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Attending your First Tango Festival?

Tango festivals aren’t like your local milonga. I’ve heard too many horror stories about bad experiences that could have been easily avoided, especially from innocent souls who didn’t quite realize what they were walking into. If this is your first festival, or you are a beginner (or you have no idea what a lane is and why it matters), read on.

BEFORE THE FESTIVAL

#1. Before you register, ask a pro for an HONEST assessment on whether you are truly ready for the festival you want to attend. These festivals are a lot more fun for skilled dancers and you may get deeply humbled when you show up and see the overall skill level. The last thing you want is to have a bad experience because you are in over your head. Festival dancers often expect you to be fairly skilled and sadly, I have heard many stories of people being mean to people they think shouldn’t be there. Don’t shoot me for saying this, but… people don’t travel across the country to spend the weekend dancing with unskilled dancers. They have those at home. In droves.

#2. Ask a pro to brief you on the etiquette/tango codes that will be expected at this festival. You must know proper use of the cabeceo. Your navigation and floorcraft should be solid. You should know how to protect your follower. You do not want to offend half the room or recklessly cause an injury to another dancer. No one wants to pay $1,000 to attend a festival and have their ankle gouged out by a dancer’s heel on the first night because a lead obliviously crossed into another lane.

#3. Talk to people who have attended the festival to make sure you know what you are signing up for. Some festivals are more beginner friendly than others (i.e., they may have a separate space dedicated for beginners). Some festivals may even have “dance hosts.”  For your first festival, find one that clearly welcomes beginners or has a learning track dedicated to beginners.

AT THE FESTIVAL

People who attend festivals have invested a good chunk of money for travel, hotel and registration. So it’s safe to assume that most of the people in the room are solid dancers who have likely invested in a lot of training and floor time. If you haven’t, you may feel intimidated and might encounter attitudes by people who think you aren’t up to par. Therefore…

#1. Confess: If this is your first real milonga or you are a beginner, tell the person before hitting the floor – NOT after the dance has begun. Simply say, “I’ve only been dancing a few months… If you are okay with that, I’d love to dance, but I totally understand if you’d prefer to find someone else for this one.” Trust me – people will greatly appreciate the honesty and the opportunity to make a graceful exit. Some may say, “No worries!” and be happy to dance regardless. The alternative is the person fails to hide their misery or abandons you mid-tanda after some snarky remark. And yeah, this happens.

#2. Watch, then Ask. If you are a newer dancer, please take care to watch the person you want to dance with before you invite. This is a partner dance, and out of respect for my partner, I seek out people who I feel I would have a mutually enjoyable dance with. Don’t ask people way above your level just so you can “experience” them. That desire is likely not mutual. Tango is not about “using” people for your own personal enjoyment.

#3. Lanes & Floorcraft: Leaders – please don’t be the one guy in the room who doesn’t realize there are lanes on the dance floor – and you need to stay in your lane. At home, you might be able to get away with bad floor craft, neglecting to mirada to enter the pista, and wantonly floating over three lanes, but at a festival, you are expected to know and honor basic etiquette. If someone addresses an issue with you regarding your navigation, you gotta listen and adjust to what is asked of you. It’s just about safety and respect, so calm down and don’t throw a self-righteous hissy fit.

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This amazing floor at the San Diego Tango Festival is owned by Jim Baker, who designed this floor. Jim hosts the Tucson Tango Festival in Arizona (USA). Photo by DJ Jessica Shilling.

If you are reading this and getting intimidated or turned off by going to a festival, don’t give up just yet. Hit up some practicas, get some honest feedback, and take a couple of private lessons with a veteran pro who can prepare you with what you need. If you have a few clean basics along with solid navigation, you’re good!

Personally, I love tango festivals. The energy is amazing. The festival community truly is warm and embracing, especially when you can hold your own on the floor. And dancing with people from all over the country will change how you experience tango. Do the work to help ensure you have a good festival experience… and then you’ll be hooked.


Curious about that amazing floor in the picture above? This floor is owned by Jim Baker from Tucson, AZ (USA) and it is available for rent @ Tucson Dance Floor Rental. 

 

An Awkward First Year of Tango

When I first got interested in tango, I would go to a milonga and pay $15 to sit and be eyed suspiciously for three hours. I knew about the cabaceo, tandas and why I shouldn’t say “thank you” at the end of every song. But there is so much more…. Here are a few things I wish I had known in my first year.

#1. Your hair style matters. Fluffy, voluminous, 80s hair isn’t going to help you get dances. It’s a dead giveaway that you are new at this. Pull your hair back or away from the right side of your face. This is due to the head positioning you will have with the lead in close embrace. He doesn’t want to visually navigate the floor through a tousled mass of your hair.

#2. Tango is not a forgiving dance. Don’t bank on being able to fake it, especially if you are coming over from another dance style. Don’t expect your partners to happily compensate for your lack of tango technique all night. Tango dancers take their dance skills very seriously and will invest tremendously in private lessons, classes and workshops. If you want to dance with good dancers, invest in classes and private lessons to get your basics down solid. People will engage you when they see your dedication and development in advancing your technique and skills. Some may pass you over until they see you making real progress.

#3. People may watch you for a while before they ask you to dance. This could be hours, weeks or years. If you’re sitting out a lot, use the time wisely; study the people on the floor. Even better; start socializing.

#4. Attitude matters. Leave entitlement at home. You are not entitled to dance with the best people in the room simply because you showed up and have a general idea of how to dance. Be gracious. Stay humble. Don’t hound people or dominate them. Don’t start off with a reputation for being aggressive, rude or desperate.

#5. The outfit matters. It’s another clue on how legit you are as a dancer. If you decide that tango is for you, invest in tango shoes. Your flats/dance sneakers/Jessica Simpson heels say you are brand new at this. While advanced dancers can get away with wearing jeans, Pumas, tiny shorts or midriff baring tops to a milonga, a beginner is probably better served by going with a more traditional, elegant look.

#6. Don’t rush into the embrace immediately upon hitting the floor. Before you embrace, engage your new friend with some light conversation. You might chat for 30 seconds before the lead initiates the embrace. What do you talk about? “Is this your first time here?” or “How are you enjoying your evening thus far?” or “I love the music tonight!”.

#7. When dancing, don’t talk. Followers, just close your eyes and be in the exquisite moment of that embrace. Immerse yourself in the dance and focus entirely on your partner (not the mirror, not the rockstar dancer 10 feet away and not your feet). This is the time to dance and connect, not entertain your partner with engaging conversation.

#8. Love nuevo? Awesome. Just dial it back at the traditional milongas. Big, showy, flashy nuevo moves will definitely get attention – namely, scowls and frowny faces. They may even get you kicked out of a traditional milonga, so don’t go there to show off your fancy stuff.

Lastly, I feel like the social environment in tango is kind of like going to a party… walk in, greet the people you know. Say hello to the host, find your table, introduce yourself to new people as appropriate. When I leave, I do my best to thank the DJ (especially if I loved the music), the host and to say good-bye to friends (old and newly met).

Treating people kindly and warmly, and with gratitude, respect and interest goes a long way – whether it’s inside or outside the milonga.

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This is what I felt like inside during my first year of tango, praying that I would get at least a few good tandas in – instead of just politely watching them. 

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