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Moody milonguera / Us and the Onda

Fabian Perez tango painting

In Castellano, the mood of the milonga is called ‘onda’, a term used to describe the combined effects of everything from architecture to astrology. “The Onda” is an ineffable mix of the shape of the space, the lighting, the attitude of the organizer, the music, the feeling of the floor, who is there, who is not there, how the traffic is flowing, the weather (which affects the floor), the moon.  Variables fixed for a given milonga + the peculiarities of a particular evening. Some milongas seem to regularly generate good onda, others rarely. Some vary. Some nights are just disastrous, regardless of wonderful inputs. All of these factors have an effect that cannot be easily overcome by an individual. Dancers acknowledge that the milonga’s onda is shared, not personal. You’ll generally find that everyone is affected by an unusually bad onda.

Of course it’s also possible that you just had a bad night, but tango will teach you not to blame yourself so fast.

It’s important to pay attention to the patterns of your onda experiences. It may be that you always have a terrible time at certain milongas. If that’s the case, it doesn’t matter how much everyone else loves them. Stop putting yourself through it. Over the years, you will discover which aspects of milongas make you feel comfortable, happy, and powerful. Personally, I prefer dark milongas with clean edges. If there are a lot of toes or shape changes around the edge of the milongas, the marks can’t get lost in the dancing. I also prefer spaces with plenty of seating (with easy access to my shoe collection) and nice wine glasses, so that I have a sense of dominion as I await inspiration and desire.


Particularly in the case of “special” milongas, it seems that the more preparatory excitement, fancy dress, and special occasionness, the worse everyone dances. I love costumes, but I have realized that for tango events, costumes are distracting amidst the traffic, and people have a hard time coming down from the excitement and focusing on the dancing. Sometimes it seems special events draw out too many revels, whose forlorn waiting makes everyone feel bad.

I’ve noticed that the higher everyone’s expectations seem to be, the worse the milonga turns out. When I rock up expecting little to nothing, I’m often pleasantly surprised. I think this has to do with whether we have attitudes as consumers or actors.

Once Pedro’s outdoor milonga in Darlinghurst was chased by rain inside the restaurant to a tiny dancefloor to which our shoes stuck firmly. There were few of us, and we had to sort of leap into this situation.  It became a sticky-sweet milonga as everyone cheerfully shared space and smiles. That space required us to give it life. As an organizer, When I run an event in a barren vacant space, like the old Practica Dynamica at 5 Eliza Street, I need to put a lot of power into each person as they come in, to help them get connected to the event. When I run an event in a space that’s comfortable and beautiful, like Jewel Lab at the Colombian Hotel, I don’t have to work as hard to make people feel welcome and excited about dancing. At the same time, Practica Dynamica caused people to feel more responsible for making a good tango action happen, whereas at the JewelLab we constantly suffered from the “hungry women” problem.

I have come to think that the onda can produce consumers or creators.

When we experience ourselves as creators, we focus our expectations on our own skills and sociaity. When we experience ourselves as consumers we want the organizer and the other dancers to make tango for us.


We are affected by observers. Over many years, dancing both roles with many partners I have developed a healthy respect for the chemistry between observers and dancers. There are three kinds of observers

  • Scowling “afficionados”. Dancing with a good mark with my eyes closed, I can tell which end of the room we are in, because he will dance well in the dark end, and fall apart promptly when we are in front of what are called in Castellano “the importantes”.
  • Happy tourists. Outdoor milongas generally cause dancers to dance better (and treat one another in a more friendly manner), because they are infused with the delight of tourists who have a romantic feeling watching us dance.
  • Interested dancers. In some rare milongas, dancers watch one another with interest and enthusiasm rather than disapproval. This motivates the dancers to do well.

The outcome of the chemical reaction also depends on the psychological character of the dancers. In my experience there are two kinds of marks, and no matter how well a guy can dance, I will find a different dancer when the stage lights or the camera comes on. Most marks lose about 50% of their precision and improvisation when they perceive they are performing (this can also happen in the afficionado or tourist context). A minority of marks are fueled to new heights by this attention.


  • Warming up backstage for a stage performance, my mark was a disaster. I thought “we’ll be lucky if we don’t fall down during this show.” And at the dress rehearsal performance we almost did. But when the lights came on with a real audience behind them, he ignited. It was his best dance in the three years I knew him.
  • One of my revel partners is a professional ballerina, who performs on stage on pointe for thousands of people, but when confronted by 5 sulky afficionados at a milonga she promptly loses her balance or blunders into me. She explains that on stage she can’t see the audience, so they don’t break her concentration, and that the concentration required for perceiving improvisation is harder for her than the concentration to perform much more physically demanding ballet movements


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