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Milonga Architecture

Over the years I will be drawn to many other dance halls and milongas, where the spaces are never quite the same: a grand dance hall from another era; a dimly-lit bar; an old-timey ballroom in Seattle; a run down warehouse space in an industrialized section of Montreal; a nightclub; a dance school; a yoga studio; an old church converted into an art space; a gazebo in a park; a friend's living room. In these milongas, the spaces are never quite the same: As it happens in so many different sub-cultures, whatever the architectural setting, the milonga organizes itself along specific perceptual markers, what Arakawa and Gins have called ‘perceptual landing sites’: proprioceptive, aural, kinesthetic, and sense based, ‘anything perceived can count as . . . a landing site’ (9). At the milonga, landing sites encompass the space and its organization, but also other dancers, couples locked in an intimate embrace walking counter-clockwise on the dance floor, all couples together creating a Deleuzian ritournelle or song, a "wall of sound," then even further out surrounded by other prospective dancers, where the latter glance around looking for their next partner, ready to signal with a nod of the head, the cabeceo, the music where three or four songs go by, then an abrupt change, something clearly not tango, and just as suddenly dancers clear the floor following some unwritten rule or code, the music dies down only to be followed by more tango music. To the discerning ear, the music feels different: different timing, different cadence, different style. And with this change, slowly, magically, new dancers begin to crowd the dance floor.

From the cabeceo, to the dance, to the lead and follow dialog, tango occurs between two partners. When two partners dance in the privacy of a territory they both create, the dance expresses most clearly the lead and follow mechanics, a conversation and negotiation emerging at every step. But as soon as dancers move from beyond the intimate embrace to the community center or dance hall, as soon as dancers move from privacy of their embrace and territorialize a public space, dancers create a new social space, the milonga. Like any public event, those milongas mean different things to different people. Milongas occurs on beaches, in gazebos, in parks, on a sidewalk, in someone's living room with a partner, a lover, a friend. But does it mean the same in all of these settings? Does it mean the same when we dance tango in our living rooms or in a grand old ballroom like Confitería Ideal? Does it mean the same when dancers reclaim a public beach or when two strangers meet up at an airport terminal and dance to music only they can hear through their shared earbuds? What does it mean when we dance as a community, as a social group?

In tango, any site can become an architectural surround of the milonga: a living room, a beach, an airport terminal, a grand ballroom, a run-down warehouse, a yoga studio, a restaurant, a bar, a public square, a gazebo… the sites are as innumerable as there are places in the world. In all these environments, specific oppositions emerge that further define the meaning of each landing site: the environment can be formal or informal, private or public. As formal, the milonga most closely adheres to that ideal I saw at Confitería Ideal with its belle-epoque styling, its gilded mirrors ​​from a bygone era, its stately columns. Here, tango lives on as an archive, undisturbed by the movement of history and transformation. Here the architectural surround maintains and contains an idealized version of tango. But on a beach in Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, or Maine, tango becomes informal and infectious like a drug, one of which we can’t get enough, danced now in a setting outside the dance hall. No heels, no darkened room, barely an audible soundtrack against the sound of crashing waves and children playing far away. As private or public, tango oscillates between being an end in itself and expressing a closed-system seen only by its adherents, or being an index, a sign representing for non-dancers something exotic and different called tango.

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