Transforming London milongas, part 2: Dealing with perceptions of cliqueness

Some London milongas are perceived to be ‘cliquey.’ That may be one of those irregular verbs, depending on one’s relationship to the milonga in question, from first-time visitor to fixture: I have good friends; you’re a bit snobby about dance partners; they are a clique.

What I’m going to do here is look at what might lead people to feel that way, and some steps we can take to address it. There are a couple of things I think we can all do, and three steps I think milonga organisers can take …

How perceptions of cliqueness can arise

Dancers are human beings. We’re social animals (even introverts like me, which is a whole other topic!), and it’s natural that in any large gathering, we’ll gravitate to our friends. It’s also natural that we’ll want to dance with many of them.

This was brought home to me at a milonga I won’t name, which I felt was very cliquey. Lots of groups who all knew each other, and only appeared to be interested in dancing inside those groups. However, another time when I attended the same milonga, there were lots of followers I knew, and I danced non-stop. The question I had to ask myself was: had it somehow become less cliquey, or was it simply that my clique was there?

So I don’t think we should criticise anyone perceived to be part of a clique; rather that we should each ask ourselves whether our own behaviour at milongas could be seen in that light? If we conclude that it could, then make an effort to dance a little outside our usual circles.

I argued last time for the single biggest difference we could make: leaders taking a chance on an unknown follower for one tanda a night. Broadening this into dancing more generally outside our usual partners – even if only for a single tanda each milonga – would make a big difference.

Separating friendliness from dance

I also noted last time that all these issues are interconnected. One particular area which could benefit from some unpicking is friendliness versus dancing. This is a point Rebecca made in the Facebook thread.

The fear among some people that if you are friendly toward someone at a milonga, that person will expect you to dance with them later. If you don’t want to dance with them, or at least don’t know that you do, you may be afraid to smile, say hello, pass the time of day.

That fear may be well-founded in some cases, so I think it requires maturity on both sides. Being willing to be friendly without fearing that it will create unwanted expectations, and recognising that someone being friendly toward you doesn’t necessarily mean they want to dance with you.

This, for me, is one of the many arguments in favour of cabeceo. If we don’t issue or accept verbal invitations (except among friends where both parties know they are on the same page), then that removes the whole concern about a chateceo.

Organisers being true hosts

One of the things that struck me in BsAs was the friendliness of the milonga hosts. My first time arriving at most milongas, there would be smiles and welcomes and, usually, hugs. The second time, I would be greeted like a long-lost friend.

The hosts were also very active in moving around the room chatting to people, and dancing with newcomers. At smaller milongas, I’ve even had hosts ask me about my musical tastes, and presumably doing the same with others, to feed this info through to the DJ.

I think this type of very active hosting happens to greater or lesser degrees at different London milongas, but certainly I think there is an opportunity to set and follow the very best examples here.

Comfortable seating space

Another difference between BsAs and London milongas that seems very stark to me is that the former are spaces which are designed equally for dancing and socialising. There are tables; enough chairs for everyone not dancing to have a seat; at-table service for drinks and empanadas; and enough space set aside for people to chat, ideally set apart from the dance floor somewhat to avoid too much conversational noise reaching the dance floor.

London milongas don’t have anything like the same number of tables, and it’s not uncommon for them to have too few seats. This may be correlated with most London milonga hosts being male, while any woman will have stories about how uncomfortable it is to stand around all night wearing heels.

I think there’s a fear about taking away floor space, and that’s understandable, especially as not all London milongas have the best reputation when it comes to floorcraft. But you don’t have to make the floor space much smaller to have adequate seating, and perhaps slightly busier floors will also raise the level of floorcraft?

Comfortable standing and walking space

Some people of course prefer to stand some of the time, and again the best milongas facilitate this. A bar within sight of the dance floor is ideal, as that’s a natural place for people to hang out and chat. A food table is a good alternative for venues without as bar.

But also a layout which makes it practical to move around between tables, so that people can socialise more widely, and also do roaming cabeceos. (There’s perhaps sometimes a fine line between moving somewhere for a better/closer line of sight and an overly aggressive cabeceo – what some followers call a stareaceo! But the more freedom there is to move around, the better able we are to position ourselves at an appropriate distance.)

Aside from the practical benefits, the ability to easily move around a milonga also helps break down that feeling of cliques. If there’s a group in the corner, and you’d have to actively approach them to say hello, that’s more intimidating and artificial than a smile and an ‘Evening’ as you pass.

I recognise this is a wishlist

If you’re a milonga organiser, you may well be reading this thinking ‘If only!’ or ‘This guy has no idea of the challenges.’ London venues are expensive. Clearly no-one is getting rich running milongas, and especially with the impact of the pandemic, many will be hanging on for dear life.

So I fully recognise that some of the things on my wishlist may not be practical, at least for now. But even some tiny steps in these directions could help, I think.

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