Tango Dance Etiquette
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Last Update: 11/29/13.
To learn more about dance etiquette or private dance lessons contact George Nicol at 650-493-6427.
To experienced dancers, the following guidelines of dance protocol and etiquette
are usually known, not necessarily followed, and not often discussed. Following these guidelines,
however, can set a good example for other dancers. For new dancers, it's good to know what's
what to help avoid embarrassing, awkward, or unsafe situations. In any case, following these
guidelines can help to maximize your dance experience. Although these guidelines are for Tango, they
can often apply to other dance forms as well.
1. At a Tango milonga (a public Tango dance party), couples dance in a "line-of-dance"
fashion; that is, counter-clockwise around the dance floor. The faster "lanes" are those toward
the outside of the counter-clockwise line-of-dance. The slower "lanes" are toward the
center, although at some milongas, forward movement can be very slow going regardless of within
which lane you're dancing. The basic idea is to dance with the flow of forward traffic refraining from crossing lanes,
cutting through the center, stopping in the outside lane to perform a non-progressing move,
or stepping backward to the line-of-dance especially on a crowded dance floor.
(This last point conflicts with how some instructors teach the fundamental basic step or structure of Tango; that is, a back step by the leader, against line-of-dance, is taught as the first step of the fundamental basic structure. Teaching beginners to take a left side-step, relative to the leader, as the first step of the fundatmental basic structure is more consistent with line-of-dance dancing at milongas.)
2. It is common (and acceptable) for dancers to stand and talk for a short period after the music begins to play and before dancing begins, however, when the music ends, dancing ends on the last note (or fade) of the song. Couples then wait on the dance floor for the next song to begin. Although it is common for dancers to talk while waiting for the next song, it is not acceptable to talk (or teach) while dancing at a milonga. Like any community, however, there are those who maintain that once on the dance floor, dancers should never talk because it breaks the "mood". There are few, if any, milongas where this is true, even in Buenos Aires, however again, it is customary not to talk (or teach) while dancing especially in Buenos Aires.
3. Songs are usually played in a "tanda"; that is, a group of three to five (or more if the DJ is inattentive) songs of the same style; for example, Tango waltz or milonga. A tanda is usually followed by a "cortina", (Spanish for "curtain") or short break in the standard Tango music before the next tanda begins. During the cortina, typically all dancers leave the dance floor to possibly seek a new partner, socialize, or take a rest. During cortina non-Tango music is usually briefly played. It is also customary for a couple to dance to each song of a tanda, however, like almost all Tango rules, this rule is not set in stone and can vary somewhat from milonga to milonga, city to city, and country to country. For example, if you feel uncomfortable dancing with your partner for whatever reason, you may at the end of any song politely excuse yourself. This must be done with care since it is uncommon. It is far better to either know or observe your perspective partner before asking for or accepting a dance to avoid the possibility of having to leave the dance floor before the end of a tanda. In other words, once you start dancing, do your best to dance the entire tanda with that partner. (Good etiquette is usually non-trivial.)
4. If you are not dancing, show respect to those who are by not walking through
the busy dance floor and by staying clear of the dance space. For example, while others
are dancing, do not stand in the dance lanes and talk. On the dance floor, real estate
is always in demand. First priority goes to the dance and the dancers. Give them room.
5. Dancers! Do not try to teach on the dance floor during a milonga! Fight the urge! Go to your local dance instructor's "Practica" (practice session) where you can teach and practice your moves to your heart's content. But if you absolutely must show your new partner that "new move" at a milonga or make suggestions, then go to a non-dance-floor area.
Trying to show a new move on the dance floor at a milonga while others are dancing is one of the most obvious signs of very poor dance etiquette.
I'm constantly amazed at how often this phenomenon occurs during milongas in North America. It appears to almost always be initiated by beginning or intermediate dancers but sadly sometimes by those who should know better. In the more then ten trips I have made Buenos Aires, I don't recall ever seeing this happen at a Milonga. If it happens to you, politely decline the assistance or suggest going off the dance floor if you really want yet more advice and instruction. In any case, save yourself the embarrassment by avoiding this type of poor dance etiquette.
6. (If you've ever been severely stepped on or kicked by someone other than your dance
partner on the dance floor, then this paragraph will be of special interest to you.)
The safety of your partner, yourself, and the surrounding dancers is your first concern.
Both leader and follower, be alert to the presence of other dancers in front,
to the sides, and in back to help avoid collisions and inappropriate embellishments such as a high boleo. If a collision occurs, try to soften the collision by bringing your arms in and stopping movement. Afterwards be polite and friendly, make eye contact, smile, and acknowledge the collision even if it was not your fault. To a large extent, dancing on a crowded Tango dance floor is an exercise in collision avoidance in a safe, creative, and fun fashion. One other point that often goes unmentioned, it may sound and feel very poetic and sophisticated and very "cool" to dance in the "Tango Trance" with your eyes closed, but at a crowed milonga avoid doing this. Keep yours eyes open and be alert to the safety of your partner and other dancers especially if you are a beginning or intermediate dancer. As a dancer at a social event this is part of your responsibility. This general point, for followers, is not inconsistent with being a good follower; that is, following the lead, not anticipating, and giving the leader your complete trust. Leaders, however, have a moving blind spot as they dance. They cannot see directly behind. Because of this blind spot, a collision can happen. Although good leaders seldom have collision because of their skill and speed, if they're involved in a collison it can be made worse because of their speed. Leaders, your skill and speed does not exempt you from dancing safely. Read on...
7. Again, no one likes being kicked, run into, or stepped on, so on a crowded dance floor, avoid
overly aggressive movements, high boleos, hard-hitting ganchos, and leg extensions. If you feel you
are about to step on someone (hopefully not your partner) try to not follow through with the
stepping action to soften the blow of your foot landing on another's. Also, leaders keep your
left arm down and about shoulder height (of your partner) with your left elbow down and fairly close to your side. It's not fun on a crowded dance floor having to duck when another dancer swings around with their partner and the leader's left hand is high in the air and three inches from your nose.
8. On a crowded dance floor, stopping in the outer lane to do a dance pattern is
frowned on since it usually stops the forward progress of the dancers coming from behind
and many times it usually involves steps that are not safe to the surrounding dancers.
Remember, it's not the Olympics or "show time", it's a social dance, so relax and have fun.
If you feel the need to stop forward movement to do a couple of patterns, move to the center
of the floor where you can stop and do, for example, foot stops, multiple ochos or molinetes
and not impede or stop forward line-of-dance flow. Many times near the end of a milonga event, the dance floor will thin out. This opens the floor to more dance experimentation where the rules are more forgiving.
9. This next item is worth mentioning again since it is a major contributor to collisions involving beginning and intermediate dancers. Because of tradition, there are still, unfortunately, some instructors who teach the Tango Basic Step or Structure for social dance by having the leader begin by stepping backward to the line of dance (with his right foot.) This is poor instruction since his first step goes against line-of-dance. A more practical basic step begins with the leader first stepping to the left (with his left foot and follower stepping to her right with her right foot.) That is, the leader's back step, as the first step, is dropped altogether. For the followers, as a dance pattern unfolds, be alert to dancers potentially in the way and let the leader know of a possible collision verbally, pressing your left hand to the leader's back, by a hand squeeze, or by pulling your partner closer, or all of these, especially on a crowded dance floor. For the leaders, if you absolutely must step backwards to the line-of-dance, look back first before you step.
10. If a dance couple in front of you stops, then you can mark time and continue dancing by using
a Tango side-rocking step, for example, until they move. If they stay in the same place even if it possible
for them to move forward in line-of-dance, you may carefully dance around them. They have lost their "right-of-way"
by not continuing the line-of-dance foward flow.
11. Followers, please, do not back lead. Not only does it make leading more difficult, but it also
makes it more difficult for the leader to avoid collisions.
12. It's ok to smile and have fun on the Tango dance floor. The Tango police have stopped
giving citations for this, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area.
13. For more experienced dancers, set a good example for beginners: be patient, polite and sensitive. In general, it is acceptable to give advice, provided it is asked for first. If you absolutely must give unsolicited advice, at least first ask permission to do so, however, good dancers almost never make comments let alone talk while dancing. Finally, remember that you were once a beginner. A harsh or insensitive, but well intended "comment" can still ruin someone's evening.
14. When is ok to video or take photos at a milonga? The general answer is never. People go to milongas to dance, not to be photographed.
So if you are in doubt, put the camera away. There are, however, as always, exceptions. Many times the milonga host will take photos or videos,
or have someone do this for them for promotional reasons. Since it's their public event, practically speaking, there's not much you can do except
maybe complain or not attend their future events. If, however, you absolutely must take that photo of you and your friends, first show respect and
ask the host, then follow their advice. Minimize the photo impact on the dancers by not shooting in their direction and limit the number of photos
to a few. Finally, unless you have explicit permission from the event host and the dance couple performing at a Tango event, it's not ok to video
regardless of what you see other people doing. Be polite, ask first. (The worst example of disruptive photography I have experienced happened
at a Tango festival in Portland, Oregon. During an afternoon alternative milonga, a photographer was taking photos of the dancers using
a camera with a telephoto lens. So for most of that afternoon the photographer was constantly taking photographs of the dancers.
I complained to the host but to no avail since he had given the photographer permission to shoot. I learned later the photographer was selling
the photos on the Internet. I wonder if the host got a kick back on the sales? Needless to say I won't be going back to that event anytime soon.)
15. Argentine Tango is an intimate and elegant dance. For a pleasant experience, good hygiene
is essential; bathe before lessons or dancing and use deodorant. Use breath fresheners frequently if necessary. No or minimal talking while dancing; focus on dancing and floor traffic. Hold off on the after shave and perfume. Some people are sensitive to them. If you perspire, use a towel or handkerchief often. People as a rule don't like dance partners that feel like walking wet towels. So men, if you perspire heavily, use a towel, take a break and cool down, bring an extra shirt, and change into it at half time. Remember that this is social dance, go to the track if you want an aerobic workout. If you wear glasses, consider contact lenses or removing your glasses while dancing unless you can't see where you're dancing. Getting whacked in the head with someone's glasses as they turn their head is not so pleasant. One last thing, PLEASE, no jeans, sweat shirts, tennis shoes, bare feet (really) or other similar causal attire when you take lessons or go to a dance. Tango is an elegant dance, respect it and other dancers, dress up. Ladies watch out; there are some male "nuevo" Tango dancers who either don't know about this rule of thumb or who feel they
are exempt from it.
16. A Tanda is a series Tango songs or pieces of the same type played in a row of usually not less than three and no more than five, for example,
four Tangos, three vals (walzes), or three milonga pieces. After a Tanda is the Cortina (or "curtain"), a musical pause (usually not danced to) allowing
dancers to leave the floor to find a different partner or take a break before the next Tanda begins. There are a few Milongas in Buenos Aires where one Tanda
composed of Chacarera, Swing, or Latin music is played. There are a few Milongas in North America where a short Tanda of Salsa music is played. These non-Tango
Tandas provide a good way to divide the Milonga into two parts offering a longer break for the pure Tango dancers while allowing others to take a break from
the rigors of Tango to lossen up a bit and refresh with another dance form. The last song played of the last Tanda of a milonga (a Tango dance event)
is the song "La Cumparsita" to signal that the milonga has come to an end. Usually, when a couple goes to the floor, they dance the entire Tanda but
this is not a requirement. If, for example, you really don't like the music or you have just danced four fast milongas and don't feel like dancing to the
fifth one, you can sit down, however, as you leave the dance floor be very courteous to those still dancing as you leave the floor. It is also perfecting fine
to start dancing to the second or third piece of a Tanda, provided you are very careful on entering the line-of-dance. Those dancing have the right
of way. Before leaving (or entering) a Tanda, check with your partner maybe they wish to continue dancing. A Tanda is an artificial structure provided for the
pleasure and convenience of the dancers (not necessarily the DJ). The dancers always have the option of whether or not to dance.
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Happy dancing! George Nicol, Ph.D., Dance Instructor, Palo Alto, California.