Rules of Argentine Tango Milonga

To experienced dancers, the following guidelines of dance protocol and etiquette are usually known, not necessarily followed, and not often discussed.  Following these guidelines, however, can set a good example for other dancers.  For new dancers, it’s good to know what’s what to help avoid embarrassing, awkward, or unsafe situations.  In any case, following these guidelines can help to maximize your dance experience.  Although these guidelines are for Tango, they can often apply to other dance forms as well.

Before The Dance:

Personal hygiene is essential for an enjoyable dancing experience. 
Bad breath, body odor and excessive perspiration are common offenders.  Be sensitive to your fellow dancers.  Excessive use of cologne, perfume or any chemical can be just as offending, and never a replacement for bathing.
Dress appropriately for the event.
For a milonga, dress up a little. 
You cannot go wrong with black;  tango is an elegant dance.  For a practica, dress comfortably and sensibly.  Be tasteful;  avoid displaying any body parts not generally acceptable in public.  Wear shoes with heels to help properly distribute your weight forward; they should also allow you to turn on the ball of your foot with ease – this applies to the gentlemen as well.  If you wear accessories or jewelry, make sure they do not turn into assault weapons while dancing.
 If you are interested in dancing, show your intentions.
Excuse yourself and stand by the edge of the dance floor to let others know of your intentions;  if you are with a group or at a table, that might prevent others from approaching you. 
Do not expect someone to interrupt your conversation with another.  Try not to carry on a prolonged conversation if you are close to the edge of the dance floor, give room to those looking to dance.
Always ask for a dance in a polite manner, whether verbally or non-verbally.
It is acceptable for a follower to initiate a dance offer. 
It is also a nice touch to introduce yourself.  Seek out those looking to dance, avoid bothering anyone who has no desire to dance.  If you must interrupt a conversation for a dance, do so discreetly.  Never go out to the dance floor and then motion someone to join you.
 If you must decline a dance offer, do so sincerely.
It is not an offense to sit out a song or two. 
Sitting out a song means never to accept another invitation for the same song that you have declined from someone else.  The best way to decline an offer is to not get one in the first place; stay engaged in activities, like conversation, that deter others from asking.
Gracefully accept any rejection to a dance offer.
If the same person denied your offers several times within the same event, take the hint that the person may have no interest in dancing with you. 
One’s presence at a dance event is not an obligation to dance with everyone.
The leader always escorts the follower onto the dance floor, regardless of who initiated the offer.
It is also customary for the leader and follower to meet up by the edge of the dance floor, mostly from a non-verbal invitation.
When proceeding onto the dance floor, do so cautiously.
Dancers on the dance floor always have the right of way. 
Never walk across the dance floor while other people are dancing.

 During The Dance:

 Accepting to dance is an obligation to dance the entire song.
One never terminates the dance pre-maturely, unless there is significant reason. 
A person dancing below your expectation is not a significant reason.  If you must pre-maturely terminate a dance, do so without making a scene.
Dancing multiple songs in a row with the same partner is common practice.
If you decide to dance another song, it is not necessary to thank your partner. 
In Argentina, thanking your partner signifies your desire to conclude the dance.  However, in the United States, it is quite common for partners to say thanks between songs.  So, if you wish to conclude a dance at the end of a song, gesture or discreetly inform your partner that you wish to stop.  Never turn around abruptly to leave the dance floor to conclude the dance.  If a live band is performing, face the stage and applaud after each song.
Respect your partner at all times during the dance.
It is rather common to dance close in tango, but it’s not a requirement. 
Dancing close is not an invitation for inappropriate behavior.  Be sensitive to your partner’s comfort level with their personal space.
Customarily, talking is inappropriate while dancing tango.
Talk between songs or when off the dance floor. 
If you must talk on the floor, keep it to a minimum.   It is especially inappropriate to talk on the floor while a live band is performing.
Never conduct any teaching or practicing at a milonga; save that for a practica.
If you must show someone a step, never do so on the main area of the dance floor; find a side area that does not obstruct the other dancers.
Under no circumstances should you correct your partner while on the dance floor.
One can only correct one’s partner during a class or practica; and then, only if requested.  It it never acceptable to correct someone in a milonga.
Tango is a traveling dance; the line of dance is counter clockwise.
One must maintain common dance flow when dancing at the outer perimeter;  if you find yourself interrupting the dance flow, move toward the center to let others pass.
 Respect other dancers’ space.
Experienced dancers should give novice dancers the room they need. 
Novice dancers should stay closer to the center of the dance floor to give experienced dancers their space.  Experienced dancers wanting to perform steps that interrupt the dance flow should do so toward the center of the floor.
Be conscientious and courteous to your fellow dancers.
Proceed cautiously to avoid bumping into other dancers. 
If you do, apologize and try to slow down, recollect yourself, and be more careful.
Use proper judgment when on a crowded dance floor.
Only execute steps that do not violate other dancers’ space. 
Avoid any steps that could potentially hurt others; this is the time to use one’s milonguero knowledge.
 Respect your partner’s dance style.
Social dancing can be a compromise when partners of extreme differences in dancing style dance together.  One should always be
willing to compromise.
 Respect your partner’s level of dancing.
If you are the more experienced dancer, compromise by dancing at your partner’s level.

 After The Dance:

The leader always escorts the follower off the dance floor after the dance.
Escort the follower back to the original point of rendezvous, extend your gratitude and walk away gracefully.
Dancing is not a favor you do for someone.
The proper response to “thank you” after a dance is “thank you,” not “you’re welcome.

Teaching on the Dance Floor

Often intermediate level leaders with some experience like to teach followers on the dance floor.  This is generally frowned upon because often the leader is not qualified and his “teaching” is often unwelcome and resented by followers.  It is also a distraction to the other dancers who want to dance in a party atmosphere, not an instructional one.  In the Argentine tango world, there are special practice dance parties called “practicas.”  Teaching and practicing at these practicas are very much in place.
Generally it is best to avoid teaching at a milonga.  Sometimes however, it may be appropriate to give hints or advice to dance partner.  If you do offer suggestions here are some guidelines:

1)  Ask first before giving a hint.  Never just offer a hint without checking to see if your partner is receptive.
2)   Do it softly and unobtrusively so that your suggestions are not apparent to anyone else.
3)  Time your suggestions appropriately.  A good time in-between songs or when there are few other dancers on the dance floor.

Recap of the important Rules of Argentine Tango Milonga

1.      At a Tango Milonga (a public Tango dance party), couples dance in a “line-of-dance” fashion; that is, counter-clockwise around the dance floor.  The faster “lanes” are those toward the outside of the counter-clockwise line-of-dance.  The slower “lanes” are toward the center, although at some milongas, forward movement can be very slow going regardless of within which lane you’re dancing.  The basic idea is to dance with the flow of forward traffic refraining from crossing lanes, cutting through the center, stopping in the outside lane to perform a non-progressing move, or stepping backward to the line-of-dance especially on a crowded dance floor.

(This last point conflicts with how some instructors teach the fundamental basic step or structure of Tango; that is, a back step by the leader, against line-of-dance, is taught as the first step of the fundamental basic structure.  Teaching beginners to take a left side-step, relative to the leader, as the first step of the fundatmental basic structure is more consistent with line-of-dance dancing at milongas.)

2.        It is common (and acceptable) for dancers to stand and talk for a short period after the music begins to play and before dancing begins, however, when the music ends, dancing ends on the last note (or fade) of the song.  Couples then wait on the dance floor for the next song to begin.  Although it is common for dancers to talk while waiting for the next song, it is not acceptable to talk (or teach) while dancing at a milonga.  Like any community, however, there are those who maintain that once on the dance floor, dancers should never talk because it breaks the “mood”.  There are few, if any, milongas where this is true, even in Buenos Aires, however again, it is customary not to talk (or teach) while dancing especially in Buenos Aires.

3.        Songs are usually played in a “tanda”;  that is, a group of three to five (or more if the DJ is inattentive) songs of the same style;  for example, Tango waltz or milonga.  A tanda is usually followed by a “cortina”, (Spanish for “curtain”) or short break in the standard Tango music before the next tanda begins.  During the cortina, typically all dancers leave the dance floor to possibly seek a new partner, socialize, or take a rest.  During a cortina, non-Tango music is usually briefly played.  It is also customary for a couple to dance to each song of a tanda, however, like almost all Tango rules, this rule is not set in stone and can vary somewhat from milonga to milonga, city to city, and country to country.  For example, if you feel uncomfortable dancing with your partner for whatever reason, you may at the end of any song politely excuse yourself.  This must be done with care since it is uncommon.  It is far better to either know or observe your perspective partner before asking for or accepting a dance to avoid the possibility of having to leave the dance floor before the end of a tanda.  In other words, once you start dancing, do your best to dance the entire tanda with that partner.  (Good etiquette is usually non-trivial.)

4.        If you are not dancing, show respect to those who are by not walking through the busy dance floor and by staying clear of the dance space.  For example, while others are dancing, do not stand in the dance lanes and talk.  On the dance floor, real estate is always in demand.  First priority goes to the dance and the dancers.  Give them room.

5.        Men!!! Do not try to teach on the dance floor during a milonga!  Fight the urge!  Go to your local dance instructor’s “Practica” (practice session) where you can teach and practice your moves to your heart’s content.  But if you absolutely must show your new partner that “new move” at a milonga, then go to a non-dance-floor area.  Trying to show a new move at a milonga is one of the most obvious marks of very poor dance etiquette.  When this phenomenon occurs during a milonga it is almost always initiated by men and many times by those who should know better. Ladies, if it happens to you, politely decline the assistance or suggest going off the dance floor if you really want yet more advice and instruction.  In any case, save yourself the embarrassment by avoiding this type of sad dance etiquette.

(If you’ve ever been severely stepped on or kicked by someone other than your dance partner on the dance floor, then this paragraph will be of special interest to you.)

6.        The safety of your partner, yourself, and the surrounding dancers is your first concern.  Both leader and follower, be alert to the presence of other dancers in front, to the sides, and in back to help avoid collisions and inappropriate embellishments such as a high boleo.  If a collision occurs, try to soften the collision by bringing your arms in and stopping movement.  Afterwards be polite and friendly, make eye contact, smile, and acknowledge the collision even if it was not your fault.  To a large extent, dancing on a crowded Tango dance floor is an exercise in collision avoidance in a safe, creative, and fun fashion.  One other point that often goes unmentioned, it may sound and feel very poetic and sophisticated and very “cool” to dance in the “Tango Trance” with your eyes closed, but at a crowed milonga avoid doing this.  Keep yours eyes open and be alert to the safety of your partner and other dancers especially if you are a beginning or intermediate dancer.  As a dancer at a social event this is part of your responsibility.

This general point, for followers, is not inconsistent with being a good follower;  that is, following the lead, not anticipating, and giving the leader your complete trust.  Leaders, however, have a moving blind spot as they dance.  They cannot see directly behind.  Because of this blind spot, a collision can happen.  Although good leaders seldom have collision because of their skill and speed, if they’re involved in a collison it can be made worse because of their speed.  Leaders, your skill and speed does not exempt you from dancing safely.

7.        Again, no one likes being kicked, run into, or stepped on, so on a crowded dance floor, avoid overly aggressive movements, high boleos, hard-hitting ganchos, and leg extensions.  If you feel you are about to step on someone (hopefully not your partner) try to not follow through with the stepping action to soften the blow of your foot landing on another’s.  Also, leaders keep your left arm down and about shoulder height (of your partner) with your left elbow down and fairly close to your side.  It’s not fun on a crowded dance floor having to duck when another dancer swings around with their partner and the leader’s left hand is high in the air and three inches from your nose.

8.        On a crowded dance floor, stopping in the outer lane to do a dance pattern is frowned on since it usually stops the forward progress of the dancers coming from behind and many times it usually involves steps that are not safe to the surrounding dancers.  Remember, it’s not the Olympics or “show time”, it’s a social dance, so relax and have fun.  If you feel the need to stop forward movement to do a couple of patterns, move to the center of the floor where you can stop and do, for example, foot stops, multiple ochos or molinetes and not impede or stop forward line-of-dance flow.  Many times near the end of a milonga event, the dance floor will thin out.  This opens the floor to more dance experimentation where the rules are more forgiving.

 This next item is worth mentioning again since it is a major contributor to collisions involving beginning and intermediate dancers.

9.        Because of tradition, some instructors who teach the Tango Basic Step or structure for social dance by having the leader begin by stepping backwards to the line of dance (with his right foot) - because his first step goes against line-of-dance – A more practical basic step begins with the leader first stepping to the left (with his left foot and follower stepping to her right with her right foot.)  That is, the leader’s back step, as the first step, is dropped altogether.  For the followers, as a dance pattern unfolds, be alert to dancers potentially in the way and let the leader know of a possible collision verbally, pressing your left hand to the leader’s back, by a hand squeeze, or by pulling your partner closer, or all of these, especially on a crowded dance floor.  For the leaders, if you absolutely must step backwards to the line-of-dance, look back first before you step.  Because of tradition, there are still, unfortunately, some instructors who teach the Tango Basic Step or Structure for social dance by having the leader begin by stepping backward to the line of dance.

10.    If a dance couple in front of you stops, then you can mark time and continue dancing by using a Tango side-rocking step, for example, until they move.

11.    Followers, do not back lead.  Not only does it make leading more difficult, but it also makes it more difficult for the leader to avoid collisions.

12.    It’s OK to smile and have fun on the Tango dance floor.  The Tango police have stopped giving citations for this.

13.    For more experienced dancers, set a good example for beginners:  be patient, polite and sensitive.  In general, it is acceptable to give advice, provided it is asked for first.  If you absolutely must give unsolicited advice, at least first ask permission to do so, however, good dancers almost never make comments let alone talk while dancing.  Finally, remember that you were once a beginner.  A harsh or insensitive, but well intended “comment” can still ruin someone’s evening.

14.    When is it OK to video or take photos at a milonga?  The general answer is never.  People go to milongas to dance, not to be photographed.  So if you are in doubt, put the camera away.  There are, however, as always, exceptions.  Many times the milonga host will take photos or videos, or have someone do this for them for promotional reasons.  Since it’s their public event, practically speaking, there’s not much you can do except maybe complain or not attend their future events.  If, however, you absolutely must take that photo of you and your friends, first show respect and ask the host, then follow their advice.  Minimize the photo impact on the dancers by not shooting in their direction and limit the number of photos to a few.  Finally, unless you have explicit permission from the event host and the dance couple performing at a Tango event, it’s not OK to video regardless of what you see other people doing.  Be polite, ask first.

15.    Argentine Tango is an intimate and elegant dance.  For a pleasant experience, good hygiene is essential;  bathe before lessons or dancing and use deodorant.  Use breath fresheners frequently if necessary.  No or minimal talking while dancing;  focus on dancing and floor traffic.  Hold off on the after shave and perfume.  Some people are sensitive to them.  If you perspire, use a towel or handkerchief often.  People as a rule don’t like dance partners that feel like walking wet towels.  So men, if you perspire heavily, use a towel, take a break and cool down, bring an extra shirt, and change into it at half time.

Remember that this is social dance, go to the track if you want an aerobic workout.  If you wear glasses, consider contact lenses or removing your glasses while dancing unless you can’t see where you’re dancing.  Getting whacked in the head with someone’s glasses as they turn their head is not so pleasant.

One last thing, PLEASE, no jeans, sweat shirts, tennis shoes, bare feet (really) or other similar casual attire when you take lessons or go to a dance.  Tango is an elegant dance, respect it and other dancers, dress up.