Berlin is purported to be the #2 city in the world for Argentine Tango. No one knows what this means – number of dancers, level… It doesn’t matter, it’s well worth the trip.
This post is a summary of my experiences in July and August, 2014. I write this post in an attempt to be useful to visiting dancers.
The section on Milonga Popular was updated on 10 April 2015. Roter Salon was updated in December 2016.
Please also note that the Berlin Tango scene is in a constant process of change, perhaps more rapid than other cities. It’s hard to keep up. I will intermittently update this post, but please treat it as only a rough guide.
A “practica” here is a class. Teachers in the middle of the room, showing moves, after which everyone tries it. Repeat. What we call a “practica” (place to practice whatever you want, stop and talk to your partner about it, ask friends for help…) is called a “lab”, or doesn’t exist.
Water is not considered an aspect of health nor human rights. At milongas water is not free, but at classes water is sometimes provided for free.
Coffee and alcohol are considered sufficiently necessary to effective action that tango schools and milongas always have a café with espresso machine and a selection of wine, beer, etc. at affordable prices.
If you want to take a class (or attend a “practica”) you must arrange a partner in advance. Rocking up alone is not done, and will likely result in your sitting on the sidelines through the class. Even a mark cannot presume there will be an extra revel waiting around. The folks at the door will take your money if you give it to them, but no one will take responsibility for making sure you dance. The good news is that dancers are used to arranging partners, and will not interpret an invitation to go to class together as a romantic advance.
All gender-role combinations are normal and welcome at Berlin milongas. Revels are open-minded and positive about being asked to dance by women. Men will be dancing together, because they like it.
In Berlin, because the whole tango situation is more developed, there are different professional roles. Some people teach, others DJ, others host milongas, others organize special events, others run schools. It’s not necessary that anyone do more than one of these roles or be good at more than one of them.
A number of schools have permanent spaces, where they run classes (with rosters of up to 18 teachers, many of whom work at more than one school), milongas, and offer special events. The schools are not factions and territories. People may well go to milongas at a school where they’ve never taken a class.
People Dress Up. My impression of Germans in Buenos Aires led me to expect the Berlin scene to be informal. I guess those girls were just conforming to BsAs style. Berlin milonga attire is sexy, elegant, expensive, with lots of flesh in view. Satin, not stretch-jersey yoga gear. Miniskirts(!), not shorts. NO bluejeans. You can go shopping at TangoLoft.
However, you don’t have to wear shoes. At many milongas you will find people taking barefoot dancing quite seriously. They often wear professional dance devices to ease pivoting, but duct tape will work in a pinch. If you want to try barefoot dancing, Berlin is the place.
There are, roughly speaking, two tango scenes in Berlin.
- Milongas with 100% traditional music, serious expressions on the faces, not very friendly to strangers, and very simple dancing.
- Milongas with 20-100% alternative/nuevo music, laughter and smiling, friendly to strangers, and complex, interesting dancing.
Get a copy of the excellent Berlin Tango Map (available at Nou Tango School, La Berlinesa, and milonga Max & Moritz). Each milonga reports music percentages. Anything under “100% Traditional” is a pretty sure guide to smiles.
At almost all of the larger milongas of Scene1, there is a table of queers and other dissidents from Scene2, who make their own fun anyway.
These scenes do not correspond to particular schools.
Another difference between the scenes is technical competence of the marks. In Scene1, the marks generally dance their small vocabulary of ochos, rebotes, and crosses with very nice rhythmic musicality and good technique. In Scene2, the marks often have big vocabulary including sacada, barrida, voleo, gancho, volcada, colgada, soltada, but weak technique. The level of non-professional revels in both scenes is quite weak.
Almost all of the information you need is here: https://tango.info/berlin, except for some exclusive milongas which only advertise in facebook.
Below is a list of the milongas I attended, in order of preference. Because I was there during Summer, some milongas were closed.
Clärchens Ballhaus: Scene1, attended and enjoyed by all. It reminds me of La Viruta, because there is a lot of power and freedom in the room (perhaps because excessive seriousness is disrupted by waiters and restaurant patrons lurching across the dance floor). Upstairs in the same building is a *gorgeous* room where the Spiegelsaal Scene2 milonga is held intermittently on Thursdays. Clärchens serves overpriced, awful food, but the Tuesday milonga is free. Update 2017: The Weekly Tuesday milonga is now held upstairs in the gorgeous Spiegelsaal and there no additional intermittent milonga. Entry is no longer free (€4). Bring as little personal stuff as possible here, I’ve had my wallet stolen in the old room and my phone stolen in the new room. And they have no lost and found, so if you leave a sweater, it’s also gone…
TangoLoft: Scene2, attended and enjoyed by all on Saturday (2100-0400) and Sunday (1500-0230*) evenings. This milonga is so the way it should be that I cried in shock the first time I visited. Lots of girls dancing together, men skipping and giggling, all kinds of whimsical and luscious music, soltadas everywhere, a board with shared bread, a kitchen serving affordable supper of gnocchi or ravioli and salad from about 21:30 until they run out of food, big bouquets of fresh flowers, couches, candles, cats. Nobody watching much. People dancing for themselves full stop. Please see Thomas Conte’s album of photos of TangoLoft. This album truly captures the spirit of this place. My interview with founder, Henning Klose.
* Sunday closing time is advertised as 0400, which sounds convenient for staying up all night until the Ubahn opens, or until your early morning flight. But don’t count on this. In practice, they almost always close by 0230.
Art. 13 “Beginners” Milonga: The name of this milonga is misleading. It’s dark, intimate, with candles and nice, nice dancers who work hard on on their technique under the serious tutelage of Sebastian and Chantal of Art.13. Zero attitude here, which draws openminded dancers who are not students of this school.
Roter Salon: Beautiful room with comfortable upholstered furniture. The onda here is – happy. Michael Rühl’s 100% traditional music is always charming. The dancing can sometimes seem lethargic, but people are basically into what they are doing with their partner and not overly concerned about what you are doing. It seems unfriendly and awkward at first, but everybody seems to end up dancing. Be sure to dress up for this one. The perfect place to go dancing on a romantic evening when you plan to dance the whole evening with your partner, need a couch to make out on, and are drunk/high enough not to be affected by the fact everyone else is doing the same. Often poorly attended. Closing hours vary.
Milonga Popular: Updated review 10 April 2015. Milonga Popular has moved to a larger room.* People are more friendly than previously, and Scene 2 has started to show up, which means the dancing and attitude is more diverse. The agenda of this milonga is to be like a pop dance club. The evening is divided into three sequential zones. First is traditional music with cortinas cut from pop dance music. At around 01:30, the tango music stops, everyone is invited to make themselves a free drink at the bar (vodka, rum, and mixers are offered) and for 30-45 minutes, only pop music is played. Sometimes there’s salsa, live guitar, or chacarera. The pop music is played until nearly everyone is boogying on the floor, and then for a while after that point. Eventually, tango music is returned, but during the third zone, the pop cortinas are played in full, and people dance tango+ to them. Many people change their clothes and shoes during the second zone and continue in more informal attire. During the third zone, open-minded dancing and flexible embraces appear. People admit they’re pretty drunk, and that’s ok.
* There is still very little seating, and revels are left to lean against the walls while waiting. There is also a poorly-insulated and well-used smoking room next to the bags/coats/changing room, so whatever you leave there will reek afterwards.
Tango Tanzen Macht Schön (Best name of any tango school, “Tango Dancing Makes You Beautiful”): Scene1 milonga on Friday nights. Difficult dance floor, due the the fact people are seated on three sides of the floor in a way that their toes are in lane1. In an attempt not to step on toes, lane1 dancers edge 20cm into lane 2, constantly crashing with the dancers who are using it. The resulting traffic is consistently chaotic and distracting.
Walzerlinksgestrickt (Nicest and largest mirror of any milonga): Scene1 milonga on Saturday nights. Ok if you go with friends. Cabeceo doesn’t work well here for strangers. There’s no cabeceo place. All the seating is spread out and dark. But once you’re dancing, the atmosphere on the floor is nice. DJ Michael Rühl.
Nou Tango School has a milonga for Scene2 on Mondays and Scene1 on Fridays. On the Mondays I visited, the power was always a bit low, but the music is great and people are enjoying themselves. It’s a very, very comfortable atmosphere. Cabeceo is easy, because you can easily see across the room. On Friday, the column near the bar divides the elite from the hoi-polloi, so you know where to put yourself. My interview with founder Thomas Rieser.
Mala Junta has two milongas for Scene 1 (although the school certainly caters to Scene2), on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons (called Café Dominguez, reputed to throw people out for bad behavior). I didn’t go on Sunday, and the two times I went on Wednesdays were dramatically different – one was packed and lively, the other was almost empty and dreary. But the organizer and DJ were very, very welcoming and even invited all who made it to the end to “have a drink with us.” This milonga impressed me by replacing the candles even to the very end of the evening. That’s style! The room and seating is comfortable. Cabeceo is easy here, because you can easily see across the room.
Strandbar is wonderful because it is outdoors in a beautiful, relaxed setting and everyone is so happy to be there. I didn’t like dancing here because the plywood was tearing up my shoes, but that’s a stupid reason not to like a milonga. I don’t know if they play any alternative music, but Scene2 goes there anyway because it’s such an open atmosphere, even though it’s very crowded on the dance floor.
Tango Vicioso is held at the Insomnia sex club, which puts some people off, but Scene2 shows up in interesting clothes to dance to interesting music and then goes home without incident.
Max und Moritz is the “high-level” milonga where many professionals go to dance on Sunday nights. The dance floor is energetic and inspiring, but tiny, so lesser marks need to watch themselves so as not to disrupt the flow of serious tango business. Unknown revels might have a hard time alone here. If it’s overwhelming, just go have a drink in the pretty bistro-style bar at the front.
Milongas I don’t like so much
Villa Kreuzberg is a beautiful room in a beautiful building in a beautiful park, with romantic tables outside to escape for a conversation. It’s Scene1 and the power is highly variable. But Scene2 shows up, if they feel like it, and makes it their own. My general sense here is that it’s the end of the world and everybody is about to die.
Pfefferburg is Scene1 and open air, but the floor is made of the same material they make roller skating rinks from and I didn’t feel safe standing on it. Dancing was impossible. I gave up and had a beer under the trees. I did not get the sense that it was welcoming to strangers.
Bebop: One of my favourite things about Berlin is high ceilings. Bebop is like being inside an air-conditioning duct. It’s long and flat, and very slippery (to make sure you don’t get stuck?). There are very artistic lamps to distract you, several different kinds of furniture to choose between, and a river outside (cooling, with a view of corporate logos). Bebop is Scene2 and to be congratulated for welcoming the monthly Queer Tango milonga.
Other things to know
- You can always get home. On Fridays and Saturdays the subways run all night. The rest of the week, night buses replace the subways following the same routes (and waiting for connecting services) and there are additional night buses as well. If you don’t have a bus ap on your phone, just walk to a bus stop and look at the N routes. Every stop is listed and if you read patiently you’ll see something familiar. Once you’re on the bus, the upcoming stops will be displayed so you’ll know when to get off.
- The level of falafal is fantastic, so you can afford to eat. And even late at night, you can get fairly healthy food.
- In the summer it is de rigeur to have an ice cream cone every two hours throughout the day. The portions are small, enabling you to keep up without difficulty.
- To get a sense of the central city, ride the trams.
- There’s a special monthly transit pass for tango dancers. You save about 25% by promising never to ride before 10am.