortable to dance with your local friends in a sea of people from the rest of the world but, in the end, it will feel a bit isolated. So maybe whenever you dance with someone local at a festival, consider using that as a marker to yourself to make use of the opportunity get to know someone from out-of-town. Remember, there are people there with your tango experience and ability, hoping to have a good time as well. They are looking for you. Find them!
Festivals can be a opportunity to bring new life to your dance experience and make connections that will last the whole of your life.
Why was the largest Tango Festival on the East Coast held in Baltimore?
Sometimes a milonga here in Baltimore draws about 50 people. The Tango Element festival brought upwards of 500 people from all over the US. In 2012, Alberto Podesta, one of the most famous singers of the Golden Era of tango was flown first class from Argentina to sing at the festival…. right here in Baltimore.
It is fair to say that the event started out as a modest and purposefully friendly Baltimore Tango Marathon weekend hosted by the Baltimore Tango community as it existed in 2003. The event was to be a contrast to the larger and more intimidating DC Tango Marathon (no longer in existence). The first one was held at the Eubie Blake Center on Howard Street. In 2004 the event, hosted entirely by community volunteers, moved to “The Barn” at the Catonsville Community College. It was successful in both 2004 and 2005.
As the festival grew, it took more and more effort from the volunteers — whose numbers were shrinking because the local tango teachers Carlos and Tova Moreno had moved from Baltimore to Boston in late 2003. Carlos and Tova connected with the talent (marathon instructors) for both the 2004 and 2005 festivals, but they had to work at a distance from the other volunteers in Baltimore… which made it a bit difficult to coordinate with the other elements of the event. Even though the 2005 marathon was a big success, the volunteers were worn. A unanimous decision was made to not continue the following year. However, instead of just letting the festival pass into history, it was decided to offer it to Anne Sophie Ville in DC (organizer of many events in DC including the DC Tango Marathon) to see if she wanted to organize it the following year on a for-profit basis with help from the Baltimore community in exchange for attendance to the event.
Anso readily accepted the offer, and with the help of the Baltimore tango community as volunteers, Anne Sophie ran the festival in 2006. Anne Sophie, as much of a veteran tango festival organizer as anyone in the US at the time, recognized Baltimore as a neutral, “nowhere” location on the East Coast. The event could be separate from her already successful DC Tango Marathon which needed no special headline attractions. She took a huge financial risk and booked Chicho Fromboli, Sebastian Arce and Marianna Montes from Argentina. This was big… and VERY ambitious of Anne Sophie to do. These instructors and performers were recognized as the best in the world. The level of commitment was just unheard of for tango in the US at the time. The risk paid off and the festival was a success. Baltimore, of all places, hosted the best and people came. Thus Baltimore became the kind of “Burning Man” location for east coast tango.
In 2007 the festival was scaled back a bit with instructors from the US and Argentina (Melina Brufman and Claudio Gonzalez), again hosted by Anne Sophie with the Baltimore tango community’s help.
In 2008 there were some important changes. Anne Sophie was no longer living in the states and tried to organize the festival from abroad with help from Callie Norton in DC. Anso decided to make the festival even bigger than with the Chicho, Sebastian, Marianna dream team and signed up Pablo Veron as the headliner for the festival. Pablo was the star of the movie The Tango Lesson, and was undoubtedly the most recognized name in tango at the time. Organization of the festival from a distance, however, proved to be very difficult and the festival was in danger. Baltimore’s name was on the line and the community, at this point completely uninvolved in the organization of the event, was quite concerned at the time. At the last minute, Callie Norton and Julia Schiptsova stepped in to save the 2008 festival with financial backing and last minute organization. The festival was a success, but a narrow escape from both financial and organizational points of view.
Because the festival was virtually “saved” by Callie and Julia, there was a degree of unwritten “ownership” conferred, so in 2009 Callie and Julia decided to take over the festival.
Julia thinks big and dreams bigger. She wanted to continue the concept of Baltimore as a neutral and convenient location for the festival.
The Barn venue at the Catonsville Community College was becoming unavailable due to College policy. Callie and Julia searched for a new venue in Baltimore. Several were found.. but when Julia saw the Tremont Hotel (now Embassy Suites Baltimore Downtown), she had to have it. The only problem was that it was expensive. In order to move the festival there, it would have to be bigger… much bigger. Julia convinced Callie that they could make it THE place for tango to happen in the eastern half of the US. A lot of what Tango Element is today, is a result of doing what was necessary to ensure that the event was a success… making it bigger.
Anne Sophie had some roots in Baltimore as an early instructor here and as a general pied piper of tango in the area. When the festival transitioned to a bigger event, with larger financial considerations.. and a different perspective on the event and who would attend as a result… there was a concern by at least one person in the Baltimore tango community that the “flavor” of the festival was no longer what the Baltimore community started with. This extended to a suggestion that the Baltimore Tango Festival no longer be used to represent the event. This was immediately accepted by Callie and Julia and Tango Element was born.
Some of us wax nostalgic about the community effort and experiences of our years building the Baltimore Tango Festival. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who was there understands that any festival, let alone one as big as Tango Element, is a huge undertaking in both effort and financial risk. Tango Element is not the Baltimore Tango Festival of 2004. Love it or hate it, it is a different animal. That said, it is a tango force…. and any force that has had the wherewithal to bring Alberto Podesta here to sing, at the very least, has the distinction of historical significance. Our Baltimore Orioles hats are off to organizers for that.
Why do dancers to love tango, like traditional tango of the “Golden Era”. A Short Tour of Traditional Tango Music
Dear Musician Who Is Curious Why Tango for Dancers Is Special,
The playlist is by no means what it suggests… a “tour” of tango in general. Rather it is a short list that used to illustrate some of the elements of tango that are good to dance to that you almost never find more than one or two of in any song composed after.
One “requirement”. There must be some rhythm in the song that suggests a “walking beat”.. usually between 60 and 75 BPM. The tango as it is played and danced centers around a “walk”. This is often carried by the bass but can be carried by other instruments in the orchestra. It can be every note.. or every other note…so some songs are actually ~140 BPM. The rhythm can be (and should be!) suspended… as tango has “breaks” or pauses in the song.. but only for a few seconds. Many dancers (unfortunately) will always dance to this beat.. and those who cannot “find” this beat will not like the song. (this by the way is where Piazzolla departed from prior tango. His music was not even considered tango for many years.)
Two identical playlists here: YouTube and Spotify
The first song, Flor de Monserrat, is an example of a “milonga” which is kind of a special type of faster tango that is danced precisely 21.4 percent of the time (three songs out of 14 in what you might call a set). I chose it because it is a good example of the evenness of instrumentation in a song… where every instrument can be danced to. There is the bass that you will hear with a strong downbeat on 1. The instrument you hear immediately on top of that is a bandoneon.. characteristic of the tango. In every measure of this song, we can step to every single beat! The violin that comes in suggests to the dancer to move (walk on 1) smoothly even in the face of the choppy and frantic rhythm of the bandoneon underneath. Piano is in there too. Even the vocals can “suggest” which instrument to dance to in any given phrase.
Siempre es Caranval is an example of a song that has that walk that is not always carried by the bass. In this case the violins change to staccato to keep that feel. You also hear a “call and response” all through the song (violins and/or vocals are answered by bass and piano).. and that is heard and echoed in movement on the dance floor.
In Corazon, the walk is on one and it is brisk. When the violins come in at 0:30. the nature of how you want to express changes to the violins. Vocals are combined with the violins later in the song.
Another characteristic of the tango is that “feeling” of it changes dynamically throughout the song via the instrumentation… even if the beat stays intact.
La Yumba is in this list because it shows the passion on 1 compared to the piccato of the violins at 1:08 for a lighter “feel” and a break at 1:23 that let’s dancers change character for a moment.. to reassess the situation of life in the moment… only to thrust back into the relentless walking beat 30 seconds later.
La Tupungatina is a situation where the beat is clear but it is in the background. What you “feel” in the song is the lightness of the violins that are interrupted by some “situation” around 0:50. There is a lot of variation of feeling in this song.. so some like it and some don’t. It is not often played.. except for more experienced dancers.. .who really like that variation to play with.
Counter to that is the type of tango that the world danced to in the early 40’s. and is played at almost every dance to this day. It is high energy at 140 BPM.. which dancers cut in half to walk on 1 and 3 at 70. The violins come in to give another rhythm to dance to. At 1:43 there is what is called a “variacion” a “circular” feel that suggest turning on the dance floor. It happens in many tangos at the end of songs.
Milonga para Gardel is of the type of Flor de Montserrat — a milonga. I put in there because it uses ascending and descending scales as an element… and we will find a way to dance to that too.
SO that’s the “tour”. There is much more… but this might give you a feel for what make the music different.. and why those who love it don’t want to dance to anything else!
Tango was created in an environment that will be hard to reproduce… simply because there was a collection then of talented musicians and composers who took the time make this great stuff and then play as a group of 20 nearly every night!
But there has to be a way!!!
Alternative Music: Part 1
“What is wrong with these people who only want to dance to traditional tango” vs. “What is wrong with these people who disgrace tango by playing non-tango at a milonga!”
The title is tongue-in-cheek but the viewpoints can be as passionate as the tango itself.
Dancing tango to music created after “Golden Era” (~1935 – 1952) can be a hoot. It’s fresh and many of us can identify with it. Some of us simply appreciate that the lyrics are in English!
But although alternative tangos can be just as soulful as traditional tango and although they almost always sound better, modern songs are rarely as inspiring of tango as traditional music. For this reason, experienced tanguer(o)as will most often prefer traditional music. Why?
Well, it can take time for many people to love traditional tango.
Golden era tango starts and stops — waxes and wanes – and can have more complex phraseology than modern songs. The orchestration (many instruments playing different musical parts) particularly can overwhelm a new listener. Familiar instruments are missing — ex. there are no drums keeping a beat in tango. The recording quality is fair to poor which can be off-putting to someone who has never listened to older music. Tango lyrics are in a foreign language for non-Spanish speakers. Some people are forward looking and have no time for sounds from that far in the past. Some would not like to identify with anything that is as “old” as tango. All of these things can”gang up” on a new listener to make tango difficult to appreciate at first. It’s also frustrating that fervor of those of us who love traditional tango is somehow lost on those yet to anchor their experiences with traditional tango music.
And that’s a lot of what loving traditional tango is all about. The more times a person dances around the circle to the six or eight hundred or so tangos that are played at milongas, the more he or she becomes familiar with the music. When the music becomes familiar to a person, they can associate it with good experiences to create a “neural anchor”. A neural anchor has the characteristic that when the tango is played on another night, the feeling of the previous experience is relived. Some of these anchors are deeper than any Americans may know. If a person grew up in Argentina listening to his grandfather sing Trasnochando in the shower, or his mother singing Malena in the garden when he was a kid, you can expect a strong opinion when T-Pain is played late night at a milonga. An ensuing conversation on the topic (best avoided) might include the word “respect”. We’re sure wars have been started over less!
Familiarity with songs is important in tango for other reasons. Those of us whose tread is slightly worn to the outside of a counter-clockwise circle expect to hear familiar songs at a milonga. Besides really liking a really good tango, if a dancer knows what comes next musically, he or she can better (or at least more comfortably) use their improvisational skills to express that music. Experience with tango movement (ok, vocabulary if you will) also allows a person’s ears to open to dance possibilities. The more a person learns how to express themselves in tango movement, the more he or she finds in traditional tango music for expression. So despite the lack of sound quality in the recordings we inherit, there is often more in traditional tango, more character that changes over the course of a song – more dynamism.
So fine, we get it, traditional tango is great. But does that mean tango for ever and ever must be danced to music performed before 1952? Certainly not. Often when a new orchestra (and particularly for Osvaldo Pugliese) would crop up in the golden era, dancers would be in an uproar about how it was “un-danceable”. Times changed and now we dance to many tango styles, all in one night. Dance is awesome about changing right along with the music. Witness the evolution of dance to jazz, roughly at the same time as the Golden Era of tango. Swing dance changed.. from Lindy right on through to Be Bop with Jazz (watch Ken Burns documentary “Jazz”) right on up to the point where the songs were so improvisational themselves, they could not be interpreted in real time by dancers. If you can play a song the same twice, people will figure out how to dance to it.
Here’s a tango example. Colgadas. These are hanging movements that swirl and suspend while each partner balances against the other with a common axis. A tango instructor once told me after teaching a colgada class that he didn’t know why he was teaching them…. because traditional tango did not inspire them. Understood (well… a little /:}). But play nearly any song by Zero 7 (like Destiny)… and there are colgadas all over the place in the music. Don’t we want to dance some colgadas to Zero 7?
Now unfortunately for tango, many current songs run out of gas on the dance floor, sometimes not making it to the first chorus. Pop music specifically is geared around a soundbite like a few notes of a chorus, a new synthetic sound (ear candy!) or a single concept in lyrics. After getting used to listening to and dancing to the breadth of traditional tango… the simplicity of some music played for alternative is sometimes completely “meh” by comparison. If the alternative music choice is unfamiliar, or worse, not inspiring… the chorus of “Let’s just dance traditional” rises. It is completely understandable.
An upcoming FAQ will explore what makes a song good for dancing tango. They’re out there. Let’s find them!
More FAQs later….