Transforming London milongas, part 1: The magic of the unknown dance partner

There’s a blog post I’ve been struggling to write for some weeks now, communicating some thoughts about issues on the London tango scene, and how we might address them.

The reason for the struggle is two-fold. First, and more trivially, it might be felt presumptuous for a three-year dancer to think he understands the problems, let alone has any idea how to solve them …

To that, I might argue that I’m in a reasonable position to have a worthwhile perspective: sufficiently enmeshed in the tango world to have some insights, yet still new enough to perhaps have fresh perspectives – or, at least, not yet cynical enough to believe that the problems are insoluble!

While my blog posts reflect only my own views and experiences, I think it’s fair to say that these issues are widely perceived – witness this thread in the London Tango Facebook group, for example.

The second, more challenging, difficulty is that so many of the issues are intertwined. For example, the perceived cliqueyness of some London milongas, and the imbalance between leaders and folllowers. It wouldn’t really matter how much we succeeded in making milongas a more welcoming space if followers were still left sitting on the sidelines all night.

A modest proposal

But one has to start somewhere, so I’ll begin with a modest suggestion of my own in the above thread: that every leader dance one tanda each evening with an unknown follower. If every leader does that, there should be few, if any, followers who don’t get to dance at all.

There’s also a virtuous circle here. Some leaders won’t dance with a follower until they’ve seen her dance, which leaves new followers in a Catch-22. Someone taking a chance on them once then makes it more likely they will be invited by others.

There are steps milonga organisers can take to encourage this. One is to have a specific tanda where everyone is invited to cabeceo someone they’ve never danced with before. Another – and I think even better – approach is to have a tanda where you dance with a stranger for about half a song, then a partner change is called and you find another one, so in the course of one tanda, you dance with several new people. A shout-out here to Tango Amistoso and Los Angelitos for taking these approaches, and I hope it’s something other London milongas will adopt.

But with or without ‘official’ measures, every leader is of course able to make their own decision to do this.

Three important qualifiers

First, I am absolutely not proposing anything ‘mandatory.’ I of course favour full bodily autonomy: nobody should be obliged, expected or pressured to dance with anyone they don’t want to. I’m merely suggesting that leaders consider inviting someone of their choice who they don’t know and haven’t danced with before.

Second, some might think what I’m proposing is a ‘pity tanda.’ It’s absolutely not. If we have to use such a horrible term at all (and I definitely don’t think we do), then it would apply to dancing with someone you don’t want to dance with. That is not what I am suggesting at all.

I’m suggesting dancing with someone you don’t know. Sure, it would make sense to prioritise followers who don’t seem to be getting dances, but that’s not pity, that’s just logic 101 given the problem we’re trying to solve.

Third, I understand that what I’m proposing takes a certain amount of courage, in a couple of ways.

I was surprised in a recent chat with a very experienced leader (>10 years) to learn that he still found it intimidating to cabeceo an unknown follower. So leaders who don’t do this aren’t necessarily being unfriendly: they may simply be nervous.

Some are also wary about inviting someone whose dance they haven’t seen. One approach there is to cabeceo someone on the final song of a tanda, so you have an escape route if it’s bad, and the opportunity to suggest waiting to hear what’s coming when it’s good.

The three pieces of magic

If what I were proposing were an act of selflessness, a service to the community, I wouldn’t necessarily be optimistic about the prospects of adoption. We all have our favourite partners, and there are only so many tandas.

But … how do we find our future favourite partners if we never dance with anyone new?

I’m preaching what I practice: I’ve done this myself from an early stage, and it has given me some magical experiences!

Lighting up their faces, and mine

First, the reaction of some followers when someone they don’t know invites them doesn’t just light up their face, it also lights up mine. It’s an amazing thing to have the power to brighten someone’s evening by such a simple act.

I’ve had followers tell me afterwards that I’ve rescued their evening. The first time that happened, I thought she meant that she got to dance one tanda at least – but I’ve discovered what this much more often means is I got them seen dancing, and they knew other invitations would then follow.

Incredible tandas

Second, I’ve had some incredible tandas this way! There’s a special joy to me when I dance with a complete stranger, and we have a wonderful dance. I mean, it’s lovely to have a beautiful dance with a regular partner, of course, but to have it come out of nowhere … that’s a whole other level of delight.

Especially when you know for a fact that the feeling is mutual. From the way they look at the end of the tanda, from what they say, from a squeeze of a hand, from a hug at the end of a tanda …

There was a milonga recently where the guest DJ was playing a non-stop series of rhythmical tandas. I kid you not: at one point, he played a Biagi tanda, then a milonga, then another Biagi. I was so surprised I had to ask Shazam to confirm. He played literally two lyrical tandas the entire evening. That might have been a very disappointing evening for me (I mean, I can now dance them, but for me they are the bonus tandas, not the main course). But …

The first lyrical tanda, there were only a few followers I knew, and their dance card slots were already filled. So I cabeceo’d a follower I’d never seen before, and we had an absolutely gorgeous tanda. So much so that when the final tanda turned out to be another lyrical one (you’d hope!!), I immediately cabeceo’d her again for that one. Which was equally delightful.

Discovering your next favourite partner!

Finally, as I say, that’s how I discovered some of the women who now number among my favourite partners.

There are other ways, of course. Wait until you see them dancing. Wait for a recommendation. Wait for anything you like. But you can miss out on a lot of wonderful dancers when you wait. And some of them won’t come back.

Take a chance on some magic!

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