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Discover the beauty of tango festivals and learn everything you need to know before joining one.
What is a tango festival?
“What is a tango festival?” she asked.
I stopped. My mind went into overdrive. How do you explain what it is to someone who has never been in one? I took a moment to remember.
A tango festival is a journey of tango, music, embraces, laughter, caring, giving, awe. But how can I convey that in words? How can I help her see it without being there?
I decided to start simple.
Imagining the festival
“Imagine for a moment how it would feel if you could forget for a few seconds your daily problems. The stress of work, the traffic, the checklist for the supermarket. Imagine letting go of the need to check your mobile for ten minutes.
Now, instead of stress, add embraces. Instead of traffic, add dances. Instead of a checklist, add a glass of wine. Instead of watching your mobile’s screen, imagine watching the protagonists of your favourite dance show, dancing right in front of your eyes.
Now, instead of doing that for a moment, imagine doing that for three or four days, in the company of people who, just like you, followed their passion for tango. People who travelled from all around the world to be next to you. That’s what a tango festival is.”
I looked at her. She was giggling.
“You are always so poetic,” she said. “But I still don’t get it. What do people actually do there?”
My first event
“Would you like to know about my first? This will tell you almost everything you need to know.”
“I was dancing tango for almost a year when I saw a post about an upcoming event. It was a photo of a tango couple dancing in the middle of a dance floor, and lots of people seated on the floor, surrounding the two dancers.
I didn’t look at the dancers. I looked at the faces of the people who were watching them.
Smiles. Heads tilted a bit on the side. People hugging.
There was no doubt in my mind that something magical was happening at that moment, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I just knew one thing: I wanted to be there. I wanted to feel what those people were feeling.”
“I went on the event’s website, bought my tickets, booked an airplane, and found a hotel room that justified my one and only criterion at the moment: cheap enough to afford it. After a while, I found myself at the entrance of the festival.”
What happens when you arrive at the event?
“So, what happens when you arrived there?” she asked impatiently.
“I noticed people smiling as they were going up the stairs to the third floor where the event was taking place. It was an improbable mix of people. People’s ages went from barely 20 years old to well into their 70s and 80s. Some women were wearing elegant dresses or skirts in beautiful colors, and some others walked up the stairs in jeans. Some guys were wearing relatively large pants and black or white shirts, and some others had an almost athletic outfit.
You could see people’s faces lighting up as they were going up the stairs noticing people that they obviously knew. I discovered later that when you travel to tango festivals you make lots of friends, and the moment of seeing their faces again after a year or two is always a beautiful moment.”
The tango stores
As I reached the first floor, I saw a big group of people. I could only see their backs, since they were looking the other way.
I approached, and made my way to the front.
There, I could see the biggest collection of tango shoes and clothes I had ever seen in my life.
“You are into shoes?” she asked, looking at my overused sneakers.
“Not in real life”, I laughed, “but tango… Tango is something else. When I wear the right shoes, I feel different. I love tango shoes that surround my feet and give me stability and comfort at the same time. And if they are white, I love them even more. Same thing goes for clothes,” I pointed at my sweat pants with a smile. “I love feeling elegant when I dance.”
Approaching the main hall’s door
“As I started walking toward the next floor, I heard something. Notes. A piano. I went a few steps higher. The sound of a bandoneon became louder. I felt goosebumps. What’s happening up there? I started going faster. I noticed on the second floor a chef and her team preparing food. Food? Yes! It turns out, food was included in the ticket I bought. Good news. I didn’t stop though. Third floor, third floor, get to the third floor.
I ran up the stairs. A young guy approached me, asked for my name, and gave me a little green bracelet. ‘Keep it on,’ he smiled, and went away. And there I was, in front of a door.
I took a deep breath in.
I pushed the door.”
“I wasn’t prepared for this. At least two hundred people were already dancing. A few hundred more people were greeting each other, ordering wine from the bar, talking, laughing.
I noticed a woman, who had just found a place to sit, taking a pair of red heels out of an emerald gold bag, and putting them on, while already looking toward the dance floor. She stood up, took off her sweater, and moved a bit to test the shoes. Then she looked at the crowd. A few seconds later, she started moving toward the dance floor where a man was waiting to dance with her. I remembered my teacher talking about the cabeceo, this unique way of inviting someone to dance without words, with a simple nod of the head and a smile.”
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Meeting new friends
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind me. I looked back. A line of about ten people was already formed behind me. I was blocking the entrance.
“I am sorry, I am sorry,” I said and moved to the side.
“No worries buddy,” said the voice. “Is this your first festival?”
I looked at the guy, sporty, in his early thirties.
“How do you know?”
“I looked just like you when I entered my first festival. Do you have a seat?”
“Come sit at our table, I’ll introduce ya.”
After a few friendly handshakes, and short questions about my country of origin and how many days I intended to stay, I looked at the dance floor.
“Scared?” the guy asked.
The first dance
“Maria, this is my friend’s first festival. Do you remember how that was for you?” he said to a girl that happened to stand next to us.
Maria looked at me.
“Do you want to dance?” she asked, and before I had time to explain that I am a beginner, I found myself following her.
We danced four songs together, a complete tanda. When the last note was over, I didn’t want to let go of the embrace. Maria must have felt it, prolonging the duration of the hug a bit.
“Welcome to your first tango festival,” she smiled.
“I didn’t cabeceo’d you”, I apologized as we made our way back to the table, squeezing ourselves as everybody was leaving the dance floor, trying to show her I knew the code.
“No worries, you can try that next time,” she winged and disappeared into the crowd.
After that, I had many wonderful tandas. And then something happened. As I was walking toward my table at the end of a tanda, everybody else seemed to be going to the dance floor. What’s happening?
I turned around and saw the organizer of the festival with a microphone walking toward the middle of the dance floor. It took me a few seconds more to realize what was about to happen. I walked as fast as I could back to the dance floor.
I sat down. This was it.
The organizer welcomed everyone, as the last people were trying to find a spot on the dance floor.
She introduced the couple that was about to dance, mentioning that they will give classes the next day. I did not hear a word she said.
I simply looked at the people’s faces. Smiles, laughter, expectation.
A big curtain opened, revealing a live tango orchestra on stage. People started applauding. Some cheered.
And then it happened.
A violin. A bandoneon. A piano. The couple.
When they started dancing, I could see the people’s heads tilting to the side. When they paused, some people put their hands on their chests. And when they accelerated, people applauded.
I looked at the orchestra. The instruments were an extension of their bodies. I felt as if I could actually see the music.
The uniqueness of a tango show
When the show ended, I realized something.
I have been to many theaters in my life, and watched a lot of artists perform on stage. But this time, it was different.
I was right next to the dancers. At one point during the dance, they almost touched me with their feet. There was a live orchestra playing. That’s better than being front stage at any theater in the world. I put my hand on my heart, closed my eyes, and said a silent thank you to everything that brought me to that moment.
By the time I opened my eyes, the dance floor was full again. Full of humans hugging humans. Full of closed eyes, full of music and movement. Full of people letting go.
“That’s what a tango festival is,” I told her.
“It is a journey of tango, music, embraces, laughter, caring, giving, awe. And just like any good journey, listening to stories about it won’t cut it. You got to be there.”
How to choose the best event for you?
Not all festivals are created equal.
As not all tango retreats are created equal, and not all tango marathons are created equal.
If you read the above and you are excited to go to your first festival, here are a few things that can help you decide which one is best for you
Some tango festivals have more than a thousand people, while others have less than two hundred. If you want a more intimate experience, you might want to take that into account. But if you love mingling and meeting hundreds of people from all around the world, then you might enjoy events with at least 500 people.
Remember, a tango festival is a great opportunity to explore the world. Since most milongas take place at night, you might want to choose a festival based on its location and cuisine. Make a list of all the countries you would love to visit, don’t forget Paris, and check to see available festivals.
Most festivals have similar prices. Keep in mind though, that the price of the festival itself usually is not high. What drives costs is accommodation, travelling, and restaurants. The tango community is quite welcoming though, so you might want to check with tango dancers in that city for advice or potential hosts. It’s always great to know the locals.
There are organizers that go far and beyond in order to help the dancers feel like home. Before buying a ticket, you might want to contact some participants that have been there and ask.
If you enjoy travelling and shopping, then it’s important to know which stores will exhibit at the festival. It’s a great opportunity to try tango shoes and clothes, and find what’s best for you (and even use it at the same night). Check which tango stores will join the event, and their products.
If you want to participate in the tango classes, then take a look at the visiting teachers. If you are not certain what to look for, check the section “Which classes to choose?“.
What to bring with you to a tango festival?
Short answer: it depends.
Some people just bring a pair of dance shoes and the Tango Partner app. The first helps you dance. The second allows you to connect with the local community at the click of a button, find local teachers, tango stores, and other events.
There are a few things you should not forget:
- Breath Mint
- A small towel
- A fan
- Extra shirts or t-shirts (especially if you sweat easily)
- Did I mention deodorant?
For Followers: A tango festival’s checklist for women
No need to check Wikipedia (unless you are a tango geek).
Which classes to choose?
During tango festivals you’ll have the change to take classes with travelling teachers. Although you can go bananas, and have classes with all of them, you might want to curate your experience a bit better.
- Ask your teachers. They know your dance and can help you choose. If you don’t have a tango teacher yet make sure to check everything you need to know to start learning tango here.
- Know your level. I know it is tempting to choose to go to classes for more advanced dancers but keep in mind that this might create a negative experience for the people who take the class with you.
- Watch videos of the teachers dancing. If you like what you see, then they can help you develop yourself toward that direction.
- Don’t confuse teaching with performing. I know this might seem as a contradiction to my previous advice. Keep in mind that some people can be great performers and horrible teachers, and the other way round. You can’t always tell, so asking more experienced dancers might be the solution here.
- If you want more personalized help, consider asking for private classes. Although it is not always publicly announced, often the teachers give a few private classes during the festival. Check with the organizers or the teachers.