Andrew Allison, September 11, 2005
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Igor: " This article is written by Andrew Allison, a tango dancer from Carmel. It covers most important topics in tango etiquette":
Argentine Tango is a social dance and, as at any social event, certain rules of behavior need to be observed so that everybody may enjoy the milonga experience. The basic one is "The Golden Rule," i.e., do unto others, which at a milonga means respect the space of the other couples on the floor.
When not dancing, don't impede the line of dance (LOD) by standing around chatting or walk on the dance floor when the music is playing unless absolutely necessary; if you must walk on the floor, stay at the edge and remember that it is your responsibility to stay out of the way of those dancing.
Leaders: Insert yourself into the line-of-dance (LOD) in the same way that you would enter a freeway in your car, with consideration for the traffic. Do this by making eye contact with a leader and obtaining consent to enter their space, then immediately start moving with the flow (think of your own reaction while driving when somebody pulls out in front of you then slows to a crawl).
Stay in the LOD. In a crowded milonga there may be concentric LODs – choose one and stay in it unless moving to/from the center to execute static patterns, i.e., don't execute static patterns in the LOD. Move to the center as carefully as if changing lanes on the freeway, and return to the LOD in the same way.
Don't step backwards, i.e., eliminate "1" from your dance vocabulary; don't lead your partner behind you unless you are sure the way is clear; don't overtake unless absolutely necessary and, if it is necessary, do so only on the left not on the right (blind) side of the leader in front of you. Don't lead ganchos, boleos and other "big" movements unless you've determined that your partner won't kick somebody. It is always a follower's option not to perform these, or any other movements, if she thinks them unsafe.
Watch the couples around you not your feet or your partner, don't crowd or impede other dancers, and never teach on the dance floor during a dance – that's what lessons and practicas are for! Remember, too, that the leader proposes a movement then follows his partner's response, i.e., don't drag a follower thorough whatever is was you wanted to do!
Asking for a dance
There is a charming, face-saving convention involving eye contact – the cabeceo. Followers scan the leaders and make eye contact with anybody with whom they want to dance. The leader then either breaks eye contact, signifying that he doesn't want to dance or raises his eyebrows and/or makes a subtle head nod toward the dance floor. The follower answers by either smiling and nodding back, or by breaking off eye contact. This ensures that no follower is invited by a leader with whom she doesn't want to dance, and no leader suffers the embarrassment of being refused. Once the follower is certain that the leader is on his way to her, she may stand and elect to meet him at the edge of the dance floor (this reduces the chance that another follower will think the invitation was for her). You can also do it the good old American way: "Would you like to dance?", but it is rude not to take the first "no thank you" for an answer.
It is considered impolite to invite somebody you know for the last dance of a tanda, since it implies that you want to dance only one dance. This does, however, provide a good way to find out how well somebody you don't know dances. This is especially true for leaders: an experienced follower who is not dancing by the last dance of a tanda will usually risk one dance with an unknown leader.
It is rude not to wait until a potential partner has come off the dance floor before inviting her to dance (there may be somebody waiting for her), extremely rude to interrupt conversations to extend an invitation, and even worse to simply walk up to someone and hold out your hand as if calling your dog for a walk. It is also conventional not to invite a follower who is eating or smoking. In South America, if a leader invites a member of a couple, it is considered polite to obtain the man's consent (in Montevideo, one of a couple wishing to invite a member of another couple to dance will often bring their partner and extend a joint invitation). It's OK for a follower to directly ask a leader for a dance in most tango communities in North America and Europe, but don't try it in Buenos Aires! Always use the cabeceo there.
At a milonga, serious dancers (leaders and followers) often won't dance with somebody they haven't seen dance, so both leaders and followers need somebody to show them off when arriving at a milonga where they are not known. By the way, showing off the follower is a big part of tango – keep her between you and the edge of the floor as much as possible. Always remember that we were all beginners once.
Declining a dance
If the leader is too dense to recognize that you broke, or worse yet never made, eye contact, just say "No, thank you", with or without a big smile. This is important! If followers allow themselves to be pressured into dances they don't want or otherwise accede to rude behavior, they encourage it. Followers have the absolute right to decline to dance with anyone, at any time (even if they are already dancing), for any reason. You may wish to offer a courteous excuse such as, "I am resting/would rather not dance to this music, etc.," to soften the refusal, and if you would like to dance with this partner some other time, be sure to say so.
Establishing the embrace
It is the follower's absolute prerogative to establish the closeness of the embrace and rude for a leader to apply any sort of pressure, physical or verbal, to do so: The leader usually holds out his left hand, the follower takes it and then places her left hand wherever she wishes (from the leader's upper arm, signaling a desire for open embrace, to the back of the neck or beyond for close embrace). Only then should the leader complete the embrace. If the leader doesn't extend his hand, the follower places her left hand to establish the embrace.
Ending the engagement
"Thank you" is the conventional way of saying, "I want to stop dancing." Use other phrases if you want to continue. It's perfectly acceptable to break after one, two or three dances, or even (for followers) in the middle of a dance, if you are uncomfortable with your partner's dancing or other behavior.
Leaders: As a courtesy to the follower and the other leaders present, "release" her at the end of a tanda. This is traditionally signified by a "cortina" of some non-tango music (note to DJs: this is one reason why it's important to have cortinas! Another is to prepare the dancers for a change in the music).
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These notes were synthesized from Clay Nelson's comments on floorcraft after TangoFest 2003, the etiquette posting, and my own studies. See also. Suggestions and comments welcomed. Andrew@AAllison.com. Last revised: September 11, 2005.