In this interview with RO of Last Third Best Third, famous Tango dancer Polly McBride discusses “What is a true Milonguero?” Click on the video above to watch the legend of the Milonguero unfold before your very eyes. Read the below transcript of her passionate portraiture, describing the true nature of the Milonguero, the male partner in the Argentine Tango.
Polly McBride discusses “What Is a True Milonguero?”
“What is a true Milonguero? It’s kind of hard to describe, but there are certain things that distinguish a Milonguero from a dancer, in that there’s certain things that a Milonguero always does and things that he never does. And one of the things he never does is walk up to a woman and ask her to dance. One of the things that he always does is make sure that his partner is safe and comfortable.
Each of those is an essential foundation, a factor that goes into creating what we think of as a true Milonguero. The basis underneath all of those is respect. A Milonguero starts with self-respect. And that is shown by how he stands, how he’s groomed, his manners, and how he approaches other people, including his partners. Everything is done with the concern of making sure his partners or who he’s working with or talking to are comfortable and safe.
The true Milonguero makes sure his partner is comfortable and safe
One of the unique characteristics of Argentine Tango is making eye contact with someone to invite them to dance rather than walking up to them and saying, ‘may I have this dance?’ That works in other dances, and it’s quite appropriate for other dances. Tango, because it’s based on a culture that is very different from ours, it is part of the overall etiquette of Tango.
So when a gentleman has been in Tango long enough to learn about that and practice that, he can ask someone from across the room to dance in a very subtle, only between the two of them, communication. Women who understand how that works are very comfortable with that. Beginning women, who are not used to that, may think that someone’s just staring at her for no reason. Or maybe for an improper reason. And sometimes we’re very uncomfortable until we learn the system. Part of showing respect for the dance is learning the system. Cabaceo is a very essential part of that. And it works for a very important reason.
In the Latin culture, men who highly respect women on the floor, and who are very selective about who they invite to dance, want to make a hundred percent sure that that woman has agreed to dance with them. And the only way he can do that is to get her approval and acknowledgement before he approaches her. Because after he’s started across the floor, if she suddenly turns away or shakes her head no, he’s devastated. And embarrassed. And has to walk back or off the floor knowing, and knowing that everyone else has seen, possibly, his rejection.
It’s a communication system. And after it’s learned, and after you understand how it works and why it works, it’s magic. It’s very, very comfortable. And women learn how to invite; they know how to get a man’s attention; they know how to reject by just simply turning away, or tying their shoe, or reaching down, or whatever system they use for letting him know they’re not interested. And then no harm done. This is part of the language and culture of Tango. And very essential and very important in maintaining the overall respect for the nature and character and integrity of the dance.
The Milonguero communicates with his eyes from across the room
When a Milonguero has received permission from a partner to dance, and he takes her in his embrace, it’s a very touching, lovely moment, it can be. Milongueros tend to not rush into an embrace. They carefully choreograph it, in the sense that they actually time it with the music and they time it with how the follower is responding, and it’s just a moment that sets the tone for the dance. I can tell when I step into a man’s arms and embrace, what kind of dance it’s going to be. I can tell whether he’s dancing with me, or for me. And I can tell if he’s going to keep me safe and comfortable. All in just sometimes before we’ve even taken a step.
Safety and Comfort
The next two criteria of defining, in my opinion, a true Milonguero is his concern and his preparation and his assurance for his partner’s safety and comfort. As in driving a car, taking a woman for a walk or taking her for a drive, or even intimacy, there is the aspect of if your partner feels safe, she can relax. She can relax on the dance floor, she can relax in your arms, enjoy the music, and work together to create this beautiful masterpiece you’re gonna dance together. If she doesn’t feel safe, that won’t happen.
So a Milonguero takes care of his partner. Like a driver takes care of their passenger, it works similarly. When a gentleman goes onto the floor, like driving, merging with traffic, you look to the oncoming traffic, make eye contact with the leader who is just about to come in front of you and make sure you have his permission or his acknowledgement, then step into a line of dance. Men who just bolt onto the floor are not showing the woman that this is a concern of his, and that is extremely important to her.
Women derive pleasure when safety and comfort are taken care of. They have nothing to worry about, they know they’re being taken care of, and they’ll be safe. And then the man, a true Milonguero, as a true gentleman, enjoys his pleasure through giving hers. Her pleasure.
A true Milonguero dances FOR her
Dancing with Her or for Her
Another characteristic of Milongueros is knowing how to interpret a follower’s responses. When he’s dancing with her, if he is listening to her, and listening to the music, and putting all those things together, he’s actually dancing for her, as well as with her. He’s not dancing for himself, he’s not dancing with his ego, he’s dancing with her pleasure in mind. And that makes the kind of dance that women walk off the floor weak in the knees, ready to dance with that person again.
A true Milonguero is more concerned about being a desirable partner than an excellent dancer. Excellent dancers are wonderful. They’re a part of our culture, they’re a part of the dancing, but if they’re dancing something like Tango that involves two people, if both of them are not comfortable or feel safe, the pleasure is not going to be there.
And so when you hear a woman talking about the magical Tanda that she had with a certain partner, you know that these things have been in place or that would not have happened. And Milongueros have studied and practiced enough to it become second nature. It’s not necessarily even consciously after their beginning levels. It just becomes habit, it becomes just automatic.
Some of the best Milongueros I’ve danced with including instructors and maestros and partners that I love dancing with here in Portland, it’s so automatic with them. They can tell, I can tell they’re watching the traffic, because they slow down or they take smaller steps or they adjust somehow in their route that they take, and on top of that of course, they’re listening to the music. Each part of that contributes greatly to the overall effect. They’re not each one by themselves, it’s not a complete form. Each part contributes to the overall effect. And that’s what the woman responds to.
The magic that happens between the Milonguero and his partner
So when a gentleman takes me into his arms, I know before we take one step what that dance is gonna be like. I know that he has taken time to join the embrace instead of just rushing into it…if he’s taken time to listen to the music and the mood and the tempo of what it is…if he’s taken time to observe what’s happening on the floor, with the traffic…and if he’s taken time to make sure I’m comfortable in his arms…and if he takes time to make sure he knows which foot I have my weight on and that I am set. And then, the first step tells me, is he dancing with me or for me? And there’s a huge difference.
Men who dance with me are actually dancing as two entities. They’re dancing for their pleasure and I’m just kind of along for the ride. Men who dance for me, focus on my footwork and my weight changes, and my responses to his leads. Men who lead gently, clearly, musically, I respond to with my own style, my own little flourishes perhaps, or tiny embellishments depending on the music. And when he feels that, he knows I’m hearing what he is saying, and responding. I’m not just along for the ride. Those are the kinds of connections that make Tango spectacular and indescribably delicious. Those are the kind that women are weak in the knees when they walk off the floor.
Exiting the Dance Floor
When a gentleman walks off the floor, if he’s really developed a relationship for nine minutes or however long, with his partner, they don’t leave the floor separately. They leave the floor together. He leads her back to where he picked her up and where they connected, and that brings closure to their little contract that they’ve had. And their little relationship. And at that time, there’s a communication, a little closing communication that lets each partner know yes, I wanna do this again with you sometime. Or, eh, maybe not. I can look back years ago and I remember what certain dances felt like. And I can feel that magic still. I have to cut so I can get rid of the lump in my throat.”
Thank you, Polly McBride.
And thank you to The Alex Krebs Sextet for giving permission to use their recordings in this production, which included: No te Apures Cara Blanca; CB Vals; Catamarca; La Yumba; Romance de Barrio; La Cumparsita.
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