The Cabeceo

October 29, 2015 § 13 Comments

“Seeing comes before words.” John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

A critical element of social tango, but unfortunately one that is often not taught, is how we go about asking someone to dance. The traditional method involves the use of the cabeceo. Basically, this is a nod of the head, but it’s really a process composed of several distinct steps. These could be described as observation, query, response, and acknowledgement. Descriptions of the cabeceo can be found in several places online and in the literature.

(Information about the cabeceo and its use is described here — Cabeceo Confusion — scroll down to the January 2, 2015 blog entry.)

I don’t know if anyone has ever traced the history of the cabeceo or investigated its origins. Contemporary tango has inherited it as an element of the “package” of behavioral codes that come with learning tango. To judge by the historical accounts of the early days of tango, the cabeceo, in many respects, appears to be a rationalization of behavior that developed in tango’s infancy. That is, current explanations for its efficiency and face-saving qualities, notwithstanding, it may have developed for quite other reasons and out of different circumstances. And it would be worth asking why this method rather than another became customary over the course of time.

As I understand it, when tango was starting to become a social phenomenon in Buenos Aires and had lost its sheen of fevered sexuality and association with the much maligned conventillos, it began to spread from the city center to the outlying areas of the city. These were wealthier, cleaner, more middle class, aristocratic even. Propriety was important. If women were to be allowed to dance tango, to attend milongas, it would be in the company of a chaperone. Presumably, this would be a close relative: parents, aunt, uncle, older siblings. The milonga was a family affair. Based upon descriptions, young women sat along the outer edges, just outside the dance floor. In the earliest days, men clustered together in the center of the floor and had to make their way through the crowd to potential partners along the circumference of the room. We can assume that, at some point, this unwieldy and logistically awkward situation gave way to one in which men and women sat in chairs opposite one another, leaving the floor free for dancing.

The cabeceo may have been a way, perhaps the only way at the time, of approaching a young woman to invite her to dance. It would have been less brusque, less forward, and less intimidating than having a strange man approach her directly. Such behavior would have been frowned upon in polite society (and tango was striving to be polite). For the woman to approach the man would have been unthinkable. In the scenario I am proposing, I can imagine the young woman, once a man had caught her gaze, turning to her duenna, to obtain approval. A simple word or two or nod of the head from her chaperone would do (another cabeceo!). Once this had been given, she could rise and wait for her dance partner to lead her to the floor.

There could have been other methods. Women could have resorted to dance cards, listing the names of men who wished to dance with them. Since these were in use up until around 1930, the idea is not as farfetched as it might seem. Presumably, the list would have required approval by the chaperone. Cumbersome but not impossible. Names could have been written on slips of paper and presented indirectly to the woman of one’s dreams. Lists could have been prepared. It’s unclear how these would have worked in practice but none of them are inherently impossible. That the cabeceo has come down to us as the method of invitation, then, may be more a result of happenstance and convenience than planning and intention.

There are cultural factors at play here, as well. Studies have shown that in so-called “contact” cultures, such as South America and Southern Europe, people tend to gaze at one another more than in Northern Europe or Asia. If so, the use of looking, the use of the gaze as a means of invitation or sign of interest (which it is outside of tango, as well) would be a logical extension of a form of accepted social behavior. In a way, its later incorporation into a body of codes would simply be an adaptation to a new environment of what was an element of daily life in porteño society. That it would appear unique or unusual or problematic for North Americans, for example, would simply be a byproduct of cultural differences. One can only wonder what would have happened if the tango had developed in Sweden, say.

For the curious, there’s  a discussion of cultural differences in the extent and intensity of gazing in Argyle and Cook, Gaze and Mutual Gaze, (Oxford University Press, 1976).

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§ 13 Responses to The Cabeceo

  • Chris says:

    R Bonnono wrote: “A critical element of social tango, but unfortunately one that is often not taught, is how we go about asking someone to dance

    I can’t imagine what could make the non-teaching of inviting unfortunate for anyone.

    Except teachers.

    Like

  • R. Bononno says:

    It should be obvious from the tone of the article. Use of the mirada/cabeceo at a milonga is something that must be taught. Whether by a teacher or a friend, it doesn’t matter, but it’s part of the protocol of tango.

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  • Chris says:

    R Bonnono wrote: “It should be obvious from the tone of the article. Use of the mirada/cabeceo at a milonga is something that must be taught.

    What’s obvious is that invitation skills should be learned.

    Whether they should be taught is something else entirely.

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    • R. Bononno says:

      Yes, of course, but I feel they need to be explicitly taught, like so many other aspects of tango. Whether it’s during a class, by a teacher, or from a friend, doesn’t matter, but it’s not something one can pick up by a process of osmosis or from a book, or even by observation.

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      • Chris says:

        I wonder what makes you think invitation between guys and girls in the milonga is learned any differently as invitation in the rest of life.

        If it wasn’t possible to learn by osmosis or observation, it wouldn’t exist.

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      • R. Bononno says:

        Ahh, I see where you’re coming from. From my own experience, this is not the case. We could discuss this until the cows come home but it’s something that, certainly in North America, is not at all an obvious or essential component of a milonga. If it were Buenos Aires, I would be less apt to reply as I have, but since tango is an import to North America and so heavily culturally determined, it is an aspect of the dance (seen as a cultural complex that includes music, dance, and social interaction) that can only be taught. I’ve known teachers, for example, who were unaware of its existence yet felt perfectly comfortable about teaching tango movements. In “real life” there are a myriad of ways to interact with a member of the opposite sex, in the milonga, we have a formalized method that is culturally specific and somewhat atavistic. There’s no reason why it should be obvious to any North American as the proper way to initiate a dance.

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  • Chris says:

    since tango is an import to North America and so heavily culturally determined, it is an aspect of the dance …. that can only be taught.

    Decades have passed since tango was an import, so if cabeceo has to be taught still, then that teaching must be a dismal failure. Otherwise by now your milongas would have more than enough cabeceo use for newcomers to pick it up directly.

    I’ve known teachers, for example, who were unaware of its existence yet felt perfectly comfortable about teaching tango movements.

    That simply means they don’t dance in trad milongas and hence means cabeceo doesn’t need to be taught – either to them (since they have no use for it personally) or by them (since their students too are unlikely to be dancing in trad milongas).

    certainly in North America, is not at all an obvious or essential component of a milonga

    I think herein lies the underlying truth. Cabaceo exists only where it is essential, and only because it is essential. Elsewhere, it is not learned, and it is not taught. Because it is not needed.

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    • R. Bononno says:

      Well, this is beginning to sound like a discussion for Tango Voice, but just let me say that, while your points are well taken, most local milongas (where I am) definitely aspire to or claim to be “traditional” milongas. Any alternative venues are specifically marked as such.

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      • Chris says:

        most local milongas (where I am) definitely aspire to or claim to be “traditional” milongas.

        If those are ones at which cabeceo is inessential, one has got to wonder: what tradition?

        The 20-year tradition of the teachers unaware of the cabaceo? :-)

        Though we don’t have this problem here in the UK, we have its equivalent with the music – a few (cabeceo-practicing) milongas that play music like this, calling it traditional.

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  • Felicity says:

    ““most local milongas (where I am) definitely aspire to or claim to be “traditional” milongas.””

    It’s that old chestnut again “what it traditional?”, and clearly the semantic disagreement applies both to music and to convention.

    But I wanted to ask about invitation – about cabeceo being apparently so alien to N American culture – though I do have a sense of deja vu on this topic with Mr Bononno. I am truly curious: Scene: America, or let’s just say New York, specifically. Guy sees girl in public space – e.g. bar, gallery, anything where this is not organised activity that might throw them together and where the social conventions do not already hinder potential interaction between them (e.g. cinema; restaurant with tables for couples/separate social groups). How does the guy indicate/suggest/let the girl know that he might want to get to know her?

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    • R. Bononno says:

      That I can’t answer since there are as many ways as there are individuals.

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      • Felicity says:

        And that is very plausible. Presumably, some of those ways include – as we see in films from all kinds of cultures – eye contact between guy and girl.

        What isn’t, though so explicable is that if guys even in America use eye contact to signal to girls they are interested, how come it seems to be such an alien concept in your milongas?

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      • Chris says:

        Felicity wrote: “if guys even in America use eye contact to signal to girls they are interested, how come it seems to be such an alien concept in your milongas?

        I think ‘alien’ is key to the answer, already given above:

        “since tango is an import to North America and so heavily culturally determined, it is an aspect of the dance … that can only be taught.”

        Telling some people something is so alien that it must be taught is sure to teach them that it is alien… even when it isn’t, and even when the teaching fails to teach that thing.

        Like

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