‘Cabeceo’ the art of inviting to dance Tango according to me is the most important part of dancing in a milonga. End of the day, milonga is not just about dancing but also is about the culture that surrounds it.
It is controversial, confusing, dreadful and regressive to some but an important tool that makes life easy and empowering for others.
Points I am going to make here are my opinions. They are solely based on my experience in Buenos Aires and what I saw first-hand.
Cabeceo is the most used method to ask for a dance in BA traditional milongas. Thus it is very important to know how it works and learn it before travelling to BA.
First important thing for good Cabeceo is the seating in traditional milonga. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the room in such milongas. Do arrive early and be regular to the milonga to get good seats.
Also go alone. Rather sit alone. Even if you go with a partner, sit separately. Unless you only want to dance with each other. Also sit in the corner chair. This way you will get to cabeceo the front rows and side rows, when the floor gets filled.
When it comes to Cabeceo, subtler the better. In BA, Cabeceos are direct and clear; yet subtle. Mastered over many milongas, I guess. Also they are quick. As soon as the tanda begins, Cabeceos fly all over the place and couples get formed.
Cabeceo – Men
First tip I would like to give men, is to kinda decide before the tanda starts who you want to probably ask next. May be a 1st and a 2nd choice. You can ask one of them depending on the tanda that will be played.
Also, you can start with a pre-cabeceo during Cortina. i.e. to look towards the partner you would like to dance with and maybe make eye contact to indicate that you might be interested in dancing with them. But do not invite during the Cortina. Wait for the tanda to begin. You and her, both do not know what tanda would be played next.
Invite from your seat. In fact, walking near partner to cabeceo is not possible in many milongas like El Beso. Few milongas like Salon Canning, it is possible to walk in the aisles.
To be honest, very few did this. Mainly tango “sharks” that prey on tourists and over eager dancers did this. I did accept dances from a few of them in the beginning. They were not necessarily bad dances. I said yes because I had seen them dancing before. Still, may be not a good Idea. Women sitting on my table frowned at such men. You do not want to be that person, right? Also, there is nothing like a long-distance cabeceo. It is just amazing.
Once you make eye contact, do head tilt to invite. If she accepts, maintain eye contact while you walk towards the lady. If there has been a misunderstanding, it will become obvious at this point. You can retreat in such case. Walk until you are by her chair. She will get up at this point and you can escort her to the floor.
If two women get up, don’t worry. Misunderstandings happen to everybody. Say you are sorry for the misunderstanding to the other lady and put your hand out to the lady you intended to dance. May be you can ask the other lady one of the next tandas.
Cabeceo – Women
Scan the room to look for your favourite dancer or probable Cabeceos. Do not move much. You need to give some time for the man to cabeceo you. If you never look at him, he can never invite you.
If a man is looking in your direction, and you want to dance with him, hold the gaze and wait for some time for his invitation. He will either invite you with a head tilt or lip movement. Like mouthing the word Dance. You then respond with a smile and nod to accept.
Be seated until he arrives next to your table or chair. Do NOT stand-up. I cannot stress this enough. The room will be super crowded. Everybody is seated very close to each other in multiple rows. He may be cabeceoing someone next to you or behind you. This is a recipe for confusion. Maintain eye contact as he approaches to be certain that cabeceo was meant for you. This confusion can be minimized but not entirely eliminated by practice.
Once you are certain that cabeceo was meant for you, you can stand-up and accompany him to the dance floor. Generally men escort women to the dance floor by extending hand. They also escort you back to your table or the very least till the end of dance floor after the tanda.
If you happen to make eye contact by mistake with someone you do not wish to dance with, show no reaction at all, and look away quickly!
Women, you can definitely initiate cabeceo. This is what worked for me. I did not do the direct cabeceo, but an indirect one. Let me explain.
Say you would like to dance with this person. First thing you need to establish is familiarity. They need to feel comfortable to ask you to dance. Smile at them. Greet them if you get a chance. You can do this during tanda breaks too. This is what happens in BA. Say the partner you are dancing with finishes the song at the table the person is sitting. You can turn to the table, smile and say hi. Very brief. Do it to the whole table. I have mostly been in situations were my partner knew the people sitting at the table and he greeted them and introduced me.
Once you establish familiarity, now the ball is in their court. While scanning the room, look towards them, wait few seconds to give them chance to cabeceo/invite you. If they do not, move on. This works most of the time in my experience. Confidence, personality, looks and dancing skills help too.
Cabeceo – Both
First familiarise yourself. Greet people when you enter the room or cross them. It is a custom in BA.
Cabeceo happens in so many ways, be alert. They come from all directions. From far across the floor. Point is to make eye contact.
Be in constant circulation. If you sit without dancing too long, it looks like no one wants to dance with you and dancers may assume that you don’t dance well or do not wish to dance. Sad truth.
Be careful who you cabeceo. Tandas are of 4 songs and sometimes 5 songs! It can really get tiring and put you and your body in bad position. You may not dance next tandas well because of this. In doubt, cabeceo after 1st or 2nd song to be on safer side.
At some Milongas you may have to accept the fact that you are not going to be dancing much. In such cases either head to another Milonga or go home and rest that night.
I was hardly ever asked to dance verbally. It was always via Cabeceo. It only happened at occasions where we were sitting on the same table.
I sat in the second row for my first milonga in BA but after that I got to sit in the front row and later even on main tables with milonguero friends. Milongueros have their table fixed. It is passed from one to another like an inheritance. They invite their friends to sit with them at the table. Key thing is to be regular and arrive early.
Contrary to belief that you get to dance very less on your first visit to BA. I danced to my heart’s content. Never was a time I wanted to dance and sat for long. It is all about familiarity. They need to find you familiar. Be regular and greet people once you enter the room or when you cross them.
It took one week for milongueros to start asking me to dance. They did one after another thru following weeks. One of them thanked me for accepting the invite and told me that his table was talking about me. So yes, they watch and discuss you. Few of my best dances were with them.
I did go thru Cabeceo confusion. Good thing I did was, I did not stand-up. I and the girl sitting next to me both thought it was for us. We turned to each other and started to smile and discuss to who could it be. It was none of us! It was another girl sitting to my other side! We both had a good laugh. When he really cabeceod us next, we were like, is he really cabeceoing us? We were right this time. So be seated. It will help you avoid embarrassing situations.
Few last points before I close the article.
Dancing back to back tandas is very rare but happens. I have both accepted and declined such an offer. I did when the connection between us was really good.
People do not ask you to dance for many reasons. Do not take it personally. May be they are still unfamiliar with you. Or they think there is huge gap in dancing level (more or less). The dance style could be different. One man even told me that he only asks tall women. (He was very tall). So you can never know. And it is ok.
Also sometimes two good dancers need not be compatible in embrace. Can’t explain this one in much detail.
Lastly, do what comes to you naturally. Practice before to make Cabeceo second nature to you. I am thankful that we here in Bangalore, stress on this and use cabeceo in our milongas. It helped me a lot in BA.
I am posting here videos of cabeceo at Cachirulo Milonga in BA. These videos are not shot by me. I found them over internet. They perfectly capture the Cabeceos from both men and women. Do note the subtlety of the Cabeceos. You can see some of the regular Argentinian dancers in these videos.
Cabeceo – Men
Cabeceo – Women