Behind your Back

(Tango at a nightclub in Buenos Aires, 1924. Source:

A Scenario for Leaders:

Your favorite orquestra begins to play and the follower you enjoy most for that music is looking for your cabeceo at just the right moment. You meet at the edge of the dance floor, look for the nod from the leader behind you, and as the first few bars play, you find the most blissful embrace in each other's arms.

Just as you take your first step, another leader suddenly enters the line of dance, butt first, backing into your surprised partner. Oblivious to the run in, he takes off down the line of dance. The spell is broken and now you and your partner have to wonder if this tanda is going to be spent in "defensive driving" mode.

This scenario, or a similar one, happens at almost every milonga I attend. This is after we had a very well attended workshop discussing, in detail, how to enter the line of dance.

I've written about this before, and I've discussed it on forums, in emails, and in person. For every leader who uses the "male cabeceo" and enters the line of dance respectfully, there are 2 or 3 who don't - or don't know how. I know dancers don't mean to be rude or disrespectful on the pista. I don't believe anyone intends to be impolite and many people don't know that there is a better way to do things. I also know it can be awkward to try to make eye contact with other leaders - particularly if they ignore you, or blatantly move into the room you need to enter the dance floor.

Leaders, if you think it's awkward trying to make eye contact and get "permission" to enter the dance floor, take a look at it from your partner's point of view.

Behind your Back

Here's what happens from my perspective when my leader barges into the line of dance.

My leader's back is turned so he doesn't get to see the expression on the other leader's face - I do. When my leader cuts off another leader in the line of dance, I have to, with my facial expression and the look in my eyes, apologize for my leader's behavior and acknowledge the space the other leader has had to give up for us. Even when it is completely accidental and both couples simply misjudged the room they had, which happens quite often, the follower and the leader behind, frequently acknowledge each other with a mutually apologetic nod - just as when you brush or bump another couple. It happens - but there are ways to minimize that, and courteous ways to handle it when it does happen. I've been rightfully chided when I've broken the rules and those lessons have been more important to me than much of the material I learned in my classes.

The reality is that followers should be every bit as responsible for following proper etiquette on the dancer floor and when a leader charges on to the pista, she often, though not always, has an opportunity to "suggest" that her leader at least acknowledge the gentleman behind him. Followers also have the responsibility to respect the line of dance and not jump in front of a couple themselves.

How we enter the line of dance sets the tone for that tanda. It affects not only us, but the couple behind us. That chain reaction of acknowledgment, or lack of acknowledgment, sets the mood of the entire pista.

Something that does still baffle me, is that it took visiting teachers to bring this point of floor craft to everyone's attention. This isn't a new concept - it's published all over the web (there are 3 examples below). This should be a fundamental part of any tango curriculum. When it's not, it shows. It's exasperating to see the same behavior again and again.

When Murat and Michelle brought up in the class, followers practically cheered out loud because leaders, if you think you're uncomfortable making eye contact with other leaders - how uncomfortable do you think we are having to look at the angry face of the leader you just cut off?

More resources about floor craft:


"Leaders when entering the line of dance, make eye contact with the on coming traffic of leaders and acknowledge that you’d like to enter the line of dance and ONLY enter when you have consented acknowledgment of the leader next in the lane of dance. This also means do NOT allow your follower to jump onto the floor or into the flow of dance. YOU as a leader are responsible for her. However if there is an open gap in the line of dance, you MAY be able to slip in, but that gap should be several partners wide. Don’t think a few feet here, but rather YARDS of space."
From Tango Colorado

"Entering the Line of Dance: Please be aware that the line of dance is moving on the outside lane as you step into the line. Wait for a slight break in the line and be courteous to the couple coming up behind you. Frequently there are only one or two places where couples enter the dance floor so be aware of everyone around you."

From Niko Salgado:
"When entering an already active floor even if it's the beginning of the song in the middle of a tanda, it is effective to visually catch the attention of the leader dancing in the outside lane to let them know you are entering. It's like asking permission. Being cut off in line or in traffic is very annoying. This respects the flow of the dance floor. Sometimes you have to wait for the next one if the leader is not paying attention. Do not just jump in, that's for the beginning of the tanda."


Tango Therapist said...

Agree 100%. Another dimension is that women in DC (like no other place I have dance)walk out onto the dance floor, leading the man and disregarding "traffic." I have learned to make sure that I have her on my arm. Then the second thing happen -- men not used to anyone being polite do not let me in. The mistake is caused by poor teaching. I was thinking that DC would have some culture to it. Although I am limited -- milongas (14 US Cities, 7 European Cities), I have never seen it as bad as DC. And the blame is squarely some teachers who fail to teach tango beyond steps -- including (and maybe especially)"famous" teachers, who teach eye-candy dancing that translates as anti-social dancing on a shared floor. //End of rant//

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mari, for bringing this ("the male cabeceo") to my attention. As a leader, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I had never given this a lot of thought until I read one of your earlier posts. And I would also like to mention that the milonga I went to, shortly after reading your last post on this subject, and while it was fresh in my mind, was one of the most satisfying milongas I can ever remember attending... You are right, when enough people pay attention to details like this, it can change the feeling of an entire evening.

Marika said...

@TangoTherapist - thank you for your comments as always. I'm finding, by talking to dancers all over the world, that when the local classes don't provide the sort of guidance a community needs, then it falls to the dancers in the community to create the experience they want to have. From what I've heard from folks in other cities, it's a long, slow process - but it can work. It takes patience, empathy, and the assumption that people want to do the right things. In Austin, the seeds have been planted - now it's up to each of us to support the change we want.

@anonymous - As you said, it definitely can make a tremendous difference to the mood on the pista when even a few leaders make a point to do it. But even if you're the only one doing it, even when another leader cuts you off, or ignores you, when you try - it makes a big difference to your follower that you tried. If she's not familiar with the codigos, she may not even know why it feels different - it just feels safer. It lets her know, consciously or not, that dancing harmoniously with everyone else on the floor is a priority for you - and that helps keeps her safe.

ADDENDUM: I think my tone, despite my best editing efforts, is still a bit shrill in this post - I apologize for that. And I didn't take the time to recognize the several leaders who are actually observing, and thereby promoting, this custom - I apologize for that also. I appreciate it so very much - far more than I can express at the time.

Regarding some email I've received this morning, when I hear people make the assumption that dancers don't care to learn about floor craft, I think it can do a huge disservice to those dancers who would actually like to know - but simply don't know what they don't know. I hope that makes sense. How can anyone make an informed decision on a topic that they don't know exists? Floor craft and the subject of codigos may have to sneaked into other class topics, the way that Murat and Michelle did it - but it is possible to convey this information in a meaningful way.