Saturday, 18 May 2019

Milonga organisers

I am not inclined to knock a milonga organiser or perhaps I hope I am less inclined than I might have been.  Having run some milongas, I know what is involved.  So why knock them unless, that is, the organiser does noxious, harmful things and provided they are not malicious and controlling or try to squeeze out other organisers. A few, especially in Scotland, don't announce the type of music or the DJ but in the wider scheme of things Scotland's milongas are not, despite the longevity of some of them, as developed as in much of Europe.  There are milonga organisers, everywhere, sadly, who do all of these things, but, in general, milonga hosts are the ones who provide a place for us to dance. 

Those whom I do find frustrating are the ones who cancel but surreptitiously remove all evidence that there ever was going to be a milonga. That is not only unreliable but underhand and luckily rare in my own experience although I have heard of it.  It is just a question of openness, honesty and apologising for the mistakes we make and the obstacles we all encounter and can often do nothing about.   

For a milonga organiser to do what they say they are going to do largely means running the milongas when it is advertised, starting the milonga when it is supposed to start and playing the music as advertised.  Some DJs at special events, will, in their wisdom wait twenty or even thirty minutes after the event is billed to start until they deem there enough people to be worthy of playing the music. Disappointing and arrogant though this is, not to mention disrespectful to the people who have turned up on time to dance, it tells you so much about the personality of the DJ that it is worth knowing. DJ Eleanor aka Ms Hedgehog was the last person I heard do this last year but, not to single her out, it is relatively common among a certain style of DJ, especially guest DJs I have noticed.  Local DJs almost never do this, probably because their career would be short if they did.

I remember an organiser of several milongas in a city near me and the 'capo' of everything in one of my local scenes once writing a quease-inducing Facebook note about how amazing milonga organisers were and how we should all (practically), love, honour and obey them. I say obey because this couple had been known to stop their milonga to get everyone into proper lines and lecture them on how to dance in an orderly fashion.  That couple didn't survive too long and scared away many people during their reign. One can't praise oneself or one's actions even try to induce praise for oneself. It does not work that way and is liable to backfire. It is the same with the term milonguero. You can't call yourself a milonguero, never mind a milonguero de ley. It doesn't work that way. It's a title of respect accorded by others.   It's the same with calling your milonga "warm and friendly".  Milongas that really are like that don't need to say it.  It's the ones that force those ideas upon you in their advertising that, contrarily, an attendee might be wise to be cautious about.  When brandished like a stick it is more warning than anything else.

A woman, a super dual role dancer, told me recently that she used to run a milonga with a team of others but it was so much work, attendees took it so much for granted, often complained that things weren't just so for their preferences and the commitment of the organising team was variable.  Unsurprisingly, she gave up. She now goes to a midweek student practica in Delft where the dancing is apparently good and it has been known for at least one good dancer to cross Holland to attend. 

Running a milonga can be a huge amount of work, especially when food is involved.  When you break it down there are a lot of jobs:
- admin and room hire
- advertising
- food and drink shopping and prep
- DJing
- preparing and setting up the room, floor, lights, sound system
- kitchen  / bar staff
- someone on the door (optionally),
- greeting guests, checking everything is running well, dealing with any incidents and general hosting
- clearing up

There may be other jobs I have forgotten. So, there really is a lot to do and many organisers will tell you they don't get much opportunity to dance or aren't, after all that, in the right frame of mind to want to dance.  

After room hire, food, the buying of any equipment for the food, music, lighting and other start-up costs, DJ fees if necessary, never mind the fees of any visiting performers they don't tend to make much if any money.  Good milongas usually take a lot of time and effort from many people.  These things being the case, and if there is little or no money in it, you would have to be of a particularly altruistic disposition to want to run a milonga.  Either that or you find a way to make it profitable or so low-stress that you do in fact have opportunity and desire to dance.  

It is always wonderful I think how cheap many milongas are. For £7, the price of a couple of drinks you can enjoy a whole evening of music, dance and society.  This might rise to £10 in the south of England or £20 (in our area) for a special event milonga with a show and sometimes a buffet. But many eschew these since they are not interested in the show, the buffet in my experience is seldom up to much and the attendees tend to be the same locals you can dance with on an ordinary day at less than half the price. In Edinburgh, the price of the four hour practica + milonga is still an astonishing £3.  I have noticed that the longer the milonga the better value they tend to be, especially once you factor in the time and cost of travel.

Done for the right motives running a milonga is practically a service to the community. That is one reason why I think it can be a good idea if they are run by the community. In Newcastle as in Padanaram, as with the community run TangoMac and TangoAires in Liverpool there is apparently a team of people who run their weekly milonga. It has always seemed to me a sensible way to do it if you can make that team effort work.   To some extent that organisation is true of the Edinburgh tango society (though it is shadowy) and the Glasgow tango collective (run by a group of friends - see the Tango Aires link ). 

There is good news on this score. There used to be a (very short) midweek practica in practica, run by teachers. It started off as a milonga, La Redonda but soon became a practica prefixed by a class. These things are burdensome to teachers and not particularly profitable.  It has recently been taken over by the community to run. While it was good to hear that, as with Tango Mac, people will take turns to host and DJ I cringed rather when I read it was done "with the blessing" of the teachers. Still, it is nice that they are looking for ideas on how to make this "the best community practica in Edinburgh" although as far as I know, it is the only community practica in Edinburgh.  It would be naive and misguided to think that a milonga or practica shouldn't have the stamp of the organiser, their vision, ideas and preferences; usually their success comes from just that.  One hopes though that openness to comments from the attendees is the sign of open, and not overly-controlling organisers, 

A milonga is a delicate system, a gestalt. Like a party, its constituent parts all need to work well - music, lighting, sound, floor, hosting, attendees, dancing, atmosphere - all have to combine and harmonise together to be successful and then it is so much more than just its parts. To create something like that comes down largely to the personality and the abilities of the host in this art.

The milongas in Europe of which I have particularly good memories are still Costa and Flo's Pasional in Cambridge, warm hosts with much of the classic Buenos Aires style music I like to dance by Chris (setlists here);  Tango West in Bristol with super hosting by Andrew, and Franc's Oranjerie milonga (now defunct) - he was a charming host.  I also like Iain's milongas because although the space is small he such a lovely host and the Tuinhuis milonga (the entrada was an optional DJ contribution), when Laura ran it.   I enjoyed Richard Slade's Menuda milonga (now ended after ?seven years) on the second occasion I went because he was an easygoing host, the venue in a Dorset village hall was gorgeous, and there was a barbecue.  I went with the ever-amiable Iain which caused a transformation relative to my first experience when not one person bar a very small foreign visitor would dance with me.  The Wilhelmina pier was special for the setting.  Perhaps had I written up some of the many others I have visited since 2017, when I stopped writing milonga reviews, I would remember them better...

Curiously, none of the many London milongas feature among my favourites.  I feel conflicted about the UK's Eton milonga weekends.  Eton is west of London.  The milongas are known internationally by some but the milongas have now moved to the nearby village of Old Windsor.  The former venue was undoubtedly attractive.  People came from all over the UK and there were occasionally some international guests though it could get impossible busy.  It is certainly an opportunity to hear a  variety of different DJs though whether all of these are worth travelling long distances for is questionable.  Personally, I invariably preferred the host's own mostly classic musical choices. I liked that you did not have to book.  The new venue has, mercifully, much easier parking.  The venue is not quite the same though not so different that one would avoid it.  Some people don't go now because there is no train station - often a significant determinant in whether to attend or not.  It has the advantage though (on the one occasion I have been to the new venue) that there was not, as there was before, the standing and bunching to invite and women did not loiter in conspicuous desparation for dances.  I do not go as much as I used to, the double role events with their better dancing, international attendees and relaxed atmosphere being more of a draw,  but the absence of these milongas would be a loss. 

Something most of these milongas had in common was, when I went, was that:
- they were low-key, there was nothing showy or overly dramatic about them or the people dancing there
- there was plenty of good music
- good or good enough floors 
- most of them had hosts I liked. 

The majority of these struck a balance between being relaxed enough (something that comes from the host) and still a little formal in the sense that there was nothing wildly alternative in the way of dance and invitation was by look.   

Two others which were far more alternative in e.g. dancing and observance of traditional codes but where I particularly enjoyed dancing were the Sheffield queer tango marathon because the organisers are lovely and there was such good dancing and the recent Totally in Tango dual role weekend in Toulouse because of the relaxed atmosphere, the social activities and the many nice people I met there.  At both of these, participants could eat together which contributed in no small part to that good atmosphere.

While in Toulouse I was reflecting one evening that the Totally in Tango event was in fact very alternative in some of the dance styles but it is a particularly diverse event and I had many lovely dances there.  The very next day at lunch a participant remarked that we need both:  these sorts of events and the traditional ones.  The previous week I had fallen into interesting conversation with an astute non-dancer attending the Edinburgh queer milonga.  He had expressed some mild outrage at the fact that the traditional Buenos Aires milongas with their strict codes and exclusion of same-sex dancing still existed.  I had said that I liked being able to attend the more alternative queer/dual roles events and the ultra-traditional events.  Long may they both live.