Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Assertive Female Cabeceo

"As she slid across the table and looked into my eyes I realized she wanted to dance.  In fact I found her gaze irresistible."

I cannot argue with the majority of women who are sure that the cabeceo* is a male-generated requested to dance.  Recently, I even heard the words, "I hate the cabeceo" from a woman who is an advanced dancer.  If not the cabeceo then what?  But the argument goes on and on with the ladies who are sure that the cabeceo is for men, their egos and for women to be submissive.  ¡No comprendo, de veras!

All I know is that I dance with women who make it very clear that they would like to dance with me by their eyes and posture.   Who exactly is in charge of the initiation of the cabeceo is often an enigma.  I would even argue that any man who is in touch with the social skills of a primate, will be very aware of a woman's willingness to spend time with her -- even if it is just for one tanda.  And the same is true of a man's eyes.  Primates are awfully sophisticated with this sort of thing, you know. 

The argument comes back from women, "I can make it clear that I want to dance with him, but he still doesn't respond to my communication.  So it is clearly up to the man."  Not true.  How is that any different for me or any man?  I can show interest all night to a women and she may not respond.  Just because a man wants to dance with certain women, she can look uninterested or even off in another direction when he comes near.  Please tell me how is this "up to the man"?  

So to fix it all, some would stop using non-verbal cues to request a dance.  Does that mean I should now start asking all the women who have been looking away?  God save us, if men and women start asking everyone with whom they would like to dance.  There would be a wave of discontent at the milonga.   Let's try it for a night for the women who hate the cabeceo.  That would put an end to the controversy!

*Cabeceo:  From the word "cabeza" (head), a nod of the head, indicating a desire to dance.  For more on this and tango etiquette, please visit this link:

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  1. I've been loving the Chickweed Lane comics, and of course, it brings to mind your blog.

  2. I dance in Adelaide in Australia, the cabeceo is hardly ever used.It's almost an irrelevancy. Those who do it are all a very few of the folk who have been to BA's and spent extended time there. Perhaps 5-6 at the most and they do it mostly with each other..

    As for Adelaide tango's a fairly small community ( maybe 100-150 ) and we know each other & do talk to each other. And as well as folks who I like to dance with, yes there are folks that I do not ask to dance as we do not 'get on'. But that's life.. at least as it is here.

    And then there are the issues of low light and the fact that some of us have poorer eyesight as we age.. A slight tilt of the head from across the room simply does not work.


  3. B from Down Under: There are two levels of doing the cabeceo in a community that does not use it. I once had a friend who was not a dancer, but she like playing with people's minds in airports. She would look at them and then look down and then look at them again. It fascinated people. She said that she learned this from watching apes. So the first level is that you MUST ask in a community that doesn't understand the cabeceo, but practice it as much as possible and be a good ape.

  4. The cabeceo is not a dance. And it is not a codigos of the pista..Clearly it is a custom that has worked for Argentines as it has lasted generations. But I would question whether it is an inherent part of tango that has to be used in other societies elsewhere with different social conditions..

    Your comment about Primates and the way they ( we) use the eyes to express a desire or a refusal is true in my experience....Yet last night in a low lit hall all the 'looking' I did towards a friend who was sitting across from me waiting for a dance was pointless...Finally I went and asked...Oh she said 'I 'm not wearing my glasses and this hall is not lit up enough'...Ummm !

  5. ...interesting. I like the comparison of primates with humans, since human behavior still reveals prehistoric traits in this time. In my opinion. Our nature, the basic element in us stays the way it always has been, and this is why the Cabeceo exists: I think most men care about not being dumped the most unpleasant way, so they try it with a wink of the eye or a tilt of the head instead of taking the big step and asking directly to dance. I´m not trying to say that dancing IS dating, but a male ape also would check the situation (regarding possible rivals) instead of going over there and saying "Hey baby".
    I´m an unexperienced dancer learning at a dance school in Germany. Since we are supposed to gain experience by learning from the dance-styles of everybody in class, there is no escaping from anybody. This means: Male beginners like me don´t need the Cabeceo (yet?). We are urged to approach the girls and change dance partners many times a teaching unit.

    P.S.: My name is Benjamin Word and I´d like to thank my Dad (the crazy guy who named himself "Tango Therapist") not only for paying my dance lessons, but also for his funny encouragement that made me start learning to dance. Dad, yesterday I participated in the dancing contest at the "Mittelball" (a ball in the middle of dancing class) of my dance school. We (twelve dancing couples) got points on Cha Cha, Foxtrot and Jive. After my dance partner and me had come to the second round, in which the "best" six couples danced, we became first place(!).
    (The funny thing: She wasn´t even my "favorite dance partner", I casually asked her if she´d like to participate in the contest with me and she said yes^^. No need of Cabeceo^^.)
    I´d like to end this letter-like-comment by saying: Happy Father´s Day!
    Love ya, Dad

  6. Ben: What a surprise and perhaps the most unique way of saying "happy Father's Day" that I have ever hear of (a comment to a blog!). Congratulations on the dance contest -- which says a lot, since you are one of the newest in the class. What a delightful way to start my morning! Love ya, :-Dad

  7. B from Australia: I did not answer your observation about not being able to see. In your community the cabeceo is something you can do just for yourself and see how great it is. But also, the lighting and problems of legally blind tangueros/tangueras make the cabeceo either impossible or difficult. I learned a lot about the cabeceo for the visually impaired from helping my legally blind tanguero friend. The visually impaired tangueros/tangueras must make their favorite partners aware of their impairment, saving them the misunderstanding of not responding to cabeceos or visual clues -- even in communities where the cabeceo is not used. I did not know my friend was legally blind for quite sometime, and I talked him into communicating it and allowing me to speak in his behalf to tangueras: "If you ever really want to dance, you have to ask him, because he cannot see well." He started dancing all the time, and did well even at a cabeceo-only festival in Denver, Colorado. It helps that he was an excellent milonguero and extremely musical (a professional Baroque musician). People with visual impairments, especially since childhood, are very good at hiding their impairment. But this hiding must stop among in the tango community. -- Mark

  8. I find that the cabeceo is amazingly protective for women. If there is someone that you find rude - those that try to instruct you on the dance floor - or those that you just have a personality clash with, you can tell them if they're in the habit of asking that you'd prefer to practice your cabeceo. From then on your choice to dance with them or not is very clear.
    If you're not in the mood to dance for whatever reason, just don't look for dances and you're set.
    With those who aren't as familiar with the cabeceo or when I'm not managing to do it well myself I find that a quick no pressure hello is the best way to prep for it. When you walk into a milonga, make it a point to say hello to those you know, a quick word, a hug, a kiss and mentioning where you're likely to be loitering to those that you want to dance with and it will facilitate your cabeceos. There are some that I enjoy particular musical rhythms or even only certain orchestras with, if I make the effort to look for them at the beginning of these tandas I'm more likely to enjoy myself than if I indiscriminately contract tandas.
    In milongas where I know no one, cabeceo is the easiest form of getting dances for me.

  9. If you're visually impaired or your community doesn't cabeceo as a rule, then the greeting period and a "I'd love to vals/tango/milonga with you soon" becomes much more important.

  10. SMW: Your comments are worth their own blog entry. Thanks Sara. --Mark

  11. Ideally, I like to use the cabeceo, too. I describe the experience of being cabeceod at a typical BA milonga, El Beso, here:

    But, as many people have pointed out, this just isn't always practicable and there are many milongas where it isn't customary. Even in BA, there are places where, when I've tried to use the cabeceo, men have asked, puzzled, "I don't understand. Why are you looking at me?"

    Personally, I see absolutely nothing wrong with asking someone to dance straight out. As I see it, when you are asked to dance, you have three options. You can say a polite "no, thanks," if you don't like dancing with that person (try to watch them on the floor first, if possible); if you like dancing with them, but not right then, you can explain that you would love to dance later/another time, but not now (because of the music/tiredness/someone else you are planning to dance with, etc.) or, if you enjoy dancing with them, you can accept.

    I actually prefer this straightforward approach to the more common, subtler signals, which I see all the time.

    a) The women hovers around next to the man, pretending to have a genuine interest in conversation with him, but clearly not really listening, just itching to dance and waiting for him to ask her (of course, if you do genuinely want to talk that's different).

    b) There is someone the man or woman is friendly with, genuinely likes as a person, but does not enjoy dancing with. So they 'cut' them, ignore them, behave very rudely and coldly. Because to be friendly would imply a willingness to dance.

    I am always really surprised that people are offended by being asked to dance. When someone asks you to dance, all they are saying is that they would enjoy dancing with you. This should be flattering, not offensive. If you don't want to dance, will it really kill you to say a polite "no, thanks"? And, conversely, will it kill you to be rejected by someone who doesn't want to dance with you?

    There is one special case, I think: students. I do find it awkward when private students of mine ask me to dance. I am there at the milonga to enjoy myself, to dance for pleasure, and most of my students are not a pleasure to dance with for me (*yet* -- it's my ambition to transform them). But I don't want to offend them, for financial reasons. There can be an explicit threat of "dance with me at milongas, or I won't pay for your lessons anymore and I *know* you need the money". That doesn't feel nice. If you're a student, I'd advise that you don't ask your teacher to dance at the milonga, unless he/she is clearly signalling an eagerness to dance with you (and being friendly and saying "Hello, how are you?" is *not* signalling eagerness to dance).


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