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How to learn Argentine tango III: Going to milongas (social dance)

Updated: Apr 5

When are you ready to go to a milonga? This is a tricky question… what does it mean to be “ready”? When are you proficient enough to go to a milonga? My answer is: if you wait to be “ready” you might never do it. So, don’t wait until you are “ready”, go as soon as you are able to, even if it is just to watch.

What is a Milonga?

The word “milonga” is used for at least two different meanings. Milonga is the social dance party in the Argentine Tango world. In these events, we dance 3 types of rhythms: tango, tango-vals (a version of waltz played by an Argentine Tango orchestra) and milonga (a predecessor of Argentine Tango that continues to exist in parallel to it).

So when we say milonga we might refer to the social dance party or to the specific rhythm called milonga (it’s a bit confusing! I know!). In this post, I will be speaking only about milonga as the social gathering where Argentine tango dancers meet and dance.

What happens in a milonga?

In the milonga, the social dance happens. Argentine tango can be understood as having two broad categories: Social dance (also known as “tango de pista” according to the nomenclature currently used at the World Championship organised by the city of Buenos Aires every year) and stage tango. Tango is originally a social dance, that is, it is highly improvisational and learning it means to learn to lead and to follow and to improvise according to the music and the space which is shared with other couples.

Stage tango is an expression of the dance which is inspired and based in the social dance but where the dancers learn pre-arranged choreographies aimed to be presented in a stage. Stage tango includes tricks and lifts that don’t consider the fact that the stage is shared because even though it is (e.g. in a group choreography), all dancers are moving according to previously rehearsed choreographies. The aim of stage tango is to present a show oriented version of the dance, with a bigger emphasis on the aesthetic quality of the movements, and perhaps even more acrobatic impactful movements.

In the Argentine Tango world, if a class doesn’t specify that it is a stage-tango (or “show tango”) it probably means that it is the social expression of the dance. And the social expression of the dance takes place in the milonga, not on the class. For this reason, probably, if you start to take lessons, the idea is that at some point you actually start going to milongas. Not doing it would be like taking driving lessons for the fun of it but never actually going to drive in the streets with your car… it doesn’t make sense.

But at the milonga there is more than just dance: people gather to socialise, meet friends, have a drink, listen to the music, sometimes eat something, and of course, also to dance. I include here a broad description to make the point explicit: the milonga is not a place where we just dance. It is not a training place or a gym but rather a social encounter. This means that the activities that take place in a milonga are more than just dance. Communities are the backbone of the milonga: communities of people who share the same love for tango.

Learning Argentine Tango: How much time until you are ready to go to the milonga?

I learned to dance in a city where there were no regular milongas. As I fell in love with the dance, all I wanted was to attend a milonga and I actually never questioned whether if I was ready or not. Perhaps this was a blessing. Today, as a tango teacher here in Finland, I often observe that pupils wait too much to attend milongas or sometimes never attend even though they attend to lessons for years!

You might feel at the beginning a bit insecure about your Argentine Tango skills and a bit afraid to go to the milonga. My advice is to come to terms with that sensation of fear and see the event as a social gathering in which you might dance or not. There is no pressure to dance, it is perfectly okay to go, bring a drink, sit, watch people dance, listen to the music, talk about life or about tango, and maybe just dance one or two times, or none at all!!! Little by little you will start to feel more and more comfortable in this environment and will start to enjoy dancing with different people.

The milonga codes

Much has been written about milonga codes (here is an example and another). Essentially, when we talk about milonga codes, we refer to the etiquette of the milonga. Here it is very important to understand that many of these are not hard rules, but rather, recommendations that have very practical reason. My recommendation is to try to use common sense when putting them into practice and to be guided by the practical reason behind them, instead of being too strict, specially when going to local milongas outside of Buenos Aires. If you have doubts, you can always ask your teacher about these. Any experienced Argentine Tango teacher should be acquainted with the milonga codes and should be able to explain them to you.

I will be writing a full entry on Milonga codes soon. For the moment, I recommend you to get acquainted with these in the links provided above.

Learning Argentine Tango: Tips to attend your first milongas

Here are some practical advice to feel a bit more at ease when going to your first milonga:

  1. Talk to your teacher: Ask your teacher about the milonga and what happens in them and try to attend to the milongas they organise. You will surely have familiar faces there. Alternatively, you can ask for recommendations about which milongas can be more beginner-friendly.

  2. Talk to your class mates: It’s much easier to go with people you know. A great idea is to make a small group with the people from the lessons you attend. Some of my students have organised a WhatsApp group where they share if they will be attending milongas or not. Of course someone needs to take initiative, but once this happens, it is very likely that people will be interested. These groups can be super practical and be used for much more than going to milongas: you can share tango music lists, dance videos from the lessons or elsewhere, agree to practice together, etc.

  3. Become a volunteer in your local communities: In Finland, there are several different volunteering opportunities with local associations. In Helsinki, for instance, you can volunteer as a host of the milongas (more info here), and this way get to know different people and ease your way to the milonga.

  4. Beginner-friendly milongas: Many communities organise beginner friendly milongas aimed at people who are just starting in their dance journey. These are a great way to start.

Going to the milonga can be a very enjoyable experience and hopefully become a highlight of your week :)

See you in the dance floor!

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