Milonga is a kind of music and the dance that goes with that music. It’s closely related to tango, and the two kinds of music share a common origin. Milongas have a march-like rhythm and a sweet and light-hearted feeling.
The basic rule for dancing milonga is to take one step for each beat of music. This rule keeps the step patterns fairly simple, and makes the milonga a less sophisticated dance than the tango. Sometimes the leader will add double-time steps to dress things up, but usually the follower can expect to stick to the beat. The step patterns in tango can be much more intricate, in part because the music is slower, in part because there’s no rule at all about how fast or slow to dance, as long as you’re interpreting the music in some way.
There is also an Argentine waltz, which completes the trio of Argentine social dances. You can use all the same steps you know from tango to dance waltz, you just have to make them make sense in waltz time. You can still dance slowly, but there’s a tendency to keep moving – rather than to take long dramatic pauses as you might in tango – because the music’s more light and flowing.
The word “milonga” also refers to the tango clubs everyone dresses up for, which run from 11 or 12 till 5ish in the morning. Milongas are more formal in mood as well as dress, and some measure of old-fashioned etiquette is expected there. Practicas, or practices, are much more casual in behavior and in dress. They usually begin at 8 or 9 in the evening and end at 12. There’s a teacher or several teachers running each practice and you can ask them for help, or they might offer a suggestion or demonstrate a step, but for the most part you’re on your own.
First of all, the pace of the evening is highly structured. Music is played in brief sets, each set being four or five songs. They’ll play four tangos in a row, for example, all of them recorded by the same orchestra, so they have a similar style and mood. People pay a lot of attention to distinctions among various orchestras (of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s), and often have a favorite. The next set might be a set of Argentine waltzes, four in a row. Or a set of four or five milongas. It’s quite common to dance the entire set with one partner.
After several rounds, there’ll be a set of other Latin music: merengues, salsa, cumbias. Or maybe American swing music. Then they’ll go back to Argentine music for a while. The next set of tangos will be by a different orchestra, and will have a different flavor. Between each set everyone sits down. Some brief snatch of music considered “undanceable” comes on, and everyone returns to their table. That little song fragment is called a “cortina”, or “curtain”. For the next set, you find the next partner. Usually if you’re not going to finish a whole set with someone, you still dance two dances with her or him. One song is too brief — you’ve barely gotten acquainted.
Another custom is that between songs, assuming you’re going to dance the next song with the same person, you stand in your place on the dance floor and chat with your partner for a minute. The new song begins, and everyone keeps chatting, unhurried, during the first phrase of the song. Then, pretty much all at the same time, each man lifts his arms to invite the next embrace, and couples all around the floor begin to move again. You want to be alert to this moment, and join in. If you’re still standing there when everyone else is trying to dance, you’re in the way. But starting to dance before anyone else conveys a kind of mild rudeness, like starting to eat dinner before everyone’s served. The idea seems to be that that minute of waiting gives you a chance both to get to know your partner, who may be a stranger, and to listen to the song and prepare your interpretation of it.
Usually you don’t talk at all while you’re dancing, and you always finish the song out and stop on the last or second-to-last note. Either person saying “thank you” (”gracias”) after a dance usually indicates that they don’t want another one just then. (So if you do want another, don’t be the first to say “gracias”.) When you’ve had your fill, or at the end of a set, it’s customary for the man to walk the woman back to her table before returning to his own. (I personally adore this custom, since often I feel a bit unsteady and disoriented after dancing the follower’s part of a good tango, and I see this in my followers sometimes when I lead, too.)
One thing is, no matter how crowded it gets, they don’t bump into each other. Improvising tango means, at the survival level, being able to change your idea, and your partner’s direction, in the middle of any step, so as to smoothly avoid crashes. You also want to be able to shrink your movements. Consider: what would a miniature boleo look like? how small an ocho can you lead and still be clear? On a crowded floor, the crowd literally shapes your dance. Try and take an attitude of enjoying the challenge to your creativity that a crowd can provide. Think of small movements as, rather than frustrating, more intimate, or more expressive of the compressed tension of tango.
Tango, milonga and waltz all move around the floor counter-clockwise. In some clubs you’ll find an outer ring of couples dancing along the perimeter of the dance floor. This is a desired place to be, for two reasons: you have a longer path to move along, and you have to worry about crashes coming only from one side of you – unless you bang into furniture. So once you’ve acquired a position in the outer circle you have to work to keep it: travel neither too fast nor too slowly.
Not all of the steps ever invented for tango are appropriate at a milonga. You’ll probably see very few hooks (ganchos), for example. Any step that disturbs the position of the embrace is suspect. So if you do a sandwich (parada/mordida), you do it small, not opening the frame. Movements are unpretentious; for example, instead of gigantic boleos you’ll see soft little shakes and wiggles. In terms of what you lead, you can’t lead too many back ochos and walks. You’ll see a million ways of walking and of dancing back ochos. The idea is to recombine simple elements so you never quite repeat yourself. Musicality is the name of the game, and creativity and individuality, and communication, and control, and subtlety.
While you’re not dancing, you can learn a lot by watching. While it’s difficult to pick up whole phrases by watching, you can spot many little adornments or “tics” in people’s footwork, and try to imitate them. You can observe how people hold each other, and experiment along that theme. You can watch for the pleasure of seeing how different couples interpret the music.
Related to watching is the game of looking. The old-fashioned way of asking someone to dance, for a man or a woman, is to let your gaze rest on the person you want. Be they far across the room, a friend or a stranger, when you catch each other’s eyes, that’s the invitation. A nod and a smile, perhaps a glance at the dance floor, is confirmation. The man rises and walks over toward her table. She waits for him at the edge of the floor. They take a moment to position themselves in front of each other, lift their arms and settle into an embrace. This ritual will set the tone for the rest of their dance.