Golden Age of the Milongas

The following text was transcribed from my conversation with Miguel Angel Balbi in 2000 on the Golden Age of Tango (1938-46) and the Golden Age of the Milongas (1946-60).               

Miguel Angel was born November 29, 1937, in Buenos Aires and grew up in the barrio of Almagro on Avenida Belgrano in a conventillo with his family. He learned to sing ten tangos by the time he was six years old with the help of his parents and his Uncle Carlos (born 1906; singer, guitarist, and milonguero). From the age of 11 he danced at family parties that included tango, milonga, vals, paso dobles and foxtrots. He danced with girls that his uncle brought to family parties. On November 29, 1951, his uncle took him to a downtown confiteria for his 14th birthday. During the next year he was dancing well enough to go to Club Oeste, Salon Agusteo, Salon Italia Unita, Salon Centro Region Leonesa and Club Almagro where he watched the “milongueros” for the next year to learn from them and then create his own personal style. At 16 he was going regularly to dance in the milongas. At the age of 17, the milongueros told Miguel Angel that he was a milonguero. In 1956, he danced at Chantecler (a cabaret) where Carlos Di Sarli celebrated 25 years with his orchestra. He met Isabel Garcia at Club Monte Carlo, and they married in January 1962.

What was it really like during the Golden Age of Tango?
Early in the 1940s, there were dances with two orchestras, but not milongas. There were neighborhood clubs where people went to hear singers and orchestras. There were lots of people who just went to watch and many who were learning to dance. They danced to the orchestras of Francisco Canaro, Jorge Firpo, and Julio de Caro.

During the golden age of the milongas, the rhythm of the music changed, so the dancing changed as well. The orchestras had become so popular that all of them were recording. Milongueros danced to the recordings of Carlos Di Sarli, Ricardo Tanturi, Miguel Calo, Juan D’Arienzo, Anibal Troilo instead of live music.

Orchestras changed to a slower rhythm. After 1960, the music changed and the movements became more difficult so people stopped dancing. In 1980 people started learning to dance again because of the flood of tourists coming to Buenos Aires for tango. Tourists were ready to invest money in learning tango, so lots of people started teaching.

What occurred during the Golden Age of the Milongas?
The milongas had success because of the quality of the music. The disc jockeys were attentive to the music that the milongueros wanted for dancing. There is tango for the milonga, tango for dances, and tango for listening. The music of the milonga is very special. Let’s suppose Troilo recorded 100 tangos, there might be only 20 for the milonga. Many tangos had lyrics and little rhythm but featured the singer. Milongueros didn’t want to dance to music with singers; they wanted to dance to the rhythm of the orchestra. When a tango has a singer, the rhythm changes and the milonguero then needs to listen to the lyrics. There are few tangos with lyrics for milongueros where the singer is an instrument of the orchestra. Milongueros prefer dancing to instrumental music.

Did they announce each tango?
The tandas were announced in the milongas. The disc jockey would announce the recordings for the next tanda by giving the orchestra name, singer, and title of each tango. Vamos a bailar con… Each tanda had the music of one orchestra with the same rhythm. First there were two vocal tangos, followed by two instrumental tangos.

Were there breaks in the dancing? What happened during them?
Between each tanda there was a break of five minutes during which time people would rest, have a drink while soft music was played and no one danced. This is because people dressed elegantly. A man would have enough time to smoke a cigarette during the break. Men were always dressed in suits and ties, even during the hot summer nights when there was no air-conditioning. In the clubs, there were people standing and people sitting at tables, but in downtown, everyone was seated at tables. There were special clubs-Club Oeste on Alberdi and Club Almagro-with milongueros and milongueras. People went to learn from the milongueros.

The milonga was a ceremony; it was like a theater. There were many codes. The most important code of a milonguero is patience. He always danced well. Always wore shined shoes, a pressed suit with white shirt and tie. He knew the orchestras, singers, lyrics, and danced elegantly. When there might be an occasion when there were no good female dancers in the milonga, a milonguero would just watch the floor to see who danced well.

Would partners dance together the entire evening?
Yes, those who went together as a couple would dance only with each other. A milonguero would dance with a woman for only one tanda. The woman he like the best all night would be the one he would ask to dance during the last hour of the night. The last hour had music programmed with four boleros, four tangos, and four valses. Then during the last hour he might dance continuously with the same woman.

The milongueros went to the milongas where they could find the music of their favorite orchestra. In the 1950s, there was competition among the milongas. The milongueros wanted to hear different music each night. A milonga has to have a good floor and good music for success.

What was the tradition or protocol for asking a woman to dance?
The custom of asking a woman to dance has always been the same, whether in a club de barrio, confiteria, or milonga-movement of the head. And that movement is imperceptible to others in the room. Teachers should be teaching this in their classes so students are prepared for the milongas.

Would people wander from place to place to dance at night?
If a milonguero wanted to dance with a particular woman, he might go from place to place until he found her. He might ask her during the tanda where she goes to dance for the purpose of dancing with her again. Then when he found her, he would dance with others during the night and wait until the last tandas to dance with her. This gave him time to see if she was dancing with another before inviting her to dance. If one place seemed crowded, a milonguero would leave and go to another milonga.

Women always dressed impeccably. After two tandas of tango and swing, they retired to the restroom to fix their hair and makeup. There was much respect for women. No man would bother a woman by going to her table.

The word milonguero does not apply to everyone. It didn’t matter how far a woman lived, if he wanted to dance with her, he would travel to a club where she danced. A milonguero could wait an hour in a milonga before dancing. He may dance very little, but will always dance well.

Today, there are many milongas in Buenos Aires, but none of them are good. The milongas of today in Buenos Aires don’t play music for milongueros because the disc jockeys are very young and don’t know the tango repertoire. The same music is played week after week, milonga to milonga. There is no competition among the milongas because they all play the same music.


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