Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search 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
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 that. 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 remains 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 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 by 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 has not 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 and pay no attention to men who want to dance with them. They avoid making eye contact with men, turn their heads away when they see someone looks at them, 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.)