Tango Etiquette


Codigos (Codes) “Codigos” is a Spanish term that refers to expected social codes of behavior or etiquette that evolved in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Codigos developed over many decades to protect the unique social dance environment of the Argentine tango milongas. In our contemporary tango world, we feel practicing these codigos maximizes individual choice, freedom and pleasure while avoiding embarrassing, awkward and unsafe situations.

The structure of traditional milongas (tango dance parties) follows a very particular order where the focus is music-centric. In Argentine tango, there are three distinct rhythms…tango, vals and milonga. Each of these three rhythms has a unique quality and character that is singular from the other two. Perhaps due to these distinctions, it is a convention still observed today that dancers remain with the same dance partner for an entire “tanda” (or set). Tandas normally consist of three to four numbers or songs from the same orchestra in one of the three rhythms described above. For example, the DJ would select a vals tanda consisting of three vals songs from the Carlos Di Sarli orchestra. Or perhaps they’ll play a tango set involving possibly as many as four tango numbers from Francisco Canaro’s orchestra. Or it could be a three-milonga tanda featuring Callo’s orchestra. The completion of each tanda is signaled by a “cortina” – the literal English translation is “curtain” such as the dropping of a curtain between acts of a theatrical play. Cortinas consist of several phrases of non-tango music such as jazz or blues or opera or salsa or something very NON-tango to alert the dancers that the tanda is over and another one will follow soon.

Dress Appropriately
For a formal milonga, dress up a little. In Argentina no self-respecting milonguero would go to a milonga without a suit and tie and the ladies always wear their best. Colorado tangueros prefer a more relaxed and casual attire, though men’s dress shirts and slacks, evening gowns and stiletto heels for the ladies are not uncommon. Remember, Argentine Tango is an elegant dance and due to the influence of Tango Shows, where performers dress in Tuxes and gorgeous gowns, more often than not you’ll see men and women dressed to the nines in their suits, fabulous dresses and shoes to die for. You cannot go wrong with red or black. Those colors have become almost synonymous with Argentine Tango.

For a practica, dress comfortably and sensibly but be tasteful. Avoid displaying any body parts not generally seen in a ballroom. Wear shoes with heels to help properly distribute your weight forward; they should also allow you to turn on the ball of your foot with ease –this applies to the gentlemen as well. Leather soles work best. Dance sneakers are also popular. Avoid rubber soles, flip-flops, sandals, mules, clogs and other loose fitting shoewear. Your knees and feet will thank you later. If you wear accessories or jewelry, make sure they do not turn into missiles while dancing.

As noted above, it is expected to dance a full tanda (three or four songs) with the person you started the tanda with. It is acceptable to form a dance partnership late or in the middle of a given tanda as long as you stay together until the Cortina, which signals the end of the tanda when it’s typical for all leaders in the couples to escort their partners to their seats. This also signals the end of that partnership so both dancers are now free to negotiate new partnerships for the next tanda. In this way, the dance floor generally clears during cortinas. It is considered rude to monopolize a dancer for more than two successive tandas unless you are a couple that only dances with each other. It is also considered rude to invite someone to dance during a cortina before individuals hear what music is coming up next. If someone only dances milongas by the orchestra of Canaro, for example, but the DJ plays a D’Agostino vals tanda, that individual may prefer to sit out that tanda.

The Cabeceo
The cabeceo is a subtle art and perhaps one of the most important codes of all. It is the way that people invite and agree to dance together. It is a system of mutual respect and delicacy. At the beginning of a tanda, gentlemen invite ladies from a relative distance by gazing intently at the lady he wishes to invite and when he catches her attention, he nods. If she accepts his invitation, she will nod back. If the lady declines, she will subtly look away (or not look his way in the first place). If a lady wishes to alert a specific gentleman of her interest in dancing with him, she can likewise gaze intently until he responds. Gentlemen are likewise empowered to nod in agreement or decline by looking away.

If the lady agrees, he walks to meet her at the edge of the dance floor closest to her seat. Ladies wait for the gentlemen to approach. At the end of the tanda, it is common courtesy for the gentleman to accompany his partner back to her chair or to the edge of the floor where they met. Leaving her in the middle of the floor is rude.

Accept Rejections Gracefully
If the same person denied your offers several times within the same event, take the hint that the person may have no interest in dancing with you on that occasion. It might be different some other time. One’s presence at a dance event, however, is not an obligation to dance with everyone who asks. That doesn’t mean that it is OK to be rude. See the above two topics.

This system maximizes effective yet efficient non-verbal communication and protects the privacy of each individual present. Everyone can exercise the option to dance with whom they choose. In the traditional milongas of Buenos Aires, verbal invitations are considered rude and often lead to rejection.

Rules of the Road
The dance proceeds counter-clockwise around the dance floor. Typically there is an outside lane and often a second and third inside lane. Gentlemen who navigate in a courteous, peaceful, cooperative way ensure that everyone feels safe and can focus on their partners and their dance, not using their tanda time protecting their partners from potential harm. The following protocol is very similar to driving on a highway:

  • Leaders, if you are entering the floor when people are dancing, it is considerate to cabeceo the leader that you want to dance in front of. Generally he will return your cabeceo with permission to enter the space in front of him. Ladies, your leader is responsible for your safety so allow him to lead you onto the dance floor when he deems it safe to do so.
  • The dance floor is a communal space. Be aware of the couples around you. Take note of the speed that couples are moving collectively and do your best to match it by filling gaps ahead of you but not tailgating the couple in front of you. If possible, keep two steps behind the person in front of you.
  • On crowded dance floors, performing large movements in place to show off or allowing space to open between you and the couple directly in front of you creates traffic jams. This is unsafe and can cause accidents, similar to stopping on the autobahn.
  • We only pass a couple under extreme circumstances, not as a general rule. If a couple in front of you stops, be patient and dance in place until they move. If they remain static (showing off!?), pass them if you can do so safely and without disrupting others.
  • Refrain from cutting across lanes or weaving from lane to lane.
  • Leaders, avoid stepping back against line of dance. If absolutely necessary, LOOK FIRST to make sure you won’t crash into the couple following you. Better yet, adjust your orientation so that you are walking backwards IN LINE OF DANCE. Always LOOK FIRST to make sure the space is available and safe.
  • Do not take large steps into a neighboring lane or too close to the person dancing next to you. Everyone needs their space respected so they can dance in comfort and safety.
  • In traditional milongas, show-boating in the middle of the floor (or anywhere else) is not a respected activity. In a social context, milongueros firmly believe that tango is danced for yourself and your partner only, for love of the music and their individual connection in the moment. They do not diminish their dance by using it in the service of their egos.

Behavior on the dance floor
Talking during the introduction of a song is accepted. Talking while dancing is not. Dancers are expected to honor the dance by focusing on the dance and the music, not talking. It is also considered impolite to speak to friends or people off the dance floor while you’re on the dance floor with your partner. The tanda is shared only by the couple until it is over.

Dancing begins when the couple connects with the music and each other. Milongueros never begin dancing as soon as they hear the music.

Leaders propose entering into the dance by first building the abrazo (embrace). Ladies wait for the leader to open his arms to her as an invitation to enter his abrazo.

Generally when you agree to dance with someone, you are agreeing to dance the length of the tanda.

Good leaders always dance at the level of the follower. It is rude to dance above her level to impress her, show off to others or boost one’s ego.

Teaching on the dance floor is strictly forbidden. It disrupts the flow of the dance floor and is disrespectful to your partner. Not only does it establish negative power relations, but generally ends up offending and hurting people’s feelings. Even a well-intended comment can ruin your partner’s evening, leaving them feeling uncomfortable and undervalued. If you feel the need to instruct, save it for a practica and make sure your advice is solicited.

Never ask for advice, corrections or teaching on the dance floor from anyone. Milongas are not the place for instruction.

No one likes being kicked, run into, hit or stepped on, so avoid aggressive movements, high boleos, hard-hitting ganchos, jumps, leg sweeps and leg extensions. Leaders, be conscious of your left arm being extended far enough that it may hit someone. Milongas are supposed to be safe places where people can dance freely and comfortably. Dance in a way to ensure that for everyone.

If a collision occurs, be polite and friendly, make eye contact and acknowledge the collision. Whether it is your fault or not, make sure everyone involved is ok. If you are sure the fault is yours but everyone continues dancing, apologize to the affected individuals at the end of the tanda.

When getting up to dance, do not obstruct the dance floor or the path of others with your chair.

Be aware not to obstruct someone’s line of vision. This is frustrating for those not dancing and trying to cabeceo.

If you are not dancing, show respect to those who are by not walking through the crowded dance floor or standing on the floor talking. The conversations and partying can be distracting for the dancers. Priority is given to the dancers dancing.

Argentine Tango is an intimate and elegant dance. For a pleasant experience, good hygiene is essential. Bathe before dancing and use deodorant. Use breath fresheners often. Subtle use of perfume or aftershave is better than too much. If you perspire, use a towel or handkerchief often. If you perspire heavily, take breaks often and bring an extra shirt or two. If you wear glasses, consider contact lenses or remove your glasses while dancing.

Don’t Take Things Too Seriously