A Guest Blog by Diana Howell, in her own words
(edited and illustrated by Willow Running Hawk, including an Interview on 12.16.12)
The strict definition of milonguero (females are milongueras), here in Buenos Aires, is someone who frequents milongas more than four times a week, and usually means someone who is at milongas every night, or just about every night. I fall into this category, pretty much.
Milongueros are usually good dancers, sometimes fabulous dancers — which makes sense, if they’re dancing every night — sophisticated in the ways of the milonga, and streetwise, i.e., savvy about all aspects of the milonga. They often have a set table that is reserved for this “frequent flyer” dancer. Milongueros come in all ages, but the really weatherbeaten ones have put in a lot of years on the milonga road, dancing till 6:00 am every day. They have the sleeping habits of a vampire, and live on a poor diet of champagne-based fluids and salty snacks.
Some still smoke, though nowadays they have to go outside the dance halls to light up. Heavens, what a drag that must have been in the “good old days” when everyone lit up inside! They say you couldn’t see across the dance floor for all the smoke! Many milongueros are divorced and live alone; some are married, but have cut back on their frequency of milonga attendance — making it possible to stay married? Younger milongueros who are in a steady relationship are usually with another tanguera (a woman who dances tango).
La Conquista: Beware the Tango Gigolo!
Some milongueros live off of foreign tango dancers, temporarily or semi-permanently; the sleazier variety keeps a sharp eye out for new victims. They are invariably good-looking, charming, well-dressed and capable dancers who can speak a few key words in a variety of languages.
These tango gigolos are quick to complement your dancing, your charms, your sex appeal. Their strategy is: spot, slay, suck! In other words, he spots a victim (let’s just say this could be you!), slays you with charm until he gets access to, and eventually moves into, your apartment; then starts draining your bank account until you either get wise and cut him off, or run out of funds!
This has happened to a lot of foreign tangueras here, so beware the silver-tongued devils! It’s been interesting watching the one or two month couplings of milongueros with foreign girls; every month or two, another new foreign face.
The slightly less sleazy variety just wants a sexual conquest, and he will push, push, and keep pushing you, until either he doesn’t get anywhere, in which case you, once his “queen of the hop,” no longer gets so much as a glance from him; or until he beds you. His game is ALL about conquest. Then he moves on, looking for fresh blood, no doubt sharing all the details of the conquest with his compadres.
His attention level (unless there is good money involved) is very short, and I think it has to do with the training pattern of the dance: one or two tandas with more than a dozen different females on a nightly basis trains them to think of relationships as equally loose and temporary. Keeping a milonguero interested enough to dance a few tandas with you, without falling into his sex trap, requires skillful and delicate balancing of interests.
NEVER accept an invitation to go out for a “coffee” after the milonga, because the translation of that code is: coffee & sex. Accepting a ride home is pretty iffy too, unless you REALLY know him, and even then… ¡con cuidado!
Of course, if you do not have any money, but are 20 years old, drop dead gorgeous, and a great dancer, he will hang around forever, because you are a feather in his cap. “Look at me guys, she LIKES me! She’s MINE.” Some of the nicer milongueros are so dog-gone honest, they’ll admit they’re married, but still invite you to be their girlfriend.
Most of the other dilly-dalliers use the old “we live in the same house for economic reasons, but are not a couple anymore” routine. Some of the married milongueros (especially the older ones), are simply there to dance tango (their wives do not prevent them from attending, and have learned to preserve the marriage by letting them dance). These guys are the most fun, because they don’t have a “conquest agenda,” and are happy and eager to dance with you.
For married milongueros, dancing tango is a form of safe sex, because when you complete a fabulous tanda, it is almost as good as great sex! It allows married tangueros (and tangueras) to get a feeling of closeness with a member of the opposite sex (who is not their mate) without stepping outside the relationship. Of course, some do step outside those bounds. Like, we ARE discussing men, right?
Milongueros are, by and large, muy ensimismados: very self-centered.
Call it machismo if you like. It’s ALL about them: you are just there to make it happen. Just think “EGO-MAXIMO” and you get a fair picture of the typical milonguero.
So, why are we so fascinated? What makes us long to dance with them? Isn’t the idea of dancing Tango a romantic fantasy held by many women? Also, good leaders dance wonderfully well, making us dance our best; and of course, there is the magic of their embrace — strong, resolute, and close enough to melt any woman’s heart!
The strength of a typical Argentine lead can be felt in the confidence of his embrace. Women come from all over the world for this embrace! It’s close, strong and decisive, and it makes you feel absolutely WONDERFUL.
A less confident embrace makes it very difficult for a women to know what her partner wants her to do. Even a mediocre Argentine leader usually has a good embrace. My favorite leaders (besides Porteños!) are from England, Italy, Holland, and Germany; they have excellent basic technique, smooth, with a solid embrace and a refreshing lack of the complicated figures that no one has room to execute on the dance floor anyway.
All that aside, it is a great time here, and I love meeting up with people from diverse cultures, not only to share the dance, but to chat about our various cultures. What a GREAT way to go international! I have met dancers from Sweden, Scotland, even Cameroon… yes, there is tango in many African cities! HOW GREAT IS OUR WORLD OF TANGO! Speaking Tango is like having another language, another passport, a passport of a universal cultural identity, that of devotion to and love of Tango.
FAQs about Milongas:
The earliest and latest hours of the most popular milongas are always the best time to dance; the floor is less crowded and it’s easier to see someone else to cabeceo. All milongas follow the same pattern: less crowded at the beginning and, as people begin to arrive, more crowded, more energy, more noise, and lots of conversation during the cortinas.
There seems to be a “peak time” every evening, when the energy is at its height, the floor packed. Then, as people begin to leave (perhaps because of work the next day, or to go to another milonga), the late night portion of the milonga begins. During these late hours many of the milongueros — people who attend milongas nearly every day, usually for years, even lifetimes — who did not dance much (but watched, and conversed with other milongueros at their table) will begin to dance, with very select choices.
Having waited for the crowd to leave, the people who remain are usually more serious dancers, to whom having more floor space to dance is more important than dancing in a high-energy crowd. Interestingly, the music gets juicier at this point. Many times I have heard Argentine women complain: “As usual, now the music gets good!” (…nothing quite like those conversations in the ladies’ room!) They complain because they must leave early, for work or family obligations.
Milongueros usually stay almost to closing time, and others will show up late as well, knowing that the crowd will have thinned out. At the early milongas (“matinee milongas”) you don’t need a watch to tell what time it’s getting to be, because many men disappear around 8:00 or 8:30, as precise as clockwork, going home to la señora, so as not to miss dinner or cause a riff at home. Some women do likewise, and they will often change back to street clothes in the bathroom. (Note: this is a good idea if you use public transit, to avoid attracting attention from thieves.)
A Milonga is all about the Music!
For me, the most important element of a milonga (besides the dancing) in Buenos Aires is the music; the volume is turned up! This explains why dancers from BAires complain about the low volume of music at milongas in California, and I also find it really difficult to deal with. The music must enter you, body and soul, so you can dance to it! If you are not enveloped in sound, this is just not going to happen.
Just about every milonga in California plays the music way too low. This would never be acceptable in Buenos Aires, and the milonga would not survive. Also noteworthy is that mostly songs with lyrics are played here. Can you imagine why?
Because the lyrics are divine! The spectacular poetry of tango gets everyone into the mood of the dance. Granted, not understanding the words makes it difficult to appreciate the lyrics, but you are missing out on a much more profound experience of the music.
A third distinguishing factor is that you are simply not going to hear non-tango music played at a BAires milonga. There are alternative milongas where nuevo music is played (sometimes called neotango), but it’s still tango. You will, however, hear rock, swing, and latin or tropical (a mix of salsa, cumbia & other latin rhythms) during the break, usually played mid-evening, depending on the DJ.
The floor fills up exponentially more for the salsa or tropical than for swing. And some milongas, like Niño Bien, Sueño Porteño and La Nacional, always play a Chacarera followed by a Zamba. These Argentine folk dances are increasingly popular in Buenos Aires. There are also dance halls called boliches that play mostly rock and latin rhythms. Taxi drivers know where to find them.
The Pulse of a Milonga
A milonga is a living thing; it has a beginning, an end, a pulse, a mood, an energy. People choose milongas because they like the music, the dancers — people they want to dance with, good level of dancers — and the opportunity to socialize — they meet up with their friends.
Milongas come and go in popularity. Perhaps this is due to the fickleness of human nature. Sometimes we crave a change, or something about the milonga changes: the DJ, the promoter, the clientele. The energy of milongas is determined by the music and the dancers.
Of course, sometimes at well-known and popular milongas the energy will just not be there, and if that happens many times, the milonga will no longer be popular or well-attended. The dance floor is also very important. Most people prefer wood, it’s perfect to pivot on, and easier on the feet. Tile is also nice for pivots and suave moves, but it’s harder on your feet. One of the largest milonga spaces in the capital is El Pial (venue of milonga La Baldosa) which has a tile floor (a baldosa is a tile).
And ladies, please note, if there is liquid spilled on the floor, KEEP AWAY, because once the bottoms of your leather shoes get wet, you will not be able to pivot easily, and your evening may be over! It takes at least an hour of dancing to dry them out. Word to the Wise: Always carry a second pair of shoes!
Milongas Come and Go
Milongas can disappear forever, sometimes from lack of popularity, or perhaps the venue is sold or torn down (like Maipu 444), or the promoters did not have the proper licensing or fire exits. Sometimes milongas are suspended for a while until the proper licenses are procured. New milongas are always appearing, and their promoters will make the rounds of all the larger, more established milongas, handing out flyers and talking to dancers to promote their incipient venues.
Sometimes the newbie milongas survive; sometimes they don’t. The largest and most established milongas have been around the longest, and these include: Sin Rumbo (“El Catedral del Tango”… the oldest continuously running milonga in BAires: 80+ years), La Gricel, Salon Canning, Niño Bien, La Nacional, Sunderland Club, El Beso, El Trovador, El Pial. This is not a complete list, not even close: there are hundreds! Some of the best times can be had at small neighborhood milongas; very few are listed; many are known by word of mouth alone. Keep in mind that milongas are not on every street corner, and less than 2% of porteños (BAires residents) dance tango.
has living in BAs changed you?
In regards to the dance, yes. One thing I’ve assimilated is the style of dancing at milongas. In the US you are taught all these complex moves which you’re never going to use. In Argentina they only do about 5 moves on the floor, but they do them so beautifully it makes you cry. Argentines are so into the music. They value finesse. It’s not how MANY moves you can do, but how well do you do them? Are you connected to your partner? Transitions here are seamless, the music envelops you completely. That is the standard here, and it has become MY standard!
Many people in the US just don’t get this. Are you dreaming of dancing a corrida, a molinete, a boleo in Buenos Aires…? Forget it! There’s no room! Also, two big differences between leaders here and in the states, are: (1) everybody dances really close in Argentina, and (2) people here actually dance to the music. Of course they grew up with the music, they know the songs. We’re missing out on so much!
why is Tango so addicting?
My personal theory is that both males and females get a hormonal charge (endorphins) from the dance itself and the physicality of the dance; and another hormonal charge (oxytocin—the same one that gets released during sex) from the physical closeness and intimacy. All humans like being in close contact with other humans; it makes us feel good. It’s not just in your mind, it’s in your DNA! All tribal peoples do this, it just feels good. And, though we may be unaware of our cultural roots, WE ARE ALL TRIBAL PEOPLES! Tango also has the poetry of its lyrics, the romance of the culture, the beauty of the music and the dance, and the tremendous social aspect of the milongas. All milongueros admit that tango is addicting. We joke about it!
Compared to other addictions, Tango isn’t so bad. I mean, I have been compelled to dance tango seven nights a week! And talk about temptation! In Buenos Aires you can start dancing at 3 in the afternoon, and continue to 6 the next morning. Do you think my time in rehab (i.e., the states) will be good for this problem?
at what point did you realize you were addicted?
I’ve talked to many people about tango addiction, including my porteño friends. Everyone knows it’s addictive… and obsessive! During my last three months in Buenos Aires I told myself I was going to stop dancing on Fridays. I was concerned that I’d become addicted. That only lasted 2 weeks… two Fridays!
THE RULES OF TANGO ADDICTION
1: you keep doing it
2: every time you do it you feel happy
3: it turns your life upside down but you don’t care.
when did you start dancing tango?
I’ve been a dancer all my life. My parents met on the dance floor. I was a belly dance instructor and performer for over 25 years. I lived in Morocco for 2 years. I listened to Middle Eastern music for so many years, I thought I could never live without it! But then I found Tango about 6 years ago. I was dabbling in a little ballroom, and a friend suggested I go to a milonga. Tango captured my body, my mind, my heart… it pierced my soul! The rest is history!
does tango take you somewhere?
Absolutely, yes. You’re focused on your partner and the music, both of you totally connected, grounded to the floor, to the earth. My eyes are closed. You don’t want external stimuli interfering with your dance; it’s an out-of-body experience. In the entire universe nothing else is happening!
For those few minutes you fall in love with that partner, deeply enjoying the music and the dance together. When you’re in that perfect state, like the perfect storm, your partner doesn’t have a name, you don’t have a name… your egos are absent, it’s just exquisite. After one of those tandas, you can almost go home…
What is your favorite Tango music?
I love the Golden Age of Tango… Canaro of course, I love Poema. Paciencia is one of my favorite songs. I love Donato, depending on my mood…. D’Arienzo, Malerba, and, oh my, Pugliese! I only want to dance Pugliese with certain people.
When they put on a Pugliese tanda, it changes everything! You need more space and more athletic ability, more focus, and a leader who is really with you. Why do they play Pugliese so late? Because you need a lot of energy to dance to Pugliese. I love di Sarli too, and the Golden Age vocalists you don’t find any more, like Fiorentino… he was a tenor of Italian heritage, from the operatic tradition.
The voice training that they had back then… wow! Modern singers aren’t nearly as dramatic, and most are not as well-trained. And Troilo, of course… I was really fortunate this last year, Buenos Aires has so many free concerts, both tango and classical. In terms of culture BAires really has it over California.
who have you studied with…
My “Número Uno” teacher in the states is Marcelo Solis [California: Bay Area]. I was fortunate to have started with him. If you train with Marcelo, you can dance with anyone.
In a private, Marcelo dances with me for a whole hour. Lisette Perelle is also a fabulous teacher, especially for technique…
and Glenn Corteza for musicality and ease of movement.
Eduardo Saucedo teaches at La Ideal in BAires, and in the States: fabulous!
And ALL the milongueros of Buenos Aires that I dance with are my teachers! When you are starting out, “sample the market” (of teachers), then stick with one, or maybe two, at the most. Don’t confuse yourself with too many “takes” on the subject, it will show in your dance. Same goes for visits to Buenos Aires.
Is the Tango scene in Buenos Aires changing?
A big change in milongas since I’ve lived in BAires is the door prizes. During half-time at the milongas (usually about 1:00 or 2:00 am) there are door prizes, based on your ticket number. A few years ago, a pair or two of shoes was given away each evening, plus lesser prizes, like a bottle of champagne, wine, tickets to the next milonga, a tango CD, or tango apparel. These days, it may be partial credit towards a pair of shoes, or a drawing for shoes only once or twice monthly, partial credit for Tango clothing, fewer bottles of champagne (always shared with others at your table… Porteños LOVE champagne!) and even pizza vouchers — reflections of a much weaker economy. Another indication of the economic downturn is that some milongueros will only attend one milonga per evening, whereas in the past, they may have attended two or three. An entrada now averages 35 pesos (about US$7.00) and a non-alcoholic beverage 15 pesos (US$3.00). The price of a drink depends on the venue, and can be very expensive, especially if you want American whiskey.
But a glass of local wine is still only about $3. Then there are the taxi fares, which jumped considerably in mid-2012, after having already doubled on New Year’s Day 2012. Any food you get at a milonga in BAires is paid for just like in a restaurant, unlike in the states, where a table (or several tables) of nibbles like fruits and veggies, chips and dips, cheese and crackers, sodas, water and wine are usually free, and are often provided potluck style. If you eat and drink well at a California milonga, the $10-$12 door price is a bargain!
The Argentine economic downturn is a reflection of the world economic crisis. Many Argentines believe that another big “restructuring” is on its way. Now, in December,  it’s high season for Tango tourism, with lots of visitors from the States, Asia, Australia, and Europe. It’s the warmest time of year in the Southern Cone. December 1st is International Tango Day, where thousands dance to live Tango orchestras in the streets of Buenos Aires. It’s a great place to meet people from all over the world.
Can you describe a perfect lead?
First and foremost somebody who KNOWS what he’s trying to do. There’s nothing worse than a weak lead… and you cannot change a lead-idea in midstream. A good leader has confidence, he just LEADS!… Even if YOU think a step is difficult, it won’t be, if he leads it properly! A good leader makes it almost impossible for you to take a wrong step.
Argentine men, even if they’re not great dancers, have a confident embrace, a decisive lead. They say women come from all over the world to feel this embrace… it’s true! One thing that has surprised me is that not all men can dance milonga well, even Argentine men! So, it isn’t genetic after all? To dance milonga well you must listen to the music… if you don’t catch the beat, you won’t get the flavor of the dance.
What about followers… what are our worst sins…?
Even if my leader is not the greatest, or not at my level, I try to give him my total attention. I give him the best dance I can. I don’t look around the room. If you focus on that moment, that leader, that bubble of time you have with him, your dance with him will be so much better… you can make him look better than he ever has! I must say that in BAires, lots of Porteñas cultivate the Little Orphan Annie look, occasionally frowning, or raising an eyebrow while dancing with a bad lead.
But you can better your dance by always maintaining your structure, executing your movements elegantly, maintaining your dance integrity no matter what. I’ve only ever had to walk off the floor if I thought someone was dangerous to me or to others…. or if someone was man-handling me in a sexual way.
do you dance differently on a crowded floor?
Well, obviously, on a crowded floor, where you may advance only 20 feet per song, your steps should be well underneath your body, no overextended leg; shrink your bubble! Try to not get upset if you are grazed by someone else’s heel. You can dance the same steps, but as baby steps… or steps in place… covering very little ground. You can make it look good!
what advice would you give to beginners?
The most important thing in tango is your basics. Glenn Corteza puts it very well: “your dance is only as good as your basic.” Skip the advanced classes, take the basics classes over and over. Everybody’s in such a hurry to learn fancy moves. What becomes most enjoyable is executing a step seamlessly, effortlessly, with the music… that’s the beauty of Tango. Be totally in the moment.
I think beginners should stay beginners for a long time. Even if you never advance beyond the basics, if you move exquisitely, gracefully, you don’t need anything else. Don’t tell yourself, “oh, that was bad.” There is no such thing as bad tango. There is no such thing as good tango. Tango just IS.
Milonga Resources and Cabeceos:
The milonga listings are a great resource in BAires, and can be picked up for free at most milongas, tango shoe stores, and other tango venues. They list milongas day-by-day, with milonga names, the venue name and location, starting and ending times, and names and telephone numbers of milonga organizers. You will also find listings of Tango schools, teachers, and prácticas.
There are quite a few really good milonga websites as well, some with videos, so you can get a sense of the atmosphere of each particular milonga. I still favor the little milonga listings booklet, which fits right into your shoe bag. It’s always a good idea to call and reserve a table for the milonga, to avoid being seated in the back or behind a pillar, where it will be more difficult to catch a cabeceo. Check out <hoy-milonga.com>.
Can you explain cabeceos?
Ah yes, cabeceos! The system here to ask, or be asked to dance, is called cabeceo. It’s based on eye contact. Men are usually seated on one side of the dance floor, women on the other, and couples at the ends; sometimes a slight variation on this theme. To get asked to dance, you scan the room, trying to catch the eye of someone you would like to dance with, or looking across to see if someone is trying to catch your eye.
Eye contact is followed by a nod of acknowledgement, or raising of the eyebrows. The better you are at this, the more you will dance.
Be aware that in touristy milongas such as Confiteria Ideal or Salon Canning, you may be approached at your table, instead of cabeceo’d. In traditional tango culture this is considered extremely rude! So you can Just Say NO. The guys do this because so many foreign women do not understand the cabeceo code. If I am approached this way, I usually smile my best smile and say “porque no cabeceo?” No reason to be bitchy about it.
What is a typical day for you?
I sleep late! In the afternoons I take classes, get groceries, meet friends for coffee, do ART….. I’m a Plein Air painter, an Impressionist. I do landscapes in oil, and watercolors when I’m traveling. I like to eat a big meal about 3 pm, then take a nap and think about the milongas I’m going to that evening. These days, with all the matinee milongas, you don’t have to be a vampire anymore. Of course it’s a different crowd at the early milongas.
…and the food?
Beef is king here, and it is wonderful! However, vegetarian restaurants are sprouting up here and there, excellent Italian pastas and pizza are everywhere, and chicken is on most restaurant menus. The food is bland, spices are not prevalent, everything is too salty, and high fat abounds. I prefer the Peruvian food, it is very tasty, with complex flavors: more of a “cuisine” than Argentine food. There are lots of McDonald’s and Burger Kings here, and why anyone would want one of their offerings instead of a nice Argentine steak is beyond me! The medialunas (small croissants) are to die for, as well as dulce de leche anything!
what about Argentine fashion?
Argentine women like to dress!! As Amy Lincoln says, they’re “well put together.”They wear lots of creative (but not expensive) jewelry, big earrings, scarves, lots of bling! In the US, black is practically the uniform at milongas, but not here. Argentine women do wear a lot of black, but they also wear pretty, lighter colors.
In California, people tend to dress down. Here in Buenos Aires mostly younger women dress down, but you can always spot someone in a sequined dress. “Dress-up” was my favorite game when I was little, so you know where I’m going with this theme! In my opinion, Argentine women dress and look sexier than American women. Not all men wear suits anymore, but usually nice trousers and shirts; only foreigners wear cargo pants or jeans — and a few stray Porteños!
did you fall in love with the dance, or the music…?
Because I’m a dancer I can’t separate the two. It’s like a combo plate, you can’t buy one without the other!
how long have you been in Buenos Aires?
I moved here in the fall of 2011… I’m not sure when I’ll leave… if ever?
Ciao from Diana Howell in Buenos Aires!