To me, walking up to someone, and simply asking them if they want to dance, seems like a perfect way of getting clarity on the matter. However, I realise there are milongas in the world where people get ousted for less. I will say that codigos, those traditional customs and rules of the milonga, are very useful, but the hippie inside of me is not really convinced. He feels that staying in the line of dance is a boring perspective. To make things worse, I am Dutch. I am culturally conditioned to ignore rules or, pretend to respect to them but secretly have my own glorious way. So, you see, I really can’t help that I view tango codes as limitations, that potentially do not apply to me.
I am not sure what’s behind this ambivalence: maybe in my early tango days I had other things to worry about than people’s feelings in the milonga. I was mostly busy controlling my own and remembering that giros actually go in two directions. My musicality hero Chicho Frumboli looked like a prison inmate, who danced tango between fist fights, and used all the space of the basketball field he was dancing on. On YouTube, Homer Ladas gave me the idea that volcadas require a perimeter of at least three meters. The hippie inside me loved it all. The tango school had short instructions hanging on the wall explaining floor craft and took us through a social dance simulation, creating a reduced dance space and demonstrating civil invitations. Unfortunately, the subtleties of proper milonga behaviour were not on my mind. I was dreaming about back sacadas.
Adoption of tango codes in milongas seems to vary per city, depending on the tango teachers that created the local scene, the density of the crowds, and a number of other anthropological factors, of which I shall only mention floor space. Who needs navigation, if the floor is mostly empty? A Dutch, Calvinist, egalitarian culture probably creates a different group dynamic than a macho, catholic, south American one. I recently heard a dark joke that said the Argentinian’s favored way to commit suicide is to climb on his own ego and jump off. Not sure how funny it is, but its existence explains effectively that there are many sensitivities to consider, when walking into a Buenos Aires milonga.
Maybe now is a good moment to confess, that I have never been to Buenos Aires? I am a home-grown tango boy! Amsterdam was colonised by old milongueros in the nineties though, so practically all our customers know more about codigos than me, well, their nostalgic memory of them I assume. The first time I tried a tiny volcada in Amsterdam, my follower almost physically cringed, saying in my ear: what a crude step, don’t you think? Considering this, we should probably also be putting up a few of these laminated milonga instructions on our walls, and regularly post educational material on our Facebook page, to make sure everybody who visits us behaves according to the Amsterdam house rules. Except me of course.