Of fundamental importance to dancing with good technique is the setup. That means that the execution of the dance depends critically on what happens immediately before you start dancing. If the setup is poor, the dancing experience is likely be mediocre. I can predict the quality of the dance before I start dancing because I know whether the setup has been good or not. That means that I can avoid bad dancing. And we want to avoid bad dancing not only because it is an unpleasant experience, but also because it is bad for our motivation and desire to carry on learning tango.
The setup can be divided into two phases. The first phase is actually before we even enter the dancefloor, and it includes the quality of the event, the music being played, the condition of the dancefloor, and the options for partners. If these aren’t working out then the probability of a satisfactory dance are minimal and you should seriously consider leaving the event or hitting the snack table to recover the costs. The sad reality is that most tango events these days are hit and miss, and more often miss than hit.*
If, however, you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a situation where the music is right, the dancefloor is not excessively packed with leg swinging dancers, and there are some potential partners looking available, you may proceed to engage in the cabeceo ritual (see Cabeceo) and find that you’re hitting the dancefloor.
We now enter the second phase of the setup. What happens at this stage will tell you 90% of what the dance is going to be like. If you find yourself standing with your new partner facing the right direction, face relaxed, taking a deep breath, getting your alignment right, and entering a square embrace (see Square), elbows floating up, you’re in for a good start. Once you lock into that embrace you have the right set up for success and you proceed with the walk.
If, on the other hand, you find that your partner has a ridiculously big smile on their face, or worse, is giggling, is facing in the wrong direction, their elbows are pointing downwards, and then embrace you in the armpit embrace or worse, you know immediately that it’s not going to be good. Here’s what you do: you make the dance really boring, perhaps keep chatting throughout, and then come up with an excuse to end the dance at the end of the first track and hurry back to your seat to analyse how you got yourself into that situation in the first place.
Key point summary
The setup requires the following elements being right and if any of these is absent this is a red flag that the dance is not going to be pleasant:
- Music – music that is suitable for the partner you’re inviting: if this is a new partner, someone you’ve never dance with before, the music should not be difficult since you don’t know their skill level;
- Dancefloor – the dancefloor is not be too crowded or full of dancers who are overactive;
- Partners – there should be potential partners who are suitable in terms of body type (height and weight), and skill level;
- Invitation – invitation by way of a cabeceo rather than direct invite by someone you don’t know or aren’t with;
- Orientation – your partner should enter the dancefloor correctly, namely, the man should check in with other couples that are passing and both partner should stand in the correct orientation with respect to the line of dance;
- Alignment – check in with your alignment and posture;
- Elbows – elbows float up to the level of the shoulders or above;
- Embrace – partners enter into a square embrace.
*There is little mystery as to why most so-called milongas around the world are such poorly conducted events: usually they are little more than practicas for the students of the teachers who organise the event, doubling as marketing opportunities to sell classes to their friends. Often local Argentinians who have not had much interest in tango discover that they can use their background to earn some extra cash. With very few exceptions milongas are organised by people without professionalism, experience or the deep interest of a connoisseur and cater to gullible masses who know even less.