(now with responses from other dancers.... Read)
Is the 'cabeceo' a valid and
effective invitation to dance
in 21st century tango communities?
cabeceo is the subtle nod and eye contact between a man and a woman,
almost invisible to anyone else, signifying an invitation and
acceptance to dance before either move to take their place
on the dance floor".
has many codigos, codes of practice that have evolved around the dance
over the last 100+ years. The cabeceo is still actively used in many
milongas in Buenos Aires and in some, like the very traditional Club
Español, when men sit on one side of the room and women on
it is the only way to get a dance with a milonguita or tanguero.
Some European ladies travelling to Buenos Aires for the first time are
puzzled by their inability to get dances. They experience a man ask
dance with a 'cabeceo' and accept the invite only to see him walk off
before he reaches her seat. The reason for this is the woman must hold
the gaze of the tanguero as he approaches
her. If she looks away, this signifies a change of mind. If she looks
away, he will nonchalantly change direction and abandon the invitation
without any loss of face as the whole exchange was known only
the two of them. Strangers to Buenos Aires, European women expecially,
will find the intensity of gaze of a Tanguero too much and will
automatically divert their eyes. Game lost: Argentina 1, Europe 0.
When Debbie and I were in Buenos Aires, the locals told us a joke: How
does a Porteño commit suicide? He jumps off his own ego.
ability to laugh and joke about themselves should not dilute the
message that lays beneath the surface. Ego is king, especially on the
dance floor. A Porteño will not do anything that puts his
risk, and this includes being openly refused a dance by a stranger.
Thus the cabeceo evolved.
The argument for the cabeceo
like to use the cabeceo to invite a woman to dance. I don't use it here
as carefully as I would in say Club Español. The more formal
am, the further away from the woman I will be to ask with a nod. I like
to convey a feeling of respect and focus on a partner as much as I like
to receive it. I like the feeling of using the dance floor as a theatre
space that demands attention to detail and body awareness in the same
way an athlete shapes his body and sharpens his mind to his sport. The
theatre starts as soon as I hear the music and decide who I would like
to share it with. We all have reasons to say no to a dance at some
time. The less confrontational an invite is the more easily a dancer
can politely decline - we also carry a lot of ego here in the UK. Who
knows why someone says no (or would like to say no but cannot find a
way to do it politely). The exquisite agony of the stilleto, the
delicate balance of keeping cool enough to dance without breaking
sweat, the simple fact that the music does not do it for you. There are
many legitimate reasons for a polite 'no' that a formal cabeceo
facilitate without any loss of face.
The argument against the cabeceo
are more women than men these days, and waiting for a man to ask you to
dance is like buying a £30 pair of Comme il Faut shoes. It
goin' to happen. So naturally the women get pro-active and start asking
the men without any nod or wink. European men find it difficult to
project attitude and presence (sadly) and the cabeceo is another
obstacle to place in their path to the dance floor. The days of spoken
etiquette are gone. When did you last call someone 'sir' or 'madam'
unless you were in Court?
have tried to write the 'fors' and 'againsts' dispassionately, but I
struggled to find convincing reasons not to use
a cabeceo. The argument
is a complex one, because it involves variables like personal ability,
confidence, even the ambient lighting and layout of the dance space.
But I like the formality, not a rigid formality but the essence of
using the invitation as the start of a process of collaboration with
each other and with the music. If you disagree, I would love
read your thoughts and publish them on this page.
Morrall, June 2008
If any of the articles on this page inspire, provoke or compel you to answer, your thoughts are always welcomed and encouraged.
|A male dancer
||A scenario penned by a male dancer Read
|A female dancer
||"I think this sort of thing is all twaddle..." Read
|A male dancer
||"I can't see any other way: Read
|A female dancer
||"With their eyes only" Read
|A male dancer
||"If you are Steve, Eduardo or Michael, do you ever
get refused, anyway!!??" Read
|A male dancer
||"He walks, appearing unconcerned, near the tables
at the edge of the dance floor." Read
My eyes survey the ladies waiting expectantly
in the subdued light across the floor of the salon.
Expectantly? They seem quite happily engrossed in their talk entrenched
behind those wretched tables! Which man is fool enough to walk into any
women’s circle without major trepidation, especially a new
dancer like me? Hmm.
You’d need laser-accurate vision to single out the right one
amongst them. Short-sight can let you down very badly. Can’t dance close embrace with my
glasses on. Contact lenses in future?
That one at
the back’s a very nice person but too far from the floor.
Ahh. There’s the flash as our eyes meet and lock.
Don’t drop the gaze! Blast it! These other chaps are weaving
across my path. Was she looking at him? Who’ll get there
first? Have to avoid catching the eyes of the other ladies. I feel like
a Spitfire caught in a dozen searchlights.
Oh NO! I must
have cross-eyes. The wrong one’s offering her hand.
Too late to change direction nonchalantly. No Escape ! I’ve
got THAT ONE. She’s a real Leading Lady who’ll
kindly rest all her weight on my chest. It’ll be like riding
a uni-cycle carrying a pile of damp blankets.
have to survive three tunes from 1930, all sounding the same. Could do with a stiff drink but you
can’t drink and dance successfully. Try again. Those two side-by-side should be
easier to approach….....
Well it was
easier (BP just 200/120) but they both locked on to my gaze and the one
I didn’t put my hand out to is now looking severely
dis-chuffed. You see I rejected her and took away her chum.
Ho Hum. What Joy
Not to put too fine a point on it, I think this
sort of thing is all twaddle...
...and the sooner the tango fraternity stops encouraging affectations
which may have their place in Argentina but are hardly appropriate for
your average village hall in the UK, and spend more energy
getting us up tight Brits to relax, and just enjoy our
dancing rather than feel intimated/
confused/ inferior/ superior by the whole tango ethos, the
A few suggestions:
- The year is
2008. It is perfectly OK for women to ask men to dance. Indeed if you
want to dance, it’s often necessary . Who knows some men may
actually welcome it?
- All we require
(men and women) is a friendly smile. It works every time. I find a
simple smiley “Are you dancing?” usually suffices.
- We all get
rejected occasionally on the dance floor. It’s not a major
disaster, loss of face, pride, man/womanhood or whatever.
perhaps tango etiquette put more emphasis on
dancing with anyone and everyone, and the positive
benefits this can bring , rather than bang on about connection ,
passion (when did you last see this at a milonga???) and this rule and
that rule, we might all get more dances, and we and our tango
be enriched for it.
- For all its
mystique, let us not forget it’s still only
I can't see any other way
I can't see that anyone is qualified to assert otherwise. Thats the way
it is, in Argentine tango, surely. And anyway, what's the alternative?
Yes, men can approach women, face to face, but what if the woman would
prefer not to dance with him? The man presents the woman with the
dilemma of appearing to be rude if she declines, and he will never know
why she agreed to dance with him, if she does agree. I would say that
the public invitation to dance almost amounts to a sort of sexual
harrassment, however good the intention, because its very difficult for
her to decline. I wouldn't want to feel forced to dance with any
She might agree for a number
of reasons, because anyone will do, or because you are her her boss, or
her husband, or her teacher, or it may be that she declines because she
lacks confidence, or doesn't respond to your turn out, and your tango
persona, whatever, but without capucea, you'll never know. What sort of
basis is that for a successful partnership in the embrace? It seems
doomed to fail. He shouldn't put her, or himself, in that position,
surely and it seems to me that if you eliminate cabucea you leave a
gaping hole in tango. It is a 'codigo de milonga' and its there for a
some very good reasons.
The essential point about
cabucea, apart from the fact that it makes everything so easy when
looking for partners, is that it is fundamental to the contract between
the follower and the leader when they agree to meet on the floor. In
cabucea you start out as equals. You can't dance with everyone, because
in most cases the chemistry will not be there, because that's the way
it is. If you are happy to pace the floor with a partner with whom you
have no chemistry, well so be it, but it wont be tango. It'll be
But the real beauty of cabucea
is that it enables people to identify partners with whom the chemistry
is there, from a distance. Those are the people you want to dance with,
and the reciprocated look across the floor tells you all you need to
know. I don't believe its anything to do with a supposed Argentine ego,
and if it is, it doesn't matter. Cabucea transcends language, ability,
fashion, looks, and its the only way that I know to find out who you
should be dancing with. At its best it signals that instant recognition
that your tango will be a success and that it will sustain you all
evening, and that you need to know this person better, something you
may well miss, if, as a leader you confront, in person, a follower with
whom you have no chemistry, and request, or perhaps demand, that she
dance with you. If you need to speak to a follower to get her
to dance with you, you probably shouldn't be dancing with her.
I can't see any other way.
Keep an eye out for Danny's book soon to be published called "Buenos Aires - City of Broken Dreams" Ed
Time after time after hopeful
time I sit around the extremes of the dance floor waiting, politely to
be asked to dance, but to no avail. I have deemed that nobody, but
nobody wanted to dance with a crabbed old woman like me.
then just how I perked up on reading your "dissertation" / "thoughts"
on the CABECEO.
I suddenly realized in a
glorious flash that probably ZILLIONS of those young bucks had indeed
been begging me for a dance. With their eyes only. It's just .....I
hadn't actually SEEN them....
Your note on
the 'cabaceo' was interesting.
I've certainly experienced that quite a
lot at our dances. I didn't know about the eye contact bit but
obviously neither did the person I'd 'asked, as I still got the dance!
Obviously refusals can have a
big impact on one's ego, though (refusals) do not seem anything of a
problem, at our 'local' dances, do thay? At least I cannot say I have
experienced a problem and I haven't met anyone else who has, though I
accept, if someone did, their ego might not let them admit it.
(If you are Steve, Eduardo or
Michael, do you ever get refused, anyway!!??) (Yes, Ed) though I have to say, one
well known lady at our dances did say to me recently, she'd be too
nervous to ask Eduardo for a dance!
That is the same for us
leaders, though - we tend to mainly ask those we can feel 'safe' with.
Also, its much easier to ask someone who's more of a beginner than we
are, than it is to ask someone we know is a better or more experienced
dancer than ourselves. I, for one, find that quite daunting but I know
others do too and for myself would only venture into that territory, if
I was on a 'high' at the time.
He walks, appearing
unconcerned, near the tables at the edge
of the dance floor.
The music is just beginning, and he wants to dance.
are sitting at the tables – one or two glance in his
direction, but as he
returns the glance, they look away. No-one notices.
As he looks at one girl, she holds his glance,
eyes meet. An
invitation to dance
has been offered, and accepted.
he moves towards her, she stands up. They have never met,
and do not speak. For a lingering moment, they stand facing each other,
aware of their intention: to dance a tango to this music, in this
this person. He extends his left hand, and holds it in the air, level
shoulder. Gracefully but deliberately, she brings her right hand up to
– a magic moment, as they touch for the first time.
each other's personal space, and are strangers no longer.
He waits – the
next move is up to her. She must decide
how close the couple is going to be. She steps a little closer, and
right hand on his left shoulder, or is it his upper arm, or is it close
his neck? She has made a choice, which will guide him in how the dance
Now he must respond – he extends his right arm,
elbow briefly against her rib-cage – this is the first time
touched her body, and he does not want to surprise her. Gently, he
wraps his right
arm around her back, creating now a circle of safety between his two
outstretched arms, in which they will dance.
They are standing
together in the line of dance, where other
couples are moving – they cannot tarry there for long. Both
listen to the
beat of music, and he must decide when to begin to move to it. Each is
the other's body, and with the slightest of swaying
movements, in tune with
each other and with the music, they are ready to begin dancing together.
She feels his intention
to move almost before he does so;
she responds to his invitation almost before he has made it. The step
takes will set the tone of their dance – it may be gentle,
energetic, or all or none of these. But she will know - they are
together before they take a single step. Their three-minute journey has