From the Mail Bag - More on the Cabeceo

Images, edited for this post, were obtained from

I received two emails from readers, one leader and one follower, regarding my continued "rabid" support of the "archaic" cabeceo.* (All I wrote in the last post was that a good, clear cabeceo knocks my socks off. I didn't think that sounded rabid.) Normally I simply agree to disagree. You can choose to participate in this custom or not - no one, not even me, is going to force you. This time, however, I couldn't help noting that in previous messages to me, they had both complained about not getting the dances, with the dancers, that they wanted. So I asked if the cabeceo was at least moderately used in their communities. As it turns out, yes - about half or more people use it in these two separate communities. My answer to them? You can't have it both ways. If you choose to ask verbally in a community that uses the cabeceo, or where the dancers you most want to dance with use it, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage - no one is doing it to you.

You can complain about the cabeceo and choose not to use it but understand that if it is used in your community, you are going to likely miss out on at least some dances from dancers who do use it. It's not "prejudice" as one of them suggested - it's simple logistics. By the time you walk over to a dancer to verbally ask them to dance, they have likely already made eye contact and accepted the cabeceo of another dancer. The leader replied, "but the codigos say I should wait until the music starts to ask, so I'm at a disadvantage because in that instance I am following the rules!" Generally speaking, so did the gentleman who cabeceo'd the dancer you wanted to dance with. Walking and asking just takes longer.

It's also not just about the instance a man makes eye contact with me and nods - the individual cabeceo itself. When the custom is in use in a community there are conversations going on all around you all the time using nothing more than smiles, raised eye brows, an occasional wink - a look that says, I can't right now, but ask me later. Body language, non-verbal cues, and slight gestures are going on all around - we do it whether we mean to or not. The codigos simply make use of something we already do to make the process of inviting and accepting (or declining) elegantly efficient - when the conditions are right. Lots of factors can work against the cabeceo - poor eye sight, poor lighting and awkward seating are the most common culprits - so sometimes you just can't make it work. That's why ask, when people complain about the cabeceo, if a significant number of the community's dancers use it. If they are - then they're finding a way to make it work.

I'm not saying that every community should, or even can, use the cabeceo. Every community, even every milonga, can have a personality of its own -and it simply may not be appropriate or feasible. But if dancers around you are using it, and you're choosing not to, you can be unintentionally limiting your options. Getting mad at the tradition doesn't really help your case.

* I received their permission to quote their emails.


Deirdre said...

I love the cabeceo - from a woman's perspective I find it empowering. I can ask for a dance, say yes or no, say I will will dance one track or two, say my feet hurt or love to later - all with body language. In Buenos Aires I was never short of a dance using this form of communication. And I certainly love the men who use it here in UK.

I know some people are not comfortable about eye contact, I know some leaders stand in front of you and ask making it very difficult to refuse, I know it perhaps isn't our culture but you know tango, for me at least, has been like learning a totally new language and the cabeceo is a wonderful part of it.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you on this. I find that I get the most dances with the best dancers at milonags where the cabeceo is used. And I find that the better the dancers are, the more likely they are to use cabeceo. However, I also have no objections at all to being asked to dance directly and no problem saying a polite "no, thanks" (without giving any excuses) if I don't want to dance with someone.

In case anyone is interested, I give a description of how the cabeceo is used in Buenos Aires here:

Marika said...

Deirdre - Thank you so much for your comment! I agree that learning tango was really like learning a whole new language - in such a beautiful way.

Terpischoral - Thanks for the comment and the link. Most of the time I don't have a problem accepting verbal invites either - except when the leader is then offended that I said no thank you. :/