During the early years up until the 1940’s, young men learned Tango the same way as everybody else did in Buenos Aires. Ask every elderly man in Buenos Aires how they learned to dance Tango and you’ll get the same response over and over again. They would often start with, “I was 12 years old and there was this pretty girl…”. Unlike 12-year-old’s now, 12-year-old’s in the 40’s or earlier were effectively young adults as they were full members of the workforce at such a tender age. Most of them would have left school at 11 and started working in factories like an independent adult.
It was right around this age when they started to feel attracted to the opposite sex. Back then, they did not have many options to meet girls. Tango was basically their only way of meeting young women and this encouraged them to an all-men dance practice to learn Tango. They will watch other men dance and eventually join in, dancing the part of the woman. When he had learned enough of being a follower, he would then be allowed to dance the man’s part with another young man so he can practice dancing the role of the leader.
They will continue to learn dancing, alternating the roles of leader and follower until they are good enough or until they learn some more. They will then be asked to don a suit when going to a dance or milonga. The entire process starting from their first Tango practice until when they were allowed to attend milongas took way more time than you would expect. Most elderly men say it took them up to three years or more to be considered good enough for milongas. Back then, women would not dance with men whom they haven’t seen dancing before, so the young men’s first dance with them would have to be arranged. Milongas were filled with so many good dancers that women would not want to waste their time dancing with someone they were not certain could dance well, unless he was especially attractive. The scenario would usually be that one of his friends (who is more experienced in dancing) would ask a woman to dance with the boy as some sort of a favour. If it went well, then he can carry on dancing as other women would no longer hesitate to dance with him as they’ve already seen him dance. If it didn’t go so well, he’d have to go back to the practica and keep on practicing before he’d be given another chance. Nonetheless, men kept going to practicas even when they’ve become more experienced. They’d go for about a couple of hours each night to dance with beginners before going to the milonga. For them, real Tango dancing happens in practicas. The Milonga, to them, is just a way for them to get noticed by women.
Learning Tango could basically be compared to how a child learns language. First, they listen, then, after a few months, they would start to make noises imitating the sound of words. Slowly, they start to speak simple words and short phrases, then gradually learn how to speak sentences and carry a proper conversation in a few more years. The child may grow up to be a linguist or they may stay inarticulate. Nonetheless, the fundamentals of learning the language are just the same.
Source: http://www.history-of- tango.com/learn-to- dance.html