My first tango festival: Falling head-over-heels in love with Tango Feast

My first tango festival was supposed to have been in the spring of 2020 – and we all know how that went! It was some 18 months later when I had the opportunity to finally participate in one. Steph said that The Feast was a very friendly one, so off we went to a very soggy Devon, sharing a residential caravan with Einat of Balanceo shoes fame, and Bridgitta.

It was such a magical event that nothing I could write would do it justice. Plus my sleep-deprived brain likely can’t even remember all the highlights, so view this blog post as just a very inadequate taster …

There’s a been a lot of discussion about how to make London milongas friendlier, and I’d chipped in with a few thoughts on potential changes.

When it came to the Feast, organiser Fernando Guidi really set the tone with a special email welcome to those coming for the first time. He tackled head-on any potential cliqueness concerns:

Most of new people melt ok in the group without any issue, however some of you might feel that the rest of participants have been friends for long time, and the fact is that some they have, and this is one the few occasion when they meet in the year.  However not everyone know each other from before.

So, this might make you feel as an outsider, however if you try a bit to get to know a few, for the time you leave the Tango Feast you won’t be feeling any longer as an outsider and next time you come you will be already part of the crowd as people at the Feast are usually friendly.

However if you have any problem with this, or for any other reason you do not feel comfortable , or you do not understand something, please come and see me, and let’s try to find a way around it. I learnt that if we deal with it as soon as possible, then still you would have time to be able to have a good time at the Tango Feast.

That was such a lovely start to the event. This friendliness was matched by the event itself.

A visit to a much-loved festival has to be statistically the worst place for a first-time visiting leader. Role-balanced means that the usual leader advantage isn’t present; lots of regulars means that people tend to have a long list of favourite partners on their dance cards; and dancing with an unknown leader requires more courage than dancing with an unknown follower.

Yet despite all this, I danced a crazy amount, and fell head-over-heels in love with the event.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight. For all the reasons mentioned above, there was less opportunity to dance on the first night. The dance-card factor was the main reason, I think: you could see people leap out of their seats to cabeceo or be cabeceod by old friends, either generally or from previous festivals. And it seemed absolutely everyone in the room wanted to dance every tanda!

Because the opening night DJ, Michael Cummings, had a projector with the current song and the next tanda*, people didn’t need to wait to see what was coming, they could cabeceo during the cortina. So even by the first note of the first song, there were few people still sitting, and I had quite a few declined cabeceos from those.

*Which I love! I so wish all DJs did this.

Declined cabeceos were fairly evenly spit between textbook examples – making eye-contact momentarily, then looking away – and rather subtle pretence not to have seen me as they looked elsewhere. (Some of the latter may have been genuine, of course.)

But I still danced seven or eight tandas in the course of the evening. While that’s way lower than normal for me, it was still more than I think could typically be expected for an unknown dancer at a rather high-level milonga.

But by the afternoon milonga on day two, the initial frenzy had died down, and there was more opportunity to cabeceo. The percentage of acceptances slowly increased from perhaps 25% to around 50% in the course of the afternoon. The virtuous circle also kicked in, I think: the more you are seen to dance, the more people will be happy to dance with you. By Saturday afternoon, it was unusual to have a cabeceo declined, and I was dancing virtually every tanda I wanted to. By Saturday evening, it felt like my home milonga!

I said the dancing level was rather high, but not in a flashy way. The vast majority of the dance was very simple, but super musical. It was obvious many of the dancers knew every note of the songs, which was absolutely wonderful to see. But again, because of the friendly feel, it wasn’t intimidating to cabeceo women I knew were much more advanced dancers.

I had soooo many absolutely magical tandas! They varied tremendously in their style. Some partners wanted to purely follow throughout the tanda – and did so beautifully. Others took the space I created for their dance, and used it to their preferred degree. And then …

There were those I could feel doing lovely little extras I hadn’t led, but in a small way. With those, I tended to tell them at the end of the first song that I love collaborative dance, and they should please feel free to be as active as they like. That seemed to put a smile on everyone’s face, though one or two were still a bit tentative, telling me they didn’t want to disturb my dance. I assured them that nothing they contributed would disturb our dance – and might fool observers into thinking I was leading all the lovely little double-time movements!

Some active followers really went to town, which was huge fun! There was one in particular I danced with twice, both in a very busy ronda. Even with the predominant ‘simple, musical dance’ style, I still felt a bit constrained when I wasn’t confident enough to try leading ochos and giros in the tiny space available. So she really took charge, and it wasn’t long before we had a mutually-understood signal: I would lead a back ocho and suspend it, at which point it was all hers. Then when I needed to move us on, I would gather her back, take a few steps, lead anything I could in the space, then hand back to her. We had an absolute ball.

There were many other followers where it was just a delightfully collaborative dance. I remember one where she took responsibility for initiating movements, and I took responsibility for resolving them. For example, if she began a giro, I would constrain the pivot where space was tighter, then pick the exit resolution and direction.

Other tandas were more traditional lead and follow, and I don’t in any way mean to imply that those were any less lovely; it’s just different styles of dance. When a partner follows exactly what is lead, to the millimetre, and is smooth and controlled as she does so, the experience is truly sublime. I don’t think I’d ever want to lose those experiences, no matter how much I enjoy mutually-created dance.

There was relatively little movement in the ronda most of the time. It wasn’t absolutely static, but it wasn’t unusual in the outer lane to only progress one or two sides of the floor during an entire tanda. At one point, Fernando made an announcement asking people to try to keep the ronda moving; ironically, the tanda that followed the announcement was even more static than usual! Unusually, the inner ronda moved more than the outer, so by the Saturday I was mostly moving there where I got the chance.

Which reminds me of one particular tanda, with a woman who had what was arguably the prime seat in the room, and gave every impression of being the milonga matriarch. I finally dared to cabeceo her on Saturday evening, and felt duly honoured when she accepted. She essentially just followed what I led, beautifully – but the moment a gap opened up in front of us, she would instruct me to Go! She did end the tanda by telling me I had a lovely walk, ‘grounded and smooth.’ I felt, in the best possible way, like I’d just taken and passed my Tango Test.

There were multiple DJs, and only one whose choices weren’t much to my taste. He played a lot of what I perceive as rather plodding music, though Steph insists that I’ll hear more layers to it over time.

All but one of the DJs favoured rhythmical over lyrical tandas, and levels of Pugliese on Thursday and Friday were not only illegally low, but left the festival in clear contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. However, the Pugliese deficit was corrected big-time on Saturday night, thanks to David Prime – who also mixed in a good dash of Romantica Milonguera! No surprise, then, that he was my favourite DJ of the festival.

My mild facial aphasia is always ‘interesting’ in tango, given that it typically takes me half a dozen to a dozen times of meeting someone to reliably recognise them. On some occasions, I’ve thought I was cabeceoing someone I’d danced with before, to discover that I was wrong. At other times, I’ve introduced myself to a new follower at the end of the first song and she’s replied ‘I know, Ben, you danced with me two days ago.’

I stand more of a chance within the course of a single evening, because I try to memorise clothing and other major clues like hairstyle and colour. But the Tango Feast took that challenge to a whole new level! Anywhere else, ‘smiley grey-haired woman in the black sparkly dress’ would likely be a good enough identifier. But the Feast attracts a generally older demographic, who mostly dress elegantly, so a good 50-60% of the women there would fit that description!

Speaking of dresses, I got some insight into the fashion world of women in tango, thanks to eavesdropping on an extended conversation on the merits and demerits of various options on show in the milonga. Not for the first time, I felt grateful for the simplicity of being a man in the tango world. My own tango wardrobe comprises three pairs of shoes, five pairs of tango trousers, six identical white linen shirts, and whatever jacket I immediately remove on arrival at the milonga …

Regular readers should ensure they are seated before reading the next bit. There were two Sunday milongas, afternoon and evening, and we’d always planned to leave before the evening one in order to have a rest day on Monday. The plan, then, was to dance for five of the six hours of the afternoon milonga before leaving.

However, I was so exhausted from the lack of sleep, and so happy with all the dancing over the three previous days, I actually skipped the Sunday afternoon milonga altogether!!! It wasn’t just sleep deprivation; it was also that Saturday night had been so utterly perfect – including a beautiful final tanda at 1.30am – that I was more than happy to end the festival on that note.

The next Feast is in March – when we hope to be in Buenos Aires – but we’ll be back for the following one, in June, for sure! If you haven’t yet been, do!

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