What do you dance at a milonga?

21 Oct 2019 - by Graham

I keep being surprised when people ask me this question, but it is something that crops up from time to time and so I should probably address it a bit more often. People know about 'milonga' as the faster form of tango which uses quick regular steps and lots of repetition, and they know that people travel a long way to go to 'milongas'. A connection between these two things is made, and the next thing I know is that I am being asked "Can you teach us the dance that people dance at milongas?" or "I see that there are a lot of milongas around, but where can I go to dance tango?"

So let me clear this up once and for all: you go to milongas to dance tango.

Okay? Is that settled? Tango is danced at milongas. But I can already start to hear the question forming... "In that case, where do you go to dance milonga...?" so there is probably some more work to do here, and so maybe I should start a bit nearer the beginning.

This dance we do is called 'tango', but the term 'tango' covers at least three different genres of music and their associated dance styles, and these are called 'milonga', 'vals', and... 'tango'. If you are used to ballroom dancing you will know that ballroom is split into two categories called 'ballroom' and 'latin', and that each of these categories includes dances such as the foxtrot, the jive, the rumba, the quickstep, along with many others, and so this idea that 'tango' and 'milonga' are both dances that come under the heading of 'tango' should not be too much of a surprise. But without that background it is easy to get confused, and it would probably help to get some idea of where the names all came from.

Unfortunately the exact origin of words like 'tango' and 'milonga' is lost in history as very few written records were ever kept, but what is universally accepted is that the dance we know today started off as something that looked a lot like more like modern 'milonga' than it did modern 'tango'. Whether the places it was danced were called 'milongas' after the dance, or if the dance was named after the gatherings themselves is unsure, but we do know that in the earliest days you went to a milonga to dance milonga.

Then popular music began to slow in pace, and the new dance of 'tango' began to appear. This was based on the same steps as were used in milonga, but slower and more spread out to fit with the slower tempo of the music, and so it was natural that people who liked the faster dance would also enjoy the slower version. This led to the new dance - which somewhere along the line had become known as 'tango' - also being danced at milongas, and so now you went to a milonga to dance milonga or tango.

Music from Europe began to make its way to South America, and the waltz which was taking Europe by storm at the time began to be popular over there as well. The original musical structure of waltz with three beats in a bar was adapted by the local orchestras to fit with the four beats in a bar that the slower 'tango' dancers expected, but the character of waltz was preserved by the music having three emphasised beats and one suspended beat in each bar. This became known as 'tango vals' ('vals' is the Spanish spelling of 'waltz'), and eventually just 'vals'.

'Tango' became the most popular of the rhythmic structures, possibly because its slower pace meant that it could be danced for longer and by people of - shall we say - more limited mobility than the faster milonga rhythm, and so the name 'tango' took over as the generic term for all three styles of dance. But the places where it was danced kept their old names and so were still referred to as 'milongas'. I like to think this was down to people wanting to save money on signwriting, but that's probably just me. There is no historical evidence of that whatsoever, but given how slowly some shops and clubs update their signs even in modern London, it does not seem implausible.

The dance has continued to evolve and yet the places where you go to dance tango, vals, and milonga are still called milongas; the music played at milongas will primarily be tango rhythm, but will also include vals and milonga. So if you want to dance tango, go to a milonga.


Note: The more observant of you will have noticed that despite running one every month, at no point in this post have I mentioned a 'neolonga'.

Well, 'neolonga' is a neologism that simply means 'new milonga', and is usually used to refer to a tango venue that predominantly plays modern or alternative tango music. This music will usually include rhythms that cover tango, vals, and milonga so whatever you want to dance you should find it there. Although it is worth pointing out that because the rhythmic structure of tango vals is not the same as proper waltz you are unlikely to find much modern or alternative music that really fits. If you know musical notation you will know that most modern popular music is written in 4/4 or 2/4, with some in 3/4. Tango is in 4/4 or 2/4 and milonga is generally in 2/4 so they fit well so long as the speed and emphasis are right, but tango vals is in a weird hybrid of 4/4 and 3/4 that you could almost write as (3+1)/4 and so not much modern music really fits that pattern.

If you find any good modern tango vals tracks, please let me know!


Posted by: Graham   Permalink: link   Keywords: milonga  vals  tango  

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