A lightbulb moment

1st June 2009

(More Unlocking the Milonga articles.)

So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small dance floor. We all dance to the same music. We all cherish our partners. And we are all vulnerable to being stabbed by Comme Il Fauts." - What JFK would have said about Tango....


"A light bulb moment is when you have a sudden realisation about something, like the light bulbs used to indicate an idea in cartoons." ~ UsingEnglish.com

So, a couple of weeks ago I was in the loo at Negracha's - admittedly not normally a location associated with inspiration - when I had one of these moments. This article - hopefully - expands on that moment of clarity.

A bit of background: there had been some debate and a few articles recently, discussing the London AT scene, with regards to the "London codes", the appalling floorcraft, the use of milongas to practice in, and so on. Lots of references and comparisons were made vis-a-vis London and Buenos Aires.

So, my lightbulb moment was this - London has no practicas.

Tell us what you mean, David?

Well, seeing as you ask... :)

What's it like in Buenos Aires?

From everything I've heard and read, there's a very different atmosphere at Milongas in BsAs to the one in London. In BsAs, it's a social scene as much as a dance scene - you're there to chat, to watch, and occasionally to dance. It's perfectly permissible to refuse dances - in fact, it's expected unless all the codes are adhered to. Quality is much much more important than quantity. There's a whole set of codes (codigos) used to invite and accept / refuse dances. You're not there to help people learn, you're there to enjoy yourself. It's assumed that, if you're there, you accept all these conventions and abide by them.

It's quite possible for a woman to go to a venue, and to have one dance throughout the entire evening (soul-destroying though that may be).

Now, here's my theory... The reason there is such a scene, is that people generally don't just "turn up" at a milonga - the expectation is that you can dance, and hopefully dance well. If you can't dance, then you've no real business being there, and you'll get few or no dances.

To quote Jantango:
In Buenos Aires, the men do the inviting. They don't go to a milonga unless they know how to dance, because it's their responsibility when they invite a woman.

(A brief digression: The very term "milonguero" - someone who dances at milongas - is a great term of respect. Marisa Galindo wrote that Milongueros "know how to follow the line of dance; they have a great sense of the music; they know each orchestra, singers and the lyrics; dance without choreography and effect an exchange of emotion and pleasure that can lead to ecstasy, allowing the woman to close her eyes and surrender; they lead very gently and precisely using the entire body; they dance self-centered--for themselves and their partners; they dance protecting the woman; they exhibit respect for others on the floor; and they have a sense of the music, variations of rhythm and pauses demonstrated in their synchronization with the music, the woman and other dancers."


Anyway, I think it's fair to say that milongas in Buenoes Aires are special places. But I think it's also fair to say that you don't just turn up and suddenly become a milonguero. You need to work at it. And there's a whole support structure for this - culturally, societally, and otherwise.

Maybe it's because I'm a London-uero...

Conversely, let us examine the London AT scene. At first glance, it appears to be quite healthy. There are lots of tango classes, many of which include practicas. There are also milongas, quite a few of them in fact. The London scene is growing, with new venues opening on a regular basis. People are enthusiastic about Tango; there are websites and blogs galore. All this is good.

The difference is... there's no consensus of progression. London "practica" sessions are basically sloppy milongas. And so, London milongas turn into sloppy practicas. People try out new moves on the dance floor with new partners. They may even discuss and try to work on these moves - again, during the dance. Anyone can - and does - go to milongas, and there's probably some elements of a "quantity not quality" bias amongst some dancers. People dance with everyone, they mix it up, and they do pretty much whatever they want.

And never, not once, have I heard an AT teacher in London explain "You must go to practicas before milongas". Maybe they think it's obvious. Maybe they think it's not needed. Maybe they simply don't care much.

So, that's why I state that in London, there are no (or very few) practicas.

So why does it matter?

It matters when you see people dancing Tango in London.

When I first entered the world of AT, I was enthralled by all these people zooming around the floor, leading and following intricate movements, legs kicking all over the place, with dramatic lunges, dips, and twirls. Fantastic stuff, I thought.

Now, some time later, I see the same movements, and it's, well, it's a bit depressing really. I see the lack of discipline, the absence of musicality, the rarity of a close hold, and the grimaces instead of looks of contentment from followers.

My eyes were fully opened a few months back, when attending a Tango Boot Camp class with Stefano and Alexandra of Tango In Action. The comment Stefano made was "Very few people are dancing at a milonga". At the time, that comment resonated, but I hadn't really assimilated the concept.

Now, I know exactly what he means. Now, to me, the dance floor at the Dome in Tufnell Park, a popular venue, frequented by some serious dancers, just looks like chaos. Floorcraft is limited to "try not to hit people", overtaking is the default mode of movement, line-of-dance is just a suggestion... I saw one couple - teachers - take 5 steps back against the line of dance, simply because there was space and they felt like it.

I felt like going up to them, doing my best Jet Li impression from Lethal Weapon 4, and saying "In Buenos Aires, you would already be dead."...

It's particularly annoying because I know for a fact that many or most of these people have been to BsAs, some for months or years at a time. And then they return to London, and they ignore everything about harmony, about closeness of embrace, about connection - and they just try out some fancy moves, flicks, kicks or whatever the latest craze is.

These people have no excuse - and the rest of us, mre mortals, simply follow their examples. We don't know any better.

So... what are we - the AT dance community in London - to do? What can be done?

Idea 1: "Suck it up"

Well, we could do nothing. We could all accept that "this is the way it is", and that we should either learn to accept the state of play, and be happy with it, or simply leave. There's no point worrying about what you can't change.

I've got some sympathy with this - we all have to accept reality, adjust to it, and live in it. And it's not like it's impossible to enjoy yourself dancing Tango in London - hundreds do it, all the time. That very "chaotic" night at the Dome, I had a lovely night's dancing - the best this year, in fact (although, I realise that this was with only four partners in the evening, three of whom I knew already...).

Why not?

Well, because I think this situation is acting as a drag on development of London Tango dancing. It reduces learning, and also reduces enjoyment at milongas. I'm selfish, and I want every dance to be a good dance, I don't want to have to worry about some numpty 15 feet away suddenly deciding to run me and my partner over with his Cool New 20-Step Sequence.

In addition, there's a serious culture clash - people trying to apply BsAs codes in London free-for-all milongas cause offence. And, I imagine, vice versa. For example, people get upset as they don't understand why they're being refused.

Idea 2: "London Aires"

One possibility - and yes, we're talking hypotheticals here - is to simply port BsAs culture to London wholesale.

Educate all dancers in the strict codes, at all times. Distinguish clearly between milongas and practicas. Enforce adherence to the codes; by everyone, and throw persistent offenders out. Draw lane lines on the floor, and ensure people follow them. Insist on the cabaceo as the only means of asking / receiving a dance. And so on.

Why not?

Commercially, it'd be suicide - teachers would lose vast swathes of their income. So practically, there's no incentive to get teachers to cooperate in such a massive, coordinated way (and hell, even if there were some incentive, lots of the teachers in the London area are cantankerous and antagonistic towards each other that the entire endeavour would be akin to herding 100 cats).

In addition, I'm not personally convinced that all BsAs codigos are Good Things. Some of the customs are either downright dumb and retained for historical reasons (why can't a woman ask a man to dance?), or simply don't translate well out of the Argentine culture ("If you arrive alone, you must leave alone" - what?).

Idea 3: Rip it up and start again

Another proposal, create a set of London codes from scratch. Recognise the current situation, and attempt to use these codes to reinforce the best bits, and to mitigate the worst bits, of the London scene.

Document the process, in other words, but attempting to spin it a little.

Why not?

Who does it? Who's going to create such a code? And what authority or precedent do they have to back this up? What would make the opinion-formers in the London tango scene listen anyway? Which brings us to the second problem...

Herding cats, revisited: again, getting several dozen AT teachers, let alone the other prominent dancers, in London to agree on - well, on anything - is, as the saying goes, a non-trivial task. In fact, I'm not sure it's even possible.

Idea 4: Incremental culture change

Change things, one step at a time.

Involve other dancers. Set up communities. Educate people, one at a time if needed, on what is Good Practice, and on what isn't.

Mix in a Conspiracy here, a discussion there, a practice group over there... Pretty soon you're talking about some real change.

Why not?

I can't think of a good reason...


We choose to change London AT culture. We choose to to change London AT culture in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." - John F. Kennedy on Tango again

If you want anything done, you need to work at it.


I wonder if I'll get any more inspirations from the Negracha toilets?

 - David Bailey, 1st June 2009

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