Michael Ealem wrote to the list recently about several problems he encountered from dancers at milongas he hosted:

There seems to be a tremendous amount of resistance to basic milonga etiquette, specifically:

1. Not dancing against LOD (not just an occasional backstep, but extended sojourns)

2. Not camping out in the outer lane or middle of the floor for extended chit-chat

4. Not parking out in the outermost lane, throwing every trick you know, taking two steps, throwing every trick…

6. Not weaving in and out of lanes, or cutting across the middle of the floor…

If you decide to host a practica or milonga, it can be useful and fun to think of tango leaders as wild animals, moody, unpredictable and difficult to manage. You know, hormones are at high levels, the music is passionate, we’re playing together in this chemistry-filled game of emotionally intense artistic and personal expression in which we share our bodies far more than is typical in the rest of our lives. When dealing with wild animals, it is often more effective to constrain their behavior by restructuring their environment, instead of trying to train consistent specific behaviors into these very distractible learners. One such environmental restructuring that helps solve the problem in practica-type situations: splitting the available floor space into 1) a non-social-dancing anything-goes practice space and 2) space for those who wish to observe line-of-dance etiquette. This kind of split currently works very well at Tango Colorado’s Tuesday Denver practica, with couples moving back and forth between the two areas as needed to suit their tango goal of the moment. But at a milonga, or in an environment where such a split is impractical, sometimes there’s no substitute for intervention. At a milonga in Berlin, I saw a couple who were busy in the middle of the floor doing exaggerated tango moves – big over-the-head lifts, off-the-floor body swings with flying legs, etc. – with no apparent regard for the safety of other dancers. After two or three such episodes, the organizer of the milonga talked to them, and it ceased to be a problem. So that’s one answer. Any host is responsible for the environment he/she provides for guests in exchange for admission, and has every right to take steps to insure the safety and pleasure of that environment. It’s an art in itself how to intervene with your guests like that, and have it be both pleasant and effective. But that relatively superficial answer doesn’t get to the root of the situation in many cases…because what we are often talking about has less to do with crowd control and more to do with family dynamics. Many tango communities have become extended families for their members, as we share the emotional highs and lows in each other’s lives: triumphs and tragedies, births, marriages, divorces, illnesses, and deaths, all amplified by the context of tango and the power of the dance to move us emotionally. In this, tango families are similar to “real” extended families, where the power of the dance is replaced by the blood ties that bind. In Argentina during the Golden Age, practicas and milongas could be seen as an extension of a family-oriented neighborhood culture, and locally respected people would often take responsibility for running a practica or milonga in an orderly fashion and teaching youngsters how to behave. In such settings, there are tales of the “bastonero”, a “respected elder” with a long stick standing in the center of the floor. As I recall, the rule was if he thought you were blocking the dance space or interfering with other dancers, he’d tap you with the stick and you (and your partner) had to come into the middle and dance near him for the rest of that song. By my observations, some tango communities in North America are not yet mature enough to have an “elder” who is universally respected, who sets the tone for behaviors at social gatherings, in the way that parents or grandparents often do for real families. If things are going fine in the tango scene, this social void doesn’t matter, and often things ARE fine…but when things “go bad”, there’s often nobody to turn to who is in a position of both authority and respect with all parties, and things can get as messy as a houseful of kids with a sleeping babysitter. One example: A friend of mine was dancing as a visitor in a tango community in the USA. While dancing, he saw a large man in front of him take several steps backward against the line of dance directly toward my friend’s partner. My friend put out his hand to ward off the approaching leader, and was successful in avoiding a collision. The other man turned around and accosted my friend, saying belligerently, “NOBODY pushes me around on the floor!” My friend stood his ground and said “I was protecting my partner!” As I recall, things settled down somehow, and blows were not exchanged there on the floor. But my friend said later that several members of the local community came up and apologized to him as a visitor, and mentioned that the leader in question was a local “problem child.” It’s well documented that some families unconsciously develop elaborate patterns of denial and “enabling behaviors” in order to avoid confronting dysfunctional behavior on the part of some beloved family members. Sad to say, this pattern can be true of “tango families” as well. Eventually, if anything is to change, it may be up to the other family members to confront and intervene in some appropriate way with the problem child who is unwilling or unable to change on their own. I spent years working in front-line crisis conditions in psychiatric care units and alcohol treatment centers, and I know that these sorts of family interventions are rarely fun. But it can be done, with both compassion for the problem child, and with firmness with respect to the community’s interests. Michael goes on to describe other “social problems” he’s observed in hosting milongas: >>>3. …teaching at milongas (this is a biggie!) <<< As discussed on this list a lot already, teaching at milongas is fraught with the potential for rudeness to both your partner and to other dancers who are trying to enjoy themselves in peace. This isn’t obvious to some people. In keeping with the wild-animal-containment theme mentioned above, one thing you can do is try to provide a separated space at a milonga where the music can be heard, but physically separated from the main floor, perhaps by an arrangement of chairs. Then suggest/ask/tell people that they are welcome to teach/learn/practice “over there” away from the main floor. This works well at our Boulder milongas. >>>5. …glomming on to every female newbie who walks through the door and teaching her ganchos, etc. <<<

This is the trickiest one to address for me, because of the nature of what tango is to many of us. But as above, a little structure can go a long way. At Tango Colorado events, the trend is to structure the newbie experience more formally, with lessons held before the main practica gets going. The lessons are given by experienced local tango teachers approved by the organization. “Dysfunctional teaching” behaviors, if any, can then potentially be addressed through the adoption of a code of ethics by approved teachers.

But, you know, “glomming on to every female” has a wide and provocative range of interpretation. If the females seem to like it, and no complaints are registered from them, maybe the “problem” is just garden-variety tango jealousy on the part of non-”glommers”, and those people should learn to live with it – use the jealousy energy as motivation to become a better,more confident dancer, or something. On the other hand, if problems begin to develop – repeated complaints, from multiple individuals, building up over time about one person’s behavior, for example – intervention may again be the only effective remedy. Emotionally abusive behavior, conscious or not, has many forms, some of which can be quite subtle at times. A talented unconscious practitioner of emotional abuse can present a real and very slippery challenge to other “family members”. This challenge often includes the need for these other family members to be willing to confront their own denial and enabling behaviors with respect to the problem child.

In old Argentina, if some guy was spoiling the atmosphere at a local milonga, the other guys would get together on the problem: “This guy is driving women away from our milonga!” As a group, they might then find an opportunity to “invite” the guy in question out in the alley for an energetic little “discussion” of the problem. Of course, such roughneck behavior has its own costs, and while it historically is effective in the short term, its style doesn’t match the demographics of most tango communities I’m familiar with. But if all else fails, one transplantable element from this scenario is the assumption of responsibility by the men AS A GROUP for the well-being of the women as a group.

Men often feel competitive toward each other in the tango scene, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Historically, competition was a factor in guys working hard to become better dancers, which is good for everybody. But men can also choose to bond together, to see past their healthy competition and step up to the greater challenge of “protecting their women”. After all, in this tango game that we all love so well, from a certain perspective all the men are sort of trying to seduce all the women a little bit all the time, right? The seductive component of tango helps provide a buzz of energy in the scene. This energy can help many of us break through our everyday socialized shut-down emotional state and express ourselves in the arms of our fellow dancers, passionately, artistically, and yet with respect for each other. For this exciting game to be worth playing, it seems to me the women need to feel reasonably “safe”. The followers in tango are in some ways and to some degree surrendering themselves to their leader-of-the-moment, and are thus taking physical/emotional risks with relative strangers. It seems reasonable to me that, when “things go bad” in a tango community, followers have a right to depend on the “men in the family” to break through their denial and enabling, and to work together to preserve a tango environment in which followers can relax and give the gift of their surrender in relative emotional safety.

Copyright (c) 2004 Brian Dunn