If you didn’t know already, now you do: Miami has a tango scene, and it’s red hot. For the moment, it’s something of an underground movement. But that’s all about to change.
It’s true that milongas—the term for social dances—have largely been dormant since COVID-19 put a kibosh on most group gatherings (and let’s face it, it’s hard to socially distance when you’re tangled up in a tango). But the pandemic alone isn’t to blame. Unlike Miami’s ubiquitous salsa community, tango has yet to achieve a mainstream appeal, largely because it’s not a dance you can jump into with a swish and swivel of your hips. Case in point: to lead the tango you’ll need about six months of lessons. To follow, you’ll need approximately three months of dedicated practice, “so you’re not bumping into anyone on the dance floor,” explains Lorena Diez, a longtime dancer and milonga organizer at Lincoln Road’s Open-Air Tango.
To the casual observer, tango appears to be highly structured and choreographed. But Diez says milongas are improvised between partners for the three or four minutes they are in each other’s arms. “It’s like a physical conversation without talking,” she says. “It has an added benefit for some illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The neurological connections are so fast, your brain works quickly to grasp what’s happening in seconds—first by listening to the music, then absorbing it into your body, then seeing how your partner interprets it. It’s quick and so enjoyable, and that’s why everyone gets so hooked on tango.”
Tango teachers and milonga organizers slowly planted the Miami milonga seed when they arrived in the Magic City as transplants in the early 2000s. They had absorbed tango in their Argentine and Uruguayan homelands—usually via their grandparents—even as the 1960s rock revolution supplanted tango’s popularity. They longed for a connection to home that could only be satisfied through a deeply rooted, genetic tango thread.
But they soon found Miami’s tango scene dominated by los viejitos—the older generation. That’s when a handful of passionate dancers—including Diez, Diego Santana, and Mariano Bejarano—set out to bring tango to a new generation of Miamians, offering free classes at South Florida restaurants on Lincoln Road, Little Havana, Coral Gables, North Miami, and Hallandale. In 2018, Santana held a “hidden milonga” behind Miami’s 71st Street bandshell one Saturday a month without a permit. Miami’s close-knit tango teachers would host milongas every night into the wee hours of the morning for the sheer joy of dancing.
“Before the pandemic, we had tango milongas every day for the last four years, which only happens in Chicago and New York,” says Santana, who teaches private lessons and organizes milongas. “Two milongas have continued for about 20 years: La Ideal every Sunday in Hallandale, and C.I.T.A., Club Internacional de Tango Argentino in Hollywood that donates all ticket sales to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” he says.
Another element that sets Miami’s milonga scene apart from other cities? Its approachability. “Little by little, tango students come to Miami because the community is very friendly, unlike New York or Chicago where it can be very intimidating,” says Santana. “Here, people say, ‘come sit with us’ and invite strangers to join them.”
Miami native Monica Llobet studied tango after she took waltzing lessons in preparation for her Quinceañera. She’d heard stories about her Bolivian grandparents mastering the “dance of the warm embrace,” and became fixated on tango. “It was 2000 and it was the wild west of tango,” says Llobet. “We were all trying to figure things out.” While still a Florida International University student in 2000, she became the International Dance Organization World Tango Champion. She won her first Tango World Cup the same year in Budapest, then another world championship in Miami, followed by the World Cup in Hong Kong. Then she lost her partner to lung cancer and stopped dancing. “With tango, it has to come from within,” says Llobet. “There has to be a connection.”
It was during the hiatus that someone recognized her in a small South Beach restaurant and persuaded her to arrange milongas at The Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove. “I walked up to general manager Angella Reid and said, ‘I’m Monica. I’m a world champion tango dancer, and I’d like to have a milonga here,’’’ Llobet recalls. Reid smiled and said, “I like your style, let’s do it.” And so Alma de Tango was born and continues at Coral Gables’ Biltmore hotel.
“Though milongas are paused at the moment, I’m doing private lessons and still connecting with people,” says Llobet. “I know as soon as we open our doors, there will be a huge wave of people coming back. There is a deep level of meditation with your partner to feel subtle movement and the music’s smallest notes. It’s a beautiful thing, and there’s a lot of warmth to it. It’s called ‘the warm embrace’ because you’re completely focused on each other and in those three to four minutes, to listening to each other. After a year of isolation, to have someone hold you, that will be really powerful and something special. People who don’t dance will be reaching out for something like this. You want to know the secret? It’s not the steps. It’s the connection. There’s nothing better.”