The practicality and poetry of the cabeceo: Where the dance begins

There’s a magic to the cabeceo. To make eye contact across a room, with a woman I’ve never met before, whose name I do not know, whose language I may not speak, and be able to invite her to dance – and have my invitation accepted – without a single word being exchanged.

Cabeceo is, for me, one of the most beautiful things about tango. I love it for its practicality, but also for its poetry. For me, it’s the first step in the dance …

There are many myths and legends in tango. The giro being invented by a bricklayer studying the way the rope unfurled as he lifted a bucket of bricks. The ocho cortado accidentally created by a leader who intended to lead a giro then found his path blocked by the movement of another couple. Men not being allowed to enter a milonga until they had served a two-year apprenticeship as a follower of their peers. Tango being born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires.

Cabeceo, too, has its legends. That when tango started to become accepted within polite society, it would be unthinkable for a woman to invite a man to dance, so she would instead gaze at her desired partner until he noticed and gave a nod of acceptance. In some versions, he would also have to obtain a nod from her chaperone.

There are those who consider the practice of the cabeceo to be as outdated as the legends of a time that likely never was. I can relate to this entirely. I remember in my early days in tango, I felt like not only did I have to learn this incredibly difficult dance, but was additionally expected to engage in these alien-feeling rituals. Worse, a ritual involving eye-contact, something which the average Brit views as somewhere in the range of rude to illegal.

But today, it’s the verbal invitation which feels alien. Even with good friends who I know would be perfectly happy with me simply asking them to dance, I still use the cabeceo almost exclusively. I am one of its staunchest defenders, and strongest advocates.

Let’s begin with the practicalities …

Tango is different to other dance

There are those who point to the acceptability of verbal invitations in almost every other form of dance, and question why tango should be different. But tango is different.

When we offer or accept an invitation, it is not for one song, but rather for three or four. That’s a long time to be dancing with someone without unambiguously wishing to do so.

Tango is also usually danced in close embrace. It’s a physically more intimate dance than most (Kazumba excepted …). The type of touch involved is such that it should never be less than wholeheartedly consensual, 100% willing.

It can also be a more emotionally intimate dance. The songs to which we are dancing are about love and longing and disappointment and regret and … As dancers, we try to express the feelings as well as the musical patterns. We have to want to have that kind of shared experience with this person in this moment.

Tango has no set moves. It instead relies on two people listening to each other. Me understanding how you hear the music; you understanding how I hear it. Having the level of connection needed to have two people move as one.

Cabeceo circumvents politeness

Brits are genetically bad at saying no. When issued with any invitation for anything we don’t want to do, it feels impossibly awkward to simply say ‘No, I don’t want to.’ Instead, we have to think of excuses – or reluctantly accept.

We’re not alone in that: it’s a human trait to a greater or lesser extent (Germans excluded, obviously). So when we issue a verbal invitation to dance, there is a significant risk that the invitee will say yes when they would really rather say no.

Female followers can be under additional pressure. If there are more followers than leaders, as is typical, she may be afraid that if she is seen or heard to refuse one invitation, other leaders may be wary of inviting her. She may thus accept an unwelcome invitation in order to protect her chances of receiving welcome ones.

I don’t want to put anyone in that position. Nor do I want to be dancing with someone who doesn’t want to dance with me. Cabeceo avoids this risk, because someone can either decline in textbook fashion – momentarily establishing eye-contact so that we know our invitation was received, then looking away – or simply ‘fail to notice’ the invitation.

Cabeceo avoids embarrassment

An alternative cabeceo legend is that a man walked across the dance floor to verbally invite a woman to dance, and she shook her head in refusal. He then had to walk all the way back across the floor, with all his friends and everyone else in the room having clearly seen him be rejected. The cabeceo was said to have been invented to avoid such humiliation.

But whatever the true origins, it is true that cabeceo protects both parties from embarrassment. If someone declines a cabeceo, there is no reason anyone else would know that it was either issued or refused.

Cabeceo encourages bravery

For the same reason – that nobody will know if we are turned down – cabeceo can encourage us to be braver in our invitations.

Diego at one point told me that it was now time for me to invite more experienced followers. That felt a little scary to do – but it would have been terrifying if I’d had to ask and be answered publicly!

As it was, I could try my luck. I was very surprised by some of the acceptances I received, and even more so when my invitations were returned next time.

It can even become a fun little game! I cabeceod one very experienced follower, who looked back at me, gave me a friendly smile, then looked away. The message I took from that was ‘not now, but try again.’ I mean, another plausible message might have been ‘Who do you think you’re kidding, pal?’ – but it turns out the former interpretation was correct. I would try her about once a month, receiving the same response, until one night she accepted.

It even gets us served faster in bars!

Instead of doing that weirdly British thing of waving a tenner or a credit card at the bar staff (“Look, I can pay for my drinks!”), I treat it as a cabeceo. I try to catch their eye, and then smile and nod when I do. It absolutely works. I’ve queue-jumped on many an occasion by doing this (please don’t tell any of my fellow Brits: they’ll have my citizenship cancelled).

But the poetry is reason enough

But even if none of these practical reasons applied, for me the poetry of the cabeceo would be enough.

Tango is about connecting with another person. I’ve talked before about BsAs having taught me to take time to settle into the embrace, that getting comfortable in each other’s arms is a part of the dance. Cabeceo is the same principle, beginning even earlier.

That eye-contact across the room is not just a very practical way of inviting someone, but is also the first point of connection. We begin the dance with that smile, that nod, the walk across the floor to meet our partner. Cabeceo is not a precursor to tango; it is tango.

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