“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.

Floating elbows practice

The position of the arms in the Tango Estilo Milonguero embrace is not intuitive and is somewhat physically demanding. We normally visualise the arms in the embrace to be below the level of the shoulders and so tend to drop them down lower than is desirable. It is more useful to visualise the arms floating on the level with or slightly above the shoulders. So we want to get into the correct position, with the right image, and we want to maintain the position for as long as possible, preferably for the duration of the dance.

In this practice we start by doing the Bow. We can then practice floating our elbows and hands just above the level of the shoulders. The correct position of the arms is primarily about the position of the elbows in relation to the head and shoulders. We want to have the image of our elbows being lightly lifted or pulled up above the shoulders. We want to maintain this image throughout each and every dance. So it is recommended that we practice this each time we practice our walking.

The exact position of the elbows will be slightly different for men and women. For women, the right elbow is more to the right and the left elbow is closer to the face. For men, the left elbow is more to the left and the right elbow is closer to the face. Keep the hands relaxed throughout this practice. Throughout the practice, visualise having strings attached to your hands and elbows lightly pulling them up so that they float above the shoulders.

Key point summary:

  1. There is a tendency to drop the arms in the embrace below what is desirable.
  2. We need to learn to float the elbows above the shoulders.
  3. Imagine your elbows floating up.
  4. Start with the Bow (see Alignment: the bow practice).
  5. Release the hands but continue floating hands and elbows above your shoulders.
  6. Visualise your hands and elbows floating or being pulled up.
  7. Practice this position during your walking practice.
  8. Take regular breaks when needed.

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.