Wednesday, August 20, 2014

¡Cabeceo!? No, oooouch! Face slam!

Cabeceo: The goal is hers as much
as yours in tango but only
to score in soccer
El hace un cabeceo... y ...

Cabeceos--hitting the ball with one's head in soccer--has only one goal: to "score." Of course, one scores at the expense of the other team.

The culturally aware tango dancer uses the cabeceo at no one's expense.  He politely and non-verbally "requests" a dance as a gentleman after the cortina and the music begins to play.  A slight movement with his head (la cabeza)--usually an upwards motion or a nod--signals this subtle exchange between a man and a woman.*  
A tanguero only attempts a cabeceo when she shows interest in her returned gaze during this silent exchange. Women are not passive in this necessarily, as some believe.  She wants to get out and play on the "playing field"--on the dance floor--just as much as any man does.   This "look" or "la mirada"  can actively catch his eye, motivating even a resting tanguero to get up and dance.

The back-in-your-face mirada
are made in respect to the woman's right to choose her partner and to avoid the embarrassment of an explicit rejection.  Both parties are spared the unpleasantries of rejecting/being rejecting.  Many people who know each other well may have a "close-up" cabeceo or simply ask for a dance.  But even in these closer relationships, it is best to stay within the tradition of staying non-verbal and cautious.

Ninety-five percent of the polite cabeceos in tango are returned appropriately--by looking away with grace or accepting with grace.  Mostly, a cabeco is offered politely and is most often not too near the woman, who easily could feel pressured.  She can merely not respond by looking away, or the nicest way that makes it clear that she doesn't have a vision problem or happened not to see:  The woman can look, smile and then demonstratively look away.  That is a "no, but no thanks!"  Some women tell me, "Really, I don't wear my glasses.  Next time come closer!"  It is hard to know; so I prefer the "non-verbal smile and look away."  These are examples of a true mirada.
However,  what a strange moment when the non-verbal request is returned with disrespect!

The mean-hearted "rostro-feo" with a silent
or vocalized "no" feels like this.
Ladies: Just turn away
There is no such thing as a mirada that signals "no thanks." The signal for "no" is in the absence of looking. A gentle person does not look directly at a person inviting her to dance and signal "no."  This is rude!  So far the only time I have seen this done to me or others has been by veteran female dancers.  Let me coin a term for this back-in-your-face-look as simply the "rostro-feo"** to the cabeceo.  It does not merit the name "mirada," the respectful interaction of polite woman at a milonga.

Tango has traditions, and certainly a woman who has danced for years is simply being disrespectful when she responds like this to a cabeceo politely offered.   Such a gesture has me wanting to say, "I was just looking at you to see if you wanted to play!  Don't throw it back in my face!"   There is a spectrum of how to answer a request after the music begins.  If the man is polite and signaled her nonverbally after the cortina, then the woman can decide if she likes the music and then make her response.    So let's start from an excellent response and then get progressively go down the spectrum from assertive to aggressive, which is reserved for the less-than-polite gentleman and those who verbally request.

It goes like this:   You look at her and she ...
(1) Smiles but looks away, demonstrating not wanting to dance.   (Best)
(2) Looks and indicates "no" with a small left right movement of her head.  (Good)
(3) Looks and then just turns away, leaving you wondering if she even saw you or if you wore your invisible jacket again.  (Okay)
(4) Looks and mouths a "no."  (Rude.  Why did she start with four?  Were you a jerk?)

The cabeceo and mirada are responsible for many beginnings in human relationships from tandas to marriage!  Primates are better at the non-verbal cabeceo and mirada than most people because it is clear "language" among those who cannot speak.  I have a non-dancing, therapist friend in her seventies who read about orangutans looking at the mate in whom they had interest.  Both females and males had this cabeceo/mirada trick:   Look, then looking down, and then once again look up quickly, making eye contact again.  (Repeat as needed.)  This was a powerful way to catch the attention of anyone--primates or tanguer@s.  My friend told me she tried it at an airport, and was amazed how much attention she got!

If primates and non-dancers can do this right; so can we!  At parties with non-dancers, I now use the cabeceo with great success and on the rare occasion even when I go out to dance salsa.  There IS NO tradition of the cabeceo in these groups.  But it works very well all the same.

*A note about the above he/she language:  This post is about respect.  The cabeceo and mirada are mere micro-manifestations of respect for others.  It is my experience that in milongas there are nearly always too many women who are sitting who want to dance.  In my opinion, it is disrespectful for heterosexual men to dance with each other, leaving women sitting as the two men practice their skills in the rol femenino.  Nothing I have said above has the intention that cabeceos/miradas must be done by some traditional role of man or woman as do some traditional milongas in Buenos Aires, which insist that men and women dance in their traditional roles.  The issue I bring up here is respect more than any tradition.  Nothing more.  I have a great mirada waiting for a man when only a few women show up for a milonga.  That tradition, too, comes out of Buenos Aires during a time of few women immigrating to this new land.

**Rostro-feo:  Rostro --> (face or countenance) and feo --> (ugly / "naughty" when referring to children).

A note for those going to BsAs:
It is really important that you do NOT  attempt a cabeceo during the cortina if you are planning to go to BsAs.  However, here in Europe or in the US, if I wait for the beginning of the music, I also notice that many fine dancers are already engaged for the next tanda.  A great dancer from Denver lamented that he could not catch the mirada of a woman in BsAs.  Perhaps he was unaware of this very wonderful practise in BsAs, and his attempts with cabeceos were ruined because he was trying at the wrong time!  In Freiburg near Switzerland, they have a very nice milonga there.  Some French dancers who go there told me that it was a no-cabeceo zone.  It was true. Many of the women there did not know what a cabeceo was, although there were many good dancers.  I danced with the person who caused this problem:  Their teacher from BsAs told me that she did not feel that the cabeceo was necessary.  Perhaps the only reason I danced with her is that she responded to that "old way of doing things."

Click for more on the cabeceo in tango etiquette.
And in German: Tango-Etikette auf deutsch.
Photo credit:  Click here.

See definition number 6 below is for soccer.


Del verbo cabecear: (conjugar)
cabeceo es:
1ª persona singular (yo) presente indicativo
cabeceó es:
3ª persona singular (él/ella/usted) pretérito indicativo

Diccionario de la lengua española © 2005 Espasa-Calpe:

cabecear conjugar ⇒

  1. intr. Mover la cabeza:
    los caballos cabeceaban nerviosos.
  2. Negar moviendo la cabeza:
    cabeceó al verle tan desarrapado.
  3. Dar cabezadas el que se está durmiendo:
    cabeceaba todas las tardes frente a la tele.
  4. Moverse la embarcación bajando y subiendo la proa:
    la barca cabeceaba suavemente.
  5. Inclinarse lo que debía estar en equilibrio:
    la carga del burro cabeceó hasta caer.
  6. En fútbol, golpear la pelota con la cabeza:
    cabeceó a portería.
  7. tr. Añadir vino añejo en el nuevo y, p. ext., mezclar vinos:
    esas bodegas cabecean los tintos con una técnica propia.
  8. amer. Atar cierto número de hojas de tabaco y formar las cabezas de los cigarros:
    las que cabecean el tabaco suelen ser mujeres.
'cabeceo' aparece también en las siguientes entradas:


  1. For all that it might seem disrespectful for same gender dancers to ignore those waiting that is really a viable choice.

    I often lead when there are women I want to lead and who are willing. In some of these situations there is a gender imbalance that does not favor the men, they are welcome to compete with me for the ladies who are available. While I have no intention of insulting them at the same time I have no obligation to cater to their needs and preferences over my own and those of the women in attendance. It does happen more often that a gender imbalance adversely effects women, but even so, I would challenge the women to work harder so that the men don't want to dance with other men over them.

    For either gender, if you're sitting more than you would prefer then I would suggest a time of reflection to see if perhaps there is something you can do to alter your circumstances.

  2. interesting take on the cabeceo - I have given this quite a bit of thought, but am not sure what I think about the "back in your face" thing.

    If you look at the excellent and much-shared Homer&Cristina video on the codigos and the cabeceo in particular, they emphasize that when someone wants to DECLINE a cabeceo invitation, they should acknowledge the invitation by looking straight at the person and then looking away.

    I find this "acknowledge, then look away" method to be convincing in theory, but I have rarely seen it done in milongas. It is much more common for women to just avoid eye contact from the start.

    I'm not sure what kind of rejection I would prefer as a leader: feeling like you are invisible to all sitting women (because they all refuse eye contact /look away), or being acknowledged with a brief glance.

    I tend to think that the latter would actually make it easier for the inviter to deal with rejection because sometimes a declining person who acknowledges will do a little comical gesture (pointing at her hurting feet with a grimmace, or making a "I'm so sleepy" face, or just giving you a tiny little smile of encouragement (which a skilled person can make clearly distinguisable from a "yes" smile) - all those are very nice little gestures that make the inviter feel appreciated, even if the invitation for a dance was declined.

    So bottom-line: I think it would be valuable to teach dancers how to turn down invitations gracefully, by expanding on the "acknowledge, then signal no" idea.

    So I'd like to defend the "in your face" No. Don't construe it as an insult - maybe the person in question just needs to work a bit more on making it graceful, but is following the correct intuition of acknowledging an invitation.

  3. SMW: I respect your philosophy: "While I have no intention of insulting them at the same time I have no obligation to cater to their needs and preferences over my own and those of the women in attendance." Luckily I know you and I think your words are different than your kindness. But the words themselves are a philosophy that is played out in a very unkind way. "Obligation" has become a very negative word in the tango community. I have found it laughable at times the way it is used. I have obligations to myself, to my family, friends, community, country and world and my sense best sense of the Highest good. I put myself at the start of that, but it is a single idea. Imagine that you go to a conference, as I once did in Phoenix, and got ready out of excitement to meet other tango dancers. Yet, that particular milonga was a dance-only-with friends affair. Social tango is not friends-only. What if you sat there because no one even considered a female lead? No one considered a stranger. And even if there for a while as you moved there you found that no one danced with you because you were not in their little group? No obligation tango is asocial tango. Everyone has their right to live just for themselves and be obligated to no one. I prefer the way cowboys say "you are welcome" after an act of kindness: "Much obliged, Ma'am." I prefer the old French saying for the same: "I am infinitely obligated to you." Obligation is one of the greatest and most wonderful word of a social-being. Tango, especially in an individualistic culture, is losing the kindness element, and misnames itself "social." Social tango has become a kind of tango (small steps, no ganchos, traditional music, close-embrace). That kind of tango. But social tango is not a kind of tango. Rather, it's kind tango.

  4. Chris... I do like the idea of a woman briefly smiling and then looking away. I maintain, saying no is too aggressive. Why not just shout it out. How many even notice a smile followed by looking away or even the shunning you mentioned? Yet, 50 people can be aware of a mouthed "no." If primates can say no with the mirada; so can tanguer@s. I think I will add the solution that you mentioned of acknowledging and then looking away. So many women do not wear glasses and sometimes they just don't see. Only when I get to know them well, I know that I have a general invitation to come near and be very explicit.

  5. I don't mean it unkindly at all, but I am tired of people who expect that simply showing up should entitle them to dance with whomever THEY want to without giving a thought to their partners. You pay your entry, there is no guarantee of the experience. The milongas do get a reputation so you often have an idea of how welcoming the experience might be before attending.

    Traveling I often find that I watch for some time while people dance with their friends before I get an invite. It would actually be rude of me to insist that people dance with me when I want them to. I have certainly had times when I've shown up to milongas and sat most of the night, while frustrating, it isn't an insult. I rarely lead in unknown milongas unless I've taken a class leading or the gender balance is so skewed that leading is likely to be appreciated by the women. I almost always use cabeceo and let me tell you, it's hard for a woman to do with woman that don't know you. Woman rarely expect that another woman will cabeceo them and even if they're aware it's a possibility, many women do not like being led by women or are pickier about the women who lead them than the men.

    If two men or two women want to dance together I hope that they do so. Just like married couples or those who only like to dance with those they know. Tango is such an intimate connection and experience on so many levels that I very strongly feel that people really should only dance with whom they want to when they want to.

    You see it as selfish, I see it as self protection. If you do not feel that you can enjoy a dance with someone and give your whole focus and feeling to it then I think it is better not to dance...sit and watch or dance with someone that you want to.

    I say the same about the music, if you don't love it then consider just watching. I prefer not to dance with those who don't like a particular rhythm or orchestra, my best dances are when a partner is in love with the music and so am I. There are some people that I love vals with, or milonga, or romantic or rhythmic tango, there are some that I would prefer to lead or some that I prefer to follow. None of this is wrong in my opinion as I think it is best not to dance unless you are willing to give your best effort to the partner.

    I personally tend to dance with enough people of all genders and all skill levels that I don't worry about the few times when I could be considered selfish.

  6. SMW: You are not a selfish dancer. You are a social dancer. Nothing more needs to be said. The comments we are talking about are about a footnote to the article. I plan to speak to the issue of heterosexual men dancing with each other as women sit. So far I have NEVER seen them doing it out of "self-protection." Again, "obligation" is one of the most wonderful words of the social being. Obligation to self is first place among obligations. ("Please put the mask on before placing it on your children.") However, tango--as expressed by some cultures and some people--makes obligation out to be a swear word. "I don't want to feel obligated." Wouldn't that just be awful? Feeling obligated? I am an individualist by nature. Living in the US culture, being raised in an individualistic religion, avoiding having children and that obligation, off living in different countries for the experience as an individual ... but having children and social tango has transformed me to consider my obligations to be beyond myself.

  7. Obligations are a tricky business. I will still say that you are best serving both yourself and your community by dancing only where you can commit to enjoying yourself in some way. If you can't then you are cheating your partner and yourself. If you find that cannot share some measure if joy, then how are you serving the community? Some people are more or less sensitive to the moods of others, but I don't enjoy dancing with someone who is only doing it to be nice. I would much rather sit and watch or listen.
    I usually find that I don't dance more than one tanda, sometimes two with the same partner at any milonga. There is simply the sheer luck factor of partners being available when you are. On rare occasion I have a particular friend at the same event and we're selfish by dancing together most of it.
    Please, let's leave children or the lack thereof out of this equation.


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