Yeah, sure....but I still don't want to dance with you.
The milonga can be quite an unfriendly place. We learned about this quite soon in our tango path.
Under "normal", non-tango circumstances, if you meet some strangers (for example, in a class or a workshop), and then over the course of the next few weeks, you see them again and again (in this case, at the milonga), you would expect that you would nod at each other in recognition at the very least, and say hello?
Well, that's not the case in tango. Countless times we'd stare incredulously at the backs of many tangueros/tangueras after they passed us on the way into the milonga without saying "hi". WTF? Some of these people had even been introduced to us on a previous occasions (say, in a class, or by our teachers) - and now here they were, staring past us as if we were completely invisible. Or avoiding encountering us face to face by deliberately walking on the other side of the pista to get to their table. The longer they had been dancing, the more unfriendly they were. The only people still saying hello and smiling at each other would inevitably all be newbies. The "veterans" would be the ones ignoring you (as a newbie).
"Boy were some of them rude!" said Man Yung. "And there was this one guy, a long time dancer - he got his car towed because he had parked in a no-parking zone outside the milonga. When we heard about this, we volunteered to drive him to the impound lot. He thanked us for driving him all the way there - but the next time we saw him at the milonga, he adamantly refused to make eye contact with us! I was so mad, I vowed that the next time I saw him, I won't f***ing say hello either!"
We sure did a lot of head scratching those days at the chilly behavior of our fellow dancers. We are happy to report, that things are a lot different now us - well, at the very least, people are saying hello!
As for us, we try to be friendly to newbies. Well, we say hello if we see some faces more than once. Everybody in Toronto knows that Man Yung even makes a point of dancing with newbies and ladies who have been sitting on the sides for a long time without an opportunity to dance - he remembers fondly the lovely veteran tangueras who encouraged him to dance and who danced with him when he was new to tango.
I, however, am a lot more reserved.
"Why aren't you more friendly?" Man Yung asks me every six months or so. "Sometimes I see that people are trying to say hello to you, but you are not looking in their direction! What's up with that?"
"Well, I'm not that bad! I DO say hi! (except to people I really dislike). I just react slowly. Sometimes by the time I say hello and already you've moved on to greet someone else," I said. "I don't consider myself unfriendly - certainly not in the way that we were treated by tango "vets" in our tango infancy - BUT...."
"There are some circumstances in which I SIMPLY CANNOT BE FRIENDLY."
I actually understand why veteran dancers can be such snobs.
Too many dancers, newbies and otherwise, think that friendliness is an open invitation to dance. You're my friend, right? Dance with me!
That's ok if you want to dance. Man Yung is ok with that - he'd dance with any tanguera who wants to dance with him, and he could dance every tanda all night.
But what if you don't want to dance?
I had a conversation with a particularly lovely tanguera recently. Young, beautiful, always clad in the most stunning dresses - she is absolutely irresistible to the tangueros.
Unfortunately, she hasn't learned yet the Power of No.
"Why haven't I seen you take to the dance floor more often?" I asked her. "Sometimes you go for weeks - months without dancing!"
She sighed. "Sometimes I just don't feel like dancing. Coming to the milonga from work - I'm sometimes just too tired. Today, however, I didn't have to work and I have a lot more energy!" She smiled, but then a cloud quickly shadowed her face. She lowered her voice. "And sometimes, I just don't want to dance because it hurts me to dance with some of the guys here! Back pain, arm pain, hand pain - I tell them to adjust their posture and they try to comply - but it's still no good! And I'm in pain for days afterwards!"*
"I totally understand - there are some pretty bad leaders out there."
"And there's more - some tangueros just make me feel so uncomfortable. You know _____?"
"________? Who's that? Wait a moment.... Oh my god, ______!!!!" A notorious sleazebag. I make the face of total disgust.
"Yes, __________!!!! When I dance with him, he stares at my chest the entire tanda!"
"You've got to be ruthless," I said. "Like, sometimes Man Yung puts me in difficult situations. When he asks a tanguera to dance and that tanguera has attended with her boyfriend or husband, sometimes that boyfriend or husband just expects that I will dance with him to return the favour. In the beginning, just to be nice, I would go along - but now, no way. Because it is a pain. Well, not quite the physical pain you described - but a different kind of pain, the 'Hey you just killed 15 minutes of my life' kind of pain. We dance tango for our enjoyment, we shouldn't have to suffer. Remember, you can always say no."
She made an unsmiley face. "But it's impossible to say no. They are kind of my friends. The only way I could get out of it is not to come to the milonga."
Due to her incredible loveliness, guys were always hanging around her like flies around honey, trying to talk to her - to be her "friend", so to speak. And she felt obligated to dance with all of them. It was not a happy situation.
In the milonga, friendliness can sometimes be misinterpreted as a willingness to dance by the inexperienced - or worse, be manipulated by shady tangueros/tangueros for their nefarious ends. Last year, I made eye contact with a tanguero and said hello on the way to our table upon entering into a milonga - the next thing I knew, the tanguero had made a bee-line for me all the way across the dance floor to badger me for a dance. He was so persistent I almost had to threaten to tear him from limb to limb before he backed off (yes, I can be fiesty). A tanguera we knew became "friends" with another tanguero - and that tanguero not only used that friendship to get dances with her, he started to harass her and ask her out - even though he was married and his wife also danced tango. And it wasn't just this guy - another guy did exactly the same thing to her half a year later!
Despite this, it would still be nice to see the milonga become a more friendly, welcoming place for beginners - we don't want to be monstrous snobs and have all sense of politeness and social courtesy disappear just because we don't want a dance! If you keep on running into the same people, it is considered polite to say hello to them!
...But first, there has to be more education on the cabeceo, from the ground up, from the time we step into our first tango class - and more encouragement for all tango dancers to use it. And "No" has to be respected for what it is.
No to painful dances, painful embraces.
No to dances we don't want right now - no to dances we never want, ever.
No to dances even if you are my friend - don't take it personally please.
No to harassment and manipulation.
Then, hopefully, we will have friendly dancers who are not afraid to go to the milonga. That's the real way to build a tango community.