In Tango, the truth is that people like to dance with their friends. So, that means your FIRST job is make friends. Then, dance. You canʼt skip #1.
Making friends, in Tango and elsewhere, involves genuinely caring about people and sharing parts of yourself, consistently and persistently over time and in a variety of contexts.
Here are some ideas about how you can put yourself into the mood of Tango and friendship at your first milonga!
1. Dress the part
Wear your Tango-iest outfit! Youʼll look like a tango dancer and feel more confident. Doing things that make you personally feel confident is a part of your technique. Tango-ey clothes for women are dresses or harem pants. For men, being Tangoiness is quickly evoked by wearing a nice shirt -- and heck, you can go as far as you want -- jacket, tie, vest, suspenders, the whole getup.
If you are planning to go to a milonga, I assume that you already have some Tango shoes and you have done some dancing in them. Shinier shoes are more Tango-ey!
Take time to get yourself ready for the milonga. Ideally you can even take a nap and wake up refreshed, looking forward to this special night. Take a shower and be sure your body, hair and breath are totally and undeniably fresh. If you are going out to eat before the milonga, bring your toothbrush & toothpaste. Guys, if you think you may sweat, bring an extra shirt and a towel.
2. Bring something to share
Tango is very much about community. By sharing something of yourself, you can be integrated more quickly and easily.
You can bring ACTUAL things to share or just conversational themes. Bring a bottle of wine (and a corkscrew) and offer some to the group of nice people that you met so easily since you arrived so early (see next tip). Or bring some cupcakes or homemade banana bread.
Before the milonga, think about a theme that you are interested in and ready to share or talk about. For instance, the theme could be “good hikes around LA” or anything that is personally relevant to you.
3. Get there right at the beginning
Most milongas in the US donʼt get revved up until around 11 or midnight and so the first hour is pretty sparse -- making it a perfect situation for you to dance a little bit. Ideally, arrange to arrive exactly at the scheduled start time. If you tell a classmate or two to meet you there then, you have guaranteed partners, good music, and plenty of time and space to get acclimated to the event. You can also get to know the organizer, who will be very happy to see you, a little better and ask any questions you have.
4. You have something to offer
Remember, you are auditioning this community. It needs you as much as you need it! To put it into perspective, the Tango scene is still TINY, much tinier than salsa or swing or ballroom dancing. We all feel it when someone new, curious, and passionate joins the scene and itʼs very exciting.
Tango is a gift-based economy and works only because a lot of people give generously of their time, ideas, talents, and resources.
Try and find out who does what in this community. If you want to, you can be part of that right off the bat by volunteering to help out with the milonga, do a door-shift, or help clean up. Helping out can connect you with the truth that you have something to offer, and also be a nice way to meet people.
5. Show your passion
Have genuine questions ready. You may want to think about this and jot down a few before you arrive. Show that you care about Tango! When you are at the milonga, focus outward, not inward. Actively observe the scene -- donʼt zone out, donʼt indulge in obsessive self-reflective thinking. As you observe, try to notice specific things. For instance, study how people ask for/invite dances. Or, pick one couple on the floor and see how they travel over the course of one song. See how much you can learn just by watching. This will also give you more ideas for intelligent questions you can ask.
If you happen to meet a more experienced dancer, ask them questions about whatʼs going on, like “Who is really good here? Who do you like to watch? How do you like the music/DJ tonight? How do you decide who you are going to dance with?” Experienced dancers also love to tell the tale of how they got into Tango.
Important: If you want to ask the DJ a question, which is fine, wait until the 2nd song in the tanda. Thatʼs usually when s/he is the least busy. During the cortinas, the DJs are usually occupied with coordinating volume for the cortina and next tanda.
6. Be nice to everybody
We are a very close-knit community. Whatever you do or say, you should assume that someone who you want to impress will hear about it. Keep your heart in the right place always. Itʼs just a good policy for life in general. Guys, if you are sleazy, smell bad, or are rough, believe me, the girl you just danced with WILL tell her girlfriends. Girls, if you are rude, snobbish, or mean, the guys will tell each other too. I remember two different beginner guys that I was snotty to...well, now, theyʼre both awesome dancers (and pros). Yup, it could happen, and probably will!
Treat everyone like theyʼre going to be part of your life for the next several decades.
7. Be aware of the effects of your body language
Your goal should be that the person across the room will think it is pleasant to be around you! Donʼt fold your arms, donʼt stare out into space or at the floor.
If you are in a genuinely happy and magnetic mood then you will most likely smile easily when people look at you, look directly into peopleʼs eyes, and laugh easily when interacting with others! Donʼt stay in the same place for more than a handful of songs, because then you start to look stagnant and passive. And come on, donʼt look at your iPhone.
Million Tanda Tip: Our controlled research studies have shown that people are more likely to be invited if you are standing up vs. sitting down. While you dance, focus on the dance. Look at your partner, or close your eyes.
Visually focusing on the dance as it happens lets you enjoy the dance more, and also makes others see that you know how connect.
If you feel shaky or nervous, it might be that youʼre just emotional. Strong emotions are great for your Tango, and practically all Tango dancers find that emotions can play a constructive role in dancing. So welcome your emotions. (With thanks to Johnny for this! Reading his post for boxers preparing for their first fight helped me realize the constructive role of emotions at a dancerʼs first milonga too.)
8. If you're going to lead, have a plan
What you will lead
You should go to your first milonga knowing exactly what you are going to lead. You are ready for a milonga if you have 2-4 elements that you know how to lead nicely, such as, for instance: The Ocho Cortado, The Back Side Cross (ʻMilongueroʼ) Turn to the Left; and the Cruzada from Crossed System. Being able to lead an element nicely means that it is completely in your muscle memory to the point of automaticity, so your attention is free and you can think about your partner, the music, and the navgivation instead of HOW to lead the element. This level of automaticity usually sets in after youʼve led it correctly between 100-500 times in a class or practica situation.
At your first milonga, your mission is to lead ONLY the things that you absolutely know.
How long you will dance
Now I assume you know that Tango DJs play the music in tandas, and that each tanda is 3 or 4 songs. Usually itʼs 4 if they are Tangos, and 3 if they are Milongas or Valses. Once you ask someone to dance, itʼs normal to keep dancing until the tanda is over. Oftentimes, beginning leaders donʼt want to dance 4 whole songs with a single partner, but they DO have 1 or 2 good dances to offer. If thatʼs the case, then just count the songs in the tanda and invite someone to dance at the beginning of the 3rd or 4th song. This is a great strategy for testing the waters -- for instance if you feel a connection with someone you donʼt know well, or who looks very skilled/experienced.
9. Stay til the end
Wait and listen and watch. Wait til itʼs really totally over before you take off. You become part of the crowd this way. Maybe you will be invited to breakfast or a late night snack -- and thatʼs where you will get the inside scoop, especially if you have a couple of intelligent questions on your mind.
See, you need to prove to us that you have staying power. Tango people see a zillion people come and go. How do we know youʼre not just going to be one of those people who did Tango for like 2 seconds and then decided it “wasnʼt for them”? Prove to us why we should take you seriously!
If you have to leave before the end, you should take the time to say goodbye in a nice way, just as you would if you were leaving a party that at someoneʼs home. Itʼs great if you can specifically and swiftly thank any people who helped make your evening particularly great, such as the DJ, the host, or anyone you had a nice dance with. (This wonʼt always be possible, because those people may just be too busy.)
10. Use Facebook wisely
Many Tango dancers are on Facebook. Itʼs a good way to find out about events, coordinate carpools, make plans, see milonga photos. But everyone has their own Facebook MO and boundaries. Mostly it makes sense to friend people if youʼre in the same “tango generation” as them, roughly at the same level, and you have a nice friendship connection. No need to friend every pro you meet or take a class from; let them make the first gesture. However, you can send them a note letting them know how much you enjoyed their class or event.
Tell us how your first milonga was! Weʼd like to hear if this was helpful to you, and particularly if you have more ideas about what can make the someoneʼs first milonga more fun.
All these beautiful Tango images were taken at a real Oxygen Milonga in LA by our friend and dancer Sriram V Eleswarapu. Here's his whole O2 album!