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Tango Etiquette

What are the expectations and protocols...?

Disclaimer: These things are guidelines, and there are exceptions to most of them. This list is my personal opinion of proper etiquette. Other dancers will assuredly disagree with some of them.

Though we joke a lot about it, there really is no (at least official) "Tango police" that will eject you for (at least minor) violations of these rules. In fact, a visit to even a single event will show you that there is a lot of flexibility in following them. The importance of whether or not you follow a particular rule depends mostly on how crowded the floor is.

That said, the reality is that Tango is a passionate dance, and there are some moves and steps that have the potential of causing physical injury, including cuts and serious bruises, from flying boleos, for example. Floorcraft guidelines have evolved to prevent the worst of those consequences.

The general idea is for you and your partner to enjoy yourselves, and to allow and facilitate everyone else to be able to enjoy themselves too. Avoiding injury to yourself, your partner, and other dancers is key to that enjoyment.

Apologies if this is long and complicated, but Tango is a complicated dance, with a long history and deep cultural context.

  • Floorcraft at Milongas (as opposed to Practicas, which are listed below):

    Floorcraft is the leader's responsibility. There are several facets to it:

    • General Rule: Neither leader nor follower shall kick, nor step on, nor even bump into another dancer. All of the floorcraft rules are designed to fulfill this General Rule.

      • What do you do if you DO bump into anyone? Of if your partner makes contact with anyone? Of if you or your partner are contacted by another dancer when you were not paying attention or were not following the guidelines yourself? You Apologize! You make eye contact at least, to acknowledge the transgression.

        • On my first trip to BsAs, prior to which I had been graciously coached by Steven Harding of Seattle, a most respectful dancer, to be sure, I had an incident of bumping into an old milonguero. There was no immediate eye-contact, but I knew I needed to apologize, so I literally followed him around the dancefloor until I managed to make eye contact and nodded deferentially to signal my apology. The point is that sometimes you have to go out of your way to fulfill your obligation of paying respect. This is not groveling, it is showing respect and common courtesy.

    • Dance flow is in a direction counter-clockwise around the dancefloor. This is known as "line-of-dance."

      • Never dance clockwise, that is, backwards, or against the line-of-dance. However, a single visit to any but the most crowded milongas will have people violating this rule. Just remember the General Rule, and if you can dance against the line-of-dance without causing collision or traffic jams, then some would say it must be OK. Use common sense. If there's a traffic jam in front of you, and a big space behind you (in line-of-dance), then you can probably get away with going backwards. Just be aware that you're violating protocol, and use the maneuver sparingly.

      • A corollary of this rule has to do with the DBS - the "dreaded back step." Leaders who make back steps while facing line-of-dance are actually stepping backwards, against the line-of-dance. This is a real problem when you don't have eyes in the back of your head. My mother did, and most of my childhood friends' mothers did too, but I've never known a guy who did. So if you haven't just finished executing a turn that gave you visibility to what was behind you, and there is another couple that could take some double-time steps and move up behind you in the path of your back-stepping foot, then either don't step back, or make it a tiny step, and feel for someone else's foot under yours before you fully transfer your weight and break someone's toe.

    • Keep the line-of-dance moving. Don't be doing a lot of steps in place without progressing down the line-of-dance, unless of course you are blocked by dancers ahead of you. If a space has opened up in front of you in line-of-dance, move into it. Dance at the same speed as other dancers

    • Stay as far to the outside as you can. This is actually the most strategic place to dance, since no one can get into your "blind spot," which is on your right side where your vision is blocked by your partners head (assuming you're in close embrace.) Stay in single file if you can. At a crowded venue, it will naturally happen that couples will migrate into several "rings" or "lanes" of singe-file dancers. Try not to switch lanes to pass slower couples, unless they appear to be clueless and a traffic jam of dancers is accumulating behind you.

    • When you enter the dancefloor, or if you do pass or change lanes, do it responsibly, like when driving a car and entering a street or freeway - you wait for an opening, and equalize your speed with other drivers/dancers before moving into traffic.

    • Pay attention to other dancers. Note their step patterns and skill level. If a given leader tends to make back steps without looking, keep your distance. If a leader is doing a lot of wild spins and turns, keep your distance. If a leader is leading his follower to make wide leg swings or high boleos, keep your distance. Learn to use tight turns and rock steps to allow checking out traffic behind you.

    • Protect your follower at all times. This is the leader's FIRST priority.

    • Followers:

      • If your leader leads a boleo on a crowded floor, do not assume he knows what he's doing. Keep your feet close to the floor.

      • Do not cause a trip hazard by extending your legs as a dramatic embellishment or in anticipation of a lead.

  • Floorcraft at Practicas:

    • Many of the floorcraft rules for a milonga are suspended at a practica. You can stop and chat in the middle of the flow, you can totally block traffic, and line-of-dance generally does not exist. However some rules still apply:

      • Pay attention to other dancers.

      • Protect your partner.

      • Avoid kicking, stepping on, or bumping into anyone.

  • Other Protocols:

    • "La mirada" and "el cabeceo" are the traditional method of inviting and accepting a dance in Argentina. La mirada is "the look," or "the stare," and can be done by either partner. Once eye contact is made, el cabeceo, "the nod" signals the request and is returned as the acceptance. In the US, of course, we're a lot less formal with protocols in general, and it's perfectly OK for either partner to just walk up and ask someone to dance.

      • I've heard that the mirada/cabeceo custom developed in Argentina to allow for "invisible" rejections. This allows the hapless man to avoid being ridiculed by his mates at being publicly turned down for a dance.

      • If you want to dance, however, a key thing to make it work is that you must be scanning the room and making eye contact with people you might like to dance with. A lot of people in Western cultures are not comfortable making eye contact with strangers, but, well, you just have to get over that, especially if you want to dance much when you visit Argentina.

    • The custom is to not start dancing immediately when the music starts.

      • I've heard that this practice developed in the early days of tango in Argentina. In those relatively Puritan times, those few moments when a young couple was alone on the dancefloor, before they started dancing, was the only time they could talk without being overheard by the young woman's mother or chaperone.

    • After you start dancing, don't talk. Chatting, or teaching, or discussing a step or where someone bought those cute shoes, is frowned upon. Mostly it prevents you from entering that special zone of the Tango Moment, when your entire being is focused on enjoying the music and the embrace of your partner, and it distracts other dancers from doing the same.

    • While you can start dancing anywhere in a song, the protocol is to stop dancing on the last beat of the music. This is one protocol that RARELY gets violated. Of course, it takes some practice and familiarity with the music to stop on the very last beat, so one beat over is OK, but do not go two beats over, even if it means stopping in some awkward position, lest the dreaded Tango Police haul you off.

    • Music is generally played in "tandas" or sets of 2 - 4 songs, then a "cortina" (curtain) is played, a 20-30 second piece of music that is generally not dancable, to signal the end of the tanda.

      • It is customary to dance an entire tanda or two with the same partner (however, see below), then find a new partner during the cortina.

      • Note that not all DJ's at all venues play cortinas. Even in Argentina, some DJ's just play continuous music. Most DJ's, however, both in the US and in Argentina, do use cortinas.

    • When you're done dancing with a given partner, for any reason, say, "Thank you." This is the signal that you're done and ready to sit out or find another partner. Regardless how much you might enjoy dancing with someone, avoid thanking them until you're ready to move on, or else you send a mixed message.

    • You don't have to dance with everyone who asks you. And you don't have to continue to the end of a tanda, or even to the end of a song, if you are uncomfortable for any reason. Maybe they're throwing you around, maybe they smell bad, or maybe you're just getting a blister on your foot. Whatever the reason, just stop, explain whatever you want, thank them, and leave the dancefloor.

      • If you've stopped dancing with someone for any reason that might be embarrassing to them if proclaimed publicly, it is sensitive to make up some excuse, like your feet hurt, perhaps feigning fiddling with your shoes to lend credence. The fact is that Argentine culture is very prideful, and, with some truth it is said that "Everyone sees everything on the dancefloor," so if you don't INTEND to embarrass someone for stopping before the end of a song or a tanda, make up a good excuse and make it look genuine.

    • Most of the above is for newer dancers. This item, however, is for experienced dancers. The recommendation is for experienced dancers to spend some time dancing with beginners. My favorite dance partner, Jodi Syverson, was ready to quit when she was very new to tango, intimidated by the difficulty of the dance. A fortuitous encouragement from Daniel Trenner when he was here in Portland convinced her to stick with it, and anyone who has danced with her knows the debt they owe Daniel. But the point is that everyone in the dance community benefits from an influx of new dancers. Everyone brings their own specialness to the dance, and the pollination from "new blood" helps the dance grow and evolve. Yet all experienced dancers know the hard work it takes to become proficient, and it's easy to become discouraged and go over to the "dark side" of easier dances like salsa. But sometimes all it takes is a single dance with an experienced leader or follower to encourage a beginner to do that hard work, and well, again, everyone benefits.

Tango Moments ®