Saturday 11 May 2013

Divide And Rule

Again, I have not been writing for a couple of months. This has not been due to a shortage of topics, but for the lack of time and energy. There was just so much life happening... Good and not so good things, definitely important changes. But now I am back on track and can resume my role as a professional ranter and complainer. ;-)

This time, I want to write about a seating arrangement that is used in some traditional Milongas in Buenos Ares and that is riding the wave of the Encuentro movement in Europe.

I am talking about the separation of women and men at Milongas. In this setting, men are seated along one side of a Milonga, women on the opposite side, ideally each forming a single row of chairs and tables all facing to the dancefloor, in some cases two or three rows. Couples or groups of friends are usually placed on the shorter sides of a rectangular venue, very often in a cluster of tables. 
So, if you enter such a Milonga with a friend of the opposite sex, you will have to decide, if you want to sit with him in the couples section and therefore risk not being invited or if you split up and be seated in the women‘s and men‘s section and stare at each other from the others sides of the room.

Where does this custom come from? 
As mentioned above, it is used in some (by far not all) traditional Milongas. Some say that it is based on the assumption, that (married or engaged) couples will only want to dance with each other, whilst single men and women are open to invitation by strangers. In the past, it was obviously also considered as dishonourable to invite the woman of another men. Well.... tempus fugit, I really cannot say, if Argentine society is still attached to these ancient codes of behaviour, but they have surely survived in some Milongas. There are also other interpretations of how and when this custom was introduced, but who can really tell. It depends on who you ask when and where. ;-)

Whatever the history may be - this seating arrangement has made it‘s way to Europe and is used in some regular Milongas as well as a few (by far not all) Milonguero Encuentros. 
And as Europeans do not share this rather antique code of honour and don't have a tradition of Tango culture, the argument to adopt this custom is usually the facilitation of Mirada and Cabeceo: As all your eligible partners will be seated opposite of you, it should be easier to use the traditional form of invitation.

Only... it is not.

In the ideal setting (with only one row of seats) and for some short moments, this may be the case, but in general, the separate seating even complicates the Cabeceo.

Why so?

1. The risk of mistakes is raised. Just imagine: If a woman is seated in between two male friends, she can almost be 100% sure, that the cute guy who is looking in her direction really wants to invite her - and not her boyfriend.
If she is seated in a close row of other women... who can really tell? Especially if the room is a little bigger or if you don‘t have eagles eyes. Same situation for men: How often have I seen two men get up at the same time, because I cabeceo‘ed one of them. This does happen only very seldom in a mixed-seated environment.

2. If there are more than one rows, the people in the second or third row have got very little chance to be invited. As long as you are seated in mixed tables around the dancefloor, there will be always someone in your direct line of sight, because you can invite in all directions. If you can only look into one direction and are covered by one or two front rows... Good luck to you!

3. From the moment on, that people start dancing, you cannot see the opposite rows of seats anymore. Again: if there are eligible partners on your side of the dancefloor, an invitation by Cabeceo is still possible even after the Tanda started. But try inviting someone who is covered by moving dancers ... well... I have done it several times, but it involved not only heavy staring but also absurd swaying movements or actual gesticulating. This is not very dignified.
One result is, that people are very hectic at the start of the Tanda, as they've got only a couple of seconds to chose a partner. Spend one moment too long considering with whom you mifgt want to dance this lovely Di Sarli Tanda and you've lost.

So, even if you have not yet experienced such a seating arrangement, you can imagine, that having a good seat is crucial in such a setting, much more than in any other arrangement. In the few traditional Milongas of BA who use this seating, the organiser will assign chairs to the visitors. Very often, regulars or famous dancers get the good seats, newcomers are put in the second row or at the far ends. You can imagine that this gives the host an immense power and if that person does not like you ... you better stay at home!

I was once seated in an overflow women‘s row behind a cluster of mixed tables at Cachirulo. Mind you, there were still places in the front row on the women‘s side, but they were reserved for the habitués. Detlef and our friend Antonio (a regular at that Milonga) got the perfect seats in the men‘s row. Well obviously, Norma did not like me.... When I became aware of my situation (sometimes being a little slow on the intake), I decided to leave and would only stay after Antonio had arranged a better seat for me. I stayed, but my mood was not at it‘s best...
(Just for the record: I have been seated perfectly at other occasions at separated-seating Milongas, this post is not about me complaining of not getting the right chair.)

You can already tell, that I am no big fan of the separation of men at women at Milongas. But this comes not only from the fact, that I find it‘s application disadvantageous to invitations... no, no...

My main reason for opposing it lies much deeper: I perceive the separation of men and women as something impeding communication and social exchange at a Milonga.
When I visit an event - in particular one of the Encuentros - I will not only dance. I want to meet friends whom I don‘t meet every month, I want to communicate - not only on the dancefloor. If I am forced to be seated far from my male friends, I cannot communicate with them. And I will not communicate much with the women either, as all chairs are facing the dancefloor and everyone is just staring into one direction. For me, such Milongas transform into dance-only events. And the competition amongst women gets bigger. Do we really want this? 

I have talked to many people in the „traditional“ Tango community and the opposition against separate seating is huge. You can tell by the fact, that the „mixed“ short sides of the rooms are overflowing with dancers, both men and women and some people even boycott the arrangement by sitting on the other gender‘s side. And obviously, men and women from the separated sides also invite partners from the mixed section. So, what the hell?

And here‘s the thing: Even at the traditional Milongas in BA, this custom is undermined constantly. On our last visit in El Beso, we (Detlef, Antonio and I) were seated in the mixed section behind the row of single Milongueros. I expected to dance only with my companions. But after the Milongueros had seen me on the dancefloor, they actually turned around and invited me although I was seated with two men. Go figure!

Within the last half year, I attended three Encuentros with separated seating. I can survive in such a setting and get my share of dances, but I will never be happy or comfortable. How can I, if I just don‘t understand the reason why?
I am all for adopting the traditional codes of behaviour on the dancefloor and for invitation into our European setting. I am all for enjoying the music in a close embrace and renouncing complex, big moves... These customs make actual sense and ameliorate the Milonga experience. 
But please - do we really have to imitate EVERYTHING exactly as it is done in SOME of the Milongas in the Tango capital?

I don‘t think so.

If someone can name good reasons for separating men and women at Milongas apart from „this is how it was always done in BA“ and „it helps Cabeceo“, please feel free to present them. 

Maybe I just don‘t get it.

A short note after some reactions on Facebook and here: 
Please do not forget, that this article is about the adaptation of a special Argentine custom into an European setting. I don't try to change the customs of the traditional Milongas in BA. I go there, I adapt to their rules, I like them or I don't. But that's just not the point. This article is about whether it makes sense to have separate seating at European events, especially at the Encuentros or Festivalitos Milongueros.
This article is also not about good seating or cabeceo. I use cabeceo across huge rooms in mixed-seating Milongas all the time and it works perfectly. And: yes, also mixed-seating Milongas need their tables to be lined along the dancefloor in order to make Cabeceo possible. Get it?


MOCKBA said...

Superbly written & needs to be widely circulated!

But since you ask what other reasons are there for split-seating Encuentros, I think I got one: a training purpose. Think BsAs on training wheels, where people can practice longer-distance cabeceo and cultural conventions a lot closer to home.

Then a number 2 reason (from since-deleted Tangoimmigrant blog entry): some dancers are truly asocial / phobic of close unwanted encounters, they don't want to communicate outside of dance, and feel awkward when partners approach them too closely.

Anonymous said...

You're correct, you don't get it. You need to understand the culture of tango. Until the late 1940s, men stood in the middle of the room. Now that was separation.

I don't pick and choose which codes and customs to follow in the milongas. I accept them the way they are. They are part of tango. It's not my place to change the way things are done.

At Lo de Celia, men sit on two opposite sides, and so do the women. That way invitations can be made to either side during the tandas. It avoids men hearing women's conversations, and vice versa. The milonga IS a dance event, not a social club in BsAs.

Clubes de barrio tables are arranged for socializing with large tables.

Melina Sedo said...

Sure Janis.

also I accept the codes of the Milongas that I visit, may this be in Buenos Aires or in Europe. I do not run around and try to get the women to sit on the men's side at Cachirulo. I go there (or not), participate and like it (or no).

But you DO notice that I am addressing European events and specially their organizers? The (Tango) culture in Europe is different from the one in BA. And it may not make sense to adopt every custom from BA.
And: as organizers we SHAPE culture. So, if a Milonga is set-up, the host will decide about the seating arrangement. As a paying guest, I have a right to comment on it or to suggest other solutions.
I have been organizing Milongas and bigger Tango events for 12 years and always listen to the feedback of my customers. I will of course not always react to it, but sometimes it makes sense to re-consider a part of the set-up.
But without a feedback, how can an organizer ameliorate his events.
This is my feedback.

Melina Sedo said...

As for training-weels, MOCKBA:

I practise Cabeceo on very long distance at mixed-seating events too. I hope that my post is not misleading and you think I suggest to invite only people sitting on the tables aroud you at mixed-seating arranements.

Also a mixed-seated Milonga needs to group their table around the dancefloor and have the chairs facing to or at least being in a 90° angle to the dancefloor, so that people can see the whole room and can invite across the dancefloor.

Out of space-reasons, most organizers work with U-shaped seating groups around tables that are lined around the dancefloor. You might sometimes twist a little if you sit on on of the long sides of the U, but it works usually fine. But that's a perfect exercise for dissociation. ;-)

MOCKBA said...

Hehe, turning neck-craning into a dissociation exercise, I like this sage advice :) I understand that you and me may not need training wheels for cabeceo, but we all know too many dancers - including not just Europeans but also Argentine expats - who won't use cabeceo ever, no matter how annoying it is to the rest of us. Helping them grasp it would be so good!

Mixed-sitting and how it works for cabeceo... Well I'm officially tasked with a writing a Survival Manual for the Event-Goers for the locals who are afraid to go to out-of-town tango gatherings. It's a work in progress, but one of the Manual's key parts is about "good and bad fishing spots".

Mixed table have tons of disadvantaged spots. To cabeceo across several tables, a man almost has to be standing, for his line of sight is totally blocked. The back rows aren't raised, and remain out of sight. Not just the back-row tables, but anything away from the entrance into the dance-hall, is at a disadvantage; the whirlwind of invitations mostly plays in just this one entrypoint to the floor, creating congestion. The rest of good fishing may be had standing or traipsing near the bar / water / restroom / even right on the pista between tandas, which is all great to leverage ... but it means that the dancers no longer have a defined seat, and are out roaming. And so it's harder to find someone you really want to dance with, because he or she may no longer be where you just saw them last time. And worse, when it's a world of roaming invites, then after you sit down at last, people around tend to think that you're tired and taking a break from cabeceo.

Chris said...

Thanks Melina. That's the clearest explanation I've read of reasons for objecting to separate seating.

And of the misunderstandings from which they arise.

You wrote: "If someone can name good reasons for separating men and women at Milongas ... please feel free to present them."

No-one "separates men and women". Men and women get the choice of sitting separately, or together. The only option you don't get is sitting together with a member of the opposite sex who doesn't want your company.

""My main reason for opposing it lies much deeper: the separation of men and women as something impeding communication and social exchange at a Milonga."

The main purpose in choosing to sit separately (or together) IS to impede communication and social exchange - of any type that would interfere with the communication and social exchange known as dancing.

That's because dancing is the main reason people go to a milonga. You say when you go to a milonga you want to meet and communicate with male friends. Well, if your male friends would rather chat to you than dance, then you'd all be better going to a café around the corner.

Melina Sedo said...

Wow, thanks so much Chris. Now you abd Janis had your share of trolling again. ;-)

Thanks also so much for pointing out my severe misunderstandings. So from now on, I am going to set up shop in a cafe next to the Milonga so that I can talk to my friends without disturbing the Milonga.

Miha said...

Thank you for this detailed analysis. It articulates the thoughts I had during a few recent events where separate seating was arranged. Nothing to add for now...

Anonymous said...

So, Melina, when are you opening your chain of cafés?

Melina Sedo said...

Real soon. We will need them urgently for all the people who will be banned from the Milongas for talking to someone of the opposite sex. ;-)

El escritor said...

Once again you raise an interesting issue. I generally agree with you - I prefer to have people mixed up together, it is more sociable altogether. If separate seating is occurring at some encuentros in Europe, it would be helpful if organisers publicised this. It might not be a crucial factor in deciding whether or not to go, but it might be something people want to take into account.

Tatutango said...

"Thank you for this clear point of view on the seating arrangements in european encuentros.
I agree with you and my last experience (and yours, you were there too !) left me a little puzzled... A part of the room worked on separed seating and at the end of the encuentro, people moved from those chairs to the mixed part, and sometimes back, to change the "point of view" for a best mirada/cabeceo or to socialize.
The rules of traditional milongas were deserved by the shape of the room, the behaviour of the dancers.
But in those encuentros, for me, the point is to dance, to be invited via mirada and cabeceo, even if I come with a partner.
I went to another encuentro in Italy, where people seated together at tables, with all the seats facing the dance floor. Men or women on the first row, talking together or not... Mirada was possible across the room, or with the neighbours. But there was room around the dance floor, so dancers could move easily to pick up the partner after invitation or to stand up and move to another part of the room. It worked quite well ! It was confortable for everyone, so why not ?

Terpsichoral said...

Just to add my two cents to this. I haven't been to any European encuentros, so I can't speak for the culture there. But here in Buenos Aires, where I live, I much prefer split-seating milongas (such as El Beso and Cachirulo). And it is because I am not that social at the milonga. This is not because I am " truly asocial / phobic of close unwanted encounters" as one commentator put it. I love chatting and socialising -- on other occasions. At the milonga, however, I really love to dance.

At places with mixed seating, many of the guys I'd like to dance with will be eating, engrossed in conversation with friends, sitting with their girlfriends (and therefore more reluctant or unwilling to dance with other women), flirting, drinking beer, hanging out, etc. Whereas, at places with split seating, most people are focused on one thing and one thing alone: dancing as many blissful tandas as possible.

Then there are other advantages. If I'm not sitting with a man or men, other guys are much more likely to cabeceo me for dances. I don't have the problem of male friends monopolising me in conversation when I'd really like to be out on the dance floor or guys chatting me up in order to ask me to dance, leaving me perhaps feeling very awkward if I decline to dance with them (this happened to me all the time in the US).

I love chatting to my female friends during the cortina or during the odd tanda that we aren't dancing. They know that when the next tanda starts I'll be doing cabeceo and, even if we are finishing our chat, we won't have to be looking at each other as we talk (and won't consider this rude).

And we can compare notes on which leaders we enjoyed dancing with (or not). Believe me, it's very useful sometimes to hear "that guy over at the bar is looking at you and you should dance with him, he's a great dancer" or "don't dance with that guy with the moustache!"

I have to admit, though, that it can be tough if you have a really bad seat at a split-seating milonga, as Melina points out. But it can be pretty terrible if you have a bad seat at a mixed-seating event too since, although in theory you have more people of the opposite sex around you to cabeceo, there will be far fewer cabeceos going on to begin with, as at mixed-seating events many people dance primarily with the friends they came to the milonga with. I like to dance more widely than that and with people who aren't necessarily close friends.

And, of course, you can always sit with your boyfriend/girlfriend or opposite sex friends at any milonga. Just ask.

Syarzhuk said...

Well, I have not danced outside of the United States, but I have trouble imagining how such seating arrangement could work anywhere but in the tiniest rooms. Here once you get 20-25 couples on a medium size dancefloor, I would have a trouble simply seeing the partners on the other side through all the dancers! Long cortinas won't help much since many, if not most, people like to choose a partner based on what kind of music is playing.

My impression after visiting NYC and going to the hugely popular Nocturne was: "these New Yorkers don't use cabeceo at all"! Of course, in a more intimate setting they do, but there a cabeceo just wouldn't ever reach the intended recipient

jue711 said...

Thanks, very helpful in advance.
When thinking about it, there's no question that it's very stupid to force the potential dancers to be so close together when trying to ask for a dance with cabaceo.
This sometimes even doesn't work with two women sitting or standing close to another.