Tandas at the milonga

A tanda is a set of four dances followed by a change of music (called the “cortina”) for dancers to return to their tables. The deejay selects four pieces of music by the same orchestra with the same singer that were recorded around the same time in order to provide continuity in style and rhythm. The orchestras that played specifically for dancing recorded enough tangos for an entire night of tandas. Those who liked the recordings of Troilo would go to dance where the night was dedicated to his music. However, some orchestras have very few recordings of valses and milongas, so a deejay often has to blend different singers of the same orchestra to form a tanda.

The music of the milonga today is programmed differently from the way it was in the 1950s during the “golden age of the milongas,” (1948-1960) even though mostly the same recordings are used. The format of tandas was changed in the 1970s. Today, the common format is two tandas of tangos (alternating rhythmic and melodic), four valses, two tandas of tango, a tanda of milongas, etc., with only one tanda of latin (salsa, cumbia, merengue) and one tanda of jazz in the course of six hours. About three years ago, the city government restricted the milongas to playing only tango, vals, and milonga, but that law was changed to allow once again for other music to be played for dancing as it had been during the late 1940s and 1950s.

By questioning milongueros, I learned that there was a wide variety of dance music played in the milongas during the 1950s. The milongas of Buenos Aires originally included other dance music, including foxtrot, rumba, bolero, salsa, and jazz. In the 1940s, recordings were made on 78rpm vinyl discs that had to be carefully turned or changed for each dance. In the confiterias bailables, the deejay announced the orchestra, singer and titles for each tanda. For example, “vamos a bailar a Anibal Troilo con Francisco Fiorentino–Yo Soy El Tango, Toda Mi Vida, Cachirulo, Milongeando en El Cuarenta—two vocals with the same singer and then two instrumentals. The first three tangos I’ve mentioned were recorded on the same date—March 4, 1941—an example of how deejays carefully programmed a tanda for consistency of style and rhythm thereby providing a high quality of music for the discriminating tastes of the milongueros. They selected their partners according to the tanda.

Young milongueros went to the confiterias bailables in downtown where they could hear the recordings of their favorite orchestras. In the 1950s, there was competition among the milongas. The milongueros wanted to hear different music each night of the week. The deejay’s knowledge and music collection was key to a milonga’s success.

The cortina music was played very low while dancers were returning to their tables, and it continued for five minutes in order to allow dancers to rest, smoke, retire to the ladies’ or men’s rooms, or have a drink. The atmosphere of the milonga was certainly more relaxed than it is today. People dressed elegantly. Men always wore suits and ties, even in the summer months when there was no air-conditioning, so they needed time to rest. It’s common today for deejays to play 30-45 seconds of different music for each cortina at a high volume like nightclubs. There is no thought of resting after a tanda these days where the milonga is more like a gymnasium for a workout. Sweat on the brow and the perspiration-soaked clothing proves it.

There is tango for the milonga (i.e., Troilo), tango for dancing (i.e., Osvaldo Pugliese), and tango for listening (i.e., Carlos Gardel). A deejay has to know the difference in order to provide quality tandas for a milonga. The orchestras of the milongueros are Anibal Troilo, Ricardo Tanturi, Miguel Calo, Carlos Di Sarli, Angel D’Agostino, Pedro Laurenz and Enrique Francini/Armando Pontier. The orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese performed for large dances every Friday night at Salon La Argentina on Rodriguez Pena. The orchestras of Osvaldo Fresedo, Lucio Demare, and Julio De Caro performed regularly in the downtown cabarets where there were two orchestras alternating half hour sets between tango and jazz. The orchestras of Rodolfo Biaggi, Juan D’Arienzo, and Roberto Firpo were popular in the neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. Of course today, the music of these orchestras and others are included in tandas at the milonga.

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17 Responses to “Tandas at the milonga”

  1. Irene Says:

    Dear Janis,

    People profess love of tango music and love of tango (or even try to DJ tango music!) but only a very few bother to do the research, talk to the DJs and talk to the milongueros about how music is selected and played for the milonga. If people will do the legwork instead of “relying on their own intuitive genius” about the music or buying pre-set tandas from the Buenos Aires DJs with the biggest names (but not necessarily the best music) and playing them again and again ad nauseum (“It’s from Buenos Aires, it must be good!”), maybe the quality of the music in the milongas outside of Buenos Aires will improve. Perhaps people will also start dancing better when they learn to appreciate the better music – is it too much to hope?

    Thanks for all your advice about music and for posting this. Looking forward to reading more about music from you soon.


  2. jantango Says:

    The music in the milongas is often undanceable, but that doesn’t make any difference to those who consider it their workout. Deejays don’t have to play the best recordings in order to please the dancers. Anything will do. Foreigners go by what they hear or buy in Buenos Aires.

    This wasn’t the case about ten years ago in Buenos Aires. The deejay was the key to good dancers attending a milonga. Those who know the best recordings for dancing go where Daniel Borelli handles the music. In my opinion, he’s the best deejay in Buenos Aires.

  3. joe grohens Says:

    Hi Janis –

    Thank you for writing this informative article. You mention that there is “tango for the milonga, tango for dancing, […] and tango for listening.”

    Can you say more about the difference between tango for the milonga and tango for dancing?

    Best wishes,


  4. jantango Says:

    There were hundreds of orchestras and musical ensembles during the 1940s that played for dancing. There were very few that were favored by the best dancers–the milongueros. Other orchestras featured a singer in large venues where people went to listen and dance, but they weren’t as serious about dancing well as the milongueros. As in anything, there are very few at the top. The masses went to see the orchestras with singers; the milongueros danced to recordings they knew.

  5. La Morocha Says:

    “The deejay announced the orchestra, singer and titles for each tanda. For example, “vamos a bailar a Anibal Troilo con Francisco Fiorentino–Yo Soy El Tango, Toda Mi Vida, Cachirulo, Milongeando en El Cuarenta—two vocals with the same singer and then two instrumentals.”

    For my point of view, this custom was great. Do you think could work today?

    Thank you for sharing all this!

  6. jantango Says:

    Not only do I think announcing the tandas would work today, I know that it is being done in Buenos Aires and abroad. The tandas are announced on Thursdays and Sundays in Club Fulgor de Villa Crespo where Roberto Orlando has celebrated 16 years. I know of a milonga in Rome where they are announced by the organizer as well. It helps dancers know what orchestra and specific pieces they are dancing to. It can be done today as it was in the 1950s in the confiterias downtown.

  7. Stephanie Says:

    Thanks for this article. Great insight. Montreal has one famous DJ who announces all his tandas: Michel. I love this practice…. At least I know if I should get up to dance or stay seated.

  8. Del Says:

    Nice touch, nowadays its becoming ever so popular for DJ to project details of the next tanda on screen

  9. Ann geis Says:

    I like the idea of projecting the next tanda details on screen.

  10. Chris Says:

    Janis wrote: “It helps dancers know what orchestra and specific pieces they are dancing to.

    It helps dancers know merely the names of the orchestra and pieces they are dancing to. To know the orchestra and pieces themselves, one listens to the music – not to an announcer.

    I’m glad I’ve found only one milonga in Europe that interrupts proceedings with an announcement on every tanda.

    I know a couple of UK milongas that display the names on a screen. This is popular with dancers to whom the names mean more than the music. I’d like to see these milongas switch to putting the info instead on Twitter, so those who need it can read it in real-time on their phone screens, and everyone else can be spared the distracting electronic display overlooking the dancefloor!

  11. scalambra Says:

    Janis, this is a great article, really useful and informative – thank you. I’ve got two questions.
    First of all, are you saying that even back in the 1940s, the ‘confiterias bailables’ had tandas of 4 songs – constructed by playing two 78rpm records?
    Secondly: when the revival first began in the late 1980s, many milongas overseas (who weren’t playing from 78s) played tandas of 3 songs. As the scene matured, we switched to 4, except for milonga. I really can’t remember how long the tandas were when I first visited Bs As in ’96 – I had no awareness of the structure of the music at that time. Was is always four songs, or was it three, or did different milongas have different customs? I’d be very grateful for any light you can shine on this topic

  12. jantango Says:

    I can’t speak first-hand how it was in the confiterias, but I do rely on what Miguel Angel Balbi and other milongueros have told me. This post from a conversation with Miguel Angel gives more information. A 78rpm had one recording on each side, so the musicalizador had to flip or change the record. Dancers had to wait longer for the next tune to start, thereby giving time for brief conversation between tunes. [That’s when the custom of chatting between dances originated.] Today in the milongas the music is all provided from a laptop with the next tune starting in seconds. Another interview with Miguel Angel includes the arrangement of music.

    I, too, didn’t have any awareness of the structure of the tandas during my first visit in 1996. The deejay of each milonga decides how many tunes in the tanda based on the dancers. For the older crowd at Lo de Celia, it’s always four tangos or valses, but three milongas.

    A good source of more information on this subject is Oscar Hector Malagrino who has organized milongas for 52 years. You should arrange to talk with him when you are in Buenos Aires.

  13. Felicity Says:

    Agreed – very interesting post! I too would love to hear more on this subject.

    I can see why people like to know what the tanda is on a screen but dancing is not an intellectual exercise – the better way is to listen and dance the tracks you like, not knowing what is coming next. I think it’s more fun, too. Also, that way a good DJ can note what people stand up and sit down to and adjust what they play in the future, omitting less popular tracks. Saying in advance makes that impossible as people may decide to sit out the whole tanda if they know they distrust or dislike, say, the first and third tracks.

    I do love to know the names of tracks I don’t know and a screen display allows this but it is true it can be distracting. The better way would be to note the time and ask the DJ later who will probably be delighted people are taking an interest in the music; better still, ask them to post their setlist for you to see for yourself. DJs I have asked about this say they don’t like to give away their secrets, but really, there are no secrets. It’s the music that counts, not the DJ. I think DJs ought to have, at the very least, sample setslists anyway, so that when people travel, they know what kind of thing to expect as just saying you play “traditional music” covers, least in Europe, a multitude of sins.

  14. jantango Says:

    I agree with you Felicity that there are no secrets when it comes to the music. Those deejays who guard their playlists may have copied them from another. And having all the tandas prepared for a milonga shows how little experience a deejay has to respond to the dancers.

    There is an art to combining four tunes. The first is an appetizer for the meal. The last is the dessert that leaves us feeling satisfied.

    Word hasn’t reached some European deejays that there is music for listening, music for dancing, and music for the milonga.

  15. Chris, UK Says:

    Felicity wrote: “a good DJ can note what people stand up and sit down to and adjust what they play in the future, omitting less popular tracks.”

    IME a track has to be really bad before dancers will quit on it. I suggest a DJ who plays such stuff probably shouldn’t be using dancers as guinea pigs. S/he’d be better learning what’s popular by observing what’s played by DJs on which dancers don’t quit.

  16. Felicity Says:

    “IME a track has to be really bad before dancers will quit on it.”

    I am not talking about majorities, I am talking about dancers who choose what they dance to. I guess I wish there were more of these (though for the purposes of this you don’t need many) so that with more observation of what they dance to the quality of what’s played might go up.

    “S/he’d be better learning what’s popular by observing what’s played by DJs on which dancers don’t quit.”
    I find in the UK, whole milongas, very popular milongas, heavy with Guardia Vieja, where everything – great classics and “unknown gems” not even good enough for listening – is danced fairly indiscriminately. As if that weren’t enough, you can see people staying on the floor in the cortina so by your reasoning everything that DJ plays must be so good the dancers trust everything s/he plays even before they hear it (!) – and don’t care who they dance it with… Or they clear the floor but pick partners in the cortina before knowing the track. Someone said to me on Friday “I dance everything” and I find that very far from uncommon, in fact I probably find it the norm.

    So no, I don’t find “learning what’s popular by observing what’s played by DJs on which dancers don’t quit” an accurate guide at all. Yes, that works if you find a reliably good enough local DJ, where you trust both DJ and the dancers who attend those milongas and (ideally) they’re prepared to share their sets. In the absence of that, I don’t see what else you can do than stick with the behaviour of discriminating dancers.

  17. Felicity Says:

    Another way of referring to what you call “using dancers as guinea pigs” is, respecting the choices of experienced/discriminating dancers. I’d rather the DJ did that over just playing what they, for example, *liked*.

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