Tango has gained a whole new audience in recent times, with an increasing number of young people filling the floors of social clubs, confiterías and traditional dancehalls for regular events known as milongas. Even if you don’t dance yourself, it’s still worth going to see one: the spectacle of couples slipping almost trance-like around the dancefloor is a captivating sight. Apart from the skill and composure of the dancers, one of the most appealing aspects of the milonga is the absence of class – and, especially, age – divisions; indeed, most younger dancers regard it as an honour to be partnered by older and more experienced dancers.

Structure and etiquette

While the setting for a milonga can range from a sports hall to an elegant salon, the structure – and etiquette – of the dances varies little. In many cases, classes are given first. Once the event gets underway, it is divided into musical sets, known as tandas, which will cover the three subgenres of tango: tango “proper”; milonga – a more uptempo sound; and waltz. Each is danced differently and occasionally there will also be an isolated interval of salsa, rock or jazz. The invitation to dance comes from the man, who will nod towards the woman whom he wishes to partner. She signals her acceptance with an equally subtle gesture and only then will her new partner approach her table. Once on the dancefloor, the couple waits eight compases, or bars, and then begins to dance, circulating in a counter-clockwise direction around the dancefloor. The woman follows the man’s lead by responding to marcas, or signs, to indicate the move he wishes her to make. The more competent she is, the greater number of variations and personal touches she will add. Though the basic steps of the tango may not look very difficult, it entails a rigorous attention to posture and a subtle shifting of weight from leg to leg, essential to avoid losing balance. The couple will normally dance together until the end of a set, which lasts for four or five melodies. Once the set is finished, it is good tango etiquette for the woman to thank her partner who, if the experience has been successful and enjoyable, is likely to ask her to dance again later in the evening.

Classes and clothing

Watching real tango danced is the kind of experience that makes people long to do it themselves. Unfortunately, a milonga is not the best place to take your first plunge; unlike, say, salsa, even the best partner in the world will find it hard to carry a complete novice through a tango. In short, if you can’t bear the thought of attending a milonga without dancing, the answer is to take some classes – reckon on taking about six to be able to hold your own on the dancefloor. There are innumerable places in Buenos Aires offering classes, including cultural centres, bars and confiterías and, for the impatient or shy, there are private teachers. If you’re going to take classes, it’s important to have an appropriate pair of shoes with a sole that allows you to swivel (no rubber soles). For women, it’s not necessary to wear heels but it is important that the shoes support the instep. At a milonga, however, a pair of well-polished heels is the norm, and will act as a signal that you are there to dance. Any woman going to a milonga, but not intending to dance, should make that clear in her choice of dress and footwear; go dressed to kill and you’ll spend the night turning down invitations from bemused-looking men.

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