“The setup” for milonga success: minding the red flags

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 and find that you are 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, 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, you instantly know that this is not going to be good. Here is what you do: you make the dance really boring, perhaps chatting throughout, and then come up with an excuse to end the dance at the end of the first track, then 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:

  1. 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;
  2. Dancefloor – the dancefloor is not be too crowded or full of dancers who are overactive;
  3. Partners – there should be potential partners who are suitable in terms of body type (height and weight), and skill level;
  4. Invitation – invitation by way of a cabeceo rather than direct invite by someone you don’t know or aren’t with;
  5. 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;
  6. Alignment – check in with your alignment and posture;
  7. Elbows – elbows float up;
  8. 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.

Efficiency of movement vs. aesthetics

Two common questions people learning tango ask about learning a movement:

(i) Do they do that in Argentina?

(ii) I saw a video in which the dancers do X. It looks very cool/pretty.

The idea behind the first question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that this is how people dance in Argentina. The problem with this is that there is really no one way in which people dance in Argentina (see Styles). Even within a single style of Argentine Tango there will be considerable variation between individual dancers, and so one has to distinguish between what is essential to the dance and what is an individual expression.

The idea behind the second question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that it is visually attractive. The problem with this is that visual attractiveness is not a good reason to learn something if one is learning social tango. It is only useful if one is learning tango in order to do tango performances. Strangely enough, many people seem not to realise that what one sees in a tango performance is completely different from social dancing for a number of reasons:

(1) In a tango floor show the couple usually has plenty of floor space to themselves;

(2) A show couple practice the routine with a particular partner;

(3) The primary purpose of a floor show is to entertain an audience;

None of these factors operate in social tango dancing. Tango is often danced in crowded conditions where the large movements, kicks and lifts done by show couples are completely impractical. In social tango we dance with different partners of different ability and size, which renders most difficult choreography of no use. Finally, traditional social tango is not intended to either entertain or compete and show off one’s cool moves. The essence of tango is for partners to share a beautiful moment.

So these considerations inform how we can decide whether a given movement or technique is useful to learn from the point of view of social tango dancing.


A movement or technique is useful to learn for social tango dancing when it is efficient in terms of movement, connection and space. Conversely, any movement or technique that is not efficient in these terms should not be learned.

Lets have a look at these three aspects of efficiency in more detail:

Efficient movement

Whereas in show dancing the pleasure is on the part of the viewers of the couple whereas it is not necessary that the couple themselves enjoy the experience since it is a job they get paid for, in social dancing the main purpose is the enoyment of the dancing by the social dancers themselves. Part of the enjoyment should be the actual movement itself. It is recognised that movement which is enjoyable is also efficient movement. Efficient movement is a relatively technical matter and it defined roughly as follows:

Efficient Movement = movement that exemplifies an efficient use of the neuromusculoskeletal system, that is, a use of the system that requires the least amount of effort, tension or strain in order to perform it.

The study of efficient movement is called Somatics, and it was created by F. M. Alexander and Moshe Feldenkrais. They discovered that when we are too focused on a goal (called end-gaining) we lose awareness of our body position and this leads to an inefficient use of the body, that is, excessive tension and strain. Efficient movement is gracefull, requires less effort, and is more pleasant.

One way to ascertain whether we are moving efficiently is to bring your awareness to your breathing and to see whether you can easily take a deep breath while executing the movement. If you are in a stationary position you can also close your eyes and see whether you feel that you’re standing or sitting in a comfortable position. In dancing we can ascertain that we are moving efficiently by asking whether we can execute the movement will little tension and without losing our posture and alignment (see Posture and Alignment).

Efficient connection

Here we mean a strong connection to the partner and to the music. It is this connection to partner and music that is strong and yet requires little strain or tension that provides the primary source of enjoyment in tango. If we are moving but the connection to the music and your partner is not efficient, that is, is loose or sloppy, then the dance is not very enjoyable. It then becomes a mere physical activity. On the other hand, improving in tango dancing is primarily measured in terms of the tightness or strength of that connection. The more connected you are the better your dancing. That is why we want to reduce the number of elements that may complicate the movement and thus make connection.

Rule 1: The goal of learning and improving in social tango dancing is to improve the connection to the partner and the music. The better the connection the better the dancing.

Rule 2: We want to simplify the elements to the most essential elements in order to improve the connection. We want to avoid unnecessary cimplications that can reduce the connection.

Efficient use of space

Watching people dancing we rarely consider the dynamic context of social dancing. If it’s a performance or demonstration we focus on the couple which dances on an empty dancefloor. Sometimes we watch couples dancing when there is relatively few people dancing and so there is a lot of space. But it is not reasonable to expect that these are the normal conditions. It is more reasonable to expect that the dancefloor is quite crowded and then we find that the style of dancing that looked so beautiful and graceful is completely impractical.

We should ask whether the tango we are watching is ’fit for purpose’, ie., fit for dancing on a crowded dancefloor. We want to learn some beautiful piece of choreography and then find that we kick or otherwise disturb other dancers doing them. The primary goal of social dancing is to dance in harmony with other dancers and that means that we are able to dance without disturbing them in any way. Dancing styles that are designed for performances are not functional in two ways:

(i) They do not allow us to navigate efficiently around the dancefloor, so that we either block the way of others or bump into them;

(ii) They include movements which are loud and distracting and create an unpleasant competitive atmosphere.

So we want to be able to move in such a way that we can easily navigate the dancefloor, move efficiently around other dancers, moving along the line of dance at a good rate so that we don’t block the dancers behind us.. Difficulties navigating caused by a choreography that is too fixed or uses large steps and kicks, in the end leads to situations which cause tension and unpleasant feelings.

Key point summary:

  1. Students learning tango often focus on irrelevant aspects of tango because of a lack of understanding of the practical aspects of dancing.
  2. In learning social dancing we want to learn to dance efficiently in three aspects:
    • It is efficient in the sense that it is a good use of our neuromuscular system and requires the least amount of effort or tension.
    • It allows for an efficient connection between the partners and the music;
    • It allows for an efficient use of space: using less space and being able to navigate around the dancefloor.

What is essential in tango: connection

In learning traditional tango we want to distinguish between what is essential and what is inessential. When we look at dancers of tango we see many things which are aspects of individual expression or which are purely decorative. Most of these aspects are not essential to tango because you can dance tango well without them. If you see some tango dancer having a certain facial expression or some other affectation, or doing some decorations with her feet, does that mean that you cannot dance tango well without that? The reality is that most of what stands out to an onlooker who has little understanding of tango are its inessential aspects.

Experienced tango dancers focus first and foremost on connection: the connection between the partners through the embrace; the connection of their dancing to the music; and the connection of their dancing to the energy of the dancefloor. The key to connection is a good embrace and good leading and following. The dancing should express the music by marking the beat and pausing. Finally, the dancing should connect to the energy of the other dancers on the dancefloor and should not stand out as radically different from what everyone else is doing.

If the dancers do not have some particular expression on their face or some other affectation, this does not mean that they are not doing good tango. But if they don’t have a good embrace, are not connected in their leading and following, are not connected to the music, and their dancing stands out as out of sync with the dancing of the other dancers, then there is something fundamentally wrong going on and we cannot say that it is good tango. Our goal is to have a better embrace, better connection to our partner, the music and the energy of the dancefloor. These are the essential skills. The other aspects are mere affectations and are superfluous and thus best avoided until we have more experience in the essential things.