Friday, 31 October 2014

Milonga problems

I wrote here about the kind of control organisers of Buenos Aires milonga have, which is rarely visible since the rules are by general agreement. Nevertheless, organisers can and do ask visitors to leave if the guidelines are breached, if they feel a guy has been disrespectful to a woman, if a couple dances without due care for other dancers, if a couple or an individual are upsetting people in other ways. London's 'secret milonga' has recreated the order this brings to a milonga by using the structure of a members' club. Only people who are generally courteous can join, and the result is a regular afternoon of relaxed dance. (Sorry to call it the 'secret milonga': of course it has a name, but I wouldn't want people turning up hoping to get in as they'd be disappointed, and the organiser would be obliged to turn them away.)

The 'encuentro movement' is the background to this. Encuentros must have started seven or eight years ago on long holiday weekends in Europe, promising five or six separate milongas on a good floor with good DJs. New events rapidly sprang up all over, events that are role-balanced, with advance booking, where there's agreement about codigos, with the use of mirada and cabeceo, and respect for the floor and the line of dance. Websites like tangofestivals list events: next month, November, seven events are listed, in Istanbul, Italy, Switzerland, Germany (two events), Slovenia, and Lebanon. Of course there's a local base, but there are people from all over, the 'encuentro set', who can afford the time and cost of travel and accommodation to spend regular weekends dancing in a variety of destinations. London's 'secret milonga' offers a similar experience in terms of quality of environment, but monthly and always in the same hall.

One reason why the 'encuentro movement' and the 'secret milonga' have been so successful is that they are highly organised events. You know you will enjoy excellent music and uniformly courteous behaviour. Some of our regular milongas have made a point of presenting good music, and they are agreeably lively events, but the floor can still be confused and difficult, despite suggestions from some of the organisers. From a Buenos Aires perspective our milongas might be poorly organised, as the organisers have little control over what happens in them, and sometimes even little interest in controlling what happens in them, but they are regular sociable events, they really are 'encuentros', meeting places open to all.

Organisers here won't object much to how you behave and how you dance, even if they aren't happy, because they need the admission money, and in any case they don't have the traditional authority of the 'organisador'. The number of tango events seems to increase faster than interest in the dance, and hiring spaces in London is expensive. You might not notice that milongas can struggle to make ends meet. The number of events across Europe has increased the competition, and it's noticeable how quiet weekend milongas (even the 'secret milonga') can be if there's a popular event elsewhere. Of course, every quiet milonga means a reduction in takings, which is probably going to hurt the organisers. This is beginning to create a real problem for London milongas, and there's no easy solution.

So, a highly organised encuentro, or an encuentro that's open to all-comers? Or both? I enjoy the organisation at least once a month although I wouldn't want it all the time. & I look at Normarin1's videos and really hope that London milongas will look like this in a not-too-distant future, busy, cheerful, affectionate, orderly, and with good dancing. Her videos are an invaluable guide to social tango. There's much to learn from them, whether you prefer your 'encuentros' highly or lightly organised.

But if I were asked to choose I'd say: reduce your carbon footprint! Support your local milongas! It might take time, but they will change if enough of us want change.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Norma Marin has a YouTube channel, Normarin1, to which she uploads films of Buenos Aires milongas. Most evenings she goes out dancing and takes her little camera with her. Often she records complete tandas. Performances of live music and dance get uploaded too, although mostly she films social dancing, the social dancing of her friends to judge by the number of people who wave and smile at the camera. In the past week alone she has uploaded 30 videos, 30 tangos. The channel has been there since July 2011 so now it's an archive of thousands of tangos.

The milongas she goes to aren't the big beasts of the Buenos Aires tango world, the ones we've seen over and over in clips, Lujos, Cachirulo, Lo de Celia and the like, where the 'old masters' enjoy themselves night after night. The fascinating thing about her films is that the milongas she films seem to be attended by 'ordinary' people, and I get a sense of a cross-section of society from her films. These really are social events people attend to enjoy themselves, meet, chat and dance. The atmosphere seems a lot less formal than the better-known milongas, and I find the milongas she films very likeable, milongas like Aló Lola y La Yumba de Dorita (Sunday nights at El Obelisco), Milonga de Los Gomias, Febril y Amante held in Gricel on Wednesdays, Matiné de Lunes Tango, Rivadavia Club Tango and so on. Likeable to watch, but perhaps not to visit to dance unless you speak good Spanish, as these milongas seem to be social events as much as dance events. Some perhaps more so than others.

I only discovered all this recently and I was instantly hooked. I find it easy to sit and relax and watch a few tandas, as if I was sitting there on the edge of the floor. So many stories! That young couple, perhaps at their first milonga, her shoes borrowed maybe from an older sister. That older guy who dances so smoothly and leads with such easy grace. The couple who've obviously practised their intricate footwork together. Occasionally a couple who look as if they're practicing for the 'campeonato'. Ladies (and guys) whose feet seem to move precisely and neatly, others who are a lot less tidy. The experienced and the inexperienced of all ages. I came across one extraordinary clip in which a woman starts to laugh loudly at the beginning of a tango and dances through it, whoops of audible laughter throughout, and is still laughing at the end! What did he say to her? Unrestrained laughter: you don't often hear it. & nobody seemed bothered: amused perhaps, but not disapproving. It seems to be a very tolerant, relaxed crowd. I get a sense of real society: these are people who know each other, or at least know who the others are. Perhaps not a barrio milonga in the old sense, but a sense of shared identity. A lot more shared identity than you'd expect in London, I think. People who have probably lived through a lot of difficulty together, supported each other through the years of the 'dictadura' and the aftermath, as well as, most likely, the disappearance of their savings in 2002.

I enjoy watching the dancing. It's easy, relaxed, uncomplicated. I've never noticed anyone rushing through the beat in these clips, no stepping early, which is common enough in London. Nothing complicated – but it's generally done well, good basics, which is always a pleasure to watch. A slower dance, perhaps the sensuality is more overt, there's no straining for effect, nothing forced, just people relaxed and enjoying the dancing. The floors are mostly crowded – and the lighting is excellent! It makes leading a lot easier when you can get an idea of who is around you from a quick glance.

As to the variety of people, I remember a friend who's visited many times and stayed for months telling me: you get to dance with all kinds of people in the milongas there. In London it's more limited. You certainly meet interesting people in London milongas, but it's very far from being a cross-section of London society. Up till now, anyway! But then in Buenos Aires everyone shares the background of the music; even if they don't dance they know the music.

Normarin1 has a sort of mission statement on her channel: 'The aim is to show milongas from the inside, to see tango in its full expression, the dancers in the milongas, the professionals, the orquestas, the singers, and much more, and all for free'.

Thank you, Norma Marin!

PS: I suggested rashly that the better-known dancers aren't at these milongas, then opened a very recent clip from the Matiné de Lunes Tango with Roberto Segarra who has just turned 94 in the foreground. (The link is to a birthday vals with Adela Galeazzi.) & there must be others I wouldn't recognise.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Between tangos: shaving

Someone told me this story recently:

'I hadn't met her before; we made eye contact, and agreed to dance. As we embraced, I noticed that her cheeks were naturally well-coloured, but in particular the right. We danced: at first we made contact cheek-to-cheek, and then she shifted her head awkwardly, and couldn't quite find a place she found comfortable.

'I'm sorry about that' she said between tangos, 'but I've just danced with two guys who hadn't shaved, and I dance close, and it's really made my skin sore.' She pointed to her right cheek: not only was it redder than the left, but also it was slightly swollen. She touched my cheek. 'You're fairly smooth' she said. 'Normally that wouldn't bother me, but my cheek is really sore.' I was astonished: to my knowledge I've never danced with anyone whose skin is that sensitive. Anyway, she settled on a position with her ear close to mine, and we enjoyed the rest of the tanda. Perhaps the position wasn't ideal, but it gave us a stable head contact.'

There you go, guys. Not everyone will appreciate that designer stubble when you go dancing.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

London milongas

Jantango left a comment on my post At Last:

'Are you keeping the venue a secret so those who prefer verbal invitations won't attend? By all means, publish the name, place, and the organizers who deserve the credit.'

It's not that I'm keeping anything secret, and I didn't intend to give that impression: it's just that as I said, this particular milonga is for members only so I've avoided names. Since only members are admitted, it might waste people's time and money if I publicised it, and told everyone how bookings are made; non-members won't be admitted even if they've bought tickets. My aim is to suggest that there is another way milongas can be organised here, and as places for women in particular tend to sell out within minutes of booking opening it's clear that this model is successful. I should have made the general idea clearer. In any case, if tickets sell out that fast, it doesn't need publicity.

'Tickets? You mean you have to book in advance?' I don't know why that's so extraordinary, but it does shock some people. You have to make a commitment in advance to go there? Yes, just like going to a concert or a theatre. Why not?

This isn't a model that makes much sense from a BsAs perspective, not at first anyway. But when you think about it, the 'organizador' there isn't just the person who books the hall and a DJ, and does some advertising. There's also a strong social connection between the organizador and the people who come to dance. They expect the organizador to guarantee and maintain standards of behaviour, on and off the dance floor: the organizador has a responsibility to the people who pay to come to the milonga to maintain standards of behaviour, and consequently has the authority to enforce standards. Here, if you pay to enter a milonga, you have the right to do more or less as you please. But if you transfer the whole transaction to a club level, with membership, then the organiser has authority. The fact that reminding people of codes of behaviour can be done via emails makes it easier.

So, if you are fed up with poor standards of dance and behaviour in your local milongas, it's worth looking at this possibility. It's an informal club, and membership is by recommendation by two existing members. Members agree that dancing is close embrace, with courtesy to your partner and to the rest of the floor. There's a limited number of places, which ensures that the floor doesn't become unreasonably crowded, and that lead and follow numbers are approximately equal. The rules recommend a certain degree of good dressing. It certainly works in terms of guaranteeing a calm, enjoyable afternoon of dance, and I think it's sent a message to London tango, that there needs to be a certain level of agreement on general behaviour. For instance, it's more likely now in other milongas that if you enter the line of dance with a partner you check that the lead approaching in the line of dance is aware that you are there. Before, it was normal that couples simply blundered into the line of dance regardless. (When people danced 'open' they could be aware of newcomers to the line of dance, but if you dance close the lead's view to the right is usually blocked by his/her partner's head, so this has become a problem.)

The limitation of this club arrangement is that there's only a small variation in the people who are there, and I think we all enjoy the random nature of the regular, 'open' milonga, where you dance with and meet new people, as well as old friends. But for any social event to be enjoyable to everyone there needs to be a certain level of acceptable practice. Perhaps we need to work out just how what is acceptable is made known and how it is 'enforced'. (That word is too strong, but I can't think of another one.) One of our regular 'open' milongas has now drawn up a code of behaviour, and the organiser draws attention to it. Since it is all quite basic stuff, perhaps if all London milongas adopted it, even using exactly the same wording, it could very quickly become normal.