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Tango Etiquette Part 1: General Milonga Etiquette

Make sure to read the companion article to this article: Tango Etiquette Part 2: Dance Floor Etiquette

A Milonga is about more than just dancing. It is about camaraderie and fellowship with the other members of our Tango community. Everyone is there to have a good time. These codes are not to give you a hard time, but rather guidelines to help everyone enjoy their experiences at the Milonga.

What is a Milonga?
A Milonga is a tango dance party, where people get together for the purpose of dancing Tango socially.  Milonga is also a rhythm that we dance to. These codes refer to a Tango dance party. These parties are often held in homes, dance studios, restaurants, bars, and other public venues. There is usually a Milonga organizer, either a group of people or a single person, who hosts the Milonga as a service to the community. The organizer is usually responsible for booking the space, providing refreshments, etc. The organizer is also in charge of hiring a DJ, who plays the music during the Milonga.

What should I wear?
The dress code varies from Milonga to Milonga. Some Milongas are more formal and others more casual. Usually a Friday or Saturday night Milonga would be more formal than a weekday or afternoon Milonga.

Many still feel that nice dress pants and a button up shirt are required for dancing Tango, but some dancers regularly go to Milongas in a nice pair of jeans. You do not need to “dress up,” but should dress neatly. Dancers should not wear clothing that restricts their movements. Women can wear pants to Milongas, but often wear dresses or skirts with slits to allow for maximum movement. Somethings to avoid wearing would be: large belt buckles, broaches, basically anything that would poke or interfere with the connection.

Both men and women pivot a lot in tango, so we want to wear proper dance shoes that fit snuggly onto our feet with bottoms, usually leather or suede, made for pivoting on wooden dance floors. We don't want to wear shoes that are clunky or have bottoms that would stick to the dance floor. We also want shoes with thin soles, so that we can feel the floor.

How do I ask someone to dance?
In Argentine Tango, generally, we ask each other to dance through the use of the mirada "the look" and cabeceo "the Nod." At the beginning of a Tanda, both the men and women begin looking for a partner to dance with. When two people make eye contact, they hold that contact for a moment and then slightly node their heads. Then the man walks over to the woman and they walk to the dance floor. The woman should wait for him to approach to make sure that he was not making eye contact with someone else sitting close to or behind her.

If one party does not want to dance with the other party, they should not maintain eye contact nor node their heads, but rather, simply look away. It gives women the power to turn down a dance without having to verbally say no, while not hurting the ego of the man, and vice versa. Thus, it is beneficial to both parties. 

And regardless of how you ask someone to dance, they should never be made to feel pressure to dance with you. For example, the absolutely wrong way to ask someone to dance is to walk up to them and say "Let's dance," as you drag them to the dance floor.

There are actually many exceptions to using the cabeceo. If I know someone well, I might verbally ask them to dance, if I know that they would feel comfortable telling me no.

I, almost always, use the cabeceo to ask a stranger to dance. But even with this, there are exceptions. Some followers do not use the cabeceo. But, you might ask, "how would I know this?" Well, it is not rocket science. If you keep looking at a follower, that you would like to dance with, and she never seems to be looking around, then that is a pretty big clue. Also, if you see her happily accepting verbal invitations, well that is another big clue. 

Also, if you are visiting a community which clearly does not understand or use the cabeceo then adapt to that community.

Another exception, is that some women have specifically told me that they do not like the cabeceo and/or have bad eyesight and have a hard time with it. So, I will gladly go over and ask them to dance.

The key, as with all social dance etiquette, is to be kind and considerate and not rude or sanctimonious. 

I use the cabeceo, but all the women keep looking away? Maybe they don't understand the cabeceo?
Or maybe they understand it perfectly. Hint, Hint. Maybe it is time for some more classes?

Here are two videos that demonstrate how the cabeceo/mirada work:

Is it ok for women to ask men to dance?
Actually, if we are using the cabeceo/mirada, both the men and women are technically asking each other to dance. 

Exception: It might be nice for women to ask a new dancer that might seem shy and unsure of himself. I had several women ask me to dance when I was a newbie and it helped to break the ice.

I am a woman, and no men ever ask me to dance?
At the beginning of each tanda, are you paying attention, sitting with your head up, looking for leaders to cabeceo you? So often, I see women during the cortina and the first song of a tanda, digging through their pocket book or staring at their phones. This is when you need to be looking around to accept dances. Some other ideas: Move closer to the dance floor or stand near the dance floor. 

Another strategy might be to start up a conversation with a man that you would like to dance with. And you might even say something like “I like your dancing and I would enjoy dancing with you sometime” or “I would appreciate a dance later if you would like.” I was once getting a cup of water and the refreshments table and a woman came up and I offered to pour her some water and she said, “Yes please, and I would also say yes to a dance later on.”

Can I say no to being asked to dance? Does it hurt their feelings?
Yes... and probably yes. But first off, if we are using the cabeceo/mirada then this is a non-issue. If the cabeceo/mirada is being used and you turn your head away, that does not mean that you never want to dance with that person. It only means that you don't want to dance with that person right then.

But if someone asks you to dance that you do not wish to dance with, you have every right to say no and you do not have to give a reason for it. I would not recommend lying and saying your feet hurt or some other excuse, unless it is true. That way you can turn down a dance and still accept another. Also, if you prefer to accept dances through the cabeceo, you might use one of these methods: 1. Do not accept the verbal invitation and tell him "I only accept dances through the cabeceo, so please try again later using the cabeceo." 2. Accept the dance, but afterwards tell him, "I am happy to dance with you again, in the future, but please know that I prefer the use of the cabeceo."

I prefer to use cabeceo, but there are some older women in our community that have told me that they have poor eyesight and would like for me to ask them to dance?
For goodness sakes, be flexible and go over and ask them to dance. Don't get too hung up on all of this stuff. We are at the milonga to have fun. Just be polite and use good common sense.

What is a tanda?
Tango DJ’s usually play music in either 3 or 4 song sets called tandas. Usually, all of the songs in a tanda, will be by the same orchestra with the same singer, and/or from the same time period. All of the songs should have a consistent feel and rhythm.

The songs are usually all tangos, all waltzes (vals) or all milongas. So if you start dancing to a vals you can be assured that the rest of the songs in that tanda will also be vals.

How many songs am I expected to dance with a person?
If you accept a dance with someone, it is expected that you would dance until the tanda is over with that partner. There are only a few exceptions to this:

  • the person you are dancing with causes you pain or discomfort
  • the person you are dancing with says something inappropriate.

What is a cortina?
A tanda will end with a cortina (curtain). A cortina is usually a non-tango song that will last 30 to 60 seconds and signals that the tanda is over. During the cortina leaders usually escort the followers off of the dance floor.

Can I dance two tandas with the same dancer?
Traditionally, this would mean that their was some romantic interest between the two dancers. Here in the US it does not necessarily mean that, but you might want to keep in mind that it could definitely be seen as flirtatious.

Should I say “thank you” after a dance?
Save your thank you until after the tanda has completed. Traditionally, saying “thank you” in the middle of a tanda means that you would like to stop dancing with that person.

Should I walk her back to her table?
There is some disagreement on this. It is a nice thing to do, but usually, just walking with her off of the floor is fine. And if she immediately heads off on her on in a random direction, you do not have to follow her.

Do not walk across the dance floor when people are dancing.
I see this happening more and more lately. If there is no other way to get to the other side of the room then wait for the song to end and then cross.

Don’t be a stinker.
Personal hygiene is always important, but extra so when we are participating in a physical activity with someone else so close to us. Don’t try to just cover up odors with deodorant. Take a bath and use soap. Brush and floss your teeth and keep breath mints available.

Don’t over do it with too much perfume or cologne. We switch partners often in tango and by the end of the evening sometimes you have collected so many perfumes that it smells horrible. Also, some people have allergies and can be adversely affected by perfumes.

Do not smoke during a milonga. You will smell like an ashtray and that is not a pleasant smell.

When you go to the restroom at a Milonga, wash your hands before returning to the Milonga.

Do not make inappropriate comments or act inappropriately
Women tell me about this all the time. They do not like it and do not think it is cool or attractive. I have heard some comments that I will not repeat here, but often they are something like, “Dancing with you is better than sex" or moaning while dancing. I have also seen guys keep the embrace between songs just hugging and rocking back and forth. Not cool, you look like a creep. Tango is a sensual dance but not a sexual dance, do not bring up sexual topics when dancing with someone.

This does not mean that you can't complement someone. You can say, “You look nice tonight” or "I lke that dress/shoes" etc...