Codes for Social Dancing

This Information will be of more importance to you when you have mastered the basics of tango - but it's never too early to learn how to behave appropriately when you're dancing as a group.

There's rather a lot of information here but please believe me: this is what makes or breaks a good evening of dancing. 


Eye contact


his is a good way to ask for dances. In milongas in Argentina, the action of asking someone to dance with eye contact and a nod is called the “cabaceo”: Often the look and the nod are quite explicit to avoid misunderstandings. If someone avoids meeting your eyes, it's best to ask someone else. It is perfectly acceptable for both leaders and followers to initiate eye contact in order to express interest in a dance . If a woman wants to dance, she must participate by paying attention and scanning the room – it makes it almost impossible for a leader to make eye contact with a woman who is talking or distracted. It is also acceptable 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.

Just because someone doesn't return a cabaceo, it doesn't mean they will never dance with you; dancers have favourite partners for particular orquestas and will try to cabaceo them first.

The cabaceo is usually initiated during the cortina and you need to be definite. If you look away, your potential partner may think you've changed your mind or she misjudged your cabaceo and look for a partner elsewhere.

It's important for dancers to leave the dance floor during the cortina so people can see one another across the floor. If you want to continue dancing the next tanda with the same partner, move to the side of the floor until the music starts. Dancing to the cortina may be fun but it is often seen as being very selfish.

Skilled leaders communicate with each other through eye contact to avoid collisions on the dance floor. A leader wishing to join the dance floor during a song should really wait for a smile and a nod from the next dancer - almost like politely joining traffic queues in a car. A nod and smile of recognition helps. Both couples are going to be dancing close to each other for the next few songs so a good early relationship helps.


Floor craft

Travelling in a counter clockwise direction, 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.

The dance floor is meant to have lanes. Depending on floor size, there may be an outer, middle, inner, and centre. If you must merge, do so consciously and courteously.

Limit passing. Cut-ins and zig-zags across lanes are not safe. Try turns and rhythmic play first.

It is your duty to keep up with - but not crowd - the couple in front of you. A big space in front of you generally means you have a queue behind you.

Be very careful when back-stepping. It is against the line of dance, so be aware of how much space you have around you to step. Another option is to rotate and move your back-step with the flow, counter-clockwise, making sure you know the space is empty behind you. You can also step at a diagonal (leader facing outside).

Joining the floor during a song the leader can face the edge and step backwards into the floor protecting his follower and then turning into the line of dance. Therefore the back step was in fact sideways into the lane. Of course this is when it is safe to enter or you've been invited by the next leader.

For larger movements, long pauses, and lots of in-place figures, use the centre. Pick up the general atmosphere for this: at some milongas you will not be welcome if you engage in large expressive movements.

Choose moves appropriate to conditions. Leaders: high, wide boleos and ganchos can cause injury on a crowded floor. Followers: keep your feet low if there are dancers near you. Practice good techniques by stepping back with your heel down.

When two couples bump into each other on the floor, it is polite for both leaders to acknowledge it by apologizing (either verbally or with a smile), regardless of who is at fault. Traditionally, in Argentina, the error is always laid on the leaders' shoulders – the followers generally do not get involved.

Social Aspects


he embrace is the beginning of the dance. Take time to get it right and to enjoy these first few moments. Give your follower time to feel at ease. There is no reason to grab her and start dancing.

Respect your partner — and everyone else on the floor — at all times.

Personal hygiene is important. Tango is a very intimate dance. Powerful scents (both good and bad) can be overwhelming.

Saying “Thank you,” is a coded term for “I want to stop dancing.” Use other phrases of gratitude when you want to continue dancing with that partner; reserve "thank you" for the end of the tanda.

Although the cortina is a customary partner-changing opportunity, it is acceptable to leave the floor after one song, or even in the middle of a song, if you are sufficiently uncomfortable with your partner's dancing or other behaviour. Remember, however, that this is an exception to the rule. On the other hand, if you are enjoying the partnership, it is fine to ask for a second tanda with the same partner.

It is common — though not required — to dance in a close embrace in tango. Dancing close is not an invitation for inappropriate behaviour: be sensitive to your partner’s comfort-level with regard to personal space.

If you must decline a dance offer, do so sincerely. It’s rude to decline one offer and then accept another within the same tanda. Leaders, get used to being refused. It may not be the case in your local society, but in many milongas, dancers only want to dance with certain partners or may be waiting to catch the eye of someone with whom they particularly wish to dance.

Also, experienced dancers watch the floor very critically. If you've been seen doing extravagant patterns, good salon dancers will almost certainly not dance with you. Many good followers will not watch the leaders to see if they would like to dance with them: they will watch their partners to see if they are having a good dance.

It is considered rude to drown out the music with loud conversation, on or around the dance floor. If you need to discuss something while dancing, do so quietly. This is particularly important with to live music.

At many milongas, don't be surprised if, when the song starts,people just continue their conversations for a while. This is a custom so just accept it and do the same. In Buenos Aires, this might continue for over a minute: couples want to talk as much as they want to dance and there is plenty of time in a five or six hour milonga with four songs in a tanda.

No teaching on the dance floor. Feed-back is appropriate on the practica floor and in lessons, as long as it is requested and given respectfully.

It is customary for a leader to escort his follower back to her seat when they have finished dancing


The Essence of The Dance

The above takes care of the codes for dancing in a milonga but if you want to read further I'm adding some thoughts about the embrace, starting and stopping dancing. I write these from a man's, a leader's,  point of view but the ideas apply to both partners in a dance.....

So you've agreed to dance a tanda with someone and you've entered the dance floor and the song starts. There is no race to get moving. As an analogy, you stop your car for someone to sit in the passenger seat and as soon as they close the door you drive off. They haven't settled into their seat comfortably, their seat belt isn't fastened yet and their belongings are not yet placed where they want them. A good start?

Back to the dance....Take time over the embrace and wait for your partner to settle. Ideally, the embrace should feel the same way you would hold a baby: secure, but not rigidly tight. You should be able to tell when your partner is ready to dance. The key is to wait and become in tune with the music and your partner.

At the end of a song, it is not really appropriate to hold the embrace until you're ready to dance again. This time is for talking: a milonga is a social occasion. But the opposite is wrong too. Don't just drop your partner from the embrace: again, wait and let the feelings extend a few moments then release the embrace gently. My preference at the end of a song is collect in a standing position with my partner and then gradually let the energy diffuse. This brings the charged dance down gently: not to a sudden, unexpected stop. Traditional tangos tell stories in music and the end of the music resolves everything - it is quite beautiful and the sudden stop, or being half way through a turn at the end contrasts with the emotional content. Of course, this means you have to learn the music so you are aware of when the end is coming. (I know many modern songs to which people dance tango just stop suddenly or fade out but this is because they haven't generally carried a story - just a few repetitive phrases..........).

Now, wait and chat until the couple in front prepare to dance - it will just happen naturally - and then begin with the embrace all over again remembering to "wait".

At the end of the tanda take a little longer to release the energy and the emotions that have been at work before gently letting go of your partner. If the tanda has been enjoyable, you sometimes just find it hard to let go of one another. Thank her and take her back to her seat or to where you collected her.

These actions multiply the pleasures of the dance but beyond that, the chances are that others are watching and making decisions about whether or not they want to dance with you. Remember that at good milongas, many good dancers will spend time watching the dancing as well as dancing themselves.

Leaders and Followers

These terms are more common away from Argentina. In Buenos Aires it is much more likely that dancers, including most teachers, will talk about the man's role or the woman's role. However, this doesn't exclude men or women from dancing together.