Saturday, September 11, 2010

It takes more than two to Tango

It Takes more than two to Tango:
Lessons from a Cabeceo*- Challenged Tanguero

Cabeceo comes from the word "cabeza," (head) in Spanish, and means "a nod of  the head."  In the tango community the cabeceo is the way to ask for a dance without words.  The "codicos" or rules of etiquette of the community includes the cabeceo as a major tenant of gentlemanly/ladylike behavior.  Use of the cabeceo helps the lady from having to say "no," and helps the gentleman from confronting unnecessary rejection.  Many tangueros and tangueras have a visual acuity problem.  This post addresses the role of friendship in in the tango community to help tangueros/tangueras who are "cabeceo-challenged."   

Marcus is legally blind.  I did not know this fact when I first met him, but slowly figured it out.  He is pretty good at not revealing this because he probably has honed his social skills since being a kid with a very conscious effort of not sticking out too much.  But now these skills of stealth might be getting in the way of survival in a new social context -- the tango milonga.  However, unlike middle school girls,  tangueras do need to know at a milonga that Marcus is not a snob.  They must know that he just cannot see their gaze that says, "I really would like to dance."  I had a few ideas for Marcus to confront this obstacle:  He could wear a T-shirt with the words on his chest, "If you can read this & wear stilettos, consider this a cabeceo."  Marcus didn't like my idea.  "How about a card you could pass out at the start of a milonga with 'cabeceo' written on it?" I asked.  Also rejected. [Note:  Yes, I did get his reluctant permission to write this post using his name.]

So how does a person who sees only the fuzzy movements of dancers approach a woman and get a dance?  The cabeceo is the correct way in tango, but how does that work for a person who cannot use this method.

The answer might be obvious to many:  just break the rules and ask for dances.  Well, we only modified these rules of etiquette.  The plan was to go on a bit of risky adventure:  His first Tango Festival and in a great place -- Denver.  The risk was that I would be my normal hunter self, searching out unwitting and innocent tangueras at the watering hole (water table), hiding in the bushes of bouquets on ballroom tables, and infiltrating the huddling droves of dance-hungry females, who in their own coy way are hunting for a dance too.  Since I invited Marcus, I knew that I could not leave him alone and have him just sitting out.  Sure, I like Marcus, and I wouldn't want see him just sitting there, but the other thing, I am sure that he would purposely snore in our hotel room or maybe even strangle me in the night.  Now you know what I mean by a risky adventure.

Tango Festival and the Blind Cabeceo
Let's be honest about it.  Many people are legally blind when they don't have their glasses on.  So our discoveries on this adventure should be noted by those people who are already part-time blind (like me) or harbor the fear that old age will one day take away the ability to get a dance at an unknown milonga.  Tango is said to be a social dance between two people.  But to really dance tango well is to dance among everyone else on the floor.  It takes more than two to dance tango.  Tangueros and tangueras dance with everyone on the floor not just with a partner, and we take care of those who are not dancing too.  I learned more about this last part of the social dance at the Denver festival.

Manual for the Blind Cabeceo
  • First and foremost be a friend.  I learned this from women, especially my fellow Austin tango community blog colleague, Mari Johnson.  Check out her great blog on this and the links she quotes from other tangueras:  Women take care of each other.  They see the pain of rejection, the muscles  tightening up from sitting, the desperation of just wanting to dance to that particular piece of music.  And they talk to tangueros about their friends, introduce them.  I would drive Marcus to a milonga, and I hated it when he was not dancing in Austin.  But I still talked him into going to Denver.  We'd have to work as friends or be forever enemies.
  • Introductions are in order:  I introduced Marcus to anyone I knew.  Mostly he would tell them that he might not recognize their willingness to dance; so they might have to get closer or simply ask.
  • Deputize dance partners.  I did not rely on just me introducing someone I met.  I asked them to introduce their friends.  Kari ended up getting Marcus a load of dancers, although I had never met her or any of her friends before. Of course, I also danced with Kari's friends.  Dancing with a partner's friends is good karma.  Women do this for men all the time.  An excellent, veteran dancer whom I had met in Santa Monica, introduced a friend to me too.  Ela and I bonded so well that no other woman danced with me so much as she did.  I think of her as the karma-gift of sharing friends.  I danced the Cumparsita with her at 6 am at the last milonga.  Yes, that good.  And as for Kari ... we danced a salsa that was just amazing after the Cumparsita.
  • Hunting is what men do together.  "Okay, Marcus, let's go on a hunt," I would say on the rare time I would find him at our designated waiting area.  We would run into someone every time.  Never a strike out. 
  • Blind Faith:  Don't try this without a licence.  "Marcus," I said one time, "do an exact 180 degree turn and give the woman in the peach dress a cabeceo, and I will make sure she gets it."  He reminds me that he doesn't see color.  I am soooo stupid.  He does the about face and like an actor on the stage who cannot see his audience acts as if he could.  There of course are several flaws in my idea.  The first flaw is that Marcus did not show the proper level of his usual caution in doing anything I suggest without considering some escape plan.  But against the odds of the improbable success of any of my shoot-from-the-hip ideas, it works!  Kind of.  She is coy and acts like, "Who me?"  His eye gaze was a few degrees off too, I think. Not seeing the exact interaction of the coy tanguera, he drops his eyes too soon.  This cabeceo stuff is very exacting -- more than one might realize.  Although somewhat unsure, she's now getting up, and I have cabeceo'd a woman four chairs down from her.  Now Marcus thinks this is his tanguera.  Without any real training in air traffic control, I point to the peach lady and nod my head with the universal sigh of "yes, him," while directing her with two four-pointed hands like I just had seen at the airport.   The other lady comes out just to meet the traffic control director (me) to see if he could also dance with my legs.  Oh, how I wish we could have had that on YouTube clip.  200,000 hits in three days.  Of course, publishing that clip would have been my death-in-the-night at the next festival.  Marcus does have his dark side.
  • Independence:  It is no coincidence that a man who gets around remarkably well would also use his very gutsy skills to live in a big city to also navigate around and get dances at a festival.  He was good at this and deserves 90% of the credit for even showing up.
  • It is a good thing to have cool friends.  From Marcus I learned some important things about tango that I did not expect.  The best example came from a comment of one of his tangueras.  I introduced him to Sara from Santa Barbara.  She has a great presence in her embrace, which we both like.  I take Sara on wild milonga rides, which I know she likes because she hunts me down for milongas in whatever city I am it seems.  However,  Marcus ended up being one of her favorite dancers.  From Sara, I heard that women get tired of men who are going through their entire "vocabulary list" of tango words and sentences they can babble back from expensive stage tango lessons.  Marcus is a "cause-no-harm" kind of dancer, very smooth, musical, tasty.  He later told me that he only used about 30% of his vocabulary.  This was true for me as well because of the tight quarters at first, but he kept this success formula throughout the festival.  Wise man.
  • The wild card:  Another Sara -- this one from from the South West -- did not want me to introduce her to Marcus.  As a wise tanguera, she first scoped him out, evidently.  When she saw his level of dance, she found him three or four times during the festival for a dance.   She was the wild card tanguera, and really Marcus's biggest success story.  She was an advanced dancer and she kept coming back for more.  I am jealous!

My most satisfying festival ever
My time with Marcus taught me another level of tango as a social dance, and I came back from the festival more satisfied than ever before -- which says a lot!  I turned four year old as a tanguero at the Denver Festival this year.   In my short life as a tanguero, I have had wonderful experiences in Denver now twice, Albuquerque, Tuscon, Austin x 6, and Houston x 3.  This was by far the best because of the social aspect of how most tangueros in Denver led in a responsible way.  And this time around, I learned about sharing friends and making friends in this remarkable walking embrace, el tango para mas que dos personas.


  1. Mark,

    As a Denver Tanguera, I am very pleased that Marcus and you had such a fantastic time and that my fellow gals treated you guys right at the Denver Labor Day Festival. We practice the cabeceo (and I try to use it exclusively) but also know how important the "social aspect" of the pre-cabeceo cabeceo is. Introductions are key. Getting close enough is also key. What a lot of folks tend to do is to wear glasses to see with and take them off, leaving them at the table or a close proximity to where the woman was sitting/standing) before dancing. This MAKES the man take the woman back to her place (which has the added benefit of being so gentlemanly). If both of you are blind then the man generally has a pocket (a place to keep those glasses) when he's dancing. Some just keep them on their heads (a'la Marc Richmond).

    As for Marcus, just letting one woman know he was of bad sight was all you needed to do. I'm so glad Kari and the rest of the women (from all over I'm sure and not just Denver) did their best to make him feel comfortable at an out-of-town tango festival!!!

    Thanks for sharing this post! Darlene

  2. @ Darlene: The Denver Festival was wonderful (sorry you were not there). Was it just me, or did I see a huge shift in better floorcraft in Denver from one year ago. I rarely saw the crazy "divers" from just a year ago. Re: Escorting: I believe taking a woman back to her seat is just standard practice for a gentleman. I hope that more woman will start to expect this. It is not just gentlemanly behavior that is necessary but lady-like expectations that make this happen. Thanks for you comment and your help with my DC move to a new tango community. --Mark

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  4. I have to say that Marcus' expression of a desire to dance with me at a later point did help in getting me to hunt him down. This is such a nice, no pressure way of asking for a tanda, particularly in his case when cabeceo simply won't work.
    I will strive to be more lady like in my expectations...


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