Discover the world of a milonga, where social dancers meet to dance tango
Let’s go to the milonga?
“Let’s go to the milonga?” Spiros asked, at the end of the class. I looked first at the clock on the wall -10:33pm- and then at him as if he was speaking an alien language. “What’s that?”
“Where do you think me and Orestis are going after each tango class on Thursdays?” Orestis was my first tango teacher. “For drinks?” I asked, half-jokingly.
“Yeap, yeap, that too,” Spiros said. “The only difference is, we have those drinks in a place much better than just a bar.” “And what do you do in the… what did you call it?”
“Milonga. And there is only one way for you to find out,” Spiros laughed.
On the way to my first tango night
I found myself seated at the back of Spiros’ car, entering a part of the city that didn’t seem safe. Dark roads, almost no lights, and some grey figures smoking in the shadows. Am I being kidnapped? How much do I know about Spiros? I started wondering.
“Is there something I should know about that place?” I asked.
“Milonga is the place where you realize why you are learning tango,” he smiled. “Other than that, you’ll find well-dressed people, having a good time.” I looked at my clothes. I didn’t qualify as a well-dressed kind of guy.
“No worries, I have an extra shirt in the back,” Spiros said, reading my mind. Problem solved, I thought. And then it hit me. “Will I have to dance?” I panicked. My voice probably came out all squeaky, since Spiros started laughing.
“Have? No. Should? Maybe. Your choice. We arrived.”
Spiros rang a bell, the door opened, we entered the elevator. First floor, second, third, fourth… I started looking at the faces of the people around me. Fifth, sixth… Where are they taking us? Diiing! Seventh.
The door opened.
Being in a milonga for the first time
I heard some rock music and chatter. Rock? That can’t be right, I thought. We walked into the room.
The first thing that got my attention was a couple talking at the bar. The woman was laughing, while the guy was telling some sort of a story moving his hands up and down.
OK, we are probably not being kidnapped, I thought. We are just milonga newbies.
Not sure where to go, I followed Spiros to a couch, together with my fellow tango students.
As we were taking off our coats, tango music started playing.
In seconds, the floor was full of dancers. Couples that embraced, and started moving to the rhythm of the music.
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“How do they know who to dance with?” I asked Spiros.
“It’s called a cabeceo,” he said. “Look at this guy.”
As I looked in the direction he was pointing at, I saw a guy looking across the dance floor toward a woman that was putting her tango shoes on. When she lifted her head she saw him. I noticed him tilting his head to the right. She smiled. They met on the dance floor.
I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They slowed down when the music was slowing down, and then started accelerating when the music went faster. They must know the song by heart, I thought.
The song ended and they stopped embracing for a few seconds. They started talking to each other. Smiles, hand gestures, all signs of people having a good time.
“Why don’t they go back to their seats?” I asked.
“Usually people dance four songs together. It is called a tanda,” Spiros responded.
Then the second song started, and they hugged again. This repeated two more times till the end of the fourth song. This time something else happened. As the last note of the song faded, they were still hugging. Not for too long, just a couple of seconds more. Then they said goodbye and returned to their tables.
The rock music started again.
“It’s called a cortina. It is usually a 10 to 20 seconds musical break to give time to people to leave the dance floor. This way nobody is blocking you from looking all the way across the dance floor and asking a potential partner to dance.”
The first dance
And just as he finished explaining to me, the next tango song started. My time to dance, I thought. But I was too afraid to ask anyone. After all, I only knew three tango steps. So I did what every semi-brave person would do. I asked one of the fellow students to dance with me.
I did my best to not hit any of the dancers that were dancing close to me and to remember the three steps we learned in the class.
The first song ended, and we both agreed to leave the dance floor. I needed a moment to let my heart slow down. It was far from perfect, but I did it. I danced. Not in the class as a student, but in the milonga, as a person who went out to have fun. It looks the same, but it is so much different.
After that, I dared to dance a few more times. I had a glass of wine, and that probably helped. And somehow, I felt more and more at ease.
The tango vals
And then, I saw the organizer of the event approaching the dance floor.
“Today is a special day,” she said. “Two of our friends have their birthdays. You all know what to do.”
Well, I didn’t. The next song started playing. It was a bit different than the usual tango rhythm. It was a bit faster, more melodic.
“A birthday vals,” my teacher whispered next to me.
The guy who had birthday went to the middle of the dance floor. A woman approached him and they started dancing. A few seconds later, another woman came over. He said goodbye to the first woman he was dancing with and started dancing with the second one. This was repeated many times, as more and more women approached.
On the other side of the room, the birthday woman was having a similar experience. Guys were coming over, dancing with her, and then more were approaching.
I was enjoying this beautiful way of saying “happy birthday” and at the same time admiring the people who had the confidence to dance in front of everyone. Those were people just like me, not professionals.
A bit outside the tango comfort zone
I was having a great time watching all this, till the moment my teacher pushed me semi-gently toward the middle of the room.
I looked at him terrified. He and Spiros couldn’t stop laughing. Too late, she was already waiting for me.
I hugged her. We took a few steps. It was actually more fun than I thought. I did the only step I was absolutely certain I knew how to do correctly. My teacher, knowing that I was out of moves, stepped forward to dance with her.
When the song ended, everyone applauded. My teacher gave me a hug, my friends laughed at my terrified expression, and we went on with our night.
That night I learned what a milonga is.
That night I learned what a milonga is. A place where friends and strangers meet to dance tango, to talk, to get to know each other. A place where improbable friendships are made, where humans like you and me create instant art on the dance floor. A place where we share an embrace, we laugh, we let go. A microworld where you find people expressing their passion, releasing, enjoying. Milonga is the place that reminds us why we love tango.