In praise of active cabeceo by followers

I’ve officially written so many blog posts I can’t remember which ones I have or haven’t written … As with Etonathon, I thought I’d written this one before, but can’t find any evidence for this.

In my previous post, I mentioned a follower friend who was feeling too shy to cabeceo a leader she felt was too far above her tango pay-grade. I tried to persuade her, based on my own experience of having many more acceptances than declines from far more advanced followers, but ended up having to take executive action

In most things, I wouldn’t dream of offering advice to a follower. But there is one thing I can comment on, from a leader perspective: the art of active cabeceo.

Some London schools do teach cabeceo, but in my view it doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves, given the massive difference it can make to your dance experience – for leaders and followers alike. To me, it’s one of the most important skills in tango, and can mean the difference between a great deal of sitting and a great deal of dancing. Arguably, in terms of how much time you spend on the dance floor, your cabeceo skills are even more important than your dance skills.

In particular, a surprising number of followers seem to view it as a passive process – that cabeceo is mostly the domain of leaders. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

The traditional mirada/cabeceo

It always feels slightly odd to write about tango traditions from all of my four years of tango experience. So let’s just call this my own understanding/interpretation of the tradition.

I’m going to deliberately break with my usual practice, and use the terms man and woman rather than leader and follower. That’s because I do think that gender plays a role in what happens here, of which more in a moment. If you’re a dual-role dancer, or a non-traditional-role dancer, the chances are far greater that you’ve figured this stuff out.

In the traditional mirada/cabeceo process, it’s the woman who decides who she wants to dance with. She chooses the man whose dance interests her, and gazes at him. The mirada. The look.

The man sees her gaze and, if he wishes to accept the silent invitation, nods. The woman returns the nod to confirm the deal. If he instead looks away, the woman can turn to the next leader on her hit-list.

But what’s notable here is that, while the man can accept or decline – cabeceo or not – he cannot cabeceo a woman who is not looking at him. (I mean, he can try, and sometimes it will work, if the woman in question catches sight of it in her peripheral vision, but broadly speaking, it’s the mirada which initiates the process.)

That’s exactly what I experienced in BsAs. If a woman wants to dance with you, she will make it very clear! If she has her sights set on another leader – both literally and figuratively – then for that tanda at least, you don’t exist for her.

I don’t see many classic miradas in London. I see followers looking around in a general fashion, trying to catch the eye of any leaders they know, but a laser-focused ‘I want to dance this tanda with you specifically’ is rare. It’s very powerful stuff: I strongly recommend trying it.

I also recommend taking the advice Diego offered to me: be brave! Don’t be afraid to mirada dancers you think are out of your league. The worst that can happen is … nothing*. The best that can happen is some wonderful dances!

*Ok, I suppose the worst that can happen is they give you a withering look, but if they do that, they’re not a nice person, and it doesn’t matter how good a dancer they may look from the outside – they don’t deserve even 12 minutes of your company.

Mirada/cabeceo is an equal-opportunity sport

Traditionally, the woman miradas, the man cabeceos. But in today’s world, it’s of course usually a much more fluid process, where there isn’t a clear line between mirada and cabeceo. It doesn’t matter who first looks or who first nods. The bottom line is, if you want to dance with someone, look at them. Oh, and a smile and enquiring expression when they do look your way helps a lot, whether you’re a man or a woman.

I said that I’m deliberately using the terms man and woman rather than leader and follower here, and that’s because I think cultural expectations do play a role, even in Britain. A deep dive into the topic would be a very lengthy essay in itself, but I think most would agree that most men and women grow up with different conditioning. Men are expected to be assertive and take initiative; women are expected to be more receptive and less forthright. (That conditioning harms both men and women, in my view, but like I say, I’m not writing that essay here!)

There’s also a more specific gender factor at play, I think. Tango isn’t dating, but the dance does play on romantic stereotypes, and differing expectations of men and women are of course reflected in the stereotypes. In dating, the man is supposed to be the one to do the running, and ask out the woman, while the woman is supposed to pretend not to be taking the lead even when she very definitely is.

So I think there’s both a general and a more specific conditioning which has an impact on the way in women in particular approach cabeceo. A significant number of women either don’t appreciate that they have at least equal power in the process, and an equally significant number feel hesitant about using it.

Men can also feel intimidated

I think that whole ‘he Tarzan, she Jane’ conditioning can make it harder to see that, just as women can feel nervous about the cabeceo process, so too can men.

I’ve always been blessed with more confidence than is merited, but still found cabeceo an intimidating process at first – and have only rather recently reached the point of being unafraid to cabeceo just about anyone (I might hesitate a little in Noelia’s case).

I cannot tell you how many leaders I know who have described feeling scared to cabeceo a woman they don’t know – some of them literally years into tango.

If you’re a woman who sees finding dance partners as an equal opportunity process, and plays an active role in doing so, you’re going to be doing a lot of men a favour.

Ok, but how?

So, what can a woman do to be active in the cabeceo process? Here are a few simple suggestions …

See past the mystique

Something I once read – which transformed the way I thought about cabeceo – is that it’s no different from wanting to get served in a bar.

Your objective is to catch the eye of one of the bar staff. When you have, you’re going to use a non-verbal signal to confirm that you’re ready to order. Probably a nod and a smile. Voila! You just cabeceod someone.

An interesting thing about this is that, once I thought about it in those terms, I suddenly became very successful at queue-jumping in busy bars! While lots of people are looking at the bar staff in a general fashion, I pick one of them, and give them a laser-focused look. When they catch my eye, I give a big smile and nod. I tend to get served quickly.

Position yourself strategically

If you’re just sat hoping to get invited by someone, you may try to find a position in the room which has good general sight lines. That’s a good idea, of course, but when you want to mirada a specific leader for a specific tanda, don’t be afraid to move in order to give yourself a better chance of being seen.

This is again something I learned as a leader, and exactly the same advice applies. Put yourself in their natural field of vision, and close enough that it removes the challenge of seeing the length of a room in poor lighting. Don’t stand right in front of them – there’s a point at which an ultra-short-range cabeceo becomes as rude as a verbal request – but within a sensible range. I find somewhere around 20 feet is a good general guide.

(That said, cabeceo can sometimes work over startling distances. My proudest cabeceo moment was with a follower I didn’t know down the full length of a very long pista with lots of people already on the dance floor!)

Use the ‘advance cabeceo’

I wrote about this too in the previous piece.

By this, I mean those seated followers who watch my dancing as I pass them, and who make eye-contact and give a clear smile as I do. Essentially a cabeceo for a future tanda.

Naturally, when they do this to me, they have selected me and me alone for this treatment, but you could use it for every leader on the floor whose dancing appeals to you. It really works!

When in doubt, smile and nod!

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve cabeceod a follower who looks at me, looks either side of her to see if it’s for someone else, and then fails to respond in any visible manner! I’m left uncertain whether or not my cabeceo has been accepted.

Talking to other leaders, this is a very, very, very common experience! So, if you think you’re being cabeceod, or you think you might be, or you think that you’re probably not but who knows, just smile and nod. If it was for you, you just got yourself a tanda. If it wasn’t for you, but the target follower failed to respond, then maybe you got yourself a tanda anyway!

I know a lot of followers are paranoid about getting it wrong, and standing up to approach a leader who was actually walking toward the person next to you. There’s a very simple solution to this: remain seated, and keep eye contact with the leader, until they are standing in front of you and there’s no longer any doubt.

Don’t stop looking after the first song

There may be any number of reasons a leader cabeceos a follower on the second or third song – but by this time, most followers are deeply in conversation, or head down in their phone, and no longer looking.

Some leaders make it a policy to invite an unknown follower for the final song of the tanda. Then if it’s bad, they only need dance one song; if it’s good, they can suggest waiting to see what’s coming next.

But there can also be mundane reasons. They just returned from the bar or the bathroom to find one of their favourite orchestras playing, and want to dance whatever remains of the tanda. Maybe they didn’t like the first song, but love the current one. Perhaps they only just arrived, and hurried to put on their shoes to dance a beautiful tanda.

This has been me on a number of occasions, and it’s super-frustrating not to be able to catch a follower’s eye when I know they too would like to dance it. (I’m very reluctant to issue a verbal invitation, even with friends, as I feel really strongly about cabeceo.)

By all means, chat away with your friends – but don’t stop looking around. They’re tango buddies: they will understand the lack of eye-contact; ditto walking away mid-sentence!

Finally, don’t be afraid to decline an invitation

Another thing I hear very frequently from follower friends is that they’re afraid to turn down any invitation, because they fear that might get them a reputation as a diva or similar. Please don’t ever be afraid to turn down an invitation you don’t want to accept.

Especially from the ‘handeceo’ guys – the ones who walk right up to you and hold out their hands. They are the leaders who are either so unfamiliar with tango they don’t know the most basic of codigos, or simply can’t get dances without pressuring a follower. Either way, that’s not going to be a good dance, and anyone seeing the result may well think the terrible dancing is you rather than him! I know quite a few experienced followers who have no qualms about saying a simple ‘No’ both firmly and loudly, to discourage such behaviour. If I witness that, it increases my interest in that follower, rather than decreases it.

If you want to politely decline a cabeceo, there are ways of doing so. A smile before a sad shake of the head is a good way of communicating ‘Not now, thanks, but I appreciate you asking.’

If you don’t want to dance right now, but would welcome an invitation from the same person later in the evening, I’ve found that smiling, tapping my watch, and giving a questioning look is very effective. Indeed, I’ve mimed conversations across a room that amount to:
Them: Dance?
Me: Not right this minute, but could we dance later?
Them: Sure
Me: Great, I look forward to it

Those are a few thoughts from me, but if you have other suggestions – especially approaches which have worked for you – please do share them in the comments.

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