Ricky and Supantheress have written a very nice guide to what a beginner follower should aim for to be nice to dance with. This post is a bit different - less about what the leader is looking for and more about what the follower needs to know for herself.
For my first milonga, this was what I needed to know:
- How to walk backwards with my feet in a straight line so I didn't go from side to side. (That took a bit of work - but practising it forwards works, and practising walking down the stairs without looking works really well).
- If my foot met his foot, to make contact and then step over (assuming the lead is going that way, sometimes it doesn't but they still want you to do this - let them sort that out).
- How to just stand there and look puzzled when I didn't understand what to do. This is difficult, it takes determination. But any other action is counterproductive. You move together or not at all. Give him a chance to make it clearer.
- The way to get danced with is to stand near the edge of the dance floor, smile, and fidget slightly in time to the music. At least, this was the first thing I tried, it worked, and it still does.
- What to wear. I think that deserves a seperate post, but anything nice you can move in will do, and nothing that can catch on his clothing.
- Not to rush. (This is a hard one).
- Not to talk. You need the concentration, and so does he.
- Not to apologise. It just drives everybody round the bend. If you find this one tricky, decide in advance that when you feel the urge to say "sorry", you will giggle instead.
- Not to say "thank you" until he does, or the end of the set. This is very difficult and takes even more concentration than standing still, because you're genuinely grateful to be danced with, it's a completely natural thing to say in the pauses between tracks, and it just seems wrong and impossible not to say it. But it has a special meaning in this context which is not what you have in mind at all. So here's a technique: allow your mouth to open, then say something else instead. It doesn't matter how inane - prepare something in advance. Try "what a nice piece of music that is," or "Isn't it hot?" It worked for me.
Some of this I had been told, some of it I rapidly worked out for myself, and happily someone managed to communicate (2) in two words during the dancing, and I went "oh!" and it all made sense. So you can afford to wing it a bit.
You should actively avoid learning or remembering any sequences. It will only confuse you, and if it makes you anticipate it will confuse the leaders even more. Tango is an improvised dance and you cannot make any assumptions at all about what's going to happen next. (Of course, that's more true with some leaders than others, and if you get to dance with someone of whom it's really true, dance with him as often as you possibly can). If in doubt, just stand there and don't change weight. If someone seems to expect you to remember a sequence, ignore him. And it doesn't matter if you never dance with him again. You have identified a wally.
Useful supplementary information includes:
- Lechers have an incentive to work hard on their dancing, and are always kind and very useful to the learner. They will politely lose interest when they conclude that they are not going to get into your knickers, but this does not matter, since by that time you will be getting other dances too. They are perfectly harmless, and the contents of their imaginations are Not Your Problem.
- If you think a man is making strange faces at you and you are wondering why, it's possible he is inviting you to dance. Try smiling at him, and if he intended to ask you, he will wander over and look at you sideways. At this point, stand up, and he will offer you his hand. Off you go; no common language required. Very few men do this where I dance in London, but those who do are usually good dancers, so go for it. It's traditional. Don't question it or worry about it for now. And it's unlikely to happen at your first milonga unless the man is your teacher or someone else you already know.
- It's going to be stressful and someone will try to teach you on the dance floor. Just smile and pretend you can't hear what he's saying over the music. Promise yourself that you will never, ever, do that to anyone. Wear reliable waterproof mascara, in case it gets you down.
But mainly, just do the best you can to relax and concentrate. Following is quite demanding cognitively and uses up a surprising amount of energy. Remember that you're trying to feel it, not infer it, and that means you have to be willing to be wrong and not worry about it. It could be anything, and you're not psychic, so for all you know, it was what he meant after all. But this is all harder than it sounds, and you will probably not be able to do it at first unless they keep it simple, and not all leaders have enough imagination and confidence to be able to keep it simple. So don't get annoyed with yourself.
Oh yes, and you don't need to worry about your handbag. You can just leave it on a table, it's a small world, people are there to dance, and the chances of anyone touching it are exceedingly remote. But it's a good idea to take a very small one - you only need your keys, your train ticket home, and the money to get in and for one or two drinks.
My very, very first social dance was a milonga (in the musical sense, i.e. really fast!) - I just jumped right in at the deep end, there. Even when you've got the skills, there's a lot to be said for only dancing milonga with leaders who have a clue, and he didn't - he expected me to know a pattern and his lead was totally unclear. I was awful, but I survived it and decided not to regret displeasing him, and then I had some really good dances and a fool who thought it was OK to stop dead on the dance floor and try to lecture me.
It was hard, but I was glad I'd gone, it's exciting, and it steadily gets easier. But it stays exciting. And when it works, it feels fabulous.