Lessons from the Dance Floor: the Backyard Milonga

***This series of stories, “Lessons from the Dance Floor” is only partly true. True parts have been overly dramatized by my own hyperactive imagination to make them, well, fiction***

It was a typical warm summer night in the south. The sound of cicadas in the humid night air, the occasional passing cars and the chirping sound of tree frogs made the night life to blend into the wallpaper of background music.

Earlier that summer, Gerry undertook the arduous task of laying a concrete slab off the side of his house. On the far end, he’d created a waterfall and pool, planted ferns and shrubbery to try and make you forget that you were in the middle of a subdivision surrounded by brick colonials.

He’d pulled every piece of lawn furniture to circle the newly hardened foundation. Lamps hung still from a neighboring tree, attracting any annoying pests upwards towards their light.

This was Gerry’s milonga space, a labor of love to his Argentine bride Anna.

Soon enough, people came bringing various food, wine and waited patiently for the milonga to start. As the music came on, people paired up into couples and started to slide across the floor in the dim light.

Jane hadn’t been asked to dance.

Instead, she sat there with her wine glass, sipping occasionally and to be of some use, keeping Gerry’s dog Roxanne company. Actually, someone needed to keep her from getting underfoot and stop her barking at the shadowy strangers. When she had a moment, Jane watched the dancers feet, studying them under a starry sky.

So engrossed in the music and the footwork, she hadn’t noticed Andy across the floor giving her the cabaceo.

At a milonga, a man asks a women to dance by giving her a look, she nods and they head out onto the dance floor. This look is called the cabaceo. If a woman does not want to dance with him, she looks at anything, her shoe, the food, anything but him. No words are spoken, not even “Hi my name is…” or, “would you like to dance”

Unknowingly, Jane had been giving him the brush off.

Finally, Andy casually walked around the dance floor and stood by her chair, looking down at the top of Jane’s head. She looked up and realized her faux pas and blushed.  Andy, was a large portly man with dark features, more like a stubbly faced dock worker than a dancer of elegant Argentine social tango. Jane drew her breath in as she stood up from the lawn chair, happy to dance with anyone that night.

Now, if you ever attend a milonga, here is a rule you should know. A tanda is generally 3 -4 songs put together. When asked to dance you dance the entire tanda with that person. If either of you walks off the dance floor, without good reason, it is considered an insult.

Andy pulled her in close embrace and pressed his check next to hers. Jane could not withdraw, but waited for the music to start, maybe they will move in a way that he will have to let her go some. She was trying to be polite and not squirm away from the sweaty entrapment.

The music started.

The first dance of a tanda has been compared to getting a cup of coffee and small talk with a stranger. “Hi, how ya doing?” light conversation. Jane had a few missteps. Andy paused, waiting for her to collect. It was fine, at least he didn’t leave the floor. She felt her cheek getting sweaty from his and had a fleeting wish for the tanda to be over.

If all goes well, the second song is like dinner. You’ve had coffee, gotten to know each other’s moves, their skill level, strengths/weaknesses. If you get to this level then the meal is going well.

Andy moved Jane in a series of pivots and turns, going round the dance floor. Jane didn’t notice the other dancers, it was all about her feet, his weight shift, posture. Her skirt swayed,swished left then right. She started to embellish some moves here and there. It a very easy to dance with him. The song ended, they pulled apart, looked at each other and waited for the final song to start.

If a tanda is going really well the final song is dessert. The man that Jane had thought looked rather like Bluto and unattractive was now somehow more handsome even as they stuck together in the damp night air. He gracefully led her across the floor for their final song of the tanda. It was sublime. Andy, now a tango-god to Jane, knew when she wanted to pause and added his own musical flare that she imitated. It was magic to Jane. She felt herself loosen up and breath.

The song ended. She looked at him and thanked him for the dance. He politely walked her back to her chair. Just as she was about to make some conversation with her silent, perspiring partner he gave a cabaceo to another woman and walked out onto the floor.

Now that is how tango is done.


2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Dance Floor: the Backyard Milonga

  1. Like I said most of this is fiction but the dance experience I described is not. A friend of mine once said, he needed a cigarette after the last dance. I’m still waiting for a tanda like this.

    -who cares how you did, if you feel that good


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