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With Just One Look - The Art of Cabeceo


I can still conjure up the elation I had after my first successful cabeceo at a milonga in Buenos Aires. It felt like I had finally spoken the language. Sitting at the corner of the floor, I had been waiting for several tandas (set of 3 or 4 songs), smiling and trying to look relaxed as if this was all part of the evening. Inside I was a bundle of butterflies and eager to get out onto the floor. As the music of the cortina (a piece of music played between tandas to signal the end of a tanda) finished, I tried to look casual while scanning the room for anyone looking towards me. I caught the eye of a milonguero (dancer) I had seen on the dance floor several tandas earlier. Smiling, I returned his gaze with gentle indication and gave a small nod after he mouthed ‘Bailas?’  (you dance?) to me. I waited nervously as he made his way over and held out his hand to indicate that it was indeed me that he had indicated an invitation to dance. Delighted, I led the way onto the dance floor and thus began my understanding of the joy of the cabeceo.

The subtle art of cabeceo is the traditional and respected way to ask for a dance at a milonga. As you sit and watch the dancers at a milonga, you may be fascinated at how a man and a woman on opposite sides of the dance floor can come together to dance without having exchanged a word. So the story goes, the cabeceo minimises public embarrassment from rejection and eases congestion as invitations to dance can be conducted quickly and simply from your chair. It is suggested that back in the early 20th Century, eye contact was made between two dancers and the man made his way over to the table to politely ask for the dance. If there had been confusion and the woman rejected the man, he had to leave the milonga and she had to remain seated for the entire tanda. If she accepted another dance, the man and his friends would never ask her to dance again.

Since then, the cabeceo has evolved (it is rare for a man to leave a milonga after one rejection) and has the potential to  make dancers from other countries a little nervous. Occasionally foreigners get lumped into a ´not respecting tradition’ pile because they use a direct approach of walking up to a table and asking someone to dance. Coming from New Zealand, I understand this. The tango community at weekly milongas can be small and everyone knows almost everyone so you become friends and feel comfortable asking directly.

But there are codigos (codes) to be followed and as tangueros, dancers should follow them. Adapted from websites online, here is a quick list of tips to help you understand the beauty of the cabeceo.

1. Watch the dancers. This is important for both men and women! It is a risk to choose to dance with someone that you haven’t seen dancing before for many reasons and it is not a good idea to judge a book by its cover.

2. Have your choice of partner (with back ups) decided. Of course your decision may change depending on the music that begins to play, but this should be relatively easy if you’ve already taken heed of Tip 1.

3. Use a purposeful stare without being intense. Men: if eye contact is not made or you get the feeling that you are being ignored, move on to your second choice. Women: Do not make extended eye contact with those you have no intention of dancing with. Also, make sure you indicate interest to those you do want to dance with by a smile or a simply nod of the head. NB: If you do make eye contact with someone you do not wish to dance with, make no reaction and look away.

4. Once the invitation has been sent and recieved, Men: walk over to the woman (not directly through the middle dance floor) and stand in front of the woman. Women: remain seated until the man is standing in front of you and it is clear that the invitation was for you. NB: it is possible in a crowded milonga for tandas to be accidentally ‘stolen’ due to a miscommunication between two women. Women, when it appears a man is looking at you, they may be actually be looking to the woman beside you. So it is best to wait until the man reaches you and you are absolutely sure the dance is for you.

5. When the dance is finished, it is respectful for the man to accompany the woman back to her seat before returning to his own.

Naturally, there are humourous and awkward stories that arise from when a cabeceo goes wrong, but these simply add to the colourful tapestry of the life of a milonguero.  Be sure to share them.

Websites of interest:

http://www.tangoandchaos.org/chapt_3search/6cabeceo.htm - Contains an 8-step tutorial from Alejandra Todaro on ‘How to Cabeceo’

http://www.totango.net/cabeceo.html - contains stories and discussion about the cabeceo


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