Practicas and Milonga Etiquette

(Disclaimer for the record, again - I am not a teacher - only dancer, and still a pretty new one at that. These are simply my opinions and not meant to be taken as the gospel truth about anything. What follows gets a bit ranty and occasionally preachy. Please feel free to rant/preach/bitch generally, back to me in the comments. I'm a glutton for punishment - so fire when ready.)

I've emphasized how much milongas are the core of my tango addiction. They are the safe haven of my hectic world - the place I go to see my friends, enjoy the music, and dance until I practically fall down. Milongas are a sanctuary. Milongas feel safe, and comfortable, and welcoming. They feel this way because milongas are not practicas. They aren't classes. They aren't workshops. The beautiful feeling of a milonga can be shattered by dancers consistently experimenting with new moves they haven't learned well on unsuspecting, and unwilling partners. (Let me stress that I learn a ton at milongas - just about every minute that I'm there. I think we all do. My focus for the purpose of this post is on "practicing" new stuff there.)

Many times we point to the leaders trying out new fancy moves they just learned in that day's workshop - but followers do it as well. I've done it. I saw a pretty way to execute an ocho from a teacher - and tried to practice it at the milonga that same night. After all - I wasn't leading anything. I was just changing the way I stepped through the move. Except that I struggled with it. I couldn't keep my axis and make it pretty. I was affecting my leader's axis at the same time. I learned quickly when I felt the frustration and confusion from my partner. I screwed up. I waited until the next practica the following week, and worked on it there.

Here's the key to all of it - to the source of so many things that go wrong in our dancing: When we have to focus on something else (a new move, because it's not part of our "muscle memory" yet) during the dance - we are taking at least some of the focus away from our partner. That total connection between dancers is what we're all here for. Giving the best dance to our partner - giving everything we've got - which has everything to do with focus, and next to nothing to do with the step in our repertoire.

Practicas are the most important part of building my tango skill. Practicas are where a technique goes from being something I "learned in my head" - to something body knows how to do well. It's where I first learned to "feel for the cross lead" rather than to follow it on every second outside step, for example.

When I learn in a class or workshop, which can, as others have said, be very inspiring - I am learning somewhat in a vacuum. Everyone is learning the same thing in the class - so both partners get a bit of "help" from each other completing new things since everyone knows the move. At practicas, I can practice what I'm working on with strangers/dancers that weren't the same class/beginners etc. to really see if I know my stuff.

The trick is, there have to be enough practicas for dancers to work on the things they're learning. Without enough practicas - the milongas become the place to "practice". Also, if the expectations of the practicas and milongas are not made clear, both events can be opportunities lost as dancers simply "social dance" at the practicas, and then practice at the milongas. We all, dancers, organizers, teachers, have a role in making sure that (especially new dancers) know how to make best use of these venues.

From: InScenes Tango Milonga Dance Etiquette

"Trying to show a new move at a milonga is one of the most obvious marks of very poor dance etiquette. I'm constantly amazed at how often this phenomenon occurs during milongas in North America. It almost always is initiated by men and many times by those who should know better. In the more then ten trips I have made Buenos Aires, I don't recall ever seeing this happen at a Milonga."

The problem of social dancing at practicas, and practicing (or worse, teaching) at the milongas is pervasive from what I've been told. Much of this could be alleviated simply with education - organizers and teachers have to commit to explaining the etiquette thoroughly and consistently. Every single milonga and every single practica. Every comunity has to decide from its own dancers how many practicas are needed. I'm of the opinion there can never be too many. But time and money constraints are just a fact of life.

If you have learned a new step or pattern that you're just dying to try out at the milonga, ask yourself these questions:

1.) "Have I led/executed this successfully consistently in practica, with several partners?" (Preferably partners that were not in the same class in which you learned the step.)

2.) "Do I thoroughly understand my partner's role and requirements for this step?"
For followers, do you understand how this embellishment/change of embrace/interpretation will feel and affect your leader and what he wants to lead? For leaders, do you thoroughly understand how to prepare your follower for the move you want to lead? How this move will affect her axis?

3.) "Can I lead this step/execute this embellishment/interpretation consistently with the music?" If you don't know, you're probably not ready to lead it.

Consistency is the key - can you lead it/perform it:

- consistently with different partners (and not the ones from your class),
- consistently within the music
- consistently respecting the line of dance and other dancers.

The only way to know if we're at that level of consistency is to practice it over and over and over at practica. How much time does it take to learn something sufficiently - no one can answer that question for someone else. When the move/embrace/step/embellishment feels natural (to you and your partner, and in the music) - then it's ready to be performed. When in doubt - don't try it. A milonga is not practice space.

Exceptions - of course there are some. If you are dancing with your regular dance partner, or another class member and you've both agreed in advance that it's acceptable and desirable to practice a bit, so be it - provided you don't interfere with anyone else's dancing on the milonga floor. If you're practicing something that requires interrupting the line of dance - move off the main floor to work on it. Be discreet.

Warning: Now that I've had my little rant, I want to make one warning.. Just because we can't see what a couple is practicing (they may look like they're social dancing at the practica for instance) doesn't mean they aren't working on something. And just because we may hear one partner giving "instructional feedback" to their partner, doesn't mean it's unwelcome to that partner. We don't know what's happening between to dancers from watching them. Only they know. Just because I, for example, have strong feelings about milonga/practica expectations - doesn't make me the tango police.

For the comfort and enjoyment of your partner, at the milonga, keep your focus on your partner and dance what you know.


Anonymous said...

This is certaily one aspsct of milonga etiquette, and a very important one for sure!), but there's a whole lot more to that iceberg that most people don't even think about.


Anonymous said...

I understand your view and its a commonly held one, but would like to offer an experience of mine, as a teacher:
I was dancing at a milonga with a local girl some time ago, and it was appalling. She guessed and interpreted and strode confidently around, but didn't actually dance with me at all. After the first song she apologised offhandedly and said that she wasn't dancing well. I respectfully asked if she would like some help, but she politely declined and asked that it be saved for the practica. I danced with her for the next 3 songs and I thank God for the DVD screen because it gave me something to do, as she wrenched my shoulders and marched back and forth. I didn't dance with her again after that experience and she dropped out of tango 3 months after that, mainly because she wasn't asked to dance much.

Similarly my wife, also a teacher was asked by several local ladies to "save" a young man. Women dreaded dancing with him and they were concerned that he would stop altogether unless he got help with his technique. She made her teaching of him a stipulation for dancing with her. He is not only "saved" from leaving tango, he is rapidly developing into a very smooth and gorgeous dancer. He just needed some help and didn't know how to ask.

My point is that some people don't go to practicas and people who do often practice things of little value. It will take these people years to develop as dancers whereas our experience is that a well chosen word can make a huge difference.

Anonymous said...

I guess if that works in your community, and isn't distasteful to you personally (or to the other person involved), then I guess you do what you feel you have to do.

After all, I guess few people would turn down what amounts to private personal instruction for free, if it comes down to cases.

That being said, there are teachers who go to milongas strictly for social enjoyment and absolutely don't care to be teaching on the floor, no matter if it would be welcome or not. That's not what they are there for; that's what their classes are for. I respect that and would expect the same, because for me, the milonga floor is sort of sacrosanct. And despite all the less than wonderful dancing I may see or experience in my own area, it's not my place to offer commentary. People are meant to be enjoying themselves, not be subjected to or feel forced to give instruction.

As one of my mentors says..."you have to let all that go on the milonga floor, otherwise, where is the enjoyment in it?"


Mari said...

Bastet - regarding your first comment - you're absolutely right - this is a tiny part of milonga etiquette. I struggled with how to title and introduce this topic and didn't really put the focus on the fact that this is addresses one possible cause (lack of practicas/practica attendance/clear expectations) of only one thing that happens at milongas that might be mitigated by better use of practicas. The list of milonga etiquette and codigos is currently being hashed out (again) on Tango-L. So maybe I'll be able to collect some more thorough references mentioned there.

Mari said...

TangoGeoff -thank you for your response. I appreciate your perspective.

I think I didn't emphasize enough that what I'm referring to when I warn about instruction on the milonga floor - is truly *uninvited correction.* I addressed this somewhat in "Exceptions" and "Warnings".

I noted two things about your first scenario. First, I have said in other posts and probably should have repeated here, that if dancing with someone is causing pain, you have every right (and responsibility) to speak up. I would have perhaps framed my my offer of help in terms of the fact that the dance was physically uncomfortable and in order to continue the dance, certain adjustments would be helpful. However (my second observation), the result was simply that she didn't want correction. Period. It's too bad that she didn't seek advice or help in practicas, but that would have been the appropriate route. Essentially, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make her drink.

Regarding the second scenario with your wife - that's what I was referring to when I said that the agreement to instruction can, of course, be made in advance. What I have heard from other teachers and organizers however, is that it creates a very "slippery slope" - particularly if you're not hosting the milonga where the instruction is taking place.

Some organizers and teachers who host milongas find it highly inappropriate for other teachers to be instructing, at least in an obvious way, during a social dance at their venue. I am neither a teacher nor an organizer, so I can only speak to what I've been told.

Also, the activity sets an example, and for some, a precedent. If a dancer is seen to be giving correction and/or instruction on the social floor, it's very easy for especially newer dancers, to assume that this is normal and acceptable activity. So not only might they think that they are entitled to some free instruction from a teacher that's "off duty" trying to enjoy the milonga - but they might also think that it's okay to correct and instruct their own partner.

If you agree in advance to work on something, which you have every right to do, it would seem to be important to be very discreet.

You're right that some people don't go to practicas and don't make good use of them when they do go. I have had the benefit of teachers here who have emphasized that tango is a lifetime commitment not only to instruction but to practice, a *great deal of practice*, in the appropriate setting to really improve as a dancer. Some people take the advice and some don't - as it is with teaching anything. Every community is different in how they want to address the needs of the students. From the feedback I've received and from my own observations at the milongas, it's important to note that teaching at the milonga not only affects you and the other dancer - but the other dancers present, and even the overall feeling of the milonga, if it's done in an obvious way.

Mari said...

Bastet - to your second comment, I agree wholeheartedly with you and your mentor. I have been guilty of putting a tango instructor in the position of having to instruct me on the milonga floor before I knew it was inappropriate - for the simple reason that I had seen others do it.