When tango cultures cross

DSCF2803One of the first in depth conversations I had in 2008 was about tango. Actually it was more than that. It was a discussion, an exploration of ideas, a negotiation. And it was with my Argentine.

I would say that from the day we became ‘more than friends’, our hottest topic, of conversation, and I mean in the sense of the most contentious, has been tango. When I was single in Buenos Aires, tango was relatively straightforward. I went out to dance alone, danced with many different men, came home alone. There were some downsides. Some men clearly wanted something more than dancing and I had to develop my ‘fria’ side in order to deal with them. But I mastered the ‘cabaceo’ and so was able to avoid most of the guys that I didn’t enjoy for whatever reason. I also faced the nights when I was not a popular choice of dance partner, and the worst of those were when I was seated with women far younger and far more attractive than me: ego killing nights. But on the whole there were few complications. I knew where I was. I went out whenever I wanted. I danced with whomever I wanted. I experienced the full range of tango connections, and I fell in love with one of them…

And there the negotiation began. I learned fast that the meeting of two separate tango journeys and ‘el amor’ can complicate matters considerably. Now I suspect that this is true whatever corner of the world you live in, but possibly the complications are greater when you live in Argentina and two different tango cultures meet. I only have experience of England. There I did date someone in tango for a while, but we just carried on as we had when we were single: we went to the Milonga together but once there we both danced with whoever we wanted to. Indeed the tradition where I lived in the south of England was that if someone asked you to dance, you tried to avoid saying no. There was no ‘cabaceo’, and it was generally accepted that if you were there, whoever you with there with, you were an available dance partner. The fact that there are no tables in my local English Milongas assists this situation. When you are all just sitting round the walls on chairs it’s not always obvious who is with who. I rarely saw a tango couple who danced exclusively with each other.

So what traditions does Milonga culture offer the ‘love-tango’ partnership in Buenos Aires? Here’s my experience:

  1. At most Milongas there are tables. A couple may be seated together at the same table or may choose to be seated separately. At more traditional Milongas there are separate areas for men, women and groups or couples.
  2. If you go to a Milonga as a couple, sit together, and the man does not get up to dance with other women, other men will stay away. The etiquette is that you have gone to the Milonga together and you are therefore not seen as an available dance partner.
  3. If you do exactly as above, it is possible that a known male friend or dance acquaintance may approach the table to greet you both, and may request the permission of the man to dance with the woman.
  4. If you do exactly as above but the man gets up and dances with other women, and the woman then actively practices the ‘cabaceo’, then some other men may dance with her.
  5. If you go to the Milonga together but ask to be seated separately then both the woman and man are free to practice the ‘cabaceo’ as if solo, and will be able to dance with many partners as well as with each other during the evening. In this case the ‘tango-lovers’ will be able to dance together but not easily share a seated conversation, a drink or food.

A clue to why perhaps tango becomes difficult for those from England in ‘el amor’ with an Argentino, lies in the third point above: ‘and may request the permission of the man to dance with the woman’. I think that when you are with someone in Buenos Aires, you are with them, and you are seen as being theirs. In life, this is pretty much the same as in England in terms of monogamous relationships, but in terms of tango there is perhaps more of a difference. I guess that if the couple are both at a stage in their tango journey where they want to dance with many other partners, then a plan to do so may be fairly easily agreed. But if one partner is at a stage where they are happy to dance exclusively with their partner, and the other is not… well then the situation becomes more complex. The fact that, in my limited experience, Argentine culture seems to support the belief that if you, as a woman, go out to dance alone then you might also be available, or that men may think that you are available complicates things further.

So far my solution to this challenge has been to dance with my partner at night, and to go out alone, or with girlfriends in the afternoon. But surprises crop up from time to time even when I follow this rule:

  • Out with him and a stranger approaches the table and asks me to dance. (To be honest only a foreigner would do this, who doesn’t know any better. But it has happened to me.)
  • Out with him and someone I know or who knows us both, approaches as a tanda is starting and asks me to dance. If they ask him first, I am grateful for their courtesy. If they don’t ask him first, then I wish they had and I feel uncomfortable. I feel more uncomfortable if the tanda is favourite music of ours.
  • Out with him, he leaves the table for example, to go to the bar. Someone approaches the table and asks me to dance.

Situations like this, handled badly, can put a big fly in the ointment of a calm night out with an Argentine ‘tango-love’.

So far we haven’t tried the ‘go to the Milonga together but dance with others’ scenarios as described in 4. and 5. above. In our latest conversation we talked about trying number 4. I can’t honestly imagine going as far as sitting separately. Number 4. probably will work best if we go with a group of friends and so it will be less obvious who is with who. I think we both feel a bit nervous about the whole thing. However at the moment, my sentiment is that I went through quite a lot to get here in the first place and the reason I came was to dance tango. My English culture tells me that it fine to dance with many partners, that it is normal to go out dancing with girlfriends. I don’t want to lose this perhaps ‘innocent’ view of tango. At the same time I have to try to understand my partner’s culturally different viewpoint and somehow together we have to try and find a meeting point, which is acceptable to us both.

Our discussion did at least make us laugh. We tackled it with such seriousness and respect one for the other, but at one point we both commented that anyone would think we were talking about joining a ‘swingers club’ or ‘wife swapping.’ We were only actually talking about tango. But what I realise is that here in Buenos Aires there is so much more to tango, than just tango as I used to think of it. For an Argentine there is history, tradition, culture, Milonga etiquettes, past personal experiences, the numerous past experiences of friends. For me, originally there was experience of a few months of the English Milonga scene, but now for me too, all the other things have come into play. Finally we agreed that we are entering a phase of experimentation, that we are in it together, and that we have to accept that it may in the end be for the better or for the worse.

This is a complicated matter to write about. I don’t want to reveal all aspects of our wide ranging debate, but I want to convey some of the reality of ‘el amor y el tango’ in Buenos Aires. I have realised that I may have come here with various ideas of how my tango journey would pan out, but I never contemplated the consequences for my tango or indeed for any prospective relationship, of falling in love with a tango dancer who also happens to be Argentine. One thing is clear. When tango cultures cross, negotiation has to follow.

And so begins 2008!


17 Responses

  1. Hi Sally!
    Great post, and to be honest, it is one of the things I think about as Sorin and I start talking about vising BsAs. We both want to dance with others while there, but I realize that this means we will have to be seated separately at the milongas and not interact much. Which just means that we will catch up together afterwards on the way home. But I rather like being able to lean over and chat about whatever with him when we are at the milonga. I like watching him come back to the table with a huge grin on his face after he has had a great dance with someone and sharing that experience right afterwards.
    It is such a sticky situation for the woman in tango. Quite the spider’s web at times it seems!

  2. Hi Sally
    Thank you for a lovely blog. I looked at quite a few before I came to BA a month ago and I think yours is one of the few that tells it like it is.

    Im British also and have been to Negracha several times. I have always found it one of the rudest places in London to go and dance! Ironically you may find it more familiar when you go back, now you understand the Argentine “way”.

    When AND IF you go back check out Steve and Debbie Morralls weekends at http://www.tangouk.co.uk. They are lovely teachers and run lovely weekends! (sorry thats about twenty times I have used the word “lovely” – but I prefer it to “awesome”….)

  3. I love your detailed insights, Sally. And it is “spot on” from everything I’ve heard and somewhat experienced when I was there two years ago.

  4. Debbi
    Yep, I am finding out that the spider’s web can be very sticky. It’s been causing me a few troubles lately. I am so glad you commented and shared your thoughts about coming to Buenos Aires. It’s a hard nut to crack for an English woman like me, here for a while. I begin to see that while tango may bring lovers together from different cultures, it also has the potential to pull them apart. I hesitated to write the post to be honest because it is a subject close to my heart at the moment, but then talking about anything and getting it out in the open has got to be healthy. And may my experiences open the eyes of those who follow me, and perhaps prepare the way a little…
    I wish you and Sorin a very happy time here. At least you guys are prepared for the set up, and are happy to share each other on the dance floor. I am sure you will be able to find ways that work for you. Suerte!

    Captain Jep
    I know Steve and Debbie well. They taught me as a ‘beginner/improver’ in Southampton. Their Bramshaw milongas are where I cut my tango teeth! And I did one of their great weekend ‘tango tangks’ just before I came out here. Your recommendation is indeed a good one.
    I am glad you think that I tell it like it is. I try to. At least I tell it the way I see it anyway, and that changes over time of course… but hopefully I keep it real.
    And no worries about ‘lovely’! I think it’s one of the words we British use rather a lot. I know I do!
    Hope you are enjoying your time in BA, or enjoyed if you have gone back now…

    Thank you.


  5. Sally, This is very good information and I can say from my experience that it is all true. An observant and sensitive person can figure it all out, but you are saving time and confusion for people.

    Another point is that women with or without a man, will not be asked to dance at all if the portenos there do not know her or have not seen her dance! Going in a small group and taking someone (a lead) who can show you off a little, early in the eveining, will help greatly. Once they have seen that you can dance, then you will be fine.

  6. Sal,

    Thank you for an insightful post about the etiquette. I think most of etiquettes are very reasonable and practical. That’s why I think cabeceo is a great way to ask or accept a dance in the milongas.

    I am not so sure about asking the man for permission first if the woman has accepted the cabeceo. Some women(for the westerner, mostly) get offended this way. I will ask the man if I know them and I am inviting the woman verbally. If the woman accepts the cabeceo, then I will nod at the man and greet the woman at the pista.

    Personally, I prefer that the couple sitting together at a table but actively cabeceo if they want to dance with other people. There will be no misunderstanding this way for everyone. And wear a ring(if you want to tell the world you are not available.)

    As a single guy, I always look for the signs of unavailable woman (rings and the males that they are sitting with) and cabeceo the attractive and presumbly single ones. After all, it was the opportunity of meeting single women that drew me to tango the first place. 🙂

  7. Dear Sally,

    Thanks very much for your interesting post. You made me think a lot about relationships and Tango, because I’m convinced that they generally can be faced against a good deal of trouble. As you say, Tango may first bring you together, and later come into the cracks like a little devil. I have no doubt that a strong cultural differences and the strictness of the Milonga Codigos must make this even harder… but I would still dare say that the problem is more generalized than that. I’ve had two serious (and long) Tango relationships, and I can tell you that the first, in particular, was plagued with a lot of problems that stemmed up from the Milonga environment, even in a country like the U.S. and even if my then boyfriend and myself had an open mentality about dancing with others. There are always issues–how much is too much of dancing with someone else; unfulfilled promises and expectations; sensations of lack of attention and consideration; potential, actual or perceived criticisms… etcetera, etcetera… the topic of Tango Jealousy is every where for a reason. I gather that it becomes even trickier in the clash of cultures you describe…

    The thing is, I do get the sense that you are making a huge effort to understand the point of view of your Argentine. Mind you, it may not only be a point of view–he may be conveying perceptions or standpoints that are general, common, natural, “facts” for an Argentine, and that for you are not. It is clear that you understand this issue, and that you are listening and trying to find a workable solution to a social structure that is, in fact, rather rigid. Yeah… it will be tricky, but… From what I know you from your honest posts, and the sense I get about your Argentine, I have a huntch that you will solve the puzzle. 🙂

  8. I had a long conversation yesterday about “how it works” in Argentina, with several friends thinking of going there to dance. It seems to me that all the same human needs and tendencies are alive and just under the surface in our non-Argentine milongas, but that we just don’t have the exacting manners, and the etiquettes that protect people and their feelings in a very seductive environment.

  9. Hi again Sally

    Yes one more week to go. I should have read your bio more carefully! Have been to maybe 11 tangks so far and Im pretty sure I went to Ricardo and Jennys – but I dont think we have danced before.

    By the way Ricardo and Jenny are in BsAs until I think the 25th. Ive also seen Eduardo and Caroline here!

    Who was your dream dancer in Hampshire? Feel free to mail me privately ‘ just interested. Anyway I wish you again all the best

  10. Just wanted to say that I discovered only today Your stories and I can’t stop reading. I really enjoy them (maybe one of the reasons is that I also adore Argentina).

    Mucha suerte en todo!

    Eva-Stina from Estonia

  11. This is not a spam, but something happening in the tango cyberspace: tango blogger tagging. And you are just tagged by TP.

  12. Dear Sallycat,

    I always learn so much from you and your posts. Even though it sounds like the rules may be more convoluted where you are, at least you both are talking about it and the lines of conversation are open. I’m sure you’ll both find your way in this matter.

    I still think it sounds a little easier where you are than elsewhere where the rules, if they exist at all, are rarely followed. Or maybe it’s just that I miss the cabaceo in regular use here.

  13. Hi all you great people who commented today.

    It’s really late and I need to get some sleep after a bit of a hectic day so I am going to write one reply to all…

    I guess in writing this post I specifically wanted to highlight some of the challenges that may arise in Buenos Aires for a couple when one is Argentino and one is Inglesa, or at least from totally different tango culture. It’s a subject that I haven’t heard people talk about that much, but it has been a very hot topic for me over time, and I dare say there will be more to come…

    I’ve got to say that I agree with all of you about the fact that the etiquettes here are clear, easy to follow once understood, and I personally think the ‘cabaceo’ is fantastic, for both men and women alike. Maybe soon I will write a bit more on the etiquettes or ‘codigos’ and how I have experienced them. I went to a milonga last night that I hadn’t been to before. It was VERY traditional, totally packed and I was fascinated just observing the scene. It gave me much food for thought.

    As for my own challenges, it is definitely a work in progress! I am really grateful for those of you who have written about your experiences and for your encouraging words. I know for sure that tango love probably ain’t too simple in any corner of the world. Maybe in time I could become an ‘agony aunt’ for tango couples…
    Dear Sallycat… type of thing!
    (That’s me trying to relax and keep smiling through it all… you guys help me more than you know.)

    Want to say welcome to the blog, Eva-Stina from Estonia.

    Captain-Jep, yep met up with Eduardo and Caroline a few times, and bumped into Ricardo and Jenny in Canning one night. Enjoy your last week here! Oh and as for my dream dancer… well if you read the blog back I think the clues are pretty much all there… Otherwise my lips are sealed!

    And TP… Bloody Hell! Tagging??? What a thing to come home to! 😉
    I HATE chain letters with a passion. BUT, I’ve read what others wrote and yes this is a bit different, and sooooo maaaaaaaaybeeee…


  14. I have been reading your blog avidly ever since I met you in Portsmouth a few days before you left for BA last year; I had just finished a private lesson with Flavio and you were just starting one. Your last two posts have prompted me to finally comment on subjects I can utterly relate to, particularly the tango love thang. It’s awful, I hate it and I never wanted it but the chemistry was too ovepowering to stop the relationship developing. It has spawned a monster within my soul that I never knew existed. Yet, we are coming to BA next month and the idea of dancing with only one man the whole night (after night, after night) bores me to the soles of my tango shoes. I call it arrested development. The struggle continues.
    I love reading about your adventures which provide a useful insight to the workings of the culture and minds of Argentina. I hope we can meet in BA.

  15. Hi Marianne

    How great that you wrote this comment. I have found it a huge relief to express some of my discomfort around this topic in the past days: both with my Argentine, and on this blog. And I have loved hearing back the experiences of others around the world. It’s like, just talking about it and getting it out in the open helps… (as with everything I guess).

    How do you two work things out back in England? If you dance with others there, then there is no reason why you can’t do that here. It just means deciding how you will handle things at the milongas. It is true that even if you sit together, you can actively practice the ‘cabaceo’, and you may get some dances once people realise that you are both ‘available dance partners’, especially if he gets up and leaves you at the table. How many dances, will vary place to place according to the style and formality of the milonga, the mix of Argentines and tourists there, and of course on how strongly you work the ‘cabaceo’.
    If you decide that you want to sit separately then this too is a workable option and you will probably get more dances. In this case you will find yourself sitting on a table with other women, or in the rows of women at the more traditional milongas.
    With either option it can be good, as Elizabeth suggested above, to dance with your partner early on. Then people will see you dance, will know that you can dance, how tall you are, etc. etc. and will therefore be more likely to ‘cabaceo’ you.
    Of course if men know that you are with someone, even if you dance with others, there will be some who won’t be interested in dancing with you… but the upside is you avoid guys who maybe want a lot more than tango, useful perhaps if you are in a couple. And to be honest it isn’t always easy easy to get dances even for a single, new girl in town at some milongas. It’s all a bit of a game, and at times hard work whether single or couple.
    So much depends on you and your partner making an agreement about how you want to handle things, but if you are both amenable and open… no problems.

    Of course, if you mean that your partner is not too keen on the idea of sharing you, then yeah… it’s a different problem, and I know how tough that can feel. But why not come and meet me and maybe other girls I know at La Ideal one Thursday afternoon and go it ‘sola’. It’s not busy, it’s relaxed, a nice social chat time too and you should get some dances then for sure… I’m here until 22nd February.

    My email address is on the ‘Who?’ page of this blog, so if you want to email me and tell me a bit more, please do. Maybe I can offer you a few more tips.
    It is always great to meet up with someone visiting from England for tango…
    And gosh, those classes with Flavio seem a very long time ago now! Say hi to him for me…


  16. Hi SallyCat,
    You describe so beautifully this “problem” of cross-cultural tango love!

    And I congratulate you for being so open and honest about it.
    I’ve had all of the same issues in my relationship with Ruben, although many of the circumstances were different:

    I’m older than you;
    I’ve been dancing tango in Buenos Aires since 1997;
    I lived here for a whole year (since 2003) before meeting Ruben;
    I was happy to only dance with him.

    At first I continued to go to “my” milongas (Canning on Wednesday, Gricel on Friday) to maintain my “freedom”, but I began to go later and leave earlier, all the while wishing Ruben would walk in.

    For the first year or more, Ruben and I would sit separately in Club Espanol, but he was always helping the organizer, Julio. We would sit together on special occasions and we knew which tandas we would dance together (milonga, Calo, D’Arienzo, etc.)

    Pretty soon, bit by bit, we began to sit together. He, the Argentine man, can always dance with whomever he wants, but I can’t “get arrested.” Maybe I could if I looked at men with the cabeceo in mind, but the truth is, I really don’t want to, unless it’s a student or a friend. We know everyone, everyone knows us; it’s all ok.

    But it’s taken us THREE years to work it all out!

    The problem in tango–it’s the embrace; the problem and the joy.

  17. […] When tango cultures cross […]

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