I have danced at many different milongas over the years, from the local regular ones to international festivals in Europe to old milongas of Buenos Aires. And I have often asked myself the question: what makes a great milonga?
The answer may be a very personal one. What do I want from my tango and how is that satisfied from the milonga? Hungry to learn everything? Maybe an international festival with lots of good dancers is great. Happy to have a few good tandas with the regulars? Probably the local milonga playing all my favourite music is the way to go. In this context, a great milonga may be elusive to define - it is the one where I come home feeling like I had a great night of dancing.
We can of course talk about the floor, the space, the dancers, and the music. But even this isn't so straight forward, because great traditional music may not be so great in some contexts, for example. So I like to think about a sense of purpose and how the various elements of the milonga work together to enhance this purpose, rather than working against it.
An example of this is the milongas I attended at El Corte (Holland). I thought that Eric ran the milongas there with a very strong sense of purpose: it seemed as though every single element of the milonga existed to connect people through the tango, whether on or off the dance floor. While I wasn't dancing, I could relax and charge up through comfortable and homely socialising spaces - there was even a communal foot bath with a glass window. While I was dancing, I could forget about the outside world, because the dance floor was well separated from the socialising areas - there is almost a cave-like feel about the dance floor there. With all these elements working so harmoniously together, it wasn't surprising that these milongas became so popular that people were lining up hours before they started, and some people even had to be turned away. Despite this, Eric would not charge people for entry or change to a larger venue (he actually owns all the buildings around El Corte, but is using them for community projects rather than expanding the milonga space). He knew such decisions would undermine the very thing he created and treasured.
Milongas invariably seem to reflect the tango philosophy of the organiser. And I think great milongas are those where the elements of the milonga serve this philosophy well. This is typically not easy to achieve, especially for organisers without their own spaces, because so many factors are beyond their control. El Corte is truly a visionary space, and I learnt so much about what could be possible with my every visit there.
Probably the one critical power that most milonga organisers have at their disposal is how various spaces are organised, achieved through the placement of furniture relative to the dance floor. I like to think about 3 main spaces: the dance space, the socialising space and the in-between space. Most of the great milongas I've attended have had good ambience in each space, rather than only focusing on one element (usually just the dance floor).
For example, one of the local venues has a comfortable bar area for socialising, with couches, small tables and chairs, and interesting lamps everywhere. I always come home feeling like I had a great time there, even if I don't get to dance much, because the socialising space promotes re-arrangements and spontaneous conversations much more than the arrangement of separate tables where the usual groups sit at the usual tables. And when I do dance, I don't hear the conversations of socialising people right next to me - I can just focus on my dance.
The in-between space is an interesting area. This is where people sit if they want to get dances. This is where people can have light chats while focusing on the dance floor. Many milongas do not define this space clearly, especially for the traditional arrangement of tables surrounding the dance floor where and the areas nearest to the dance floor serve as the in-between space. In communities where cabaceo is not normally practised, it is important to give people physical access to the in-between space so that people can be approached for dance requests, without disturbing the dancers on the floor.
I have been interested in tango communities from the start, so I usually made a point of observing how different tango communities worked whenever I've had the chance to travel.
Community size is one key factor in determining many facets of tango in a city. Small communities can be very friendly for locals and visitors alike, but they can sometimes suffer from divisional dogma, because all the people end up sharing the same limited opportunies for classes and events and different opinions are inevitable. Larger communities can usually support multiple events with different approaches to tango, so people can just choose their favourite ones, but this can also fracture the scene into different cliques.
From the tango event organiser's point of view, one can be at the mercy of the community, and it can be challenging to navigate the rewards and the pitfalls. Some regular events can ride in waves of popularity for seemingly no apparent reason, for example. Keenly observing all the interactions amongst the dancers on and off the dance floor is very useful in getting a feel for what is working and what isn't, although it may be difficult to make practical changes due to various contraints.
I believe that context is important for creating a successful milonga. It is tempting to copy milonga arrangements of other places for example, especially Buenos Aires, but this may not work at all in a different community. Many milongas in BA have characterics often not found elsewhere, such as full table service, use of the cabaceo, long duration milongas, and people comfortable with the culture of social dancing. A small tango community may be better served by a more informal milonga arrangement for example, where people can mingle freely and get to know each other better.
Copyright 2013 J.Choi. All Rights Reserved.