Milongas and the art of connection in Tango

I am little bit behind with my blogposts – a big apology for that! December passed rather quickly and was packed with many events taking place at LSE, lectures, and big pile of assignments to be handed in, in addition to the Christmas holidays that started… but I will write an individual post to how I spent my Christmas holidays (Hint: a 1960s dinner party and a lovely group of people from all over the world!)

I just got back from a milonga workshop and felt inspired to write and share with you how my last milonga went and what I learnt during the workshop, so this post is once again dedicated to my wonderful tango teachers Maria and Leandro and to the beautiful art of Argentine Tango.

Before traveling back to Berlin for Christmas, our Tango Academy held its annual winter milonga at the Negracha, a local tango club. It was a fantastic evening, filled with great music, lots of laughter and stunning performances.  The highlight of the evening was the wonderful performance by the academy’s tango performance group that featured students from across all levels – beginners to improvers, intermediate and even teachers. They performed an elaborate choreography with elements of surprise and endless pivots that were enhanced by the flaring skirts of the ladies.

Maria and Leandro performed after the performance group and looked stunning as always. Their emotional dance with unforeseen changes in energy, speed and a beautifully intense embrace led the crowd to applaud in awe. Nothing is more inspiring than seeing these two dance, particularly during their performances, but also during their teachings of steps for a milonga.

“Milonga” is the term used for a place or an event where tango is dance. At the same time it also refers to a musical genre and a style of dance related and connected to tango.  Most milongas are held on a regular basis (usually weekly) and often start with dancing classes (called practicas). Usually, three to five songs of a kind are played in a row (this is called tanda) followed by a short musical break (called cortina) to clear the dancefloor and facilitate partner changes.  There are a number of informal rules on how dancers should choose their dancing partners and navigate the floor. More than rules that are written in concrete, they are more like etiquette or common courtesy, a form of being polite. It is wonderful, if people display them, but you will likely also come across individuals who do not adhere to them.

One of the rules I find most intriguing and beautiful at the same time is the cabaceo. At the end of my last tango class this topic facilitated a laughter-filled discussion. The cabeceo is the way people invite each other to dance. To ask someone to dance, a person will catch the eye of the person they want to dance with and nod their head. If the other person accepts the invitation they will nod back. If person does not want to dance for any reason, they will subtly look away, or not look toward that person to begin with. Many of our ladies were sharing experiences from milongas in London where leaders walk  up to the followers and verbally ask for a dance, hence almost leaving the follower no subtle option to reject that dance. Leandro was emphasizing how in traditional milongas of Buenos Aires, directly asking someone to dance is considered rude and is usually rejected. He always ensures that his students learn the proper etiquette from Buenos Aires, so that they can travel and dance there with the flair of a local.

The cabeceo happens at the beginning of the tanda, not during a cortina, and the leader will initiate the embrace when he is ready to begin the dance. The first few seconds seconds in the following embrace give the partners time to connect with the music and each other before starting to dance. I love observing this at milongas: seeing two dancers gently and slowly embrace each other, close their eyes, softly sway to the music and then start to dance in almost perfect synchrony. Without this slow and patient establishment of a connection, the dance can feel rushed and the partners might not be synchronized or deeply feel the music from within.

Having mentioned the embrace (abrazo):  to me and most people who dance the Argentine tango it is the most magical and most alive part of the entire dance. It is a symbol of two people being unified in one series of fluid movements and it is constantly changing. It is the main form of communication between the two dance partners, a dialogue expressed through movement. When fully immersed in a dance, sometimes partners close their eyes to fully “feel” the music, the dance and their partner. For people watching an improvised dance can almost seem like magic, particularly when the leader is very subtle with the signals and changes in his embraces that he gives his partner. How can two people dance, move in the same direction or even do simultaneous movements completely different from each other and not step on each other’s foot, not unintentionally rush the partner into the next movement or perhaps make him or her loose balance? The answer is a change in energy, a change in the intensity of the embrace, gentle pressure. The ideal embrace lets your dance partner feel your muscles in the back and their movement, indicating a change in direction or a stop. It lets you feel your partner’s energy, almost like it is being sent all the way through your body Leandro was telling us how the ideal embrace results in complete relaxation of the partners neck muscles and doesn’t tense the shoulders. A good embrace should “feel good”, it should be “firm and yet gentle, strong yet soft, leading and communicative, yet never overpowering” It sounds almost like a paradox, but if you and your partner have a good embrace, that feeling is simply amazing. There is nothing better than feeling connected to your partner, feeling almost sheltered in their embrace and your feet subconsciously translating the lead into movements.

I remember a particular partner from my third milonga, at a tango venue in Berlin: an old man in his early 70s who almost reminded me of my grandfather (a very soulful man and dedicated musician) with his aura. He asked me for the dance with a warm smile and gentle cabeceo. He looked like he had been dancing tango for his entire life and his walk gave the impression that he was floating over the wooden floors. I was a little nervous – it was the first time I would be dancing with someone who looked so… familiar? He held out his left hand and as I gently put my left arm around his shoulder. His embrace took me completely by surprise. He embraced me as if he’d known me for years, as if we had a history. There was no hesitation, his arm softly reached around me and his fingertips applying gentle pressure to the right side of my ribcage – it was, like Leandro would have said “the perfect abrazo” The music started and he quietly waited with only an almost unnoticeable rocking to the rhythm. He was not hesitant, but at the same time he was waiting, almost like his fingertips held a question: “are you going to let me give you this embrace, this dance?” I took a deep breath and leaned into the embrace and we took off with the next beat in the music. I don’t know what he led or if I followed it all correctly. If mistakes were made he just worked with it and moved on, correcting the small faulty steps I did here and then. I felt him breathe in and out with the music. Between phrases occasionally he would take in a deep breath and his arm would lift slightly, settling back in as he exhaled and propelled me down the line of dance. We did not speak more than a between songs, the only sentence he said to me was that he used to dance at milongas with his wife whom he met in Argentina, but who his now watching over him from above the clouds. After that he returned to gently swaying to the music with closed eyes, humming the lines that he remembered. At the end of the tanda, he thanked me and let go of me as one lets go of paths never taken. I watched him dance with many other women that night – all of which seemed to be completely immersed in their dancing, in their music. He had only come to dance for his wife, simply dance, nothing more. He was not interested in conversation, in meeting new people, he had solely come to feel the music he had once shared with his loved one. I don’t know his name or where he was from. Asking seemed at once irrelevant and at the same time, too personal. I haven’t seen him since, but he did leave a wonderful memory.

We aren’t precisely ourselves when we dance – at least not only ourselves. We are all of the things we need each other to be in those few moments. At once strangers, whole new worlds, to each other and yet infinitely known, recognized. In the perfect embrace of our imperfect souls, we can feel all the possibilities in our past and our future. It’s an addictive and beautiful feeling, as Maria and Leandro said.

In Buenos Aires a good leader is characterized by quality of his embrace, in London it almost seems like people perceive leaders with a bigger repertoire of “moves” to be better leaders. In agreement with Maria’s and Leandro’s point and from personal experience, your partner (particularly the leader) can know hundreds of moves, the dance will not feel good and enjoyable, if the embrace is not proper and that connection with your partner is not established. The entire class was smiling and giggling with adoration when Leandro explained to us how the tango embrace is actually a hug with an open side – it made a lot of sense: when we hug someone we love, this hug is firm and powerful, yet still gentle and loving. In that context Leandro laughingly told us how we all need hugs, how we don’t hug enough, how we avoid physical contact on the streets with strangers and how tango simply makes the world better by providing a safe and musical environment for more hugs.