Tango Ceremony

14th November 2009

(More Unlocking the Milonga articles.)

"The beginning is the most important part of the work." ~ Plato


How do you begin a dance in tango?

"Not well" is the honest answer for most of London. It turns out there's a Ceremony to starting a dance. Unfortunately a lot of the elements are usually missing.

In Practica

Pretty much most of the rules are void in practica.

That's kinda the whole point after all. So you just embrace and start work. Possibly you embrace and then take a few moments to adjust everything. After all, if you're working on something you can't quite do, it makes sense to start from as good a place as possible.

So you check your posture, your embrace, where everything is, sync up with the follower. And hopefully she does the same. You both make small adjustments. Then adjust to each other's adjustments until you're happy it's as good as it's going to get.

And that's what I see and experience a lot in London milongas.

In Milonga

Now have a look at experienced dancers. Thankfully Youtube will actually work for this. You'll see there's a whole "Ceremony" that goes on to get into the embrace. A couple of things in particular are that it's very stylised, the "adjustment" stage is so brief as to be practically non-existent and it varies from couple to couple.


The first problem is that it starts with the cabeceo, which isn't really used all that much at the moment.

OK, big deal, what difference does it make if I just ask her?

As it turns out quite a big one. The beginning of the Ceremony starts with one or both of the dancers approaching each other. If you're standing in front of her when you ask her to dance, that means that one of you has to take a few steps back, then come forward again. Which is a bit silly and mildly dangerous near a dance floor (don't forget the person behind you carrying drinks to their table.)

This coming together is enhanced in BAs by having the men and women sitting in different places. So again in London, if you cabeceo someone who's too close to you, it can mess up the dynamics. For example she needs a certain amount of time to stand up. If you've arrived in front of her before she's finished you're back to the problem above.


Why are there variations in the Ceremony? Well for a start different teachers dance different ways and so use a Ceremony that suits the way they want to dance. For example if you want to begin the dance with a forward step it's probably a bad idea starting with your follower's back towards her chair. The way a leader begins his Ceremony tells the follower a lot about how he intends to dance. How well he does it, tells her how good a dancer he is.

An example

"The leader offers their left hand and the follower accepts with her right. The follower embraces the leader with her left arm and the leader completes the embrace with his right arm" ~ recent conversation

Though as I say this is by no means a hard and fast rule - there's a lot of variations and subtleties.

I think you should also be able to use the Ceremony to recognise who a person has studied with (after all there's only so many teachers in a local area)

So how do you learn it?

You could watch a YouTube clip and learn that way...

But it's probably a bad idea. There's a lot of subtlety involved. You're dealing with accuracy to the nearest cm at this point. In my opinion you really need someone who's at teacher level to show you one to one. Ideally someone who dances the same way you do.

But what about the Cabeceo?

I'm noticing more and more that people at the beginning of intermediate stage are against Cabeceos. People in the middle experiment a bit and complain about it. People near the end tend to use it a lot. So I guess my answer is "don't worry about it". Most likely one of two things will happen.

1. You become a good intermediate and you decide actually that's quite enough for what you want. Maybe you do a workshop every now and then to pick up a new something, but basically you've arrived at your destination. You now get to enjoy tango, chat with people and have fun. Cool. Consider the above a "trick" you might want to pick up at some stage. If you don't, I doubt it'll affect your evenings much. (NB This is probably 95-99% of dancers in London)

2. You become a good intermediate and decide that you want to keep going. You'll probably find yourself going the cabeceo route naturally. In this case consider getting a teacher to teach you a Ceremony. Bear in mind it's going to be your first impression, so spend some time learning to do it well.

"I saw that. Only you would start a dance on the last beat :o) " ~ Bianca

There are different ways to treat it. It reminds me of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Done well it looks simple and fluid. Yet every nuance is important. So yes, I'm willing to do it (with people I know) right at the end of a song for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

Either way it's a tool. Whether you use it to make the first step of your dance a bit easier, or you approach it with the reverence of a Zen Tea Ceremony, hopefully it'll improve your dancing.

 - Christopher O'Shea, 14th November 2009

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