Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don't Ask; Don't Tell TANGO

Don't Ask; Don't Tell* tango helps avoid feelings of rejection.  Sure, among friends and when the answer will undoubtedly be "yes," asking for a dance might be okay.  Otherwise, the rule of "don't ask, don't tell [a lie]" still reigns in tango.

A report from a friend in upstate New York tells me that a local teacher tells students that the cabeceo** is an old fashion idea.  But when I think about it, many tango aficionados in my city are unwilling to practice the age-old wisdom of non-verbally requesting to dance with a nod of the head.  Wisdom.  That is right.  It is wise to avoid verbally asking for a dance from a stranger or a person with whom you do not generally dance. Use the cabeceo!  Why?  In other dances, it is customary to dance only one dance at a time.  In tango a man or a woman asks with their eyes because it is a commitment or 3 or 4 dances -- a tanda.  And tango can be more intimate than other dances -- but not necessarily.  Tango is a hug, but some dances are more connected from the waist down.  So the intimacy "excuse" is not nearly as important as the time you are investing being with someone.

In the scenario above, the first verbal request spawns a verbal rejection because he asks.  Sure, she may be irked that he is hoovering.  He could have engaged in a conversation and that would have told him if the next step could have been to see how she is reciprocating.   A nice song comes on and he smiles and does a nod towards the music.  Instead, Tanguero #1 just asks out of nowhere and is surprised by the answer.  The second tanguero asks over the head of tanguero #1.  This, in turn, then puts her in the position of not wanting to grind salt in tanguero #1's wound, but she really wants to dance with the object of her interest.  So she impulsively says "yes."  Now, the milonga has created all sorts of bad feelings--all because of an "old fashioned rule" has been broken. 

In a matter of moments, three instances of tango etiquette were thrown out.  Two verbal dance requests, and a woman who is unaware that if she says "no, not now" that she is obliged to sit out the tanda.  It is the equivocation "not now" that puts her in time-out.  Miss Manners says so.  Some will disagree, but "no, I am resting" is often a white lie, which is easily tested with the next request.  Tanguero #1 is devastated, and tanguero #2 has gotten into the middle of something he didn't know about.  Miss Tanguera now has bad karma and will have bunions early in life or some other curse shall come upon her.

Tango etiquette is not "old-fashioned":  Manners matter. 

PS:  I realize that the cabeceo may be something that slowly becomes accepted in areas who are unaware of tango culture.  For survival in these "cabeceo-free zones," I have a new resource page on the right margin of this blog, and there is a link to the this page (written by a woman who lives in both London and Buenos Aires) after a larger discussion on the pros of using the cabeceo and at the end of Chapter 2 of Tango Etiquette

*One half of Tango-Beat's readers are outside of the US; so for my international readers, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a reference to a long standing rule in the US military for gays.  The don't-ask-don't-tell rule was recently repealed by a concerted effort by the Commander and Chief of our military (President Obama).  In the past if a member of the US Armed Forces publicly proclaimed that they were gay, the Armed Forces member would be thrown out of the military.  Also the question could not be asked by the chain of command.  Of course, here I am just playing with words, making up a new meaning for tango:  Don't ask [for a dance]; don't tell [a lie, like, "I am resting"].  Just say "no thanks."  No lie?  No time-out!

**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. Hi Mark
    The latest blog on the cabeceo has a feeling of preaching to the "unconverted" I remain unconverted.

    l mostly simply ask a woman if she wants to dance. And a no is fine. Occasionally I will if a fair distance away ( across the room ) use a querying 'nod of the head'.. But it can often be pointless as the woman may not see ( poor light, no glasses on, distracted by talk with friends etc) or may not understand. The latter happened last night with a friend who has danced with me a number of times....Ummm

    And now a wider comment : It's curious.. There is among many who dance tango a desire to sort become Argentine in manner.. And a wish to convert others to that way of being.

    I think that with your own background of having lived in Mexico, and your easy familiarity with Spanish leads you in this direction.

    Argentina may be the original home of tango But from all the wide reading I've done, it is a disfunctional society with a history that amply demonstrates this disfunctionality.....

    So as in all other things I will carefully chose what is acceptable to me and disregard the rest.

    Bill in Oz

  2. Mark,

    If she meant no then she should have said no. If she meant not this tanda then she should have been more specific or found him later for a tanda that she was willing to dance with him.
    Etiquette, no matter how well we try does not cover every situation that we encounter. Attempt to remain gracious and kind and you rarely go wrong.'s not a matter of attempting to be more Argentine, or at least for me it's not. It is a matter of allowing both men and women to choose who they want to dance with and who they don't want to dance with as politely as possible. I was not able to understand this when I first started tango; I now regret any impositions I may have unwittingly placed on others.

  3. Mark, in this situation it would be best for her to be more clear. A simple no thank you would clearly state that she has no interest in dancing with him. A not right now implies that she might want to later when the music is right or she's danced with her regulars/favorites. If it's really "not right now", then she should be more specific and definitely find him later for a tanda assuming that he's not feeling too rejected.
    @Anon, for me it's not a matter of trying to be more Argentine. It is a matter of allowing people the freedom of their personal choices in a very intimate setting while attempting to remain courteous. I could not understand this when I first started tango and probably unwittingly imposed on some. Your other option is to have both men and women unhappy because they have verbally accepted or refused offers and feel that they must either dance or not out of it really polite to leave a silent resentment?

  4. The tanda or set is not unique to tango. When ballroom dancing was the main social activity in the 1930s and 40s in the United States, the young ladies were invited for a "set" - four dances -- and their dance cards were signed by their partners who invited them in advance. I have this information from a reliable source, my parents who met at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in 1938.

  5. @Jantango: That is fascinating. Still this only confirms the importance of a cabeceo. The dance ticket allows the woman a choice -- at least theoretically and also allows a way to avoid publicly saying "no." The cabeceo is a dance ticket in many ways.

    @Bill: I appreciate your opinions, Bill, as you know. But it is not fair to say I am "preaching." I have given references of other opinions and ways of surviving in "non-cabeceo zones." But preaching is all about heaven and how to get there; so maybe I am preaching, Brother. Amen! Listen to Sister Sara (SMW, above) who is fluent in both tango roles. She sings in my choir and knows the Truth, the Life, and the Way to tango Nirvana. :-)

  6. Haha! I'm trying to figure if I can make Denver in which case we'll put both of us to the cabeceo test! Besos.

  7. In most of the European milongas I've recently been to, people don't really use much cabeceo. Instead, their method is that the woman will hang around next to a guy she wants to dance with, chatting to him and waiting patiently for him to ask her to dance. I'm not overly fond of this method and it is very intimidating for strangers. Personally, if a guy is a good dancer, I don't require him to chat me up before taking me out on the floor. I describe the chat-tango-foreplay method here:

    It tends to be the beginner men who approach women directly and ask them to dance. Women know this and good followers are therefore very unlikely to accept a direct invitation of this kind.

    If I'm asked directly and don't want to dance, I always just say "no, thanks". However, some guys insist. "Why not?" they ask "Are you resting?" It is really hard to say "No, I'm not resting; I just don't want to dance with you because you are not a good dancer." So sometimes when I'm asked directly if I'm 'resting' I say 'yes' as a cop-out. I still feel perfectly free to dance if someone I want to dance with asks me, however. I consider myself to be 'resting' in the same sense as an actress might be 'resting': i.e. I'm waiting for a decent gig.

  8. Terpsechóre: Have you danced in Germany. I was very influenced early in Germany, and the dancing/music/tandas were very much traditional. However, now that I think about it, I have no idea about the cabeceo there. I use it without a problem, but I do not watch what other men do. All I know is that even in non-tango venues I use the cabeceo. It really is such a great skill to have. Animals (both male and female) use it for everything, and it works for them. It doesn't take a big brain to use the cabeceo! :-)

  9. I've danced in Germany. There, as elsewhere, some people use the cabeceo, but most use the system I outline above. Only beginner men ask women directly for dances.

  10. I have to say, this is what I've observed so far in Europe (in Germany and elsewhere): beginner leaders ask directly; advanced dancers either use cabeceo (mostly at marathons, festivals, etc.) or do the hanging-around-next-to-the-man-chatting-waiting-to-be-asked thing. This does lead to men asking the women to dance directly, but they are unlikely to be refused, since the whole reason the woman is chatting to the guy is because she wants to dance with him. Beginner leaders, with their scattershot method, get plenty of rejections. And some of them take it pretty badly. Most of the advanced leaders, if asked to dance directly by a woman, will just say no, thanks or even a plain "no" without the polite "thanks". Unlike the women, they don't tend to feel the need to give any excuses.

  11. Mark, I happily look in your eyes and accept the wonderful tanda your gaze is offering. But we do not see eye to eye on the value of the cabeceo. The cabeceo does not help build community. It helps us stay in our little protected worlds, giving formal approval for not even acknowledging the "others" who stand mere feet away from from us -- lest a friendly gesture be interpreted as willingness to dance. When I walk into a milonga, the question is not how many dancers there are, but rather how many of MY dancers are there. Of course cliques and divided communities are not caused by the cabeceo. But the cabeceo is a convenient tool that helps maintain the status quo.

    DC Tanguera

  12. DC Tanguera: You are one of many people who disagree with my view of the cabeceo. But let me ask: Does asking for a dance build the community? Is my "protected little world" my boundary in a very intimate dance? Will you take that away from me? Also, I find it very hard to say "no" to someone who asks. If someone asks I most often ascent, and I am mostly glad they have approached me. A woman at La Milonga de Los Santos asked me to dance because she had sat there the entire time just waiting. I was glad that she got up the courage and the tanda was really quite good. Others saw that I danced with her and they asked her too. The best thing I like about rules is figuring out how one might break them. :-) We'll just have to agree to disagree.

  13. Hi rthere. I'm a bit late in the discussion.

    As for the question, wether the Cabeceo is used in Germany or not: it depends on where you go, which Milongas you visit.

    We used Cabeceo & Mirada already in the year 2000, when I re-started dancing Tango and frequented a Milonga in Kaiserslautern (K-town for the Americans). This was surely one of the first "authentic" Milongas outside of BA, as the founder of this place visited BA frequently and danced at all the traditional places. (This is where I learned, that the Tango which is danced in Milongas and not on stagw is called "Tango de SAlon").

    From this Milonga, the more "authentic", now called "traditional" "rules" spread to lots of Milongas in the Rhine/Main area and general into many Milongas in the southeast of Germany (Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart...). Nowadays, you can find Cabeceo & Mirada in many Milongas. So I actually "grew up" with this manner of invitation in Tango.

    If you go to Munich, Hamburg, Berlin or into the east, you'll not find the Cabeceo or Mirada very often, I agree....

  14. @ Melina: My German tango-experience started after 8 months of tango in El Paso, TX. I arrived on the tango scene in Kaiserslautern just around the time when Just was semi-retiring from tango teaching. What a great man! My "German experience," including meeting you and Detlef, were seminal for me, but I was only there for a few months before getting a job near Austin, TX. However, once I was back in the US again, I found teachers who taught the same traditional style I had discovered in Germany.

    I am delighted to get a comment from la maestra famosa Melina on my blog! It's funny that your first comment on my blog comes at this moment because I will be moving back to Germany very near to where I met you and Detlef back in 2007. I love where I am now in Washington,DC because I can dance every night that I want to or have the time. Also,the majority of milongas are 15 to 30 minutes away! I look forward to the wealth of tango culture in Germany. The level of dancing is absolutely superb, thanks to great teacher and German discipline. I will be in Germany in December. If I do see you, you can be assured I would never ASK you to dance; I would wait for your "mirada."

    Wir sehen uns bald! Kannst du etwas für einen Silvesterball empfehlen? Was habt Ihr vor?


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