Rebels on the floor

I have the unique privilege of dancing once a week at El Arranque for two hours with Alito.  The milonga is his life.  Believe it or not, Alito doesn’t always follow the line of dance or stay in a lane.  He never touches other dancers nor gets in their way.  He knows how to take care after decades in the milongas.

I danced two tandas yesterday at Lo de Celia with Ismael Heljalil.  Like Alito, he dances every which way around the floor and never bothers other dancers.  I know I can speak on behalf of the women who dance with Ismael.  He protects his partners.  He knows where he’s going and improvises in the moment.  His dance is simply walking to the music he knows and loves. 

 Gregorio is another milonguero who doesn’t dance la ronda and goes where the music takes him.  At one point I thought he was the only one who danced in all directions.  I’ll call them rebels on the floor, and women would line up to dance with them any day.

p.s.  The 2011 city tango champion writes about no bumping on the dance floor.


12 Responses to “Rebels on the floor”

  1. Alan Jones Says:

    Well done to them,Janis! They are on a dance floor,and if there is a space,why not use it…Sometimes(out of devilment) I go against the line of dance,where other dancers are unsure what to do,or even stop dancing. I know this wouldn’t happen with the old milongueros,as they have good floorcraft. To my knowledge,I don’t see anyone dancing ‘their way’ in England,and I think that they enrich the milongas. “Up with the rebels and the trads”. Alan Jones.

  2. Dieudonne Dang Says:

    These are great dancers, men who have paid their dues on the pista for decades, they know what they are doing. They first learned the rules, assimilated them and now have the necessary skill to break them at will. It is an aspect of mastery.
    The “sad comedians” on this side of the Rio Grande think they can do the same thing without learning to dance first, and use the excuse of personal self expression to hide incompetance and ignorance. I pray that the example of these Milongueros does not encourage their bad habits. I now understand what it feels like to want to punch another leader on the dance floor, or invite them outside Texas Style, but instead I keep breathing in and out, in and out, in and out…

  3. Melina Sedo Says:

    Great! So it is ok to not stay in the line of dance, if you are an old Milonguero? Where’s your logic, Janis?



  4. jantango Says:


    Perhaps I’ve been so busy enjoying tandas with the milongueros viejos for 12 years that I didn’t bother to notice how they use the space. Violating the line of dance in milongas seems to be a hot topic on tango forums and blogs these days. No one seems to realize the source of the problem is tango classes from stage pros who never dance in the milongas. I’m merely pointing out three divine dancers who have enough experience to dance, however they please, without bumping anyone and avoiding bad dancers at the same time. I think it’s all very logical when one has decades in the milongas.

    When you have the time to visit Buenos Aires, you might want to visit the milongas closer to downtown where the milongueros manuever on the crowded floors. It’s a different world from Sunderland Club and Sin Rumbo. I’d be very interested to see how Detlaf manages on a packed floor.

  5. Paul Says:

    Never having been able to observe these experienced milongueros up close, I can only speculate, express some genuine misgivings and….ask more questions.

    @jantango “dances every which way around the floor and never bothers other dancers.”
    “another milonguero who doesn’t dance la ronda and goes where the music takes him”

    Respect for and observance of the line of dance is undeniably an important factor in the social experience of tango. Other social dances allow a couple to occupy a territory and basically pitch their tent there; but tango requires a couple to make steady counter-clockwise progress in the line of dance (LOD) while staying in their ronda. We tolerate professional performers who play free and loose with notions of LOD whether on the stage or on a cleared dance floor because they are putting on a show and want it to be comfortably visible to all parts of the watching audience. However, on a crowded floor it is disconcerting, to say the least, to see dancers “going every which way”. Next to such rebels, one is soon feeling nervous for the safety and comfort of one’s partner.

    I have observed tango teachers who never bump into others; but they achieve this only partly by technique, awareness, and floorcraft. They do this by aggressive displays that force their intimidated students to clear a wide space around them which allows them to strut their stuff and show off their fancy moves. Some potential customers are doubtless impressed; to me they are a social and professional nuisance. I doubt very much that these old milongueros behave in this way but just the fact that they don’t bump into people would not in itself reassure me of their technical mastery. Other dancers making adjustments on the floor may be helping out too.

    @ Alan Jones “Sometimes(out of devilment) I go against the line of dance”

    I’d like to think devilish playfulness can be expressed in other ways that don’t add to the chaos caused by dancers who don’t know what to do or have just stopped dancing.

    @ Dieudonne Dang “They first learned the rules, assimilated them and now have the necessary skill to break them at will. It is an aspect of mastery.”

    This notion of a high level of mastery is plausible enough in that it suggests that the breaking of such conventions is principled and consistent with the underlying notions of respect for and consideration of others. In other words, the breaking of the rule is not whimsical or arbitrary but is an elegant social solution to a blockage or perhaps an avoidance of a possible collision.
    But this is speculative and it leads us to ask more questions.

    What would the three “rebels” say about the LOD?, staying in the ronda?
    Would they see the idea of an LOD as set in stone? Something that should be strictly observed at all times?
    Would they see themselves as “rebels” in any way or laugh off such an idea as absurd?
    Is it possible that some of them believe that they do in fact mostly respect the LOD despite others’ impressions?
    What is their current view on other dancers they observe? Do they think the LOD is well-respected or not by the current pool of dancers?
    What advice regarding the LOD or the ronda, would they give to the current generation of dancers?

  6. jantango Says:

    The milongueros instinctively know when and where they can go. I am happy to go along for the ride and never doubt it will be a safe one.

    What would these rebels say? I don’t know, but I’ll ask them.

  7. Jamie Says:

    I dance in a number of downtown milongas, often alongside Ismael, and can confirm what Jantango says – Ismael does indeed use the pista in his own way, seemingly ignoring the line of dance. What’s more, his signature step involves him taking several large steps backwards! Clearly a gross violation of the first lessons of floorcraft!

    On the other hand, there is no doubt that Ismael is close to or at the top of the list of A+++ milongueros. He was born in 1930, he’s been dancing his whole life, and many women 40 or 50 years younger than him go to milongas just in the hope of dancing a tanda with him.

    So – what’s going on?

    I guess rules are made to be broken, hopefully by those who understand the meaning behind them.

    My impression, dancing in downtown venues such as La Nacional, La Leonesa, Lo de Celia, and so on, is that the interaction of couples on the pista can be either “harmonious” or “inharmonious”.

    In a harmonious setting, I am barely conscious of the presence of the couples around me, even when conditions are extremely crowded. Everyone is dancing their own dance, but with a common musicality and vibe that gels the entire pista so that it feels like we are all dancing together, or at least not at odds with each other. You need room to take a step and, magically, the couple in front takes a step at the same time, the space opens, you step in, then maybe step back and the couple in front does so to. Even though everyone is dancing their own dance, somehow it all works neatly.

    In an inharmonious setting, the floor does not gel and there is a constant sense of tension as you work to dodge unexpected movements of other couples. This can happen even on quite uncrowded floors, if people start changing lanes, taking ill-advised back steps, or moving in a way that seems to be at odds with the music. Even without any collisions happening, when the floor is inharmonious, it’s less comfortable and enjoyable to be dancing.

    Lo de Celia is an example of a space where the pista is almost always “harmonious”, regardless of how crowded it gets. There are other respectable salons in the city where the floor almost always seems to be “inharmonious”, to me, regardless of how crowded it is.

    I have heard some leaders claim that, if they are not actually causing collisions, they should be free to do whatever they want. Well, maybe, although if collisions are avoided because everyone else is on edge and watching out for them, I’m not sure it’s such a nice way to dance.

    Ismael’s dancing is extraordinarily harmonious. His musicality is wonderful, he is very aware of his surrounds and dancing next to him is a pleasure, never uncomfortable. In fact, at times you do have to modify your course to accommodate him, but it’s a comfortable feeling, a sense of a shared moment, briefly Ismael’s dance and yours intersect before separating again, not unpleasant at all.

    Sticking to your lane, not overtaking and not taking back steps is probably a reasonable initial rule of thumb to avoid contributing to an inharmonious floor. But if you have been dancing socially for 60+ years, you have probably found other ways of achieving the same outcome. Ismael certainly has, in my opinion.

  8. John Morton Says:

    To describe them as “rebels” is perhaps a disservice. Despite only ever having watched Ismael on video it’s quite clear that his is a calm and pragmatic use of floor space, sometimes utilising a clear space behind him (as far as the line of dance is concerned) before once again gradually progressing around the floor.

    To me it’s no more than good floorcraft as he is avoiding the moving obstacles of other dancers and continuing his dance in the space available. Here (UK) there is rather too much concentration on the form and look of tango instead of on the dance itself. Floorcraft is currently being advocated by some as a rigid staying in a line of dance – even a one line queue to the detriment of dancing – rather than regarding the line of dance as an anti-clockwise progression.

    Good floorcraft in other dances requires a mutual awareness of each other
    and while I don’t see much of that in tango I don’t think it should be any different. But this ability is not being learned by many leaders and the necessary techniques of minimising blindspots are not being acquired. We are in danger of being left only with the blinkered approach.

    Regards to you, Janis.

  9. jantango Says:


    I don’t really consider them to be rebels on the floor. I danced on Tuesday with Alito and yesterday with Ismael. They dance in harmony with everyone on the floor. The milongueros are examples for all to follow.

    Thanks for your comment.

  10. Alan jones Says:

    I know which type of dancers I would rather have around me…It would be interesting to know the thoughts of those three milongueros,Janis. Kind regards,Alan Jones.

  11. T Says:

    Did you get a chance pick their brains on this?

  12. jantango Says:

    No. I wouldn’t expect them to justify what they do so naturally.

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