The Magic of the Milonga
Updated: Nov 21, 2021
Why is dancing Tango, close-embrace, in a milonga a special experience? And why is it so different from other ballroom dance?
Why is it that advertisers reference Tango to imply intense passion? It started long ago with “Two to Tango”.
But what does it mean?
“As so often in art, the most intimate experiences, the ones we struggle to verbalise and can express, perhaps only through metaphor -- whether in words and images or through the extended metaphor that is dance -- the ones we hesitate to confess, the ones that feel most central to our most secret selves -- those are the ones that others will relate to most strongly and profoundly”.
“I remember how intuitive it can feel, as if you were a stream of water flowing downhill, simply tracing out the path of least resistance. And yet you are both the water and the sailor, traversing an archipelago of touch and sound, trailing your hand over the side of the boat for the joy of submerging your fingers in the foamy water”.
“At its best, it feels like being transported. There are no conscious decisions to make, everything is intuitive response,….., to the feeling of hand curled in yours and a back warm beneath your fingers, to the serotonin and oxytocin diffusing through your bloodstream, to the tiny thicket of hairs in your inner ear, swaying like seaweed at the tidal tug of a violin's sound-waves”.
“And yet everything is also a joyful, deliberate choice, not passive but empowering”.
“Tango has been such a central part of my life, my psyche. It's taught me so much about human relationships, about self-expression, about what is important”.
“….. it's been almost two years since have I danced. Yet if I focus I can still remember it all, as vividly as if I just had woken groggily, blinking mole-like in the porteño sunlight and gulping down the bitter tang of a badly made cortado, after a night at Cachirulo”.
Many of the modern Tango celebrities, including Chicho Frumboli and Aoniken Quirigo, have made pleas for dancers to understand the difference between demonstration/performance and the milonga, and to understand and respect the milonga, that is the heart and essence of Tango.
Quiroga said, in a recent post, “I suffer because in the current situation, the codes that raised me have been lost; where respect for the neighbour is destroyed by ego-centrism; where the word MAESTRO is used for any “cachivach” (roughly translates as “trash”) and where the great performers of music like TROILO O PUGLIESE are ignored because "they are difficult”; where the milonga became a stage where everyone wants to be the protagonist and are willing to do anything to show it...And this makes me suffer, because the result is that I, like so many other tangueros, ended up choosing not to go to the milongas, because sometimes it seems like a battle already lost…."
Let’s step back to the emergence of big city milongas in Buenos Aires
My (Facebook) amigo, Raul Cabral, says:
"In an annual survey in Argentina, Juan D ' Arienzo is still regarded as the most popular dance music for Tango. His music kicked off the “Golden Age of Tango” 1935. With Biagi on piano, they developed a driving dance rhythm. In a few years, the tango was danced in Buenos Aires ′′ to under the beds ′′ (popular expression, meaning “in every corner”). By the 1940’s he was joined by the orchestras that innovated, dominated and continue to reign in the dance scene, Troilo, Pugliese, Di Sarli, to name the most celebrated ones, together with large numbers other Tango orchestras. Canaro, Firpo and others maintained a connection with older times. De Caro pushed the limits, and pointed the direction for the later orchestras.
But where was the best dancing developing, downtown or in the neighbourhoods?
In the centre of the city, amongst the cabarets, dance halls, headquarters of all kinds of social clubs, and the many ethnicities that populated Argentina, formed a heady mix of cabarets, clubs and venues dedicated to tango dances and other beats. And in the middle of that, the crowded milongas, with no space to dance.
Some popular phrases of the day were: ′′ You have to know how to dance to come downtown ′′ or ′′ The best dancers are in the centre “.
In almost non-existent spaces, you danced with other quasi-stuck couples, with few figures, in the closest embrace. There you had to train yourself to dance with your whole body in this confined space, not just with your legs. You learned to express your dance with your whole body, with rhythm and great connection.
With all these influences, Buenos Aires developed a unique dance, where Tango was the rhythm of the milongas.
The detractors of the close-embrace, “milonguero” style, from its beginning, tried to belittle it, with names such as: ′′ short dance ", ′′ downtown ", ′′ petiter ′′ (young people who inhabited the city and the northern neighbourhood, distinguished by their form of dress and dance, to the dance without figures), ′′ cut ocho ", ′′ traditional “, and the ′′ 1-2-3 ′′rhythm to vary the tango compass.
Following the revival of Tango in the 1990’s, many Tango converts made the pilgrimage to Buenos Aires, the spiritual home of Tango.
And what did they find there?
The Tango of the Milongas - a heady, entrancing, seductive mix that inspired them to continue to spread Tango around the world. A seemingly relatively simple looking dance that leaves them wanting more.
There is still a personal variety in the way “milonguero” tango is danced. However, there are several features that make the dance unique.
Raul says, “Dance to the “compass”, means changing weight on the emphatic beat of the music. (1,3). Tango stepping is square, where the steps are constant, from the beginning to the end, like dancing with a metronome” while introducing the “double-time” step (the classic 1,2,3 of milonguero Tango)”. This is mostly true, though, as the music became more complex, understanding where and how to pause with the music became more important.
The dance appears simple to the uninitiated viewer. Its complexity is not displayed in obvious, observable movements. Its complexity is in the communication between partners, the music, and the room; it is not obvious to the casual viewer. It is this complexity that takes years of concentrated effort to master, not unlike learning to master a difficult musical instrument.
The music itself is complex; polyphonic rhythms, with the classic instruments (piano, violin, contra-bass, and bandoneon) passing the and sharing the rhythm and the melody that floats above. Interpreting the music, at the same time as giving to your partner and respecting and responding to other dance couples around you, takes concentrated effort and flawless automatic technique. It is part of the reason that Tango is danced in silence. It is impossible to achieve a reasonable dance while your mind is on idle chatter.
But there is something else. The confluence of the music, the dance, the crowds and the need for human attachment and comfort, created, perhaps accidentally, an special energy that until recently was known, but hard to describe. Leaving a big milonga at 3am, “walking on a cloud”, is a feeling that many have experienced.
From recent study, we now know that, when people work together, or meditate together, their brain patterns begin to align. In a good milonga, each dance couple is communicating silently, guided by the music, as well as communicating with neighbouring couples and the entire room, as it slowly turns. An entire room of people are, literally, “on the same wavelength”. This, together with entering a “flow state” (achieving a skill, without consciously thinking about technique), the emotion of the music, the dance and human contact, creates a powerful energy that is uplifting and energising.
This is the magic of the milonga.
In our smaller milongas around the world, this milonga feeling can be replicated, to a degree. It does require a careful music selection to maintain a wave of emotion, without being too disruptive. It also requires dancers to circulate together, as a couple, and in the room; all doing much the same thing, within each persons capacity.
It is the reason why couples performing exhibition figures, voleos and kicks in a milonga, feels disruptive and out of place. It’s not that there is anything wrong with exhibition, it’s just that it tends to break the spell of a milonga that is reaching for a different emotional experience.
It is why, in Argentina, Milongas are reserved for the connected social dance, with all the tradition and codes that wrap around it, that is so precious, even to the modern exhibition dancers, as expressed by Frumboli and Quirigo. The more individual pleasure of exhibition figures is reserved for Practicas.