A looooong post with all the bits of advice that have helped other people. A bit of an orientation guide to help if you're considering it, and haven't done it before.
What are they?About the name: the people who organise and attend the kind of event I'm describing, call it an encuentro. So I'm going to call it that here. Obviously, nobody owns a word which is just the Spanish for "meeting", so there will be occasions when people organise a totally different kind of event and call it the same thing. It's pretty much always clear from the website.
It's a different concept from a marathon or a true 'festival', with workshops and shows and whatnot. Those can scale up to 300 or 400 - but they aren't all-shapes-and-ages social events in the same way as an encuentro is, although that might be changing.
'Encuentros' are normally between 100 and 200 people, sometimes as few as 80 or as many as 250. The format is from four to six (or even seven) milongas in one location over a weekend or a long weekend. They hire the best DJs they can, and people come from all over the world, but mostly from all over Europe. It's modern, close-embrace, social tango, with mirada/cabeceo, and aiming to create a social floor (that is, a good connection and flow between couples dancing as well as between individuals) and attract a modest, no-showing-off sort of mindset that is there to meet and dance socially rather than to see or be seen. The milongas are 'traditional', but not 'formal', except in the sense that everyone dresses nicely for the evening ones.
The programme is usually something like:
Friday night milonga from 22:00 to 03:00
Saturday afternoon milonga from 14:00 to 18:00
Saturday night milonga from 22:00 to 04:00
Sunday milonga from 14:00 to 21:00ish
Maybe some kind of communal meal, not always, usually on Saturday or Sunday or both.
A few events might have milongas on Thursday or Monday or both, and you might get an extra afternoon one on the Friday.
They happen in all sorts of interesting places where you might quite reasonably spend a holiday. Dans Tes Bras linked to this map, and put up a nice general description of what these events are. Melina put up a listing for this year, of just the ones she could vouch for at the time.
The quality of organisation varies, and I base my own choice of which ones to apply to on the the cost and effort of getting there, the DJ lineup, and the organisers, in more or less that order, with some tradeoffs and of course some estimate of who else is going to be there. I'll travel further and accept more hassle for my favourite dancers and DJs, or for a location that really attracts me. The personality of the event also varies.
The distinctive general quality for me is that you do not find anyone preoccupied with selling, buying, seeing, being seen, name-dropping, fawning, hype, or similar embarrassments. Everyone is there to dance socially, as social dancers, for fun, with other people who are fun to dance with, and fun to share the floor with. No commerce. No classes. No shows.
There is likely be a wide range of ages - with a good supply of people between thirty and forty, many between forty and seventy, and some younger than 30, who are often beautiful dancers and having a whale of a time. This is part of what makes these events a lot of fun socially.
What's called a 'festivalito' is practically the same thing but includes a small scale opportunity to take workshops or private lessons focused on social dancing, and perhaps one brief demonstration - over time, these tend to drop the classes and convert themselves into 'encuentros'. A festivalito is a good choice for a first try, and the lessons offered tend to be very worthwhile and with very nice and professional people. By 'encuentro,' people mean the kind with no lessons at all.
Swimming pools are not unknown, but it's extremely unlikely you'll be expected to dance in one.
Dance style, and a quick check for LondonersThe dance style, in as far as there is one, is what the europeans call 'milonguero'. Londoners should be warned: this has NO relation to what people mean when they talk about 'milonguero' as going with a particular kind of music and 'salon' as going with another. That idea is inapplicable, and would be laughed at. In this context, it means you need actually good basics - balance, connection, embrace, axis, musicality.
Quick check: if you think the utterance "You just can't dance milonguero style to Di Sarli" sounds sane, you're using the word in a completely different sense. If you say it, people will think you're crazy and have crap technique.
You will find that people dance in ways that are very dissimilar to each other. It's extremely individual. This is a joy.
CustomsIt's always mirada/cabeceo; if you go up to someone and ask verbally, this will be understood - with some astonishment - as an explicit announcement that you have no idea what you're doing. Dancing in an unexpected role doesn't cause any problems with this. I know people say it might in theory, but in real life it doesn't. Everyone can cope.
There are often a handful of men at these things who like to follow, and do that a lot, and some women who like to spend half or more of their time leading. If any of those are you, be aware that you are very welcome at these 'encuentros', and the layout and seating is rarely set up to make you feel otherwise. The only exception I am aware of has been Barcelona, but I believe they've abandoned the segregated seating this year. I agree with them dropping it, as I don't think it makes any sense - people at these things want to be able to dance with whoever they wish, and want other people to do that too, and nobody is bothered by anybody swapping roles. If you can do both well, you're a kid in a sweetshop. [Update: I'm informed that the new encuentro in Sweden this year had segregated seating. I personally would never apply to one that I knew for sure was going to do this, as I have tried it and think it kills the concept and the party. But you should consult only your own preference - after asking the question, as they don't always warn us. Update 2 (three years later): Now that I lead a lot, I am fairly indifferent about segregated seating. I either sit at one end and invite in both directions, or change sides from time to time. It depends on the layout of the room.]
It is not a Buenos Aires milonga and it is not an imitation of one, and nobody thinks that it is. There is an overlap, which sometimes includes a surprising number of people, but this is a distinctively European kind of party.
Getting inRegistration is normally four to six months in advance and is normally gender-balanced [edit: or, rather, role-balanced; how they ask the question varies]. Payment will be due on assignment of your place, and will confirm it. If the concept appeals to you, then I'd suggest contacting some organisers and asking if you can please be on the mailing list to be notified of the booking date for next year.
Facebook membership is useful organisationally, as there is usually an event or group where they'll publish practical information. Then do what my roommate in Paris did - book as early as possible as each of them opens, see what you get into, then book flights and accommodation as soon as you can for the cheapest deal. Free cancellation at services like booking.com often means you can reserve accommodation before you are certain of your place, if necessary. Most encuentros will suggest accommodation on the website, and there may be a discount arranged with local businesses.
There are new ones all the time. If people like the look of it and trust the organisers, they may receive at least twice as many applications as there are places, perhaps on the first day, perhaps in the first hour. Single leaders can often afford to wait a little longer, but not in all cases. How they manage the bookings varies wildly. If they don't know you, they may want to ask around to see if anyone can vouch for your competence and behaviour as a social dancer, but they do want to add new people, as it makes it more fun, so go for it. Getting into new ones is likely to be easier than getting into established ones. It's also riskier, as they may not get it right first time and you have no information from people who've been before.
Considerations about whether to try itIt's social dancing, so it matters a lot how nice you feel to dance with and how musical you are, as people will just pick you on their best estimate of that, they don't give a damn who you are otherwise.
They also won't feel obliged to accept anything they don't like the look of. So you need a reasonable skill level (within limitations is fine), but focused on a good embrace and connection with your partner, the music, and other couples on the floor. Of course it's a good idea to eliminate visually obvious problems, but you don't have to have perfect footwork or great technique or be tanned and thin. There will, of course, be people there who do have perfect footwork. In fact, there will be some dancers you'll feel very privileged to see and who are wonderful in various ways. But it's not so much what it's all about.
You can get away with just not leading any turns, especially if you're very musical and have a nice embrace, but you can't fudge by opening the embrace whenever you turn or cross to cover your poor posture, wobbly axis, and dislike of twisting in the middle. Nobody has an incentive to fall for it. If you are a woman, you'll need to be able to maintain a full-on connection as well as having your own axis and balance all the time.
They usually balance men and women, which can come as a severe shock to some people unused to level competition. For both men and women, however - imagine you were top of your school and the popular kid all the way up, and then you went to university and found that you were in the bottom third and nobody thought you were specially interesting. If your reaction to this is to be a bit miffed, you'll need to overcome that. If your reaction is to feel that a weight has been lifted from your shoulders, to breathe, to learn, and to raise your game, you'll have a ball, as I did the first time I went to Les Cigales.
The money adds up, but deals on flights and accommodation are sometimes extremely good, and entry fees are low, usually around £60 for the whole weekend. If you live near a medium-to-big European airport, you could do four to six of these for the same money as three weeks in Buenos Aires, and you'd use less holiday and make friends you can actually see sometimes.
In my opinion the only advantage to going as a couple is that you'll usually get priority booking. It saves costs to have a roommate, but I don't think it matters otherwise. Being alone means you don't have to worry about anyone, and simplifies the process of making new friends, which is a good thing for your first attempt. I'm used to being alone, though. Do what feels right for you. Sometimes it works to have a wingman.
Practical tipsAs I said in a previous post, my main problem is arranging to be hungry and awake and have food in front of me all at the same time, so I can eat enough calories to dance as much as I want to. If possible, I try to sleep for four hours, get up for the hotel breakfast, eat it, and go back to bed for another four hours, then have some lunch and return to the party. Dinner may or may not happen, but I carry nuts and chocolate. Think about what works for your body. I find that sleeping for six hours, waking up hungry and having a snooze later just makes me dozy, but it might work for you.
I usually travel out on the day of the first milonga, and home on the morning after the last one. This is all about how far you have to go and how long it takes, but I recommend being relaxed and not in a hurry for the end of the last event. Goodbyes can take a lot of time. If I can, I take a recovery day afterwards. I'm more tired than I think I am.
I always do hand luggage only. I don't trust airlines with my stuff for such a short trip. Here's a post about packing light. I do notice that the fashion for many pairs of very elaborate shoes is receding, and people usually bring just two pairs in neutral or solid colours that they really, really like. I sometimes take only one pair, but two is safer. It can be hot, so take spare shirts. A fold-up shopping bag makes a good milonga bag.
Both men and women should avoid varying their "look" too much over the weekend. People who don't know you will get confused and forget who you are and whether they wanted to dance with you or not. The more people there are, the more of a problem this is. Keep the general appearance of your hair the same, stick to the same general look in your outfit, or at the very least wear a constant, distinctive, visible hairpiece or piece of jewellery that people can remember. If you're going to wear a suit, stick to it.
If you can't make up your mind about your outfit just before the milonga, and it's freaking you out, take the other one with you in the milonga bag. You can always change if you feel wrong.
Miscellaneous tipsIf you don't know anyone, or only one or two people, just concentrate on enjoying the adventure and getting your first dance, and then one dance at a time. Avoid worrying or comparing yourself to others. Especially avoid trying to analyse and seek any logic in who dances with whom: so many things affect it, including random events, that you can never have enough information, and you'll only end up convincing yourself of things that aren't true.
I still avoid trying too hard to get any dance with anyone in particular, as I find it just confuses me and makes me miss opportunities. I chat with other women, I take and share suggestions and experiences, and I look around to see who might be interested. When I'm not dancing a tanda, I sometimes get up and wander about to keep my energy up. If you start feeling tragic, you may be a bit low on blood sugar; have a drink, eat some Emergency Chocolate, offer a piece to someone else, and start a conversation about the venue, the floor, the music, the organisation, the food, the dancing, the weather, the town, the difficulty of it all, etc. Ask questions.
Especially in Italy and France, you may find that your chances of getting a dance with a man go up dramatically if you precede your mirada with a friendly conversation with his wife on some such neutral subject, and then allow time for communication. I presume a similar method would work the other way, but I don't know.
On your first few attempts, be prepared for the first milonga to seem like hard work. It's full of people who have just got off planes and are cramped, overexcited, overtired, stressed, flustered, and desperate to fall into the arms of 20 wonderful people they haven't seen for six months. And organisers often make the error of putting their weakest DJ here, because not everyone has arrived yet, when it really needs a strong one to break the ice.
It's a good thing if you can become a safe choice for someone to get started with, but really you may as well just jump in and take whatever chances are on offer - usually a fairly safe bet, since the base level is high, unless something has gone quite wrong with the organisation. Nowadays, when I know people and they know me, I find instead that the first milonga goes well for me and it's Saturday night that feels like hard work. At some events, Saturday night will be in a different venue, and be bigger, with extra people from the local area. My favourites are the afternoons, especially the last one. Some people prefer the evenings because they like the buzz and excitement. It depends on your personality.
Assuming the DJing is all pretty good, it usually takes me until the middle of Saturday afternoon to really get into it properly, transforming my dance through tiredness. At that point, I feel like I am doing less and hearing more, I connect much more deeply, and I am sure I feel more musical to dance with. I'd like it to happen quicker, and I'm thinking about how to cultivate that.
It's a very nice place to be, and it can last a couple of weeks, or even longer, in good conditions.
Worst caseThe worst-case scenario is that the DJing is weak, it's too dark for cabeceo, the floor is bad, the organisation is weak, and they've booked too many people, too few of whom dance well enough (or get the event concept well enough) so that everyone can afford to take risks. If good leaders have several bad experiences in a row, they'll shut down, they'll stop dancing with people they don't know, and the whole thing falls apart. It's absolutely crucial that people can take risks with confidence. Failures do happen.
Your feet hurting up to the knees, your open-side arm almost unable to hold itself up, your heart full of splendid balloons, delightful new friends, and a long weekend of tango bliss.
Hedgehog's DJ ShortlistThis is purely personal and by no means exhaustive, but if I see any of the following names in the DJ lineup, I am more likely to apply: Lampis - Bernhard Gehberger - Theo 'El Greco' Chatzipetros - Céline Devèze - Enrico Malinverni. You should compile your own list over time.
Sample Video[Update Note: The first few seconds of this video make it look like there was segregated seating. There wasn't, they just gave women priority on the front two rows all the way around to make it easier with the big floor. The men are actually sitting in the row behind, at the same tables. You can see better later in the video. There virtually never is segregated seating. I just didn't want to repeat the one in the previous post, which doesn't have this problem.]
There you go. They're all different. They're not for everyone. They might be for you. You'll probably know. Hope that helps.