There’s a lot of chance in London tango – but not enough leaders taking a chance

It’s always a bit of a culture shock, returning to London tango after BsAs; all the more so when timings meant I couldn’t make my usual favourite milongas.

The two milongas I did get to really brought home to me how much of a role is played by sheer chance when it comes to our tango experiences – and how that’s particularly true in London …

Returning to London milongas

My first two London milongas following my trip were Nacimiento, and the opening night of Andaz, a new fortnightly milonga on Thursday evenings.

The very first Nacimiento, back in 2021, was an absolute joy. People came from all over Europe, and there was a real celebratory atmosphere. Since then, however, it’s not been my kind of milonga. Almost none of my favourite followers go, and it has a demographic which is focused on a very different style of tango.

But I really wanted to dance, and Corrientes wasn’t on that night, so I headed over with a follower friend – and was very lucky. The general demographic and dance style was unchanged, but it so happened that a number of my favourite followers were there. So although my attempts to cabeceo unknown followers were almost entirely unsuccessful, I was still able to dance a lot, stayed ’til the end, and had a really great evening. My friend had the same experience.

It was a similar story at Andaz. Rene runs both Tango Garden and I Love Mondays, which truly couldn’t be more different! That made it difficult to guess what the new one might be like. I suspected that the timings might favour the ILM crowd, and that did indeed turn out to be the case. However, opening nights do tend to attract a more varied group, as people want to see what a new milonga is like.

For me, it was almost a repeat of Nacimiento: mostly not followers I know, and not my style, but enough exceptions to dance a lot and have a very enjoyable night, again staying through to the last tanda. I also successfully cabeceod a couple of unknown followers (though had more ignoring me, in that frustrating ‘Not an acceptance, not a clear refusal, unsure whether they’ve noticed’ style that is the norm in London).

A follower friend, however, had a very different experience – none of her other usual leaders were there, and as most were unwilling to invite followers they didn’t know, she danced very little. Another had enough dances with leaders she knew, but none with anyone else.

The role of chance

All of which brought home the role played by blind chance. In both cases, the difference between a great night and a miserable one was literally four or five friends/regular dance partners who happened to be there on the night. Chance of course plays a significant role in tango generally, but nowhere more so than in London, in my limited experience.

That’s especially true for followers. The sheer statistics mean that it’s unusual for a typical leader not to get dances, and if it happens to me at a milonga, that experience really stands out. (I’m almost grateful for those occasions, as it means I can still empathise with followers who experience it.)

But it can be hard not to take it personally. I know followers who’ve left milongas after this experience, and felt it said something about their dance, or their attractiveness, or their personality – when none of that is true. It’s just that mix of general tango chance, plus the uniquely cliquey nature of some London milongas, as well as a general reluctance of London leaders to take a chance on an unknown follower. I know some followers who’ve literally gone home and cried after one of these experiences.

(There is one related aspect that isn’t down to chance, and that’s age discrimination: where young beginners get invited while older experienced dancers don’t. This is also a factor in tango everywhere, of course, but again seems to be particularly bad in London.)

Not enough leaders taking a chance

I’ve said before that this all makes no sense to me. How are you going to find your next favourite follower if you never dance with new ones? Especially the most experienced (aka older) ones?

It also seems odd to me for leaders to be more reticent than followers. As a follower, you have to be ready for anything, and while you can act as a second pair of eyes for the leader, you are much more in their hands regarding the risk of bumps. As a leader, you’re in charge of navigation, and are able to lead only those movements in which you have confidence.

As with the F-word, perhaps I’m being overly optimistic in raising the issue in the hope that things might change. But it is potentially a win-win scenario, where leaders and followers alike get to have more enjoyable dances – so if you’re one of the reluctant leaders, maybe take just one chance at your next milonga? You might just find you love it …

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