Cabeceo confusion

This is a controversial topic of social tango.  I begin with my comment published on another blog.

The cabeceo is not foolproof, but when practiced regularly, it is the only way to dance in Buenos Aires. The cabeceo is an agreement to enjoy ten minutes in the embrace of another.

It is the man who initiates the invitation with a movement of the head while he waits for the woman’s acceptance with a head movement as well. If she isn’t interested in dancing with him, she merely turns her head and looks in another direction. No one is the wiser, and the man doesn’t suffer public embarrassment as he does when inviting a woman at her table.

Once the invitation is accepted/confirmed by the woman, she waits at her table until the man reaches a spot on the floor for her to join him. He will be making eye contact with her at this point. That is her confirmation that he invited her and not the woman seated next to or behind her. A woman should not go to the floor until the man is there. The man doesn’t escort her to the floor, but merely waits for her.

After dancing the tanda, the man escorts the woman to the edge of the floor where she can conveniently return to her table; he doesn’t go to her table…ever.

Argentine women know that it is the man who invites them to dance, but they let the men know by glancing at them from across the room. If a woman never looks at a man, he can never invite her. That’s the way it has been in the milongas for decades. Those who respect the codes continue using the cabeceo. 

* * * * *

 Cabeceo – In Buenos Aires, it is only the men who ask for a dance.  Most big cities follow the Buenos Aires custom.  The accepted way to invite a person to dance is to catch someone’s eye, smile and nod, perhaps raising your eyebrows in an inquiring expression or directing a nod towards the dance floor. The response, if the invitation is accepted, is to smile and nod back, whereupon both people walk to the dance floor and dance.  The purpose of the cabeceo, is to make the invitation to dance less stressful and the possibility to decline more discreet. Essentially you can avoid receiving or having to say a harsh verbal “No”. It spares everybody’s feelings.  It is also acceptable for a gentleman to “walk-up” and ask someone to dance, but be sensitive to that person’s body language/eye contact in case they don’t want to dance.  If you don’t succeed in catching a person’s eye and eliciting a smile, please don’t resort to  positioning yourself squarely in front of a person so they can’t avoid looking at you. It is considered very rude. In short, Ladies, Don’t Ask.

* * * * *

Invitation to dance: It is customary for only the men to invite ladies to dance, not the other way round. The invitation and acceptance/rejection to dance are only made through eye contact – known as cabeceo. At the conclusion of the dance, the men should accompany the ladies to their tables.

Comment: Cabaceo is a good approach to invite, but not widely practiced in Singapore, or many parts around the world outside of Buenos Aires, largely due to familiarity of the community. It is perfectly fine in Singapore for ladies to invite men to dance.

 * * * * *

The cabeceo is perhaps one of the most important codes of all. It is the way that people invite and agree to dance together. It is a system of mutual respect and delicacy. Gentlemen invite the ladies from a relative distance by catching her eye and nodding. If she would like to accept the invitation she will nod back. If the woman does not want to be invited to dance, she must subtly look the other way or not look his way in the first place. This system ensures that women are not dancing out of obligation and men are not having to have their advances rejected or feelings hurt. In the traditional milongas in Argentina, inviting a follower verbally at her table is considered an encroachment and often rejected out of hand. Advancing toward a lady and nodding aggressively at her defies the whole reason and mutual consideration that is at the heart of the cabeceo. Make sure from a distance that you are requesting, not demanding and that there is truly a mutual desire on her part. Likewise, ladies, you can make your desire known by looking at the gentlemen you may like to dance with, but staring intensely or incessantly can feel invasive and defeats your purpose – again make sure you are checking in and requesting, not demanding. Once the agreement has been sealed, he will come to meet her at the edge of the floor closest to her table and the couple will dance the tanda together. At the end of the tanda, the leader will accompany her back to her chair or to the edge of the floor where they met. Leaving her in the middle of the floor is considered bad form.

* * * * *

And from in Dubai, UAE:

The most appropriate way to ask a lady to dance is the use of cabeceo. This is an art and is to be mastered.  It involves catching the attention of the lady you want to dance with by the way you are looking at her.  If the lady wants to dance with you, she will acknowledge you by the way she looks at you.  You will then nod towards the dance floor and she will indicate her consent by subtly nodding back.  When that happens you walk towards her, extend your hand and guide her to the dance floor.  There, you will enter the line of dance without disrupting its flow and begin dancing.   If the lady does not want to dance with you, she will simply look away when you try to catch her attention.

And then I came across this:

3. “Since either the leader or the follower can initiate it, cabeceo actually allows women to invite men, without having to break the social taboos.”
This is the best argument so far in favor of cabeceo. I’ve always found it to be deeply unfair that men get all the initiative when it comes to deciding who dances with whom. Cabeceo makes the process of invitations symmetric — either the woman or the man can initiate the contact. In fact, I’ll speculate that this is the major (unstated) reason why many ladies prefer cabeceo. But then — wouldn’t it be much, MUCH simpler to altogether abandon the antiquated patriarchal taboo that bans women from inviting? Wouldn’t _that_ be a step up! It’s 2012 you know, not 1912!

* * * * *

And the most surprising text appears on the site for the Denver Tango Marathon which claims to hold milongas like Buenos Aires:

The “Cabeceo” or, How to Get a Dance.

A particularly charming aspect of tango is that the women get to ask the men to dance by looking for their favorite partner, and “giving him the nod”. Across a crowded room, this feels electrifying! He has accepted my glance! She has chosen ME to dance with! Now, the man can saunter confidently across the floor, knowing that as he approaches, the woman will rise from her seat, and let me take her hand for a dance.

The feminist approach probably appeals to those who want to win popularity contests, show off their repertoire of embellishments, and new shoes on the dance floor, but I imagine there are men hiding in corners to avoid them.

I scan the room when the tanda begins if I’m interested in dancing.  If a man is looking in my direction, and I want to dance, I hold my gaze, wait a split second for his invitation (either with a tilt of his head and/or lip movement: bailas?) and then I respond.  He has chosen me for the tanda.  And that’s the way I like it.


14 Responses to “Cabeceo confusion”

  1. Robert B. Says:

    This works only if the seating arrangements are conducive to mutual observation and men and women are seated opposite one another. In all of the local milongas I’ve attended, this is never the case. Men and women often sit together in groups, facing one another rather than the dance floor. Room light is often dim, and it’s difficult to see clearly to the other side of the room. Many women appear to be ignorant of the cabeceo and never look around the room to discover who might be looking their way, or they’re deeply engaged in conversation. Men resort to positioning themselves favorably so they are in a woman’s sightline and try to get her attention so they can use the cabeceo. If you’re polite (as I am) and try to follow the codigos strictly, you may have a long wait before a dance. Other men will simply walk up and ask the woman to dance while you’re waiting for her to swivel her head around (or ignore you if she chooses).

  2. jantango Says:

    There is a variety of seating arrangements in the milongas of Buenos Aires, as noted in the milonga reviews. Men and women are not necessarily seated on opposite sides of the room.

    When organizers hear enough complaints from their patrons about not dancing and won’t return, it’s time to make adjustments. If there are more people sitting than dancing, there is definitely a problem.

    It might be helpful if organizers in NYC to make an announcement or put fliers on the tables about the cabeceo. Women who are engaged in conversation have no right to complain at the end of the night about not dancing. Invitation by head movement requires active participation by women and men. A one-night experiment to test using cabeceo might be the answer.

  3. Felicity Says:

    I see it simply more as a line somewhere between common sense and delicacy than “codigos”.

    If men and women are seated where they can see each other, in fair light, it avoids the need for musical chairs and the awful “hot spot” syndrome I have seen in some British milongas where both sexes crowd to areas they think are conducive to getting a dance. That’s the practical thing.

    Having a seat avoids the unpleasant sight of single women standing about In or near those hot spots making themselves available as though on a street corner, and, for that matter, blocking the view of anyone sitting behind them. I have noticed the men also do this when they see the women doing it.

    As for waiting, if the woman’s worth waiting for, she’ll probably be aware of the rules of engagement and dance when she’s ready. I suggest you leave the walk-up-and-ask men to the women prepared to tolerate walk-up invitations and then I should think everyone will be fairly happy.

    Personally, I can’t bear signs or written rules in a social context, let alone the concept of a milonga with membership and pre-subscription. These often all go together.

  4. Patricia Says:

    Organisers do indeed play an important role in facilitating the cabeceo eg. lighting & seating. However, some are unaware of its value, so it remains up to the patrons to provide feedback to organisers or stop attending.

    The other side of the coin is whether milonga patrons are skilled in the use of the cabeceo. It’s not so difficult, but this form of invitation requires some practice and self-confidence. Here in Adelaide, where we actively promote the cabeceo, we found that new users of this form of invitation needed to be encouraged and gently coached in its use. If not, they could become easily disheartened and even reject the cabeceo altogether, especially after some initial cabeceo misunderstandings. So I think that it would take more than a one-night experiment to test the success of this strategy if it’s new to a tango community.

  5. Michael Says:

    I live in New York and it would be a waste to put fliers on the table about cabeceo at a milonga. The milongas are too dark for it to be used. However, lighting is superb at practicas for cabeceo because the lights are up. But dancers have to be trained to use it.

    Most women don’t know or don’t care about the impression they send. When they are busy with personal devices reading email or texting, they send a message “don’t ask me now.” When two women talk to each other, they send a message, “don’t ask me now.”

    If you want to dance “NOW,” then send a message and eliminate the confusion.

  6. Patricia Says:

    Michael, those women unaware of the “don’t ask me now” impression which they are creating, clearly don’t know what they may be missing. I refer to the delight of dancing with someone who also wants to dance with you to the same music. If they are waiting for a walk-up invitation, they may be sorely disappointed.

    I agree with you that people need to be trained in the use of the cabeceo. I’d go as far as saying that teachers of social tango should see this as part of their brief.

    There are many and varied strategies we have used to guide people in this direction. One is to respond to direct, walk-up invitations with “OK, but next time invite me with your eyes”. Another way of infecting the milonga with the cabeceo is if experienced dance partners, whom people like to dance with, adopt the cabeceo.

  7. Felicity Says:

    Michael, it sounds like someone needs to organise a milonga with fair lighting and an environment that supports cabeceo where you are. I would love to hear about it if/when it happens. ~Felicity

  8. Chris, UK Says:

    Felicity wrote: “As for waiting, if the woman’s worth waiting for, she’ll probably be aware of the rules of engagement and dance when she’s ready. I suggest you leave the walk-up-and-ask men to the women prepared to tolerate walk-up invitations and then I should think everyone will be fairly happy.

    Well said.

    Plus, the walk-up-and-askers are providing a valuable public service. To attentive women, they identify themselves as inconsiderate. To attentive men, they identify the women who accept as indiscriminate.

  9. Michael Says:

    I don’t know how many dancers start with AT. I know there’s a crossover from ballroom, Latin, and swing. The etiquette at these dances is for a man to stick his face in front of a woman and ask her to dance.

    This “ballroom mode” carries over when ballroom dancers take up AT.

    When I’ve used cabeceo, women have asked if I have a nervous tick or some other problem. But then there are others who know nothing about cabeceo. When I look at them and make clear I’m inviting them, some “answer the call.”

    Besides cabeceo, women could cause a revolution by declining invitations from men they don’t like dancing with. How can I tell they don’t like dancing with certain men? Their facial expressions tell EVERYTHING. Some expressions are boredom, puzzlement, exasperation (when is the tanda going to be over?). I’ve also seen “Please shoot ME and put ME out of my misery” and the companion “Please shoot HIM and put ME out of my misery.”

    Women have a lot of power in tango. Either they don’t know it or know it and don’t know how to use it. But that’s another topic. You’ll NEVER see that taught in a workshop for women.

  10. Patricia Says:

    Quite right, Michael. Women do potentially have a lot of power in tango, and some of us are prepared to encourage discriminating behaviour. Imagine if there were more of it…

  11. Felicity Says:

    I met an American DJ earlier this year. Where she comes from, there are fewer women than men, so the women can choose and that makes the men up their game. It’s another facet of declining – declining through more choice available as opposed to declining because you don’t like what they do.

    Declining is tricky in communities where the majority feel it’s rude to decline. Unsurprisingly, the standard of dancing in these places is lower. The concept of dance there is more like moving about as opposed to connecting with someone in dance, to great music. I think it is a slow process.

    And people dance with each other for reasons other than a great dance, a great connection: friendship, sexual preferment, curiosity, face-saving, all sorts of things, things where “discriminate” or not has little relevance or applicability beyond the couple in question.

  12. jantango Says:

    It’s customary in social dancing around the world to accept an invitation to dance. That’s why women have come up with excuses when they want to decline.

    Dancers in Buenos Aires figured out a way to avoid public embarrassment when a girl’s chaperone refused to allow her to dance with certain partner. The men all stood in the center of the dance floor and positioned themselves where they could invite a girl with the tilt of the head (called “cabeceo”) or movement of the lips (bailas?). The chaperone (mother or aunt) had already given her approval. The agreement was made to dance the tanda.

    I find it odd that tango communities like Denver, Colorado, refer to their social dances as “milongas,” program the music in sets they call “tandas,” but encourage women to initiate the “cabeceo” with no respect for the way it was created and still practiced in Buenos Aires.

  13. Felicity Says:

    I have long wondered what the movement of the lips was!

    Re Denver…either it’s deliberate – or it’s not. Sometimes tradition is preserved wholesale, sometimes it changes to suit the new community/generation/culture/taste/

  14. jantango Says:

    The young milongueros were being very polite with bailas?
    Today some milongueros viejos just give a command — vamos! (let’s go!)

    The Denver community has definitely changed the custom to suit their purposes. I don’t know why they even use the term cabeceo. Soon, or perhaps they have already, the women will be approaching the men and grabbing them by the arm to the dance floor.

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