My Year in Tango: Part Seven

The beginning Tanguera faces down her first Milonga...

Every tango student reaches the moment when she realizes that you really cannot claim to “dance tango” until you have been to a Milonga. As a fledging tanguera, I needed to experience the Milonga on a frequent basis, to get comfortable with dancing among friends and strangers. But I hesitated. The idea of the Milonga is intimidating to anyone who is used to a well-lit, spacious, dance floor with the comfort and security of an instructor nearby. But attending practica (hours-long opportunities to practice with an instructor on-site) only goes so far—the real tango dancing is done at the Milonga. This was my next challenge.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are behind on My Year in Tango, do not despair. We have  an intro , a  Part One, a Part Two, a Part Three, a Part Four, a Part Five, and a Part Six, all just a click away! Look for Part Eight in a few days…

My time came one spring night.

You really cannot claim to “dance tango” until you have been to a Milonga.

You really cannot claim to “dance tango” until you have been to a Milonga.


Milonga night. I am here early to take the preliminary lesson. A couple and one other woman arrive. I am prepared to dance well into the night. A Milonga lasts into the wee hours with many dancers not leaving the dance until 2 am. In Argentina, I am told they dance until 6 am. Even dancing until 2 seems to me daring and nonconformist. I must be getting old. I am well enough along with tango that I can do every move Tango Berretin’s Alex Krebs asks of us at the lesson: the walk, the embrace, the ocho, the cross. I feel…accomplished and a trifle bit full of myself.

At 9 pm, the real tangueros begin to arrive—women stiletto’ed and open-toed and lovely in flowery skirts, and men, informal, tidy, smiling. I am still feeling fine. After all, my instructor is right over there at the check-in desk, he is dj-ing tonight and his band, the Alex Krebs Tango Quartet is playing. The place still feels familiar, a sense of confidence oozes right up from the scuffed suede soles of my very real tango shoes. I recognize some comrades from the lessons, and we grin at each other. This is big time.

Before unleashing the beginners to join the Milonga, Krebs offered a few words of caution: “Remember, always go in the line of dance (he gestures sweeping his long arm around the room counterclockwise); always stay in sync with the other dancers, go the same speed, when they stop, you stop, when they speed up, you speed up.” And, with emphasis, he cautions “Stay out of the middle of the floor.” He peers at us sternly from under his dark, heavy eyebrows: “The middle of the tango dance floor is like the ‘mosh pit’ of tango.”

“Mosh pit?!” I think. That’s a bit worrisome. My mind is whirling with images of stage diving, violent limbs punching and swinging while balancing beers, and hands transferring bodies back and forth in general mayhem.

“Really,” continues Krebs still gesturing to the middle but with a mischievous smile, “this is where all the leg throwing happens. All the big, fancy moves.” I get the message: we beginners are to stay in the safe outskirts of the line of dance.

I dance until midnight. Never more than one tanda (a short set of songs) with the same leader, none of whom I can remember. It was a togetherness of shared music and a few short voyages of collaboration. I never see anything that seems the slightest bit “moshy.” There is some pretty beautiful tango stuff going on in the middle, but it is calm, slow, and gliding with most followers having eyes closed and a look of peaceful concentration on their faces. I leave impressed. Moving on…I feel decidedly nomadic and a bit pridefully puffed up with my first milonga a resounding success.

 I realized it was the music that swept me from place to place.

I realized it was the music that swept me from place to place.

I gave careful consideration to what kept me coming back, signing up for lessons, staying for practica, attending milongas late into the night, allocating more and more of my paycheck to this fanciful pursuit, and I realized it was the music that swept me from place to place. The dance only came to me because of the music, which only came to me because of the leader. Without that particular, identifiable 2/4 or 4/4 time, a heavy African-like beat smoothed over by the rich blend of salon-cafe sounds from violin, piano, and bandoneon (combined in a perfect sextet, or quartet or even just Krebs and Andrew Oliver in a piano-bandoneon duet) the tango does not materialize.

Alex Krebs Tango Quartet plays, Megan Haupt sings....

Alex Krebs Tango Quartet plays, Megan Haupt sings….

Argentinian writer Ricardo Guiraldes describes the music as an “all-absorbing love of a tyrant, jealously guarding his dominion, over women who have surrendered submissively, like obedient beasts.” You know something? I can feel you grimacing…so, let’s not even go there. We already discussed feminism so we are moving on…to a more positive spin on this machismo.

We have to accept that tango, is, itself riddled with rules and social implication. Like I briefly told you in a previous chapter, it is a world of men taking care of and protecting women, where men are given the chance to prove chivalry and gentle strength, where a posturing macho stride is the prize of the game. It is a collaboration between a leader and a follower where the leader must remain in charge but needs to do so in a way that is pleasant and desirable to the follower. A man owns his walk, he carries himself and his follower with this assertive strut. Manners and etiquette and an almost Arthurian (nod to Sir Lancelot) concept of “how to handle a woman (is to love her, love her, merely love her…)” are at the forefront of tango. No rudeness, no callous behavior, no disrespect.

The barring of conversation during the dance, the perfect adherence of the woman’s movement to her leader’s, the downward gaze of the follower, the silence: there are precious few opportunities when a man can look directly and closely at a woman and engage in an unspoken connection, and she can accept that willingly. When you approach your leader to accept his lead, you look right at him. It is the beginning of the mutual recognition and proposal to share the tango experience. And having someone really look at you, not through you, not over your shoulder, all I can say is, it is so very pleasantly unsettling.

My tango addiction was escalating as I realized I liked experimenting with the challenge of closeness—it was difficult fun. With the challenge of accepting my leader based on his offer of a cabeceo and my acceptance (occuring during that simultaneously lovely and awkward fleeting staredown, that somehow only lasts a few seconds but is the beginning of a tango relationship: catch his glance and you have a dance partner for the next tanda) — he was suggesting, I was deciding. Having surmounted the obstacles of closeness and explored the object of the leader, I began to question why I was beginning to like tango so much. What had these months of study and practice given to me? Should I want to take something away from all of this? After a certain amount of dedication, does one need to expect a return on one’s investment? But I questioned if that was, in actuality, important.

Milonga night at Tango Berretin.

Milonga night at Tango Berretin.

Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives