Tango etiquette and the milonga codes

‘Los códigos de la milonga’

In a little over a week I’ll be heading to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, so what better time than now to re-visit the milonga codes which are prevalent in many of the milongas in Buenos Aires as well as across the world. This is a list of recommended Do’s and Don’ts, of-course not all apply to all venues, some milongas are far stricter than others, some are filled with young people, whilst others have an older, more traditional demographic of visitors, locals and old time milongueros.

Some of these codes have been around for over 100 years so they may seem antiquated, however, they work.

So without further ado, here are some of the most popular codes which still apply today.


  1. Often, each milonga has its own codes, take time to observe the floor and the dancers when you arrive, some milongas even have a sign on the wall with their codes printed on them.
  2. The music is arranged in ‘tandas’, sets of songs typically arranged in groups of 3, 4 or 5 songs. Each set is called a ‘tanda’, and each ‘tanda’ is separated by a piece of non-tango music which is called a ‘cortina’ or ‘curtain’. The ‘cortina’ indicates the end of a ‘tanda’, these generally last between 30 and 60 seconds. Furthermore, the music is generally arranged in the following manner: two tango tandas, one vals tanda, two tango tandas, one milonga tanda, and so on (TTVTTM, TTVTTM…).
  3. During the short interval between each song within a ‘tanda’ (approximately 5 seconds) the embrace is broken.
  4. The ‘cabeceo’ or ‘nod’ is used to ask a woman to dance. This is done from a distance, the man will look at a woman and indicate with a nod or ‘cabeceo’ that he would like to dance with her, the woman then has two choices, she can ignore the look and take her gaze elsewhere or she can accept the dance by smiling and nodding back. She then waits for him to approach the table. Ladies, do not stand up off your seat until you are completely certain that he was in fact asking you to dance and not someone immediately behind you.
  5. It’s considered rude to speak whilst dancing, and chewing gum is frowned upon.
  6. If the woman wishes to dance she mustn’t be seen with a partner, unless her partner first gets up to dance with another woman. Often in Buenos Aires the men sit on one side of the room, the women sit across the other side of the floor, whilst couples/ friends/ etc remain at the other ends of the room.
  7. If you do venture up to a couple and ask the lady for a dance, please acknowledge the existence of the partner.
  8. You must never leave the floor before the end of the ‘tanda’, it is seen as rude to walk off after a couple of songs without finishing the entire ‘tanda’.
  9. It is customary for the man to walk the woman back to her table.
  10. If there is an orchestra, you don’t dance to the first song.
  11. Personal hygiene is very important.

These are of particular importance to allow for fluidity on the dance floor as well as to avoid injuries, arguments, etc.

  1. One person leads, the other follows. I have been to milongas where same sex couples were prohibited from dancing and were asked to leave.
  2. The line of dance is anti-clockwise.
  3. When entering the dance floor the leaders needs to make eye contact with the couple approaching in the line of dance, once eye contact is established with that leader, you may then enter the floor. Entering the floor is generally done from a corner of the dance floor.
  4. There are several ‘lanes’ from the outermost lane to the inner circle.
  5. The most experienced dancers are in the outermost lane, and the less experienced dance in the middle. The idea behind this is that the more experienced dancers can show off their skills to people sitting at tables around the dance floor and it allows for more fluid movement across the floor. The less experienced dancers remain in the inner circles or centre so as to not disturb the fluidity of movement in the outer lane.
  6. You must not change from one lane to the other or cross into the path of another lane. If the couple ahead aren’t moving than you need to dance on the spot and wait until they move.
  7. You must not over take a couple ahead of you, you should wait until they move.
  8. Do not close in on the couple in front so much so that they have no space to dance in.
  9. Should there be an incident/accident, apologise. The apology needs to come from the leader who is the one who makes the decision on the use of the space. The apology can be a simple gesture or a verbal apology once eye contact has been established.
  10. Avoid going backwards.
  11. Avoid dancing in the spot for more than one or two beats, assuming there is space ahead.
  12. Do not walk across the dance floor to get from A to B.
  13. A leader must stop a move if there’s a chance of collision.

Stay tuned for more, I’m planning to write a couple of blogs whilst I’m away!

June 2024
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