Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a people and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

August 14, 2011

Women’s Role in Cabeceo

When a man is attracted to a woman, the first thing he does is looking at her intently. His eyes are captured, and he cannot take them away from her. The woman may respond by ignoring the man if she doesn’t want to encourage him, or looking back directly into his eyes, if she, too, is interested. The encouraged man then may wink or nod at her with intent to approach her, or he may move his eyes away from her if he decides not to pursue. This game between men and women is played everyday, everywhere.

In the milongas of Buenos Aires, this is also the game men and women play. A man looks around the dance hall to search for a partner. If he finds a woman he likes to dance with, he stares at her. The woman, who is also looking for a partner, will soon notice him. If she doesn’t want to dance with him, she turns her eyes away. If she wants to dance with him, she fixes her eyes at him and waits for him to invite her. He does so by nodding his head at her, and she responds with a nod of her head to accept his invitation. All these are done remotely without any verbal exchange.

This way of inviting a woman to dance is called cabeceo. Cabeceo becomes a part of tango mainly because tango is a very sensual and intimate experience. Argentine tango is danced in close embrace with considerable bodily contact between the partners. For a woman to involve in such an intimate activity with a man, she must first have a desire and agree to do so. Otherwise, even if she has reluctantly accepted the dance, she will be reserved, cold and dry. She will not completely surrender herself to him and dance with passion and feelings. That is why cabeceo is regarded as a necessary custom in the milongas of Buenos Aires. A milonguero will not dance with a woman unless she shows a clear desire to dance with him - by looking into his eyes and responding to his cabeceo with a smile and nod.

The advantage of cabeceo over a verbal invitation is that it allows women to participate in the partner selection process and puts them in an advantageous position. For tango to be a satisfying experience for a woman, she needs a partner matching her in skills and musicality. To find such a partner, she cannot sit there waiting. She has to actively search for him, and she has to select among all men, not just a few who come to her table. An Argentine woman does not sit there waiting for a man to come. She takes initiative in the process by willingly showing her desire to dance with the man of her choice. In that way she invites him to cabeceo her, and prevents herself from being bothered by those whom she doesn’t want to dance with.

For men, cabeceo is also a convenient way to invite a woman. To ask a woman verbally, the man needs to walk across the room to where she is. If the woman rejects him, he not only has to swallow the embarrassment, but also has to walk all the way across the room back to his seat. By then other prospective partners may already be taken, and he may have to wait till the tanda ends for the next opportunity. Whereas using cabeceo he can quickly and remotely find the woman willing to dance with him without risking being rejected by someone in front of her friends.

For cabeceo to work, women must participate in the process. If women do not actively search for a partner, then men cannot cabeceo them even if they want to. But for women to be active, tango must be an intimate experience so personal to them that they don’t want to do it with anyone other than the men of their choice, just like they don’t want to sleep with anyone other than those they love. The reason cabeceo doesn’t work in the US is that our tango hasn’t yet reached that level. Most women here are new to tango and they are not able to dance tango in a deeply personal way. They dance in an open dance hold with no bodily contact with the man. They do not surrender themselves and intimately engage themselves with the man in the dance. They sit there chatting with each other and pay no attention to the men who are watching them. They are too afraid of staring at men, and they do not know how to respond to a cabeceo (See Tango Etiquette: Eye Contact, Talking, Clique and Hierarchy). As a result, they can only wait passively for men to come, and accept any verbal invitation.

It is ironic that in macho Argentina women get to decide with whom they want to be intimate by using cabeceo, while in feminist America women have so little control on a matter so personal to them. Cabeceo is a product of a mature tango community. It results from women’s active participation in the partner selection process. It is a sign of their experience and maturity in tango. That is another reason why the milongueros only use cabeceo to invite a woman. (See How to Get More Invitations in the Milonga.)


  1. Great post!
    The cabeceo and music played in tandas followed by a cortina are the most civilized customs ever!

    I've noticed in the U.S. though that the women are not passive at all as they run around the salon asking men to dance. Sometimes they never even sit down! But here in BsAs sometimes these very same women are too shy to stare into a strange man's eyes across the floor.

    It's not easy to cabeceo, and it takes practice. But it works so well to everyone's advantage, that I wish more foreign tango communities would use it.

  2. There was a time in the early 1940s when young men had to ask the mothers' permission to dance with their daughters. If a mother didn't approve of him, it was public knowledge. That's when the practice of the cabeceo began to avoid public embarrassment.

    When a man is on the other side of the room, staring into his eyes is impossible. One has to be perceptive to the subtleties of the cabeceo. There is no opportunity for staring; it's body language that helps convey the invitation.

    Men generally invite women who are the same height - tall men search for tall women as dance partners, etc. The challenge is making a split-second connection to initiate an invitation. It works.

  3. Thanks two great tango ladies!

  4. As a leader, I don’t like to be asked to dance. I don’t mean to be mean but I want to dance with whom ever I want when the time and music are perfect. If I sit all night and never dance because the energy and music is not right, then that is fine with me. That is the only way I can enjoy it and hopefully allow my dance partner to enjoy it as well. I don’t care to dance Vals or Milonga. I prefer to watch other dance those, so I wait for the Tango.
    Once, I had seen a lady at a Milonga that I wanted to dance with. I kept looking for her most of the night. It was a very large Milonga. Just as I had seen her, another lady came up to me and asked me to dance. I could not decline the invitation since I think it would be rued. I was never able to dance with the lady I wanted to. I miss my opportunity because a lady asked me to dance.
    Some men can dance all night, with every lady that will accept and any music that is playing. I myself can not do that. It has to be right or I won’t dance.
    I try to use the cabeceo every time, but in our community it is really hard. Very few ladies use it, but when they do, it is great. It is such a wonderful and simple way to invite some one.

    1. What an interesting post and an interesting article! I wear glasses and am short sighted. I take them off when attending milongas so often miss the cabaceo. The result? I sit for ages waiting to be asked to dance. Maybe I'm old or too ugly? .... Or maybe just short sighted!

  5. I disagree with the hyperbole about tango as a: "a sensual and intimate experience" (above). Tango is more about physics & geometry, balance & movement. It may or may not be enjoyable. When it is enjoyable, that`s nice.

    The exagerated descriptions sell alot of lessons, dresses, shoes & tango paraphenalia. Tango may help people meet, but not necessarily bring the things advertised by tango promoters & entrepeneurs.

    And, though it may bring people together, it can also tear them apart. Listen to the lyrics of tango music and the many tango couples that dissolve.

    As Gavito said, "it`s just a dance".

    1. Respectfully, if you are not having (at the very least) an intimate experience you're not doing it right.

    2. Slightly less respectfully, if for you Tango (with capital T, as it is a proper name of a musical genre) is physics, geometry, etc. you obviously believe that the so-called 'Tango Nuevo' is Tango. For in 'Tango Nuevo' the emphasis are in the irrelevant crap. For me, and for most tangueros, Tango is about connection, music, sensuality, and the other 'hyperbole' with which you disagree. The things you enumerate are just tools, techniques for achievieng a seamless experience in moving together, feeling together, listening together. And it is the view of physics and geometry that is designed to sell classes, etc. Volcadas, colgadas, cagadas.

  6. If tango could be enjoyable, don’t you think that could be some people’s reason to dance tango? Believe me, when tango is beyond “physics and geometry,” it is much more enjoyable. Once you discover that secret, you will understand why tango to so many people is not about physics and geometry but a sensual and intimate experience, and why the inventors of tango also invented cabeseo. I also think you got one fact wrong. It is those who treat tango as acrobats, show or fantasia that are selling a lot of lessons, dresses, shoes and tango paraphernalia.

  7. Men have different ways of cabeceo-ing women, but, in general, most men use a cocked head, not a nod, to signal their desire to dance. The women usually respond with nods.

  8. I have to ask men to dance all the time in Tango because if I don't they won't ask me to dance. When I ask my guy friends who don't dance tango why this happens, they say, because maybe you're too tall 5'11 in heels, or too pretty, too intimidating because you're too pretty...or things along those lines. It's really irritating and unfair...and I think that a woman should not be asking a man to dance, especially in a dance like Tango. I feel like a lot of men do not have cohones these days. I have never told a man I wouldn't dance with him unless I was already getting ready to leave.