He Says, She Says, at the Milonga


There is a very popular belief that, when given the opportunity, tangueros will most often choose the younger, prettier (and often newer) tango dancers over the older, more experienced, or less attractive tangueras at the milonga. After all, the assumption goes, men are more visual, more interested in looks over quality etc. etc. Women, the assumption continues, are more interested in quality over appearance. Is that true?

In my (granted limited) experience, sometimes yes, mostly no. That's the problem with generalizations - in the end, they just aren't helpful. They don't provide any real anwers. Assumptions and stereotypes accomplish little more than encouraging negative feelings - about others and about ourselves. "Leaders only want to dance with hot, new 20-something tangueras." "Followers only want to dance with advanced leaders who can help them 'level-up' in their dance." These comments and stereotypes are MOST hurtful to the people who don't behave that way. And let's face it, the ones who do fit that MO, probably aren't reading your (or my) blog. That's just the way it goes.

There are many reasons men ask, or don't ask, particular women to dance on any given night. When I was curious enough, I asked leaders, both local and remote (since I have a blog and people seem to be used to me asking all sorts of questions) how they choose their partners. Note, none of these are new comments or ideas. Tango bloggers all over the web have written similar things - but I wanted to put together a more concise list of the reasons I felt were most important to note in this context.

Leaders reading this list, especially those who I did not get to ask, please weigh in on this list - and add your own reasons, too.
They choose:
1. . . .their friends and the people they know best. This just reaffirms what we should already know, tango is social.
2. . . . followers that were in their classes or workshops. A couple of dancers told me this was especially true during festivals which gave them the opportunity to cautiously work in at least some of the material they learned with partners that would have a good idea of what to expect.
3. . . . new people, regardless of age or ability - meaning new to tango, or simply new to the community - it doesn't matter. They make an effort to welcome the unfamiliar faces.
4. . . . followers who are sitting a great deal - but mostly if they're by themselves (not socializing).
5. . . . followers who make them feel good about their dancing,
6. . . . followers they don't get to see very often - out of town/visiting dancers,
7. . . . followers that look happy dancing - and look happy (and approachable) off the dance floor as well.

Why they might not choose a particular tanguera -

1. Some leaders have said that they're simply too intimidated or nervous to ask certain dancers (particularly teachers and advanced dancers). Often this is because of a past bad experience of being lectured on the milonga floor, though not even necessarily by the follower in question.
2. if it looks like she's been dancing a lot, and someone else is dancing far less.
3. if she's scowling or frowning at the dance floor.
4. (I was surprised by this, but shouldn't have been) if they have heard her make disparaging remarks about other leaders or other dancers generally.
5. if they're facing away from the dance floor and/or are appearing to be involved in a conversation with friends.

At the end of all this, we simply can't know why Tanguero A invited one tanguera over another. It's easy to make assumptions, but making those assumptions can suck the joy out of the dance and keep us out of "the moment". And railing against the unfairness of it, even if the assumptions are true, doesn't turn things around at all.

There are tangueros in my (relatively small) community that almost never ask me to dance - a couple of them have not asked one time in the almost 2 years I've been dancing. Sometimes I think I might know why, but I really don't. I can guess, speculate, stew about it - but guessing doesn't change it, and doesn't help me. I have to focus my attention - ALL of my attention - on the leaders who do want to dance with me.

Michelle Erdemsel said it well, "we're (followers) not victims." Ultimately we are all responsible for our own enjoyment of the dance, the milonga, the music, and of our tango communities. Some nights will be blissful - other nights will make us wonder if it was worth shaving our legs and putting on makeup. Same as the rest of our lives. We can be frustrated, annoyed, even angry at certain things, but to stay in the moment and find the joy in tango, and in life, we have to find ways to connect to each other and keep our minds open.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow, I just have to add my little 1.5 cents of information to this. I was asked why I did not dance with everyone, and when I though about it in a 3 hr Milonga you only have between 12 and 18 tandas. Now with that being said this means If I dance every tanda I will only get to dance with 12 to 18 women, when you have between 20 and 30 to choose from how to you choose. (remember I do like to watch so just for this demonstration I will pick 11 tanda's to dance to)I would say I watch foot work and how the person enjoys dancing. I can tell a good lead from a bad lead just by looking at the face of the follow. Happy means good and frowning or very serious beans not so good. I tend to dance with follows that look like they are having fun, or just by the way they look at me. It's all up to the look in the eye with the nod wither I dance with you or not. My favoriate this year was a 78 YO who danced like a sports car with the power and emotion I loved. Best of luck Keno

Anonymous said...

A great and thoughtful post. Mari, your perspective is much appreciated. Bearing in mind, that the responsibility often (but not always) falls on the leader to "break the ice" by asking new people to dance, may I suggest that in tango - as in life - the more we "stretch" ourselves to risk rejection, to see beyond stereotypes, to be vulnerable, and to see the strengths that sometimes hide behind surface stereotypes - the richer our experiences will be. Always. And women who would love to be invited to dance - I mean this - please just make eye contact a little more often, and I for one WILL find a time and a place to ask you to dance. Thanks again Mari, great post.

Mari Johnson said...

Thanks for your comments Keno - I've heard from leaders over and over that looking happy about dancing is really the key to getting invited. It seems simple but it's trickier than I originally thought. I've seen pictures of myself where I look like I'm frowning, when I'm actually just really, really concentrating lol. I'm one of those people who frowns when they're thinking - so now I try to be a little more conscious of when I'm doing it.

Mari Johnson said...

Anon - thank you for saying so warmly and so elegantly what I was trying to say in my post. That's it exactly - be vulnerable, take the risk, and stretch ourselves.

Gonzalo Orihuela said...

That's a nice post, thank!
I wanted to share this post I wrote last year about a woman that did not dance with me and her explanation :]

http://gonzaloorihuela.blogspot.com/2009/11/celebration.html

Andrew Dancer said...

I have been dancing for many years and I'm a relationship coach. Plus, I'm writing a book about social dancing. So, I offer an additional piece of lore about dance invitations.

If a woman is sitting amongst many others, it is a problem for the men. If the fellow is a caring soul, he will feel uncomfortable about inviting only one; and by doing so, all of the others may immediately become undesirable, if only in their own minds. Therefore, he may wait for a proper moment to single out his prey from the herd ...and he may never get that opportunity for the entire evening.

On the dark side, an insecure guy may be very much afraid of a possible turn-down with the large amount of spectators in the immediate area of his invitation. I believe that may be the genesis of the cabeceo.

BOTTOM LINE... Don't sit in the middle of a bunch of other women. I suggest not sitting too much, in the first place ...and, if you must sit and socialize with other women, sit at the edge of the herd. You can see this in action if you watch the nature shows where the lion singles out one specific target.

philemon said...

Thanks Mari for the post. And btw, I just came across your blog and I am so enjoying reading it. :)

As why sometimes a leader may not choose to dance with someone, I'd like to add a few more reasons:

* Rather watching followers' feet or face, I usually watch how a follower make the embrace, maintain the connection, and surrender. It means that I don't dance with the followers who dance in open hold most of the time.

* As I have experienced, followers' technique (i.e. the way they embrace, connect, surrender) changes when they dance with different leads. There are a few tangueras in my community that I enjoy dancing with, but I learned to not dance with them just after they dance with a few leaders. As in my experience, it takes a while for them to come back to their normal enjoyable embrace. So I have to wait a couple of tandas.

* In my community, we too strongly believe in fostering a community and dancing with beginners to help them grow. I do that often too. But sometimes as a result of dancing with beginner tangueras, I get so much pain in my back and arms that I cannot dance any more. So those nights I just stop dancing with beginners and I only dance with the ones who I enjoy their embrace.

* I have learned that by dancing with beginners, I always have to make a trade-off: building a community and investing in having good dancers in future versus getting pain in my body and losing my subtle way of leading (and make it rougher and bigger so that our beginners can feel it and follow it). I usually try to keep a balance, but there are some special nights that we get some very good out-of-town dancers coming to my community. Those nights I can't afford to lose my nice warm embrace because of dancing even a few tandas with beginners. Those night I have to choose between no dance with beginners and great dances with those good out-of-town dancers; OR some dances with beginners and mediocre dances with the good dancers. It's fair to say that I too need good dances in order to improve in my tango journey.

* I used to dance a lot with our beginners to help them get better. After a while I realized that abundance makes a commodity worthless! I realized that they don't appreciate any more the effort I put for them. The dances with me are just another number in their list. As soon as I decided to dance with them once in a while, now they pay more attention while we dance, and therefore, appreciate it more. Similar to this, sometimes I see in a milonga that a follower does not really care about the quality of the dances she gets. Her goal is to only maximize the number of tandas she dances that night. In those situations, I don't really feel bad not dancing with them, because I know if I don't dance with them, there are always random dudes who go and dance with them a few seconds after.

* I respect myself, my follower, and the dance. If she does not, we don't really have to dance. On the other hand, there are beginner followers who really respect themselves as well as the dance. They reject random uncomfortable dudes who come to their table and ask them verbally. I am inclined to dance with those followers more often, even though I don't much enjoy dancing with them yet. They respect themselves, so I respect them too.

Anyways, sorry for my very long comment. I look forward to hearing your opinions about my reasons. I am always interested in hearing different perspectives.

Mari Johnson said...

philemon - thank you for your comments and your insights! Your comments certainly ring true, and I find myself going through periods of being less generous with the dances I accept especially when I am hurting or very tired (emotionally or physically). It can be a fine line to tread.

Ben, Bentley, and Bennett said...

needed to come back and read this one again. Thanks! :)

BP