How to organize a Milonga

2009 June 7
Milonga by Chris and Sue, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by  Chris and Sue

Starting a milonga is easy, right? You just need a place to dance, put some music on, and there you go…

…well not exactly. There are lots of small and not so small details that work together to create a good environment for social dancing. Based on my experience as organizer of both unsuccessful events and much more successful events and experience from various milongas and practicas over the world, I attempt to gather some advice on how to approximate the authentic milonga in your own community.

Location, location, location

First you need a place — large enough, but not too large. It really depends on how many attendants you can be expected to draw. To create the right social dynamics, it is necessary to feel that people fill the space without making it so crowded it is impossible to move or get a seat. Outside Buenos Aires, problems with the ronda are rarely caused by too little space available, as I discussed in a previous post.

If possible, choose a not too remote location. It should be easy to get there by public transportation and there should be parking available.

Do not start your milonga in an obscure cafe with a slow night on Mondays because you can stay there for free. There is a reason why that day is a slow night. And tango dancers generally spend little on drinks for some reason, so it won’t be a good deal for the owner and you may get thrown out again. And one thing you do want is stability, knowing you won’t have to cancel due to some random football match.

Besides, beginners are often intimidated by people watching, which also makes it a good idea to stay off public areas such as cafes or bars.

Many things may be said about sound system, floor etc, I will concentrate on factors that can be more easily changed in this overview.

Time

Going to the milonga means going out. It is not a workout. Hence, it should be placed accordingly. If there is no regular milonga in your city, I suggest Friday night. Then you avoid most people having to leave early to go to work in the morning.

Don’t start too early, let people have time to get home and get ready for their night out. So the exact timing depends on local customs, but 8 PM or 9 PM should work well.

Music

Use a dj that knows what he’s doing. Or is willing to learn. Selecting music for a milonga is like cooking, the most important is that it is done ‘con mucho amor’. Just putting on a random cd will not cut it. Ideally the dj is not noticed, but facilitates dancing, creating a good mood

Use tandas and cortinas. This is much debated outside Bs As, but I prefer it mainly because it facilitates good dancing and circulation between partners. Remove as many barriers as possible for the activites you promote. Tandas and cortinas also socializes beginners into the general structure of a milonga and makes it easier for them to appreciate changes in the music.

Only play the good stuff. This includes playing tango, milonga and vals. Different schemes are possible, 4T-4T-3M-4T-4T-3V usually works well. To get the party going you might consider using 4T-3M-4T-3V the first hour(s).

Unless it is a niche you feel needs to be filled, avoid playing too much untraditional music. Stay with the true and proven tango music, predominantly golden age music.

Play loud enough that the music dominates the venue, but not so lound that it is impossible to talk at the tables. Ideally, talk from the tables should not be disturbing people at the dance floor, but this depends a lot on the sound system installed.

Layout

You need seating, and preferably also tables. Having chairs along the walls does not create a nice atmosphere, rather it mimics the dreaded image of an old fashioned dancing school, where people sit (un)patiently waiting to be asked to dance/nervously trying to gather the courage to move across the floor and ask someone.

Place tables surrounding the dance floor. Make space in the corners for easy access to the dance floor. Make it possible to walk around behind the tables. Then people won’t have to cross the floor to walk over to their friends, asking someone to dance, going to the bar etc. In fact, make it possible to move around the entire dance floor without ever entering the dance floor.

Place the tables perpedicular to the edges of the floor with no chair on the end facing the floor nor the oposite end. Keeping chairs with people away from where people move facilitates movement on and off dance floor and avoids intimidating dancers unnecessarily by having people facing the dance floor ‘staring’ at the dancers.

Create a rectangular dance floor, but not too stretched out. Use tables to shape the size of the floor on all four sides. However, if your attendance is too small to fill up the tables all around the floor, it is probably better to concentrate people on some sides, and use the walls on the others to avoid rows of empty tables.

This may seem overly detailed, but these small details actually matter and they require little work to adjust.

Don’t be afraid to make the dance floor smaller, it often improves flow and behaviour on the dance floor, as people actually need to pay attention to the others on the floor.

At the entrance, it is useful to have someone to take cover charge and greet the guests. If you don’t have enough people to have one sitting at the door, you may use the ‘honor system’, but be prepared that quite a few of your guests will ‘forget’ to pay the entrance. Using a list or some other visual reminder by the entrance that payment is expected might improve the honesty rate.

The dj needs to sit so that he can watch the dance floor, changing the music depending on the crowd’s reactions and desires. The dj should not have other responsibilites while playing, as that is enough work for one person.

Lighting

It is tempting to lower the lights to create a cozy atmosphere. Resist the temptation and keep it light enough to use the cabeceo and for watching the dance floor.

Bar

If possible, it should be a bar where you can buy something to drink (and eat). That includes wine, beer and champagne. Not that drinking much is important, but it reinforces the concept of going out, creating a relaxed social atmosphere. Most tango dancers don’t drink much as far as I have experienced.

Serving at the table is nice, but usually economically unviable in most smaller communities.

Dresscode

Dresscode is rarely strictly enforced, but dressing up is part of going to a milonga. It can be encouraged in several ways, by a mild formulation in the listings and by dressing up yourself. Many tango people like to dress up a little, and dressing up implies taking care of personal hygiene, which I have often seen mentioned as tips before going to the milonga.

Again, the key words are going out and not workout. Leave practice for the practica.

Host

If possible, get some help and be available as a host. Greeting people as they come, make them know you appreciate their attendence. Pay extra care to newcomers, possibly introduce them to some dancers.

In Buenos Aires, you will routinely be escorted to your table, which is a nice gesture. I haven’t seen it outside of Buenos Aires, though. Competition for the nice tables would require a really large community, I presume.

Don’t engage in heated debates with people who are only up to trouble. Smile and suggest you discuss it some other time, as the milonga is a place to enjoy yourself. Show them the way out if they refuse to stop. People who ruin the night for everybody else are not welcome.

Be a good role model, be nice with everybody and play by the rules yourself. This means dressing up appropriately, greeting people with a smile, dance a little, relax and have a drink :-)

The crowd

One of the most important success factors of a milonga is the crowd that frequents the place. This is not something you can control directly, of course, but providing good facilities and above all good music gives you a fair chance to attract the crowd you would like.

I find that experienced dancers often prefer the real stuff (dancing tango to.. tango music) and tend to arrive late, and stay late. A common arrangement is to cater for beginners early (classses and ‘easy music’ and for the more experienced (more complex music) later in the night.

Formal/informal

A traditional milonga in Buenos Aires is actually a rather formal event. For some reason people in other parts of the world seem to have a problem with this, and many have as an explicit goal to make an ‘informal’ atmosphere. In small communities, you will have to strike a balance there, but the more formal atmosphere of the Buenos Aires milongas makes a lot of things easier for dancers once you know the codes.

I think what they should rather be going for is friendly and positive, rather than informal, some structure makes the night easier to work out for the dancers.

Using the implicit means listed above to facilitate the behaviour without enforcing strictly any rules works well in my experience.

PR

Consider giving a class before the milonga starts with entrance to the milonga included, as classes often draw more people. This is a commonly used trick to promote milongas.

Create a clean website with updated information on hours, prices and how to get there. Keep it up to date rather than fancy.

Make flyers to distribute at other milongas if they exist in your city

Add your milonga to online listings and consider creating an online calendar ala google calendar that people can subscribe to.

Start a mailing list with information about special events etc.Let people opt in and keep the number of postings low with relevant content. Ask organizers from other places, festivals etc to send you flyers to distribute at your milonga rather than spam your subscribers.

Place a table by the entrance with flyers, or place them directly on the tables. Having them in one spot makes it easier to administrate.

Advertise truthfully what kind of music people can expect. If you play more than an occational set of alternatives before closing time, make it explicit.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 June 7

    I’m really glad you wrote this. I notice a lot of these things as a customer, and I don’t think there’s a single one I disagree with.

    I think your points about layout are very important. It really matters a lot to the atmosphere. Sometimes I think it matters more than anything else. For instance, I think that chairs with their backs to the walls and their feet on the dancefloor make a huge contribution to the feeling of stress and emotional expense in going to any milonga that has them. Trying to make the floor as big as possible is an error, and doesn’t reduce bumpiness, quite the opposite I suspect. Not being able to circulate except via the floor is a major pain.

    Humans are territorial, social, predatory, status-conscious animals, and layout talks directly to the animal without going through the brain.

  2. 2009 June 8

    I know milongueros would recommend a square floor rather than a rectangular one like Salon La Leonesa in the photo. Salon Canning and Lo de Celia are two of the best milonga venues in Buenos Aires for that reason. It is possible to be seated in the back table in one corner and invite someone in the opposite corner of the room.

    I realize it may take time for dancers to become accustomed to the cabeceo. If men are seated at opposite sides of the floor, they can look either to the right or left to where the women are seated. A small square floor works best.

  3. 2009 June 9

    Great post! Very comprehensive and truly informative for those interested in starting their milonga. I will link to this on our blog!

  4. 2009 June 9

    @MsH: Thanks a lot! I do hope it can be useful for existing and potential organizers. Cater for the animals!

    @Janis: I agree that square floor generally works very well. Canning is one of my absolute favorite venues, not least because the absolutely stunning hardwood floor they got there.

    I personally prefer milongas without strict separation between men and women, and move around a little to cover more of the room, which is something of a necessity in a large room like Leonesa, another of my favorites. When all the women are searching with their eyes as one passes, it can be both flattering and intimitating…

    @Henry: Thanks, I hope it can be useful!

  5. 2009 June 14

    Hi Simba,

    A most excellent article. Complete and utter agreement on all counts. I will be forwarding this link a lot here in the UK…maybe it’ll do some good.
    Very good blog in general, too.

  6. 2009 June 14

    Thank you for the kind words! I would be delighted if this post can help someone start a milonga or improve an existing one :-)

  7. 2009 July 13

    Great post. I organize and I know I do all this as much as possible. As a DJ at other people’s events I try to tell the organizers about walkways behind the tables, and adequate lighting. Usually they don’t listen though.
    I feel a rectangular floor is better than square, because the middle is much smaller. The middle being where the crazy people play boxcarts. Also, the circumference (outer lane) which is the best place to be, is longer on a rectangular dance floor of the same surface area. Longer outer lane means more prime real estate. So place the tables in such a way as to turn a square room into a rectangular dance floor. Also seating areas should be contiguous.
    Thank you for your efforts! Tine

  8. 2009 July 14

    Thank you Tine, good point about the shape of the floor. I tend to prefer it too, having those long sides to walk uninterrupted can be so nice. I would never suggest Salón Canning to change their layout, though :-)

  9. 2009 July 15

    I also prefer a rectangular floor in most rooms; in BsAs I have no doubt a square floor is good, perhaps even best. But where the dancers are much less experienced and many have difficulty forming a line of dance anyway, I have the impression that an oval line of dance is easier to create than a circular one. I’ve often wondered what would happen if you put a couple of giant pot plants in the middle – just one if the floor is square, two if it’s rectangular.

  10. 2009 July 15

    Maybe I am drifting off a little here, but I would say that on the crowded floors of Bs As, the dancers follow the shape of the floor, without cutting corners and creating an oval or circle. But that only reinforces you point.

    I have heard about a milonga that did the pot plant thing. Supposedly to improve circulation and I think influenced by the open air milonga La Calesita in Buenos Aires. I don’t remember where it was, but I think maybe that milonga too was called La Calesita.

  11. 2011 February 25

    One thing that is so wonderful about milongas in BsAs is that there are so many of them, and just like your own “tango style,” you can choose what suits you most.

    What suits Ruben and me is a great wood floor surface, a high ceiling, a rectangular floor, and of course, friendly people. Exactly like your photo of the salon in the Region Leonesa that opens your post. Los Consagrados there on Saturdays has been our favorite milonga for years.

    But others prefer more “cozy” spaces like El Beso, or Maipu (which is now gone forever.)

    I really enjoyed this post and agree with you completely!
    Besos!

  12. 2011 March 2

    Thanks Cherie, I love the Leonesa, too! We have a venue where I live which resembles the Leonesa a bit, but it’t too large for the small crowds that are possible to draw here on a regular weekly milonga, unfortunately.

  13. 2012 August 13
    Christopher permalink

    I would much rather run a milonga on Saturday night rather than Friday (in the USA at least), because the professionals that make up the majority of tangueros here are sometimes too tired to go out on Fridays, but always seem to get out on Saturday. Certainly in my community, Saturday events are more heavily attended than Fridays.

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