Who doesn’t like having a front row center seat at the theater or a concert? It’s the best seat in the house to enjoy a performance. The same can be said for the milongas in Buenos Aires.
I didn’t know a good table from a bad one during my five trips to Buenos Aires from 1996-1998. I went alone, and I sat at whatever table I was given. I was glad just to be there. I didn’t know why certain people had reserved tables near the dance floor while others were seated near the wall. All I knew is that I was happy not to be hidden behind a curtain or a post. Tourism ten years ago to Buenos Aires was nothing like it is today. When I danced a tanda, it was always with an Argentine.
I went regularly during my visits to Regin, Glamour, Pavadita, Club Almagro, and Club Gricel. I had no knowledge of the hierarchy which existed in the milongas in those days. It wasn’t first-come, first-served. Those who were regulars had their table held for them every week without fail. The best dancers (milongueros) were seated at the edge of the dance floor where they could observe the dancing. A front row table was the best place to see the nightly show of dancing; and I don’t mean exhibitions because there weren’t any.
The arrangement of tables depends on the size of the room. Regin was an odd shape, and so was Pavadita. Both salons were small, so table location wasn’t as critical. Club Gricel has a rectangular floor which makes it impossible to see dancers at the opposite end. Then there was Club Almagro.
Club Almagro had a square parquet floor with three rows of tables on all sides. There was an aisle between the second and third rows for passing through to avoid crossing the dance floor. Every chair faced the dance floor. I used to go on Tuesdays and Sundays to Club Almagro and was content to be seated in the back. It was where José Santoro would seat me. I didn’t have difficulty seeing men across the room for the cabeceo. I will never forget the night Jose seated me at a front table. I could see the show, and believe me, it was a show not to be missed.
I have never gone to any milonga from opening day and then return week after week in order to have a reserved table. That has never been my practice during ten years in Buenos Aires. I go to the milonga when I need to dance and listen to the music. I often observe women arriving late demanding a front row table when one isn’t available. Those who want a front row table have to attend every week and arrive before the time when reserved tables are given to others.
Things certainly have changed in the milongas. It’s no longer about how well you dance that determines where you are seated. I have seen milongueros given back row tables when they deserve a front table. I have heard of foreigners who come for a few weeks being given the best tables, and locals are seated at back tables. Some organizers are forgetting how to take care of those who have attended milongas for decades in order to please those who come for a few weeks.
Being seated in the front row doesn’t mean much these days. If you are friends with the organizer, you have your favorite table held for you every week until you arrive during prime-time hours. If you are a young, attractive foreign woman, you are likely to be seated in the front row of any milonga, unless you come with a dance partner. You have the advantage of being more visible from the other side of the room and asked to dance more quickly that those in the second row of tables. This doesn’t mean your dancing skills are of primary consideration; not at all, it’s what you’re wearing and your age that really matters. The Argentines on the other side of the room are eager to dance with the steady supply foreign women who show up daily at the milongas and ready to dance with anyone who looks their way. They don’t care how the women dance. It’s about trying out a new partner, no matter what their age. Men in the milongas love women and tango.
Generally, the milongas seat single men together, and single women together on opposite sides of the room. Couples are seated in the back tables or another section separate from the singles.
I have gone to dozens of milongas in Buenos Aires over the past ten years. The only one where I have “my” table is at Lo de Celia which I call my second home. It’s not in the primera fila, but it is the table I have selected where I am content listening to Dany’s music and seated alone when I’m not dancing with my favorite partners.