Navigation and what dancers do in terms of movement on the floor is a major ingredient in the soup of Milonga enjoyment - or otherwise - for all.
Dancers will always have patience for beginners who just don't know yet ... and bumping is a part of life. But if some rules of the road aren't followed, nerves get frayed.
On this page: thoughts about it all.
To begin with, Tom Stermitz, an organizer in Denver, wrote the following to TANGO-L after his very successful Denver Labor Day Weekend. You'll recognize that he could be writing about any place, anywhere, anytime ...
As people may have noticed, the floors were somewhat crowded....Crowded, but very well navigated. For the experienced dancers this was a dream come true. I would like to testify that tango dancing rarely gets better than this, and the milongas felt very, very close to what it is like in Buenos Aires (without the cigarette smoke).
But, obviously some people were a bit daunted by the crowded conditions and the intensity. I heard that complaint from a few people. I would like to address it.
A good leader has 4 connections: His Partner, the Earth, the Music and the Crowd. When all 4 of these are really great, then we (leaders) find the highest level of energy, musicality and trance. Since the followers are feeling every beat of our hearts, they also reach that exquisite state.
Friday night was a bit rough. Social energy was more scattered. People were just starting to find new partners. There were quite a number of collisions. The floor felt confused.
My observation is that people who are used to having 3-4 steps to recover, had difficulty when they only had 1-3 steps. This led to an inconsistent "Crowd Rhythm", which makes it pretty hard to predict where the guys in front, in back and to the side are going.
On Saturday we gave navigation classes, and lo and behold, by Saturday night everybody was in nice, polite lanes...except for a few who had not attended the classes.
By Sunday everything rocked. Fast, energized dancing. Extraordinary connections with the partners. Hardly ANY collisions.
Here are some tips to make things work in such crowded conditions:
(1) Vocabulary: Some of your "moves" simply won't work. You need to have the rhythmic vocabulary, in particular a quick, rock-step to get you out of trouble, and if you do a turn, sometimes the only place you can put your partner is the spot you just vacated.
(2) Moving the Tables in: I know this sounds crazy, but it helped immensely. First of all, on Friday we had major problems with people standing on the dance floor, walking to the bathroom and the waitress clearing the tables. By moving the tables IN about 4 feet, the people standing could hang out BEHIND the tables, clearing the floor and ACTUALLY MAKING MORE ROOM for the dancers.
(3) Lanes & Corners: One of the things I worked very intensely with in my class was to get the leaders to navigate to the EDGE of the dance floor, up against the tables. Also, I really had to push them not to "cheat" at the corners. In other words, by moving the outer lane really out, and increasing the lane by 10 feet at each corner, we actually had 40 EXTRA linear feet to work with in each lane. There was a second lane just inside the outer one. Only by the third lane this did things break down...like I said it was full of people who hadn't been in the classes, kind of milling about.
(4) Respecting Lanes: The single biggest source of collisions comes from people who straddle the two outer lanes or zigzag from the inside confusion out to the proper lanes. If you collide more than 2 times in the course of an evening, then you need to pay attention to your navigational skills. Obviously a beginner or an intermediate is still working on their craft, and deserves sympathy, not condemnation, but I had a number of collisions with people who think of themselves as advanced dancers...sometimes several collisions with the same guy!
(5) Tempo of movement: When it is going just right, everyone moves slowly along at about the same pace, neither crowding the one in front, nor holding up traffic behind.
(6) Uniformity of the Crowd Rhythm: When we are all reacting with 1-2 step rhythmic movements, we start to build up a uniform "feel" to the dance floor. Each leader is able to figure out just how much time he has to avoid the people on all sides of him.
(7) Lunges, Rocks-Steps & Boleos: Any movement that puts your long legs stretching away from you is very hazardous on the dance floor. In these conditions, you have to shorten your footsteps, and keep your legs down and under you. In Buenos Aires I have experienced it so crowded, that I had to find the little spaces between the partners around me in which to rock-step my partner's feet, or even use the space under the nearby table! This is a little extreme.
Mental Construct of Tango
The problem of decent navigation does not relate specifically to a particular STYLE of tango, rather to the dancers' MENTAL CONSTRUCT of "what it means to do tango". People need to be capable of choosing a concept of Tango APPROPRIATE to the conditions, and to be able to change habits.
(1) Performing on stage is a CONCEPT (not style) of doing tango where the goal is to project externally to an audience, use exciting vocabulary, and to manage the floor in a way that the audience is entertained.
(2) Doing tango at a wide-open practice is a CONCEPT of doing tango where you can walk with long-strides, work on 6 or 8 step figures, zig-zag around the room without hitting anyone, practice the fancy material from your last workshop, etc.
(3) Tango in a crowded milonga is a specific SOCIAL ACTIVITY consisting of:
These are all VALID ways to do tango; each is appropriate in the proper situation. I think the CONCEPTS of doing tango in a practice vs a milonga are not well-differentiated by most teachers and dancers, at least here in the US.
Who is to Blame?
This lack of awareness mostly has to be laid at the feet of the teachers and event organizers.
How many teachers really provide an awareness of dancing the way it is done in a crowded Buenos Aires milonga or at a popular festival? Or do they only teach fancy figures appropriate to stage or open practice space?
How many organizers set up the room for a Milonga with a perimeter of the dance floor, tables and chairs for socializing, tandas for trading partners? Or are they really setting up the room for a practice where people zig-zag around the open middle of the floor?
How many DJs use tandas, and create the atmosphere of a milonga...varying the music, managing the social energy, paying attention to the emotional content of the room? Or do they just pop a couple CDs into the player and press random?
Changing people's awareness
In Denver we have all varieties of tango, big, small, acrobatic, trance, stage, social, salon, nuevo, milonguero, etc... We have tango performances, classes, practices and milongas.
People in Denver tend to adapt appropriately. Even those who most prefer big movements, and showy vocabulary are aware of which situation they are in. So they work on fancy things at the practice or in performance, and change to a milonga concept of dancing when they attend a milonga.
In fact, the Denver Tuesday practice is in a very large room, divided by the DJ table & sound system into two parts one for practicing, the other for social dancing.
The practice side is less crowded, and you don't have to move line-of-dance. Often people are trading moves from the last workshop, or working out something with their favorite partner.
The speakers point to the social dance side, which has tables and the bar. This side is more like a milonga, where everyone moves line-of-dance, most change partners after every set.
This set-up helps everyone understand and learn to differentiate between different mental concepts of tango.
Can you reach tango heaven when it is so crowded?
For me it is precisely this crowd energy that completes the tango trance. It takes getting used to, but there is an amazing intuitive aura that comes over me when I reach that stage. Steps happen to the music by themselves, and I am become the watcher of the game....Kind of zen-like.