A long time ago the Monday milonga started at the Viscount Ballroom. Later the business changed hands and became the Bossa Nova. The Monday milonga moved from the large ballroom to the small upstairs bar, and I gave the milonga the name ‘A Media Luz’. Then the business changed hands again, becoming Outlaws, and the Monday milonga moved to the PPAA.
After this move, from a smaller space to the larger space of the PPAA I was surprised at the number of people who have said to me that the upstairs bar at the Bossa Nova was a great space, if only it could have been bigger. It was an intimate space and dancers needed to pay attention to their navigation to dance well there. It could be crowded, but it was never so crowded that it was impossible to dance. On a good night it reminded me a bit of dancing in Buenos Aires. It was often crowded enough, though, that one or two dancers who navigated the floor poorly could spoil the smooth flow of the entire floor.
On a normal night at that milonga somewhere between 60 and 70 people came through the door. That included the people who came for the beginning class, many of these people left early. I am guessing that there were often as many as 20 couples on the floor at the peak of the evening. Many people thought this was too many people for the size of the floor, but I have experienced much more crowded floors in Buenos Aires.
When I first visited Buenos Aires in 1999 there were many people who had been dancing tango for most of their lives. These people were then in their 60s and 70s. They learned to dance tango in their teens during the last part of tango’s golden age. At that time there were many people dancing tango, and everyone wanted to dance at the most popular clubs. The dance floors were very crowded, and people did not tolerate being bumped into on the dance floor. To prevent fights, the bouncers in those clubs kept a close eye on the dance floor. A dancer who was causing trouble was removed from the floor, and possibly removed from the club. I have been told that if this happened the bouncer would introduce the offending dancer to all the other bouncers so they all would remember that person. If a dancer was removed a couple of times they would not be allowed back into the club at all. They would have to wait until there was time for the bouncers to forget them, maybe a few months, before trying to get into that place again. Because of this a young dancer was under a lot of pressure to be good on the dance floor. As they grew older with tango these dancers developed great skill at dancing literally in the space they could stand in.
My experience dancing among these people forever changed the way I dance tango. When I got used to moving on those crowded dance floors I found that it wasn’t as constraining as one might think. First of all the floor still moved, so there was always space opening ahead to move into. I never had to dance in place for long before I had a chance to move a bit. There was enough movement to circle a moderate sized room at least once in a song. You could spend 6 hours on those floors (I did) and never be bumped once. The dancing was amazingly energetic, and dancers seemed free to dance a musical and creative dance. It was beautiful to watch, and an amazing experience being in that flow.
There are a few reasons I think we should try to emulate those dancers. Not because I am some kind of historical preservationist, not because I think the only way to dance tango is like those older dancers in Buenos Aires. Not because I think we should only dance on crowded dance floors. Simply stated I think we need to develop good navigation for the health and growth of our communities.
Generally I don’t think people like to be bumped on the dance floor. We may accept that it happens but I don’t think anyone likes to have the flow of their dance disrupted when they are in a deep groove with a good partner. I know people whose entire night can be ruined by being bumped too much. Those who follow can’t trust their partners if they are constantly being led into other people. When the follower can’t trust the leader, they can’t dance well, and they can’t fully enjoy the dance. Good navigation is important first of all so that everyone who comes to dance can enjoy their evening.
Good navigation is important so that people don’t get hurt on the dance floor. Women dance in shoes that often have very small pointy heels. Getting stepped on or kicked by those heels can cause painful injuries. Imagine getting the base joint of your big toe stepped on by one of those heels. You might have to quit dancing for the rest of the night. I know people who have had to quit dancing for the whole weekend of a tango festival because of an injury like this. Followers step on other people because their partners don’t navigate well. These injuries are completely preventable by good navigation.
Good navigation is important for the business of tango as well. We simply cannot open a new milonga for every 20 new people who come to tango. Those who organize milongas need to at least pay for the rent of a space. Hopefully they can also bring in a little money to pay for the time invested in organizing a milonga. If the milonga is happening in a club, the main thing a club owner understands is numbers. If a tango night doesn’t draw many people the club owner will find another way to fill the space, and another venue is lost for a milonga. Without good venues, or people willing to put in the time to organize milongas, the tango community will die.
But the preceding reasons only address what will happen if we don’t learn good navigation. There are some big benefits that we will enjoy from learning to dance in crowded spaces. Benefits that we won’t get any other way, benefits that can increase our enjoyment of dancing tango.
A milonga, like any party has a bigger, better energy when more people are in the room. If a room is too empty, the party energy never seems to get going. When more people can share the floor, the energy of the milonga just gets bigger. Good navigation leads to better, happier parties.
Learning to dance on a more crowded dance floor will improve a dancer’s ability to improvise. When a dancer has a lot of space they are more likely to dance movements exactly the way they learned them. It is easy to fall into a rut, dancing the same patterns over and over again. A more crowded space leads dancers to find new possibilities within the movements they know. They learn to break up long sequences, and modify them to fit the available space. New possibilities arise, and new sequences are created in this process. A dancer’s personal style emerges from these discoveries. Finally instead of dancing sequences only as they were learned in classes, the dancer’s creativity is set free. Good navigation leads to a more creative dance.
The big surprise to me when I first danced on the crowded floors of Buenos Aires was how much more intimate the dance became as the floor got more crowded. As I shrank my dance to fit the space, the lead became more subtle, and as a result my partner’s response also changed. Our focus on each other deepened as we concentrated on each other to communicate more clearly. It seemed like we were in a bubble, close to many people and yet distant from them. I have never felt this feeling when the floor isn’t crowded. One of the big benefits to learning good navigation is this deeply connected dance. You don’t have to be on a crowded floor to have a deeply connected dance, but in my experience the feeling is unique and wonderful when it happens in a crowded, well navigated dance floor.
Finally there was an experience I had on those crowded Buenos Aires floors, among the older dancers that I don’t think can happen on a less crowded floor. When the dance floor is very crowded, dancers are forced to dance a similar phrasing. As I said earlier I was amazed at how much the floor still moved when it was very crowded. I think the strongest dancers probably affected the whole floor then. Everyone ended up dancing their phrasing. I realized that there are times to move forward, and times to dance in place. The floor had a rhythm of movement that everyone participated in. This flow was very hypnotic, as if all the dancers were dancing somehow synchronized with each other, each dancing their own dance but everyone moving forward or dancing in place together. At times like this if the DJ played a particularly strong tanda, there would be as much as half a minute of silence on the floor as the cortina played, as if everyone had gone to that special tango heaven at the same time, and all were waking up from the same dreamy kind of experience. For me these were some of the most powerful moments I have experienced in my years of dancing tango. I think this experience is not possible if the floor is not crowded with dancers who navigate well.
Good social tango comes in many styles, and many embraces. Good social dancers know how to respectfully share a dance floor with other dancers. They dance creatively using the space available. They can delight in the special pleasures found only on a crowded, well navigated dance floor. When everyone navigates well we can share this beautiful dance with many more people and our community can grow.