June 11, 2016 § 7 Comments

Code: “a set of rules prescribing forms of social behavior . . . a system of explicit social conventions.” (Winfried Nöth, Handbook of Semiotics).


Social conventions, whatever the field of endeavor, “help to structure the social world and stabilize behavior.” We learn them, as children or adults, in a specific context and for a specific purpose (the conventions of etiquette, military codes, the rules of the road). They can be general (culture-wide) or highly specific (a Girl Scout troop, a 4H club) and help govern expected behavior within those groups.

Conventions are “artifacts” and, as such, the remnants of an older form of social organization whose specific details may now be lost to us. Although a convention is an agreement among several parties, it can be implicit or explicit. What is crucial is that it requires a commitment on the part of the parties to follow the convention once it has been established. As such, a convention has to be public or “capable of being made public” when necessary. And once established, conventions “help to structure the social world and stabilize social behavior,” they act as guides (often tacit) to individual conduct and enable members of a community to anticipate and plan future actions. (See Alain Boyer, “Conventions and Arbitrariness,” in Mette Hjort, Rules and Conventions [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992].)

The “codigos” of tango are variously described as “rules of etiquette,” “guidelines,” “recommendations,” and “codes” of behavior at a milonga. They are generally not thought of as prescriptive (although they are) but as models of preferred behavior. Their history and evolution, however—what they are specifically, when they originated, and how they evolved—remain obscure. Those who know them appear to have acquired them through experience, or mimicry, or some more explicit but never clearly stated learning process.

“In Buenos Aires, porteños who dance tango in the milongas know the characteristics of tango dancing that are appropriate for the milongas (Tango de Salon) and the music appropriate for dancing tango (classic tango music).” (My emphasis. See Tango Voice.)

The above quote from Tango Voice points to the notion of the codigos as being both a form of learned behavior, acquired through years of dancing in the local milongas and an underlying body of rules—conventions, really—established over time. Presumably acquired through a process of trial and error, the conventions we have now were, at some point, deemed to be those most appropriate to dancing traditional Argentine tango at a milonga. The codigos vary in kind and number but the majority govern overall behavior at the milonga, floorcraft, and personal hygiene. Those I have seen include some or all of the following: use of the cabeceo when inviting someone to dance, navigation on the floor, etiquette on and off the floor, and, sometimes, dress. (See, for example, Codigos of tango.)

At some milongas, such as Cachirulo in Buenos Aires, the codigos are posted so visitors know exactly what is expected of them (Tango Chose Me: codigos). As with other such codigos, most of them refer to floorcraft, but at Cachirulo, they also address the manner of dancing—”Here we dance milonguero style tango, and we learn to respect the codes of the milonga”—and the consequences of flaunting the codigos—”Much to our regret, not respecting these codes will make it impossible to dance in Cachirulo.”

Interestingly, in this case, explicit consequences are associated with failure to observe expected forms of behavior. More than just suggestions or recommendations, the codigos of Cachirulo are explicitly prescriptive and entail a penalty for failure to observe them. Run a stop light, get a ticket.

A similar list is provided by Juntos, a traditional milonga in London. Once again, the majority of the codigos refer to floorcraft, behavior on the floor, and use of the cabeceo. But at Juntos, they also include a dress code. And like Cachirulo, consistently flouting the codigos can lead to expulsion from the milonga (Juntos: codigos).

In these cases, the codigos are made clear to all dancers and, like certain institutional conventions, such as traffic regulations, there are penalties attached to flouting them. Juntos and Cachirulo, however, would seem to be the exceptions. It is assumed—often wrongly—that dancers on the floor will have internalized the codigos so they do not need to be reminded of the finer details of behavior and etiquette. This may be true in Buenos Aires, where dancers have grown up with such traditions; for them the codigos are as much a part of tango as the music and the dance itself. Elsewhere, they must be taught as an integral part of the process of learning tango. That is, they should not be considered an afterthought or an inconvenient addendum to some form of freeform dancing. Which means that, for most of us, the specific conventions of tango will need to be spelled out—whether by a teacher or a more experienced dancer makes no difference—along with the intricacies of the dance. We can try to learn them by mimicking the behavior of those who have learned to incorporate the codigos, but in doing so, we can never be certain of what we are learning and can just as easily absorb bad behavior as good.

Although the codigos of tango are “simply” conventions and frequently ignored (or never learned in the first place), they do something more than provide a signpost to acceptable behavior. Where they can lead us and why they are important is shown by the following quote from Juntos, in London.

Once a tango dancer has this pattern language, it comes from within and at the same time is all around them in the ronda, in all the other dancers and the whole community at the milonga. The social context is just as important as the couple or the individual, I would suggest it is even more important. Within the medium of this shared language, the dancers create a common experience of their lives together – a community. They can then experience the union that this common process of creation generates inside and outside of them. This is a good feeling – a feeling of completeness and wholeness; a feeling of community, of being together, juntos. (See: Juntos Tango: codigos.)


It is the awareness of being part of a shared community that makes the codigos something more than a distracting annoyance. As implied above, when everything is functioning smoothly and everyone is cognizant of their role in that small community of kindred spirits, we are in the process of building toward something that we cannot achieve on our own. If we are willing to make the commitment, we will dance primarily for the beauty of the ronda, then for the beauty of the couple, and finally for ourselves, but never for an audience of bystanders. We become part of a beautiful wholeness, one that extends beyond the boundaries of our individual selves, a community of individuals working toward a shared emotion.

Someone once described a well functioning ronda as similar to a flock of birds wheeling across the sky in formation, rising and falling on the air currents. Collectively, a thing of grace and beauty, they circle, seemingly without beginning or end; unique individuals all, yet joined in flight as a single organism. No leaders, no followers, only motion and stasis.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

(Rainer Marie Rilke, Book of Hours, I, 2, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.)

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