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Argentine Tango - Milonga codes

In a previous post, I reflected about the importance of going to milongas as soon as possible in your learning journey. In this post, I will talk about the so-called milonga codes or “códigos”. This essentially refers to the milonga etiquette: how do we move inside the shared dance floor, what is considered polite as we dance with someone, how to invite to dance, etc…

Understanding codes as flexible rules

In my time living in Finland, I have been surprised at how much people feel uncomfortable when they hear about some milonga codes. With time, I have come to understand that this discomfort may relate to three different reasons:

  1. First, people read them as hard-rules, as mandatory, and don’t really see that they are actually quite flexible if some common sense is applied. For this reason people often see them strict, limiting and even excluding.

  2. Second, people don’t always understand the reasons behind these codes, which benefits they bring and why do we use them. Understanding this may actually help to see them with more friendly eyes.

  3. Finally, the third reason is cultural differences: at least one code - the wonderful “mirada and cabeceo” - is foreign and different to the Finnish culture where eye contact is often avoided.

I would encourage people to get acquainted with the códigos to see them as flexible instead of hard rules. Common sense should be applied taking into account the underlaying reasons for these codes. In general, one can say that all the códigos are about respect: respect for your partner, respect for the other couples.

Argentine Tango Milonga codes

Let’s now take a look at some of the most important milonga codes, their benefits and reasons.

Inviting to dance: Mirada and cabeceo

Both men and women who are at the milonga want to choose when to dance and who to dance with and this choice should be free of pressure. However, if someone crosses the dance floor to ask you to dance, you might feel pressured to accept because you don’t want the other to feel rejected or embarrassed.

But if you are at a milonga, doesn’t that meant that you want to dance all the time? Well… not always. Yes, some people might want to dance all the time and that is great, but not everybody. There are many reasons not to want to dance a particular dance, for instance: You might have just sat down after a stressful day and feel like you want to relax by sitting and watching people dance; you might be in the middle of a conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while and really want to hear them before you dance; you might have danced a lot and feel you need to rest; you don’t like - or don’t know how to dance - the music that is being played.

So how do we make sure that the person is actually freely deciding to dance with us? Well… we use mirada and cabeceo.

“Mirada and cabeceo” literally means “stare and nod” (or look and nod): This is the way we invite to dance. We establish eye contact and maintain it for a few seconds (stare or mirada) and then one of the persons nods at the other as an invitation to dance (nod or cabeceo). If the other person responds with another nod, then the invitation is accepted. If the invited persons ignores the look, then the invitation is not accepted. The lack of acceptance is not a rejection: It just means “I don’t feel like dancing with you RIGHT NOW”. In other words, you can try again later or they might even try to invite you later. A negative answer only means: not right now.

But why do we do it like this? Wouldn’t it be easier to simply go and ask? Perhaps it would… but if you do ask, you have to be willing to get a negative answer. In my experience, mirada and cabeceo might be a bit awkward at the beginning but with practice it becomes natural.

Here are a few ideas to consider when using mirada and cabeceo:

  • Have a reasonable distance with the person you want to look at (not too close!). And please don’t stand right in front of them. The cabeceo needs to allow the person to decide what they want to do.

  • Any role/gender can initiate the invitation by looking. Any role/gender can do the nod.

  • If you need glasses to see better: bring them to the milonga!

  • If you are sitting in the same table with friends it’s ok to ask if the cabeceo becomes a bit uncomfortable because of the small distance. If you ask: be prepared to receive a negative response. If you are asked: it’s ok to decline.

  • Not all miradas are invitations. Sometimes you are just looking around and that is OK. If you want to invite someone to dance, the look needs to be sustained like a small stare.

  • Followers: once the invitation is accepted, stay in your sit and wait until the leader comes to you. Specially if you are not 100% sure that the invitation was for you (e.g. because there are other followers around you).

A shared dance floor

We share the dance floor with other couples. The high heels followers use can actually be quite dangerous if no care is taken. Because of this there are some basic navigation principles that make it easier to avoid colliding to others. The main idea is that leaders need to be able to more or less know what is the space available for dance.

Before entering the dance floor, if there are other couples already there, make sure that the leader of the couple behind you sees you as you enter the dance floor. Customarily, we look at the other leader in the eye and they will give a little nod to acknowledge they have seen you and that you can enter the dance floor safely. Use common sense: the point is that no one stumbles upon other couples. If there is a lot of space, it might not be necessary to have this nod.

We circulate counter-clock wise and we form lines of dance (“rondas”), which are much like the lanes in the street. And just like in the street, you want to stay in a lane instead of driving in the middle. Also, you may change from one lane to the other, but you should avoid to change back and forth because it makes it difficult to the other couples to navigate.

Both leaders and followers should use common sense and consider the others as you move on the dance floor: If the floor is crowded, avoid big dangerous movements (e.g. high boleos).

Dancing with a partner

The music is played in “tandas” or packs of three to four songs which you are expected to dance with the same partner. If you are asked at the middle of the tanda you are expected to dance until the end. It is customary to thank the other only at the end of the tanda, if you thank in the middle of the tanda it might be misunderstood as a final thanks.

It is important to be respectful to your dance partner: A good practice is to first observe the dance floor and to see with whom you would like to dance before you accept or make an invitation. If it is the first time you dance with a partner, you might want to start with simple movements, “get acquainted” with them at the beginning. If you try a movement and it doesn’t work, you might try it a second time but if it still doesn’t work, don’t force it. Just use other movements to dance and please refrain from teaching at the milonga (for that we have other kind of events: practices or lessons). At the end of the tanda, some leaders like to walk the partner back to their table, this is optional, but nice if you feel like doing it.

It is possible to stop dancing before the tanda is over, usually one would do this if something is very wrong, e.g. the person is intoxicated or they are behaving in an otherwise inappropriate way, their embrace is hurting you or they are stepping on you repeatedly. If you wish to end the tanda early you can say “thank you” and go back to your sit.

Argentine Tango codes: when in doubt

When in doubt about the codes, just think about this: we try to be respectful and considerate of the other persons’ freedom to choose, their space, etc.

See you on the dance floor!

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1 Comment

Darina Bunak
Darina Bunak
Sep 26, 2023


OMG! I sooo much LOVE THIS:

“…start with simple movements […]. If you try a movement and it doesn’t work, you might try it a second time but if it still doesn’t work, don’t force it. ”

For a not-so-experienced follower, like me, every new leader is a HUGE ADVENTURE🥹🙃😱 And I am always super grateful when my leader starts with something very simple, like walking, gradually increasing the difficulty of the figures during our first song🙏❤️

That way, I have time to overcome my initial panic attack😱, brace myself and my leader🤗🤗, start hearing the music (not my crazy heart beat😂)….And as a result, I give MY ABSOLUTE DANCE-BEST to those patient and understanding leaders. ❤️❤️❤️

Nadia, thank…

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