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).