The Códigos at a Milonga are a Pattern Language

What does this mean? Let me explain:


You are able to comprehend these black strokes and white spaces on your page or screen - the ones you are currently ‘reading’ - because we share a pattern language, in this case a pattern language referred to as ‘the English written language’. You are able to understand these black strokes only because we share enough of this common pattern language for you to receive the black stokes and white spaces as a communication and then comprehend it. If you pass this page to someone who has lived their whole life alone on a remote island, that person will only see strange black strokes and white spaces, and may not even comprehend that it is language or indeed know what language is. That is, this person will not share a common pattern of commmunication with us.


When an electrical engineer passes an electrician a blueprint of a wiring diagram for a Saturn rocket, the electrician can understand it because the two people share a common pattern language - in this case it is electrical wiring blueprints for rockets. Show me the same diagram and I will feel like the person who has grown up alone on the island - I will understand nothing of the diagram. This is because I don’t share the electrician's pattern language.  


How do we know a kitchen from a bathroom? Because the pattern language of a kitchen (work surface, a place for storing cooking utensils, a place for storing food, a means of heating food, adequate light, et cetera) is different from the pattern language of a bathroom (running water, a bath or shower, a basin, towels, water resistant flooring, et cetera). So when we want to wash we go to a bathroom, and when we want to cook we go to a kitchen. We use pattern languages all the time, even if we don’t realise it. If we didn't, we might go to the bathroom to try to roast a chicken, or go to the butcher's looking for freshly baked bread, or go to a traditional milonga to dance tango escenario.


We can tell opera from tango music because we understand enough of the pattern languages of each to tell the difference. If we can tell the difference between a tango vals from a tango milonga it's for the same reason, each has a pattern language that is in some way different from the other. This is how we can tell Pugliese from D'Arienzo, or a camel from a horse, a bus stop from a zebra crossing, or tango escenario from tango nuevo. I came across this principle in a book called The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, perhaps the most important book on architectural design published in the last century. At it’s heart is the way human beings constantly use pattern languages.


When a group of people try to do something together without any direction or shared foundations (without a common pattern language), they usually fail, often creating chaos. Imagine if it was my job to wire up the Saturn rocket. They fail not because they are different or wrong or inferior, but simply because their assumptions are different at every stage. What they are missing is a common pattern language. 


With a pattern language - such as a common tongue (French is an example of a pattern language) or the fundamentals of engineering or architecture (also pattern languages), or the codes of rugby or football (pattern languages too), or Argentine Tango’s traditional códigos (another pattern language) - the principles and assumptions are explicit from the start. 


Human societies are a conglomeration of pattern languages, and so pattern languages are as ancient as human society itself. 


The códigos of tango are a language made up of patterns, in this case patterns of behaviour. 


A group of two or more people are able to communicate when they use the same or a similar enough pattern language, such as English and American; or they are able to build a Saturn rocket or a cathedral together because they share the same engineering pattern language; or to play a game of rugby together because they understand and abide by the basic assumptions and principles of behaviour and procedure of the pattern language that is called 'rugby'; or they are able to dance tango as part of a coherent group of couples because, again, they share a common pattern language - códigos.


Patterns are not ‘rules’.


To object to the English language, or to the fundamentals of physics, or to códigos, as ‘unnecessary rules’ completely misses the point. It is like objecting to language and refusing to use language because it has certain clear principles of grammar and a vocabulary (that is, because it is a pattern language).


Whether written or spoken or simply understood, a pattern language creates the possibility of common ground, of community, and within it the possibility of understanding, and thus the possibility of creative, supportive, innovative and nourishing experiences. 


By now I hope it is becoming clear that when we are talking about códigos, we are talking about something much more profound than ‘rules’. We are talking about something more like an Ethos or Animating Principle or Cultural Spirit. We are talking about how human societies always have and always will behave. We are talking about what human society is.


The All Blacks share a common pattern language, and this helps them thrive as the All Blacks. The Royal Opera House does the same thing with their pattern language. So does your local green grocers, your local pub, and your local milonga

Milonga organisers can use a pattern language (códigos) to shape the milonga.


Now we can go one step further, and see how a group of people at a milonga, behaving within a shared pattern language, in turn use the same process to re-create and re-shape the experience of the milonga. The common pattern language in the case of a milonga are the códigos of that milonga. With a common pattern language the group of people becomes something else: a community. And a community, no matter how large or small, can create a complex and complete experience just as well as a tango couple with a shared pattern language can. 


A dancer who does not share a common pattern language with the other dancers at a milonga, will simply be doing their own thing, out of relationship with their partner, out of relationship with the ronda, and out of relationship with the milonga as a whole.  Sadly one sees this often, and it is sad because the person is out of communion with their surroundings. 


milonga may have no or a minimal set of códigos, or the códigos might be written down and talked about by the organiser, but not backed up so they may as well not exist in the first place. In such cases the people won't be able to dance in a way that is attuned to the ronda, because in a sense there is no ronda - there are only individual people, paired off into couples, doing their own thing on the floor while tango music plays. Again, this may be precisely the experience a person seeks, and indeed seems very popular - there is nothing good or bad about it.


There is nothing right or wrong about the pattern language of rugby either, it just needs to happen in the appropriate place, like Eden Park or Twickenham. It is the same when people come to a milonga who do not share its códigos - there is nothing right or wrong about the códigos the visitor prefers, or those preferred by the milonga organiser, it is simply that the onus is on the dancer to use the pattern language layed down by the milonga organiser in order to be attuned to the people there and to the ronda (if there is one). If people do not share the same pattern language, a particular milonga will be no more appropriate for them than if a rugby team were to come along and put down a scrum.


It is simply a matter of having different pattern languages. There is nothing sad or depressing about this. This does not in itself mean one pattern is superior or inferior to the other - a kitchen is not superior to a bathroom - it is simply that there are different pattern languages, like one for a bathroom and one for a kitchen. If you want to use a kitchen then you go to the room that best meets the pattern language of what a kitchen is, because this is more likely to provide you with the experience you're looking for. Obviously, this does not make the bathroom bad or inferior, it just isn't going to provide what you're needing. Nor would it make any sense for the people who want the use of a kitchen to criticise those who want the use of a bathroom, or for people looking for freshly baked bread to criticise the butcher for not providing it, or for people who want to dance tango at a milonga with no códigos  to criticise a milonga that provides and maintains them. 


The pattern language is re-creating the milonga each time the people dance.


The life, pulse, substance, subtlety (or not) of a milonga can only be maintained if every time that particular milonga occurs it is rebuilt using the same pattern language with which it was created in the first place. It is like a linguistic process, which gives birth to the milonga gradually, every time it is held. In the case of Juntos in London, which I help organise, the pattern language is implicit in such things as the lighting and the positioning of the tables, because these can be used to promote the mirada and cabeceo,, to being greeted and welcomed at the entrance by the organisers who will eventually come to know your name, to the first mirada, to when the first tanguero gives the cabeceo to enter an approaching tanguero’s line of dance, and so on, continuously recreating the original proposition, the original pattern language that is Juntos. Again, the original proposition is neither right nor wrong, it is just a pattern language. 


Juntos then re-discovers its final form during this process of re-construction, a process based on people sharing the same códigos in practise - the pattern language that defined the milonga’s original creation. All the details of Juntos, known in advance as the expected patterns of behaviour, get their substance affirmed as they are re-created, again and again, thousands of times during the milonga, right there, in the hall, by ordinary people with a shared pattern language – the códigos that were set from the start and have been maintained from the start.


A different pattern language creates a different milonga.


If the códigos, the pattern language, do no remain the same then a different milonga will be created and the current one, Juntos, will die. Its spirit, its animating principles, existing in the pattern language of the community of people who dance there, will be lost.


Once people are in accord with the pattern language, the emergence of the form – whether that is a sentence or a cathedral or a milonga - is straightforward. 


It is the same with the tango dancers at Juntos who share a pattern language of traditional códigos

the dancers clear the floor during the cortina, the tangueros escorting the tangueras back to their chairs . . .

the DJ is tuning into the people to see what is needed, and selects a tanda . . .

then the people look around the room and begin to mirada/cabeceo . . .

if successful, the happy tanguero walks to the tanguera’s chair, and the tanguera remains seated until absolutely certain about who the cabeceo belongs to . . .

they move to the dance floor, and if people are already dancing the tanguero who wants to enter the ronda cabeceo’s the approaching tanguero to get permission to enter his line of dance . . .

the couple then embrace and empathise with each other . . .

they begin to empathise with the couples around them, the ronda, before even thinking of moving . . .

they relax their minds and enter the spirit of the ronda and are ready to move . . .

and so on and so forth. And all this is happening without a spoken word because the people present share a common pattern language - the códigos of a traditional milonga


These patterns appear to be generated spontaneously, while at the same time they have a definite source: the shared pattern language of that particular milonga, Juntos, set by the organisers; and the shared pattern language of the couples in the ronda; and between each couple the pattern language that each has developed within themselves, over thousands of hours of practise, can be expressed. If some people were drawing upon a tango pattern language and others upon a rugby pattern language we wouldn’t end up with tango at all, but with something more like a ruck or a scrum.

Mastery of a pattern language allows immediate and fluid creativity.


When I write in English the sentences form themselves in my mind as fast as I can write them. It is not the same when I write in Spanish, because I have not mastered the patterns of Spanish. And this is true of any pattern language: once it is mastered through thousands of hours of practise and direct experience it becomes fluid, like an ocho cortado or a giro. It is because I have the pattern language of English that I can be spontaneous and creative with it, and use it to connect with others.


The pattern languages of English, classical music, architecture, and so forth are disciplined and ordered, and it is precisely this that allows their fluid and creative use once the patterns have been mastered ( we are back with Engels and his "Freedom is the consciousness of necessity"). Once mastered, experiences created from this underlying pattern language can take place spontaneously and more fluidly. For example, the art of Kung Fu can be a spontaneous and an immediate response to a situation once the person has mastered the pattern language they need to draw upon. The freedom of response comes from the thousands of hours of discipline.


In the same way the emergence of the form of this couple’s dance can now unfold and be shaped in a simple and fluid way. How? Because, and again only because, they have a common pattern language of proposal and response, called Argentine tango dancing, which they can draw upon in order to communicate and create. Their tango can be a spontaneous and immediate response to the music and the ronda once they have a common pattern language to draw upon and a common pattern language (the códigos of the milonga) to contain them. And then the tango speaks to the dancer, and the dancers movement is experienced as something received, not created. This is a crucial point:  When there is a shared pattern language, it speaks to all the dancers, on and off the floor, and it is experienced as something arising from within rather than created outside.


The códigos exist both within and without.


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.


The códigos are like a strait-jacket . . . then comes the wings . . .


Maria Callas said that her training and the intense discipline it required was “a sort of a strait-jacket that you're supposed to put on, whether you like it or not”. The códigos at Juntos can feel like this to some people, at the beginning, especially when they are not at first able to experience the benefits of dancing with a group of people who share this pattern language - the ronda. But, Maria Callas added, once you had learned to wear the straight-jacket, the next thing you can put on is wings. The códigos are like this.


Freedom is the consciousness of necessity.


This is why we have traditional códigos at Juntos; why we actively maintain them both on and off the floor;  why we love dancing amongst these people; why we hope that the milongueros who come to Juntos behave the same way everywhere they dance tango; and it is why we ask the community that is Juntos to manifest, nourish and protect them.


© Paul McDermott / Juntos 2014