Tango etiquette is a funny thing. The world of Argentine tango revolves around milongas, which are social dances. While there are many styles of tango, there is a basic vocabulary to the dance that allows just about any leader to dance with just about any follower. There’s a social structure at a milonga that helps everyone save face. Instead of walking up to a follower and risking rejection and a walk of shame, a leader will nod his head at a follower. The follower will return the nod, showing she agrees to dance a four-song tanda (set) with him. They meet on the dance floor and start dancing immediately, with the follower deciding just how close the embrace will be. They will pause to converse for the first 15 seconds of the next 2-3 songs in the tanda. Conversation will often include a figurative sniffing-of-butts that establishes the tango pedigree of each of the dancers. (“I studied Villa Urquiza style at such-and-such studio in Buenos Aires. You?” “I studied the Todaro-Bravo style with such-and-such teacher.”) Even if they don’t like dancing with one another, both dancers generally realize that it’s a huge affront to leave this person before the end of the tanda. Seasoned tangueros are aware of the rules and follow them carefully.

The etiquette exists to help everyone save face, but it’s a double-edged sword. In order for the cabeceo (the nodding business) to happen, the leader and follower have to make eye contact. Followers can benefit from the cabeceo rule by learning to use peripheral vision to see if that creepy guy with a crushing embrace who leads with his pelvis (ew) is trying to make eye contact. When that happens, it’s clearly time to fix a buckle on a shoe, check a watch, or appear to be engrossed conversation with a friend. If a follower is over 30 and over size 2, the cabeceo can be a challenge. There is quite literally nothing these women can do to make eye contact with a good leader. To make matters worse, this has absolutely nothing to do with skill. A delightful follower with tons of experience and musicality can find herself planchando (sitting on her toosh and effectively “ironing” her skirt) all night while 20-something fashion models who can barely stand on their own dance without pause for hours.

Women in the over-30 crowd deal with the prospect of planchando in different ways. Some get mad and tell men what they think of their penis-dictated choice of partners. This tends to leave the women with even fewer leaders, because their hostility makes them ugly. Some women learn to lead so they don’t have to put up with the skirt-ironing madness. Few women go this route, because leading and following are completely different skill sets. Leading requires a huge investment of time, money, and dedication, and most women don’t want to “be the man”. Some women book private lessons with teachers they consider dreamy just to get an hour a week of good leading (and perhaps sexually harass the stud-muffin teacher). Wealthy women can hire a “taxi dancer”, a tango escort of sorts who sticks like glue to the patroness and makes sure she dances every tanda her little heart desires.

Unfortunately, most women are in the first category. They place themselves in front of their favored leaders, mob the teachers who will later perform, and make all sorts of dramatic scenes. I have known women to stalk their favorite teachers and leaders, texting them before milongas to secure promises of at least one tanda. When the leader feigns sore feet, fatigue, or the need for a drink when cornered by the desperate woman (and issues a cabeceo the moment she walks away), she launches into hysterics. In that moment, she will forget that she has broken all the social rules by walking up to him and asking to dance. She will not listen to her friend, who reminds her of the five men she berated that night for using words instead of nods to ask for a dance. She will finger the offensive man as a lying Larry, a jilting Jerry, and an idiotic Ian. Then she will list all the men (all of whom have been all night at the milonga, and none of whom have danced with her) who have told her she is the best follower in the city.

This, in short, is how they act:

Those of us over 30 and larger than size 2 should come to terms with the fact that this process will never be fair. Men will continue to choose dance partners with their genitals instead of their brains. It won’t change. We lose precious dancing time by crying over these men. If we don’t want to learn to lead, then we can go in together and hire a communal taxi dancer. We should NOT waste time and energy shaking our fists at the universe.

Please, ladies, we’re better than that. Let’s show some dignity.


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