The spatial organisation of the milonga

A conversation with tango dancers with a performance orientation has been very thought provoking. It is pretty amazing how people who apparently participate in the same activity could have more divergent views on the practice. I am not really surprised because I see it all the time. The problem is articulating what precisely is the source of the difference.

It’s not an urgent problem for the performers, because they dominate the spaces and channels of communication in tango outside of Buenos Aires. The fact that the trad milonga scene still exists in Buenos Aires provides a sort of bulwark against their advancement.

However, unless we can find a way of systematically introducing new people the practice it might completely implode. To do that we need to be able to articulate clearly what it is that we do and why it is better and why people should follow us and not them.

A lot of the difficulty in articulating the core issue has to do with the whole scheme with the styles of tango. Apparently what the milongueros do is a style. Then we get boxed into the “pro-choreography milongueros” and “pro-improv milongueros”. And then they impose their categories and ways of thinking and evaluate our dancing against their narrow ideas about how you should “look” and your “posture” etc.

We need to understand how they think about dancing, what is the basis of the categories that they use, what are the spectacles through which they view tango milonguero. The standard way of dealing with this issue has been in terms of the notion of a dancing style. This is an inadequate, two-dimensional categorisation.

I am starting to believe that this is a wholly misguided and false way of viewing things. Recently I’ve been thinking about concepts that originate with more theoretical analyses of dancing and movement. It seems to me that it may be better to categorise the different competing approaches to dancing tango in these terms, and doing so reveals a lot about their underlying nature and why they’re fundamentally incompatible.

Laban’s concept of kinesphere

The term kinesphere was coined by Rudolf Laban and the definition is as follows:

“the sphere around the body whose periphery can be reached by easily extended limbs without stepping away from that place which is the point of support when standing on one foot” (1966, p.10)

Space and Relationship

In addition to a lot of contact improvisation I’ve done a bunch of improvisation for performance workshops which are typically run in dance departments of universities or at dance festivals. One of the standard things that we were doing was to explore our kinesphere, eg., by visualising that we’re inside a bubble and we’re touching the inside surface of the bubble. The website continues:

This spherical space around our body shifts as soon as we shift our weight. It is also the first area of movement exploration before going into “space in general”. It follows anatomical limitations, being actually more elliptic than spherical as constitutionally, the average body has a wider area of reach forward than backward. Visibly speaking the kinesphere stays invisible until the moment we move within it and make it tangible by leaving our trace-forms, the spatial consequences of our movements

It’s not necessary to go into great technical detail here to notice that a dancing performance can be viewed as essentially the exploration of two aspects of movement: (i) kinesphere, and (ii) space. Space is normally understood in purely physical terms as objective, observer-neutral three dimensional space. Here however the perspective is usually a phenomenal space which is relative to an observer, in particular, the distance from a given observer.

This is important because while an audience looking at a couple might project things like intimacy on a couple that they’re observing, in a typical performance situation the couple themselves are not focused on each other, but rather objectify themselves by viewing their dancing from the perspective of the audience. Therefore, in a performance situation what people project and think is the main aesthetic aspect, is by necessity absent. The couple, so to speak, are not dancing with each other but with the audience by way of creating the illusion of intimacy.


On the issue of space the website talks about Proxemics:

Proxemics is a recent terminology (1966, E. Hall) that is part of non-verbal communication, defining that in daily life, the distance between people runs in parallel with their interpersonal relationships. It establishes four different spheres of relationships (each subdivided into far/close): Intimate, personal, social and public, which respective distance span may vary from one culture to the other.

I think that this is a very useful for the purposes of analysing what’s going on in various approaches to social dancing and why the experience of different sorts of dancers can be so different. We might notice that personal space is pretty close to the body so that the distance between personal space and intimate space is very small, indeed it’s so small that you could argue that changing the type of hold (open vs. close) changes the spatial relationship. We might also notice that dancers might share their personal or social space with other couples

Performances will tend to occupy by necessity the bigger public space, moving far beyond social space. Given the requirements of a performance to sustain the interest of an audience, the performers need to be moving in such a way that they’re constantly (a) testing their kinesphere, and (b) testing the public space. That means at least that their movements of the extremities, ie., arms and legs, will tend to be outstretched to the limits, and will move in a wide variety of ways within that kinesphere bubble, with elongated steps, boleos, ganchos, sacadas, etc. This is by necessity, because a dancer who does not do these things is not interesting to look at. Then, having done a lot of this kinespheric movement they will want to move in space, not the intimate or personal space, nor even in the social space, but the wider public space of 3.5 metres or more. So you will see that a standard performance will comprise of long walks and turns in place, and if they can do both at the same time, ie., the kinespheric movements and spatial movements, so much the better.

If these people then teach social dancers then naturally there is a limit to which these movements can be adapted to dancing on tight space. They might not be testing the public space, but on the other hand the general nature of the dance will in the area of (a) testing the kinesphere, and (b) testing the personal and social space. No milonguero will fail to notice that dancers taught by artists are typically unable to dance in the intimate space, and that they can’t tolerate any infringement on their personal space. Their form of dancing totally fills up their personal space so that you don’t want to enter it at all, whereas at a trad milonga you’d be brushing shoulders with the other couples with no worries at all.

Skinesphere and The Underscore

Contact Improvisation is usually practiced in jams that are relatively unstructured, but one of its originators, Nancy Stark Smith, developed a more structured protocol. It’s interesting to reflect on similarities of this sort of structured approach to partnered dancing to the Milonga. Let’s take a look at Nancy Stark Smith’s Underscore which is “a structure that organizes a contact impro and allows people to work together in a warm-up or an improv session.” (Seattle Contact Improv Lab). I italicised the aspects that seem relevant to milonga and crossed out aspects that seem not relevant:

  • Arriving:
  1. Arriving energetically: bring the focus to the present.
  2. Arriving Physically: bring the attention to the sensation you have in the body at this moment
  3. Pow-wow (optional): coming together to talk in a circle (names, injuries, how long it will last)
  4. iv. Pre- ambulation: (optional): go through the space, open connections with the space and the people after the talk. 
  • Skinesphere: What’s inside the skin, sensation, what we feel in the small dance.
  1. Bonding with the earth: to relax the body, to feel the support from below, connection with the floor
  2. Mobilising, agitating the mass: To mix the mass with the air, by jumping, moving, to get a new organisation afterwards.
  • Kinesphere: Attention to what you can reach with your limbs.
  1. Low kinesphere: Dome, centre on the floor.
  2. High kinesphere: With the centre high. 
  3. (Maybe a moment to balance, to increase our tone.) 
  4. Expanding and traveling kinesphere: The base of it is the connection with your centre and with the floor. Breath. 
  • Overlapping kinespheres: We start to be more conscious of the others in the space.
  • Connections: Short connections happening during the Overlapping Ks. Between one and the other is your solo.
  • Engagement: At some point we start to be more implicated with the connection.
  1. Development: developing a duo
  2. Resolution: disengagement, end of the duo
  • Re-circulation through the score: Allow the sensation to continue. Where am I? What do I want to do? Don’t cut it, don’t escape to drink water.
  • Open Score: We can use different ways to re-enter the score.
  1. Observation
  2. Re-Entrance
  • Final Resolution of the room: The beginning of the last chapter. Each person resolves his own activity arriving to stillness where we can feel the experience of had been dancing.
  • Disengagement of the whole pattern: From the stillness we imagine the group as a crystalline form, and when we are ready….end of the total design.
  • Reflection and Harvest: Introspective revision of the body. And then harvest, you may write or draw or…
  • Sharing: Harvest’s celebration. Listening to the authentic of the personal experience, we learn, we feel.

Reflecting on The Underscore, kinesphere, proxemics and the milongas

It seems to me that we can analyse the differences between milonguero and artist milongas in terms of the underscore. Traditional milongas are a sort of a score of this sort, a structured experience that organises space and relationships in specific ways that allow you to focus and move through the event in a determinate way. It should be possible to write down this score in similar way, but it would require also reference to such things as the organisation of the music and invitation by way of the cabeceo. The music and the movement would be such as to support sustained focus on partnering within the intimate space throughout each dance, and moving energetically in and out of dances and tandas.

One the other hand, dances organised by artists or their students are typically characterised by the constant testing of kinesphere and social space on the dancing floor, and heavy use of high energy music that sustains these larger movements. Music is consistently loud and high energy. Dancers do not ease into the dances but plunge into them at full speed and sustain this level of activity throughout the dance. When the music stops they stop abruptly to wait for the next bout of activity.

As a consequence, these events despite their superficial features, have a very different focus, and spatial and temporal organisation. The focus is scattered and the high level of energy does not allow for the awareness of space and time that you get in traditional milongas. They’re both higher and lower in energy. They’re more active and louder, but it’s difficult to develop any sort of flow in dancing. You’re moving and superficially therefore dancing but it’s a struggle to develop and sustain any sort of flow. After all, you’re basically performing.

We can also say that so-called milonguero dancing at such events is anything but. First, dancers who might be said to use some sort of a milonguero dancing technique, such as a close embrace or leaning, are dancing among artist-trained dancers to music curated for these sort of dancers. The people dancing around them and the music will negate their attempts at dancing “tango milonguero”.

Second, many people who dance a milonguero “style” in that they dance close embrace use the space in the same way as salon style tango dancers. Their movements, typically walks, ochos, turns, sacadas, even boleos, will test their kinesphere and personal space and therefore negate their milonguero hold. On the other hand, you can have people who use are relatively open embrace, meaning no contact at the chest, but use the space in a way that is consistent with traditional milonga, that is, they do not test their kinesphere or social space.

This is why the artists do not see any meaningful difference between what they do and what they call the milonguero style. The latter, as they understand it, is just another style of performance tango. Except for the close hold at the chest level, it is otherwise structured in the same ways as all the other artist tangos. In order to have visual appeal it must test the kinesphere and public space in the performance, and when taught by performing so-called milonguero dancers it will still be bigger than traditional tango milonguero dancing.

This is the reason why the whole dancing styles scheme is imposed by artists but is irrelevant and detrimental to understanding traditional tango milonguero. We could say that the whole studio dancing industry is a sort of processing scheme, sort of like with food processing, which is designed to take vernacular dances and churn them into some sort of performance choreography that is then used to market these as social dances, except that what you get is the junk food of social dances: it’s been processed and there’s nothing natural about it even if the input into the process were natural ingredients.

In conclusion, talking about different styles of tango obscures the more fundamental differences among the approaches to dancing. It simply points to things the overt aspects of steps and figures, but fails to draw attention to more basic aspects of movement. Looking at the situation in terms of theoretical concepts and approaches in dancing such as kinesphere, proxemics, and the underscore we can point out at a deeper level the fundamentally different understanding of dancing in the different approaches. This then can hopefully help us to articulate more clearly the reasons behind the tango milonguero approach.