Twenty-five milongas in twelve days: lessons from Buenos Aires

Lessons from BsAs

It feels like we arrived only yesterday; it feels like we’ve been here forever. It feels like milongas are the real world, and London is some kind of vague dream.

Forever is also about the time it will take me to integrate everything I’ve learned here, both in lessons and from dancing in all those milongas – but let’s at least make a start …

The embrace

Taking time to settle into the embrace. This is totally normal here. Get a sense of the type of embrace the follower wants, and adapt to that. Do a subtle change of weight and then a less subtle one if required to get a feel for how ‘big’ a lead is needed. 

Run through my posture checklist. Is my head upright, to the left? Is my left arm far enough out and at about shoulder height for my follower? Are my legs slightly flexed? Are my shoulders relaxed?

Steph had said that sometimes she didn’t recognise a leader until she entered the embrace, then she did. That was something I found quite hard to imagine at the time, but I had the very same experience here. I’d seen a woman looking at me, so I cabeceod her. She said we’d danced before. I didn’t recognise her, but as soon as we entered the embrace I felt ‘Aah, you – now I remember!’

Quality over quantity

I was like a kid in a candy store at some milongas, leaping out of my seat at any halfway decent music and cabeceoing any follower within range. I had milongas where I danced almost non-stop.

But the memorable ones were where there were one, two, maybe even three perfect tandas. Music I love. A comfortable amount of room on the floor. A follower who dances in close embrace with plenty of presence and forward intention, and who clearly loves slow movements and pauses. In those, I could feel the follower’s pleasure. And her own dance was perfectly compatible. When I lead a parada she would take her time stepping over, and do so at the same slow pace. Where we take a little time to disengage from the embrace, and then hug. I remember those with a smile.

There is no magic formula for conjuring up such tandas. You can go to the same milongas with the same DJ and have a completely different experience.

Dancing with the same follower is of course much more reliable. It’s  not a guarantee of a magic tanda, but if it’s music I love, then there are certain followers where I know there’s a very high chance it’s going to be a delight.

While there are no guarantees, there are contra-indicators for magic tandas. One is if I think the music is merely ok rather than wow. Another is the floor is so crowded the dancers can scarcely move. A third is a follower looking around in a half-hearted fashion, rather than alert and clearly enjoying the music. On one occasion in BsAs, my cabeceo was met with a kind of ‘why not?’ shrug. That one was about as good as you might imagine.

Of course, I’ve had surprises. Tandas where the music isn’t making me leap out of my chair, but I want to dance and then it turns out to be special anyway. I’ve also had tandas that start out pleasant rather than wow, and then become something amazing in the course of the four songs. 

Sometimes I just have to go for it, take a chance, decide that a pleasant tanda beats not dancing, and maybe I’ll get lucky.

But … sometimes I’d rather sit than dance something I don’t think has at least the potential to be a magic tanda. And that starts with music that has me leaping from my seat …

Tango music.jpg

The music

I have my favourite songs, of course, and sometimes my favourite recordings of my favourite songs. Over time, the number of these will increase. In part, it’s a question of familiarity. The more times I hear a good song, the greater the likelihood of it being promoted to my favourites list.

(Of course, the opposite could occur. Some songs are played so often you could tire of them. But remember, I’m just over a year in: I still love dancing to Poema …)

But beyond specific favourites, it’s about knowing my tastes. Mine are very much for lyrical music. My favourite genre in non-tango music – on the rare occasions I still listen to it – is singer-songwriter. And what I love about that is the same thing I look for in tango music: the singer evoking an emotional response in me. Sometimes that can happen with a purely instrumental song (Desde El Alma is one of my all-time favourites, for example), but it’s far, far more likely with a lyrical one.  

Dancing to the beat can be fun; I’ll talk milonga shortly. But what I most love to do is dance with the singer.

So that means finding milongas with one of two things: a live band, or a DJ with a love of lyrical music.

A live band

A live band almost guarantees I’m going to love the music. I’ve heard really good ones, great ones and fabulous ones – but never a bad one*. If there (really) is a live band, I’m there.

*Ok, one time. But that was special circumstances, and I won’t say anything more specific than that!

Something amazing happens with live music: I always seem to be able to dance to it, even if the song is unfamiliar. At Maldita (visit 1, visit 2), El Afronte plays their own compositions. It’s quite funky stuff. It’s definitely not predictable. And yet, somehow, I absolutely love dancing to their music, even if it’s a song I’m hearing for the first time.

And with traditional music, a live band can transform a pleasant song into something amazing.

A DJ with a love of lyrical music

With recorded music, I need to familiarise myself with the DJs and find the ones who play the music I love.

In BsAs, you quickly learn it’s not the venues, it’s the specific milongas, because they have different DJs.

In London, it’s a variant on that: you can get different DJs on different weeks at the same milongas. I need to start making a note of the specific DJs who play the type of music I love, and then find out where they are playing each week.

Not that this is an absolute guarantee. Sometimes the same DJ can play very different music on different evenings, ranging from inspirational to dour. Maybe that reflects their knowledge of the tastes of regulars at a particular milonga, or perhaps it just depends what sort of day they’ve had …

But this is all stuff I need to get to know. If I can find milongas which play the music I love, I’m already halfway there when it comes to magic tandas. If followers I love dance there – or I meet new ones who become followers I love – then that’s close to a guarantee as you can get.

So, I’m going to sample a lot more London milongas and start taking notes on a rough percentage hit-rate for specific DJs at specific milongas. That’s helped enormously by the fact that I now feel much less intimidated by milongas I don’t know. If I can persuade Steph or one of my other favourite followers to join me in my sampling, then that will enable us to be seen dancing, and hopefully then find people to dance with at unfamiliar milongas.

Collaborative dance

I got a lot of experience of collaborative dance, and I absolutely love it!

I got my introduction to it at an early stage. I then used my ‘parada and relax the embrace approach’ to invite followers to take their own moments in the dance.

At that stage, the idea of truly collaborative dance still seemed a far-off dream. Partly because my view was that I didn’t have the vocabulary to recognise what a follower might be suggesting. But …

I can absolutely have collaborative dance with Steph because she doesn’t dance figures, she makes it up. For example, one time I’d led a forward ocho and the next phrase was a very choppy section of music. Steph started taking very small, sharp steps from right to left, and I simply turned it into a circular walk, turning in the middle with matching small, sharp ‘compass point’ steps. As simple as could be, but perfectly in sync with both Steph and the music.

I danced with many other followers in BsAs who also proposed things, and I found I was always able to respond in some way. Perhaps not to the extent I would like – and more on that next – but I was able to at least create that sense of the dance being a joint creation.

Not with all followers. Some respond to the parada-and-pause approach by simply waiting patiently for me to lead something, and that’s fine too. But when I get a skilled follower who enjoys dancing her own dance and knows the music intimately, it’s an absolute delight.

Not about the steps.jpg

It’s truly not about the steps

Many teachers have said this, and I’ve always wanted to believe it’s true, but it’s hard to do so when 95% of tango classes out there are teaching step sequences. 

As I’ve said before, I know this is about supply and demand. Teachers sell what students want to buy. And figures are an easy measure of progress – look, I can do one more figure than I could last week. So I completely understand why people want to buy them. Progress with technique or musicality or the quality of the embrace is much less measurable.

Progress with technique can also feel painfully slow. Teachers tell me the same things over and over again, and either I forget when focusing on something else, or I make some percentage gain so tiny that feels like it will take me the next 400 years to reach 100% on that point.

But it’s the less visible things that make the biggest difference to the feel in the dance. When a piece of technique feedback finally clicks, it’s joyful. For example, Laura told me to focus on feeling my follower’s spine while leading a pivot, so I can feel when she has finished pivoting and is ready for the next step. That was mind-blowing to me. Obvious in hindsight, but it had never occurred to me. As soon as I started doing that in milongas, it instantly transformed my dance. 

And step sequences … I didn’t once see anything in a BsAs milonga that looked like any kind of step sequence beyond giros and (usually very small) ocho cortados. 

Don’t misunderstand me: I saw some impressive giros for sure! Fast ones with sacadas all over the place, and feet flying. But when you look closely, it’s actually a remarkably small set of steps, it’s simply that their technique is jaw-droopingly good, so it flows perfectly. If I ever want to be a tenth as good as the best dancers I saw in milongas, it’s technique I need, not steps.

Which is not to say that steps have no place in the development of my tango. There are times I feel stuck in a crowded milonga and want some options. Or I’d planned to move in one direction but that gets blocked, and then I need an alternative. I do need more flexibility in my dance.

But flexibility is about simple things. Laura gave me three things in the course of two lessonsand I got a fourth from the Patio el Tango lesson that I was able to immediately use in milongas because they were so simple. More things like this are infinitely more valuable to me than the typical step sequences taught in group classes in London.

And while collaborative dance needs me to have more understanding of the types of movement that are possible, that’s again not about learning sequences. What followers were proposing in BsAs milongas was not ‘let’s do an XYZ sequence.’ but rather ‘let’s have a movement which feels like this, and which turns in that direction.’

That doesn’t mean sequence-based group classes are useless to me. They expose me to different types of movements, ones which wouldn’t otherwise have occurred to me. But it means my focus needs to be on that, not the sequences. Sure, do my best to execute them in the class as that’s what followers in the class want. But afterwards, review what I have personally learned in terms of what I know now that I didn’t know before about movement possibilities – and then figure out one simple way to utilise that principle.

Just making stuff up

This is the stage I need to reach: where I don’t have to think about steps at all. Where certain sequences, like giros, are just in my muscle memory, and I have enough experience of what types of movement are possible that I can Just Move. 

That’s going to take a lot of time. But it’s a journey I’ve begun, and it’s one I can take, er, steps to accelerate my process. Laura’s suggestion of trying out variants to see what happens. Analysing group classes to see what principles I can extrapolate from the sequences. 

And trying it in practicas will really help. 

Being more Argentine really works

I’ve talked about taking time to establish the embrace, which makes a huge difference to the feel, especially when dancing with someone for the first time. 

That was largely a matter of having the confidence to do it, which was easy in BsAs as everyone does it. 

But confidence more generally is another lesson to take from here. I’d got it with pauses, but it was the same with the Diego turn: just have the confidence to lead it and it works. 

Close embrace giros, the same. Stop worrying about them feeling messy and just lead them. 

More generally, Laura said sometimes my lead felt tentative, like I wasn’t sure whether something was going to work. Just lead it with confidence, she said: a follower would far rather something didn’t work every now and then than to experience a tentative lead that leaves them unsure if they are following correctly. 

And where made-up movements are concerned, approach them all from the perspective of where I want my follower to be and do whatever seems likely to produce that result. 


Diagonal dance

This has been a complete revelation. It works best when everyone else it’s doing it too, but it helps regardless. Such a simple thing that makes such a huge difference. 

I’m loving milonga

It’s ironic: I’m all about slow tango, but now also love milonga. It was the milonga tandas that consistently got me out of my seat no matter what I thought of the rest of the music. 

I don’t mean the music is irrelevant with milonga, there are still great songs and rather uninteresting ones. In particular,I love ones where you have more energetic sections and quieter ones rather than the same kind of intensity throughout. But you can have fun with most of them.

I think to me, tango and milonga are essentially two different dances that happen to share the same embrace and technique. I dance tango to express feelings, and milonga to have fun. 

Simple solutions to technical challenges

Laura gave me two simple ways to address two key technical challenges. First, to avoid leading with my arms, keep them loose. For the time being, don’t aim to have them play any role in the lead. Later, I’ll be able to have them be one component, but for now try to keep them out of the equation altogether. 

Second, dissociation. I feel I have too little, and she had two things to say about that. First, I have more than I think. What might not look like a lot to me can feel like plenty to a follower. Second, the earlier I begin to dissociate, the less I need. Given my aim is to lead an intention and then have my follower be slightly ahead of me, it’s all about the initial dissociation. 

And that same thing, leading the intention first and then following my follower, is also key to times when I want to lead a step but not take it – like the barrida into cross. If I’m always aiming to have my follower be a little ahead of me anyway, then this is simple. 

As I say, I’m sure there will be much, much more to process from the trip. But those are my takeouts so far. 

Already planning our next trip

We literally began planning the next trip while we were still there. The plan is to go for a month next year, renting a 2- or 3-bed flat so friends can join us for a fortnight at a time.

If tango is an addictive drug, BsAs tango is the drug in its purest form. I can’t wait for my next fix.

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