“‘Competition dance’ and ‘milonga dance’ are not the same.”

I have heard this quite a few times lately. Is it true?…

Posted by Leonel Hung-Yut Chen on Monday, April 3, 2023

“‘Competition dance’ and ‘milonga dance’ are not the same.”

I have heard this quite a few times lately. Is it true? Probably. Many teachers offer competition-preparation classes. If the two are the same, we will not need these specialized classes. So the idea is, to excel in a competition, we must tailor our dance to its requirements.

I can’t help but wonder: What are the genuine differences between milonga and competition ? How do they produce different ways of dancing? Would it be so terrible to use one in place of the other? To truly understand what sets them apart, we should consider milonga and competition as distinct cultures, rather than simply focusing on the dances they produce.

So what is milonga culture? I have heard that Busan natives can be quite selective about “gukbap” (or Dwaeji-gukbap, literally “pork rice soup”), to a degree that is puzzling to outsiders. Seasoned milongueros are the same about tango music and partners. Only when the music excites them do they look for a suitable partner for that particular tanda. If they cannot find such a partner, or if the dance floor is already full, they would rather sit the tanda out. Their joy of dancing stems from staying true to their personal preferences and hunting for the ideal opportunities to fulfill them. That is the reason they seldom dance non-stop in milongas, and why they may appear unreasonably picky at times.

By contrast, during our first years of tango, our hunger to dance outweighs everything else. Figuratively speaking, we eat at whichever gukbap restaurant we can find. Over time, if we manage to put aside other concerns and follow our hearts, our taste and preferences will mature – there is a reason why the word “corazón” (heart in Spanish) appears so often in tango. We might begin to dance less, but each tanda satisfies a deeper thirst.

Then what do milongueros do when they are not dancing? We indulge ourselves in leisure. We catch up with friends, share food and drinks, people-watch, or simply spend time in the presence of others. Intentionally or subconsciously, we let the music marinate our mood, and soak up the passion and energy of the dancers in front of us. We all yearn to dance, but we understand dancing is not the only way tango speaks to us. Spending time in milongas is enjoyable whether we dance or not, as long as the best tango music is being played.

Admittedly this milonga culture can appear foreign or even intimidating to Koreans. Socially, especially in front of strangers, we are not conditioned to spontaneously express our likes and dislikes. We are not used to freely associating with these strangers and enjoy sharing a common space with them. Truth is, whether we like it or not, we are probably more accustomed to the regimented and pressure-filled environment of competitions.

In competitions, clear rules are established, goals and rewards are well-defined, and, ultimately, unambiguous results are achieved. We can avoid the hassle of identifying our preferred music, searching for the ideal partner for each tanda, and navigating unwanted social interactions. We simply need to show up on time and dance to the best of our abilities. If we do not win, we have already improved ourselves through months of training, and showcased the fruit of our labor in front of a large audience. And if we do win, we earn an easily-recognizable title that remains ours forever.

No wonder milonga and competition produce such different ways of dancing. Milonga is about personal preferences, so dance styles diverge. Competition is about excelling in a controlled and standardized environment, so dance styles converge. In the case of Dancesport (the International School), all dances have clearly-defined technique and specific figures that competitors must follow. While tango competitions have not reached such extremes, the trend of convergence is unmistakable.

The line of dance also functions quite differently between the two. In milongas, for the sake of a well-functioning ronda, the men on the floor pay constant attention to each other. When we are keenly aware of the positions of our neighboring dancers, we can advance in sync and circulate the floor as a group, much like a flock of birds or a school of fish. Without this cooperation, the dance floor inevitably degenerates into a congested pit that we reluctantly share, with our dance turning into an endless series of habitual rebounds and giros since we have nowhere to go.

In competitions, however, maintaining the line of dance is more of an obligation and distraction rather than a rewarding collaboration. Since the goal is to stand out and impress the judges, we understandably adopt an every-man-for-himself mentality. We focus on ourselves. We prioritize our movement, musical interpretation, and appearances over the common good of maintaining a flowing line of dance. Anyone who is serious about competing would be foolish not to do so.

As you can see, milonga and competition really have very little to do with each other. Not only do they produce different ways of dancing, but opposing habits and attitudes as well. It would be unrealistic to expect someone without dedicated training to win a competition. Similarly, showing up at a milonga and behaving or dancing as if you are in a competition would be unproductive and absurd, and possibly a nuisance to others too.

It is worth noting that this dichotomy did not originate in Korea but in Buenos Aires. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all things tango come from Buenos Aires. Over there much of the new generation is focusing on competition. The Mundial offers them a much-needed escape from their country’s dire economic situation, providing them with opportunities to work, travel, and earn foreign currencies. With all the financial problems they are facing, preservation and promotion of their milonga culture has become less of a priority. Is Korea, with its relative affluence, better equipped to nurture this milonga culture?

Why is kimchi not merely “fermented preserved cabbage?” Kimchi embodies a unique culture and spirit, earning its own label. For the same reason, milongas are also not simply “tango dance parties.” Milongas offer exclusive tango treasures that cannot be found in classes, practicas, or competitions. Dancers who mature in milongas embody a distinct flavor that cannot be replicated elsewhere. I sincerely hope that all those who are passionate about tango will invest more effort to search for this taste. I am certain you will unearth plenty of hidden gems along the way.