A PRAGMATIC GUIDE
Tango DJing and music
Tango DJs have an inordinate amount of power. They can make or ruin the mood (and evening) of a big bunch of people without trying very hard. On second thought, it takes more effort to make the evening fun and memorable; it is much easier to ruin the evening.
Unlike the other topics I have written about, the energy of the milonga is something to experience and connect to, rather than think about. The DJ has to be perceptive and tuned in to the dancers in the milonga to understand how things are going — people yawning, looking bored, spending more time chatting with their friends, frowning as they dance — all these and more are cues that a DJ must actively look for. While how each DJ connects with the milonga is a subjective issue, I want to write a little about how to maintain the milonga’s energy once you have tuned into it.
To begin, I must reiterate what I think is the most important task for a Tango DJ — To make it easy for dancers to connect to each other. As a tango dancer, I know that I go to a milonga to meet other people, exchange good vibes and connect with them in a safe and structured space. Tango dancers connect to each other through the music, and thus the DJ is critical in making this connection possible. The energy that dancers want to exchange may be peppy and energetic or it may be deep and intense. This depends on the kind of dancers on the floor, something I have written about earlier. Understanding the floor is an art that comes with experience, but there are a few rules of thumb that have helped me keep most of the dancers on the floor.
- Keep the tempo of the evening relatively constant and enjoyable.
In general, I have noticed that there is a range of tempos within which dancers enjoy themselves the most. Too slow, and the dancers have to bring energy to the floor — This becomes harder as the evening passes. Too fast, and you drain the energy off the floor too fast. Dancers end up focusing very hard to keep up with the music, forgetting about their partners — This usually results in very few couples on the floor, and dampens the energy longer than you would expect. With the correct tempo, the music brings energy to the dancers, while allowing them the time to be playful or to connect with their partner.
Of course, this does not mean that the DJ must play very similar music. A sweet, slow tanda or a rousing, upbeat one is always welcome; However, a constant stream of slow or fast tandas makes the evening less enjoyable. In terms of numbers, I find tangos with a tempo between 120–135 beats per minute (BPM)¹ work effortlessly with dancers.
This is not to say that tangos outside this tempo range don’t work. Some of my favourite tangos are outside this range; However, I usually won’t play consecutive tandas that lie outside this range. Also, tempo is not a signature for good music: There are tangos I would never play that lie in this tempo range.
2. Keep your valses and milongas danceable
I enjoy dancing to milongas. When I first started DJing, I would go searching for “challenging” milongas to play. Over time, I noticed that people simply stopped dancing to these (for reasons stated above), even though I seemed to enjoy them.
I find milongas within a tempo range of 75–105 BPM are most comfortable to dance to. Most of the valses I play lie in the 85–100 BPM range.
With valses and milongas, I consistently notice that less is more: songs with a nice steady beat and good melody are always preferable to ones with long, crazy “variations” (typically in the form of bandoneon solos).
3. Maintain a set of “energizer” tandas
No matter how hard you try, there will be times during a milonga when the energy just drops. You will have to plan for these times. I keep a set of tandas that I only play during these times. Personally, I prefer Alfredo De Angelis for my “energizer” tandas.
4. Use cortinas strategically
Though cortinas are meant to be non-danceable music, they are vital in maintaining the energy of the milonga. Do NOT play super relaxing, meditative music unless you want the dancers to enter into a stupor during the milonga.
I prefer to play cortinas that keep the dancers tapping their feet even when they are seated. If I notice any of my cortinas not having that effect, I don’t use it any longer. My current collection of cortinas includes rock-and-roll (think Elvis!), swing, pop and some Bollywood.
At some times during a milonga, the energy on the floor is very high and the dancers are itching to dance. Keep your cortinas short when you sense this. I normally use 20–30 seconds. At other times, the dancers are tired and would like a bigger break. Extend your cortinas then. I use anything between 45–90 seconds.
5. Recover quickly from mistakes
If you notice a tanda not going as you had hoped, try to raise the energy by changing the remaining songs in the tanda². To accomplish this, you should of course know 3–4 songs in every orchestra that work almost always.
I usually DJ without a previously prepared playlist. My “currently playing” list usually consists of the current tanda and the following one. If the next tanda is more relaxed music and I sense that the floor has sufficient energy to burn, then I usually change the upcoming tanda to something more upbeat³. On the other hand, if the dancers seem tired, I switch to a relaxing Canaro or Tanturi.
In all of the above rules of thumb, the underlying message is the same:
Know your music. Be connected to the dancers. Stay flexible.
 or half that BPM, depending on the software that detects the beats.
 If your music software allows it.
 You will be surprised how often this has happened. I have even changed cortinas in a similar way!