Observing proper etiquette on the dance floor helps to make the tango experience more enjoyable for everyone. Simply put the rules amount to:
Respect … the person you are dancing with
Respect … the culture & heritage of Tango
Respect … the music & the band
Respect … the people around you
Personal Hygiene – is essential for an enjoyable dancing experience. Bad breath, body odor and excessive perspiration are common offenders. Be sensitive to your fellow dancers. Excessive use of cologne or any chemical can be just as offending, and never a replacement for bathing and antiperspirant. If you have a cold or flu, please stay home until you are better.
Tandas – Tango music is played in sets called tandas. The DJ will play a tanda consisting of 3 or 4 songs by the same orchestra from the same period. Accepting an invitation to dance carries the obligation to dance with your partner until the tanda ends and a cortina is played.
Cortinas – the DJ will usually play a cortina (Spanish for curtain) between tandas. A cortina is a 30 second long piece of non-tango music that tells the dancers this tanda is over. The next tanda will be a different style of music. The norm in Buenos Aires is that everybody thanks their partner and leaves the dance floor. This means that you can now choose who you will dance with next.
Cabaceo – In Buenos Aires, it is only the men who ask for a dance. The accepted way to invite a person to dance is to catch someone’s eye, smile and nod, perhaps raising your eyebrows in an inquiring expression or directing a nod towards the dance floor. The response, if the invitation is accepted, is to smile and nod back, whereupon the leader escorts the follower to the dance floor. The purpose of the cabeceo, is to make the invitation to dance less stressful and the possibility to decline more discreet. Essentially you can avoid receiving or having to say a harsh verbal “No”. In the US it is acceptable for the follower to ask a leader to dance using the same cabeceo process. If the followers at an event do not seem to understand the cabeceo tradition, then it is also acceptable for a gentleman to “walk-up” and ask someone to dance, but be sensitive to that person’s body language/eye contact in case they don’t want to dance.
Saying No – The best way to avoid dancing with someone is to avoid eye contact. If that doesn’t work, then a lady should say no sincerely and not accept an invitation from a different leader for the remainder of that tanda. Certain people will never dance with you. Nobody has an obligation to dance with everybody. It’s very much a consensual privilege.
Thank You – Thank you is customary at the end of a tanda. It is the code for “I’m finished dancing with you.” If you want to keep dancing with the same partner for the rest of the tanda, express your pleasure in different words. The proper response to “thank you” is “thank you”, not “you’re welcome.”
Floorcraft – You are dancing with everyone on the floor, not only your partner. Each person should be consciously aware of who is around them, and is responsible for keeping the floor safe. Dancers already on the dance floor have the right-of-way. Limit passing. Don’t hold up traffic. The floor is constantly moving forward. Don’t be the cause of a traffic jam. Make moves that are appropriate to the conditions on the dance floor. In a crowded situation keep your feet and your partner’s feet close to the floor, no ganchos or boleos. When two couples bump into each other on the floor, it is polite to apologize regardless of who is at fault.
Talking – Some people like to concentrate on the dancing while others chatter constantly. If you are one of the former, it’s perfectly OK to say “sorry, I find it hard to talk and concentrate on the steps at the same time.” Talking while dancing is especially inappropriate when there is a live band. In general both conversation and dancing improve when not done simultaneously. You are encouraged to chat between songs in a tanda. Often people introduce themselves or just exchange pleasantries. If you are talking to someone off the dance floor, be careful not to block their cabaceo and prevent other people from asking them to dance.
Milonga – a term with 3 different meanings. A milonga is a social dance party for Argentine tango where you dress for the occasion, refrain from practicing or teaching any steps and display your best tango etiquette. A milonga is also one of the three forms of Argentine tango dance (tango, milonga, vals) patterns. It is the fastest form and is characterized by small steps, bent knees and a much looser upper body than tango. A milonga is also any piece of tango music that employs the characteristic beat of this fastest dance.
Practica – A tango practice session where you are encouraged to try out new steps you haven’t mastered, repetitively do the same step over and over, ask for advice and guidance or do whatever it takes for you to improve your tango skills.
Teaching – Teaching your partner is never acceptable during a milonga. It interferes with the line of dance and diminishes the atmosphere for others. During a practica it is perfectly acceptable if and only if your partner asks you to. If you feel you must say something during a practica, be gentle and ask your partner if it’s OK to give a hint. Practice should not interfere with the line of dance – move to the side or center.
Teachers – You are encouraged to ask teachers for advice and help during a practica. Asking them to dance a tanda with you is something else. Unless your tango skills are equal to the teacher’s, it’s probably not a good idea to invite them to dance. This is how they earn their living. While they will frequently be gracious enough to dance with you, you are essentially asking them for a free private lesson.
Beginners – Welcome them. Be nice to them. Dance with them. Tell them a little about tango etiquette and customs. You were a beginner once yourself. It’s payback time. An experienced leader or follower can make a beginner feel as if they can really dance. We all need that kind of encouragement.
Close Embrace – It is common but not required to dance tango in close embrace. Beginners usually dance only in open embrace until they’ve attained some level of mastery. Generally it is the woman who decides whether to dance closely or not. If she doesn’t want to she places her left hand on the leader’s bicep. Dancing in close embrace should be considered a privilege and not an opportunity. Be sensitive to your partner’s comfort-level with regard to personal space. In between songs in a tanda, open the embrace and talk with your partner.
Followers – If you are sitting down and having a genuine conversation with a leader about a subject that interests you both, that’s one thing. However, engaging a leader in conversation in the hopes he will ask you to dance is not acceptable. Leaders and followers both need to be considerate not to tie each other up at the beginning of a tanda since that could block both from being engaged in that entire tanda.
Leaders – Some leaders sweep the room with their eyes at the start of a tanda, and 3 or 4 women may think they’ve been invited to dance. It’s preferable to have eyes only for the follower you want to dance that tanda with and to indicate your preference clearly. If she refuses you, only then should you move on to the next one. Standing on the dance floor in a come-and-get-me pose is not very attractive to followers. Ask someone to dance then go escort her onto the dance floor and off again after the tanda.
Dress – Dress appropriately for the occasion. For milongas that means dress up. For practicas dress comfortably. Wear shoes with heels that tilt your weight to the balls of your feet so you can pivot easily. If you wear jewelry or accessories or glasses, make sure they do not harm your partner while dancing.
Respect– Respect your partner, your partner’s level of dancing, the people around you, the music and band, the culture and heritage of tango. Respect the line of dance. It is counterclockwise. If you are interfering with it, move to the middle.