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 community and people. 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.

March 31, 2013

Tango Etiquette: Eye Contact, Talking, Clique and Hierarchy

Many women assume it’s men’s job to invite them. They sit there talking with each other and pay no attention to men, taking for granted that someone would come to ask them to dance. However, in order for a man to ask a woman, he needs to have a sense that she is interested in dancing with him. No man will invite a woman who he thinks is not interested and will turn him down. The woman must give the man some hint that she likes to dance with him before he makes a move.

As a hint, some women move closer to where the man of their desire will notice them, which is not a bad idea in a crowded milonga where people sitting far apart may not see each other. But, changing seats alone is not enough. You may sit near a man and still not be invited if you concentrate on talking with others and pay no attention to the man. Talking prevents the talker from being invited. A gentleman does not interrupt a woman when she is talking. You could lose your critical moment when the tanda starts if you are talking. Even if you sit just one table away from the man, you still need to let him know you want to dance with him by making eye contact with him. If you concentrate on talking and don’t even look at him, how could he know that you are waiting for him? That is why in the milongas of Buenos Aires women do not talk. They try to make eye contact with men.

In the US, however, many women do just the opposite. Some women are too proud to make eye contact with men, they expect men to come to them voluntarily. Others are too shy to look at men, as if that would reveal a secret desire they shouldn’t have. Still others worry if they stare at men, they may give men wrong ideas. When some women do make eye contact with men, they make it very briefly in order not to seem like they are begging for a dance. All these worry, shyness and pride are not necessary. If a woman can’t even overcome such psychological impediments, how can she dance well in tango that involves intense intimate physical contact with a man?

Women need to understand that men have their concerns too. A man needs to know that you are emotionally ready for the dance and will accept him if he asks you. Most men need to see you eye-to-eye for a few seconds before they are convinced of that. If you turn your eyes away too quickly, they will take it as a decline. If you want to dance with a man, you need to fix your eyes at him to give him a chance to cabeceo you. Only if he does not act after ten seconds or more should you then turn your eyes away. The same rule applies to men as well. You stare at a woman for ten to twenty seconds. If she wants you she will notice that. If after twenty seconds she still does not make eye contact with you, you should give up on her for the moment and move on to another woman. You should not force your way to her seat and ask her to dance, as which could put her into a dilemma that she might not want to be put into. In Buenos Aires, most portena women will say no to a verbal invitation because that shows the ungentlemanliness and inexperience of the inviter.

The psychological impediments lead some women to sit with their male friends and dance only with them. By so doing they present themselves as unavailable to the public, thus discourage others from inviting them. Cliquing is inappropriate in the milonga because it causes segregation. In order for a milonga to work it must be integrated so all dancers have the equal opportunity to dance with anyone of their choice by mutual consents. That is why in the milongas of Buenos Aires men and women are seated separately to prevent cliquing. To honor the milonga code, couples and friends often choose to enter the milonga separately and be seated apart. A smart woman does not sit with the same group of male friends every week, as which may give people an impression that she belongs to a clique and is unavailable to others.

Speaking of the clique there is a related issue. Because dancers of different levels focus on different things, they may not enjoy dancing with each other. As a result there is a hierarchy in tango. At the bottom are students learning steps, who usually partner with their fellow beginners. In the middle, those infatuated with the look tend to partner with those fond of fancy footwork, and those still obsessed with themselves focus on individual performance. Mature dancers who have passed those stages, on the other hand, like to partner with people of good embrace, musicality and ability to dance for others. (See The Four Stages of Your Tango Journey.) One should separate such division of level from clique. The former is indiscriminate, inclusive and encouraging, serving a positive function in the milonga by promoting humility, encouraging growth and rewarding achievements. The latter is discriminate, exclusive and discouraging, infringing equal opportunity and causing segregation. A woman at the lower level should not feel disheartened at the hierarchy, because it allows her to mingle with people of similar levels and still does not prevent her from dancing with more experienced dancers, if she is not too shy or too proud to make eye contact with men. Women must be aware that making eye contact with men is critical in the partner selection process. (See Women's Role in Cabeceo.) Your eye is the key to dancing with the man of your choice. Use it wisely and you can dance all the way to the top. (See How to Get More Invitations in the Milonga.)


  1. Now that tango is so popular in the USA and the world, dancers are finally interested in learning about the rules of the milonga which have been followed in Buenos Aires since the 1940s. Without these rules, the milonga and the dance floor would be chaotic.

    I assume that the advice offered is intended to reflect your experience in BsAs for the benefit of students and readers who have not been there. From that perspective, I want to correct a few things about the Mirada and Cabeceo since I am a woman who has danced in the milongas of BsAs for 14 years.

    Patience is the first lesson to be learned by all. You don't always get to dance the tanda with the partner of choice. That's a fact of life. Women never approach men to indicate interest nor to invite them verbally at the traditional milongas for the older generation of dancers. Men do the inviting from their seats. If a woman isn't interested in dancing a certain tanda, she may engage in conversation with the other woman at her table. There is no rule that says everyone must dance every tanda at a milonga. That would make an extremely crowded floor for everyone. Most of the conversation at milongas comes from the dancers on the floor, not those who are seated during a tanda. The noise level makes it impossible to hear the music, but people don't care when they want to socialize. It is getting progressively worse.

    Practice doing the Mirada and Cabeceo needs to be part of every class, just as dance floor rules, and walking a woman off the floor after a tanda. If men don't get into the habit during classes, they don't know what to do at a milonga. And it shows. You can't learn to drive a car without knowing the rules of the road.

    "A man needs to know that you are emotionally ready for the dance and will accept him if he asks you. Most men need to see you eye-to-eye for a few seconds before they are convinced of that. If you turn your eyes away too quickly, they will take it as you are declining."

    A man has a good indication when a woman will accept his invitation by her gaze in his direction. He first has to ascertain if she is indeed looking at him and not the man next to him. A quick turn is all he needs to do. Many invitations are made in a split second when a man catches a woman's eye, but that doesn't necessarily means she wants to dance with him. Looking in another direction gives him the answer. If a woman is indeed interested, she must hold her gaze on him even if he looks away to see if he will invite her. I do this all the time. If after several seconds of eye contact he turns away, it is a clear message he is not interested. No more miradas in his direction.

    The milongueras know the rules and respect them. A man who approaches a table with a verbal invitation is usually refused because he can't dance. If he is a friend, portenas will accept, but this is a rare case. The milonguero codes show respect for women. An invitation at the table is obligating a woman to dance. The Mirada and cabeceo are a mutual agreement.

    Cliquing exists at dancers for the younger generation. They go in groups and stay with friends all night to dance. Dancers can choose with whom to share a table. The organizers have no problem with it. Women do not sit with men if they are at the milonga to dance with others. Couples sit together and are left alone to dance together.

    The partner selection process begins by watching the floor to see who dances well and where they are seated in the milonga. The selection continues in knowing the orchestras of each tanda and choosing the right partner for each one. It's not just a matter of getting someone to invite you every tanda. The point is to dance well with a partner who wants to dance with you.

  2. When you talk we all listen. Thank you, Janis!

  3. The BA milonga description, with added information by Jantango is correct. One big difference between American and Argentine milongas is that a lot of American milongas are in the dark, preventing cabeceo from being used. I used to think I had to shoot a flare gun to see who was there. Then I realized the gun would set off the fire sprinkers. Even if American milongas are lit well, the dancers have to be trained to use cabeceo.

    Cabeceo is wonderful because a woman can discreetly decline an invitation. At a recent New York milonga, a woman declined my invitation by pointing to her feet. (She previously said she has painful bunions.) Within 30 seconds, she was dancing with somebody else. She must think I'm blind and didn't notice.

  4. As someone who has lived in Buenos Aires for the past seven years, dancing here almost nightly, I am slightly baffled by some of the generalisations made about the behaviour of porteños and porteñas. While these generalisations certainly apply to Lo de Celia and some of the most traditional milongas where the average age is above 70, they are very far from universally true. This is not to denigrate the milongas where the older people go, but I think it's good to acknowledge that there are other milongas in Buenos Aires, NOT JUST Lo de Celia, the only milonga with which Jantango is intimately familiar and which, while marvellous, is in some ways atypical. Just asserting that all Argentines behave the way the denizens of Lo de Celia do won't make it magically true.

    I find that women often talk to each other when they are sitting out a tanda and might even be chatting, lightly, during the opening bars of the tanda -- but still looking around and actively seeking cabeceos as they do so, if their wish is to dance that tanda with the partner of their choice. When I visited the US, I heard a few complaints that I was not looking actively at certain men, that I seemed to be absorbed in conversation or in watching the floor, getting a drink, etc. and therefore 'missed out' on the chance of dancing with them and/or 'wasn't good at cabeceo'. In all those cases, I was very well aware that those guys wanted to dance with me. I didn't look at them for a very simple reason -- I didn't want to dance with them. I'm pretty sure that applies to many other women, too.

  5. Terpsichoral, thank you for the correction. I remember the first time I went to Lo de Celia, a woman chatted with me for ten minutes about what it meant to be a milonguero. Then she said, "We should not talk now, seeing us talking they'll not cabeceo me." So women do talk even in Lo de Celia, but they are aware of the consequence. To generalize what is typical or atypical is not the purpose of my post. Of course one does not have to dance every tanda and could choose to chatte for a while, as Jantango pointed out, from whose extensive writing about the milongas in BA I am sure she does not only familiar with Lo de Celia. One thing I like about Argentine women is that they are friendly and don't have a feminist attitude.

  6. I enjoy reading your blog immensely. I have always thought the cabeceo concept is brilliant, and I often use it at milongas when possible. However of all the festivals and milongas, I have been to in many cities in the US I am yet to see a tango community that has successfully implemented the cabeceo. It seems such a tall order to expect a community in the US to make use of it. Thus I often wonder if it is really necessary at all? The cabeceo has evolved out of the milonga culture in BA. We are not Argentinian, so perhaps we should let a similar process (to the cabeceo) evolve naturally out of our own culture? Would it really affect the actual tango dancing that much if we don’t use the cabeceo? Beside there are, in the world, some very small tango communities where you see only a handful of couples dancing in a typical milonga. In some of such communities, the atmosphere is very warm and friendly and the dancing is not half bad. I cannot imagine the cabeceo at work in such communities, it would scare away the beginners which the community desperately need to grow.

  7. Hi Anonymous, thank you for your comment. I have mentioned the reason and importance of using cabeceo in another post, Women’s Role in Cabeceo. I recommend that you read it if you haven’t already. I believe tango is not only a dance but also a culture. Learning that culture is an important part of learning tango, because unless we embrace its culture, we cannot fully enjoy the dance. Cabeceo may be used less often in a very small setting among friends. But that doesn’t make it less important in the milongas. A couple may not need to speak a word to understand each other, but that doesn’t mean they do not need to speak a language to the public. If you and I think cabeceo is a good idea, so will other people eventually, I believe, if we keep teaching it and don’t give up. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me!

  8. I could not refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

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