Making the Cabeceo Work in the U.S.

If you weren’t already aware, I am a huge fan of using the cabeceo. I also really like Alejandra Todaro’s Tips for Success with the Cabeceo. And lately, I have been thinking about how the cabeceo succeeds and fails for me in milongas in the U.S. Overall, it works pretty well. However, I think we need to see some changes in U.S. milonga culture to really make it work. Some of my suggestions:

1. Don’t roam. Pick a seat or a “home base” and return there during the cortina. Most of the milongas I have attended in the U.S. allow dancers to wander about as they like. Hosts rarely seat dancers as they come in, and dancers rarely feel tied down to a particular chair. However, roaming around makes it harder for a potential partner to know where to look. I recently experienced an acute case of leader blindness—I had a leader in mind, scanned the room repeatedly, and didn’t see him until a friend pointed me directly to him. I hadn’t known where to look for him! This happens to me a lot and could be easily fixed if everyone would just pick a spot and return there between tandas. It also relates to the next issue…

2. Don’t hover. Despite using the cabeceo liberally, many leaders I know like to get within 10-15 feet of their target follower and try to get her attention from there. This creates two problems: 1) It makes her rejection really painful for both parties (because it is painfully obvious to everyone around!), and 2) It obstructs her view of other potential partners. As someone who has procured dances from across the room, I can assure you that if she really wants to dance with you, she will find you. If you have to hover, you are pressuring her into a dance she may not truly want. And if you pick a spot to return to during the cortinas, you won’t be able to hover. Problem solved.

3. Don’t pout. The point of using the cabeceo is to avoid embarrassment. You know she rejected you, and she knows she rejected you, but everyone else may be oblivious. Don’t make things awkward by trying to make her feel guilty for rejecting your cabeceo. I know that sometimes a rejected invitation—cabeceo or otherwise—may make a leader stop trying to invite a follower. Bruised ego and all that. But you aren’t required to take it personally, and you definitely shouldn’t try to make her feel bad. A rejection may just mean that I am saving our tanda for music I am truly excited about. Or I haven’t danced with that eager-looking beginner on the other side of the room. Or I just don’t feel like it right now. But if you are really so upset about missing that tanda with me, take a moment at some point in the night to kindly tell me how much you would enjoy a dance that evening. And try not to pout and ask me why I didn’t accept your cabeceo earlier.

4. Do take care with the lighting. This is more for the milonga organizers, but it’s an important point. Milongas in the U.S. can be pretty dark, and darker means harder to cabeceo. Some leaders have told me that they have trouble seeing across the room in dark milongas. Recently I noticed that a string of Christmas lights was backlighting an entire row of dancers sitting along a wall—I couldn’t see any of their faces, so I didn’t even try to cabeceo them. The point is that lighting matters. A lot. If the lighting in a milonga is causing problems for you, let the organizer know.

5. Do ask about (and cultivate) local customs. A lot of leaders complain that they don’t always know if a follower uses the cabeceo. They may spend an entire evening trying to cabeceo a woman who doesn’t even know what it is. Or they may be blacklisted for asking verbally, not knowing that the cabeceo is observed religiously at a particular venue. If you aren’t sure, ask the organizer or other dancers around you. And organizers, try to promote the cabeceo at your events. (But be sure to turn up the lights accordingly and encourage complementary customs!)

6. Do come over to say hello—and then go sit down. I love to have a chat with friends, but I don’t like the assumption that just because we’re chatting I am obliged to dance with you. It’s one thing if we arrive together in a group; it’s another thing if you plop yourself down in an empty seat next to me. So don’t be surprised if I start peering past you at other leaders when the next tanda starts. As for myself, I try to greet leaders I know as I enter the milonga (sometimes throwing in a friendly “It would be great to dance later!”), but then I find myself a seat and change shoes. And if I am in the middle of a conversation when a cortina comes on, I try to gracefully end it or put it on hold so we can both look for partners. But if you do really like the music and think it would be a good tanda for us, just come out and ask. Trying to use the cabeceo with a friend from a foot away just feels silly.

Those are the cabeceo-related issues that have really been bugging me lately. Do you agree? Disagree? Want to share other problems you have had?


23 thoughts on “Making the Cabeceo Work in the U.S.

  1. Rachel,

    I was composing a post on one of your topics: sitting in the same place. It’s common in BsAs for those who attend the same milonga every week to sit at the same table. That way, your partners can check to see if you’re looking at them for a tanda.

    Good lighting is standard in BsAs. Dim lighting isn’t required to create a romantic atmosphere for a milonga. Dancers need to see and be seen.

    • It surprises me that dancers in the US have gotten so excited about using the cabeceo without noticing that seating and lighting are important for making the cabeceo work! I can’t wait for an opportunity to experience the milongas in BsAs for myself.

      • Get all the practice you can in the USA with the cabeceo. It’s the only way you’ll dance with good dancers in BsAs. They expect you to know the custom of head movement and use it.

        • Oh, certainly. I have been using the cabeceo for years, ever since I learned about it. It doesn’t seem as foreign to me as it does to other people here–maybe because I got used to using eye contact for everything while living in Spain. At this point, I just need an opportunity to take a long enough vacation to enjoy the experience.

  2. I agree, particularly with your point about the lighting. Too many US milonga organizers think dimly lit rooms are “romantic,” but it can really kill an evening. Another point: Roaming also can be thinly disguised “hovering” by women who “just accidentally” bump into a man they want to dance with, thereby eliminating the chance he will cabaceo you. This makes guys, well, lazy about their prerogatives.

    • Oh, yes. Women can cause the same problems with the cabeceo. I was recently encouraged by a leader to hover around another leader I was hoping to dance with. I felt ridiculous and really regretted it later. The “rules” definitely go both ways!

  3. In Baires, I generally found the cabeceo was used in the more traditional milongs, where everyone has an assigned seat. Because of this, there are way more tables and chairs than would be allowed in a US Milonga simply due to fire codes.

    It looked to me like the cabeceo is not primarily used for all the face saving reasons we are led to believe here in the USA, but simply because of the crowded tables, it is almost impossible to walk over and ask.

    In the milongas jovenes in Palermo (for example X), there was no assigned seating, and the cabeceo was not used.

    But yes, the dueños need to keep the lights up, if they want to facilitate this tradition.

    • I like this essay about continuing the tradition of the cabeceo:,es/

      If people would pick a spot and stay there (whether or not they had a seat), you wouldn’t have crowds gathering in certain parts of the room AND a follower could quickly find leaders she wants to dance with instead of feeling pressured to accept the nearest invitation (cabeceo or otherwise).

    • The cabeceo is used in the traditional milongas where singles go to dance. There is no need for it in the clubes de barrio where couples go to dance. The practicas don’t enforce codes of any kind, dress or otherwise, so dancers will never learn.

      There are fire codes for the milongas and the number of people at one time is controlled in most of them. I don’t think that would be a problem in the USA. Getting small square tables so that everyone faces the dance floor is the challenge. No USA milonga has a chance at immitating one in BsAs.

      There are aisles between rows of tables so that dancers can pass by without crossing the dance floor. The floor is sacred in BsAs. The aisles permit the “hoverers” from going to the table for verbal invitations. Nothing keeps the bad dancers from approaching women, even in BsAs.

  4. “I know that sometimes a rejected invitation—cabeceo or otherwise—may make a leader stop trying to invite a follower. Bruised ego and all that” Now, as a leader, I’m just wondering what’s wrong with accepting no for an answer? I rather dance with someone who wants to dance with me..

    • That’s the way it is for milongueros in BsAs. When a woman looks away after his subtle head movement, he will never invite her again. No means no, doesn’t it. You got the message.

      • This is the only thing I dislike about traditional use of the cabeceo. I don’t see why “no” has to always mean “never” instead of “not right now.” Ah well. It’s still better than being pestered by unwelcome invitations.

        • If a milonguero made eye contact with a woman with whom he is interested in dancing, and she looks away, that’s all he needs to confirm she isn’t interested in dancing with him. That said, it’s extremely rare today for any woman to refuse the invitation of a milonguero to dance. There are so few of them around, and they are the men we are willing to wait hours to dance.

          Another thing to remember is that milongueros don’t dance every tanda. They dance when the music moves them. If you’re not ready when he is, you’ll miss the opportunity.

          If you really don’t want to dance, go to the ladies’ room, talk to the woman at your table, and avoid making eye contact with any man. You never know when a nod will come from one of them. It’s okay to sit out a tanda, but you must remember that Argentine men dance when they want to dance. The milonga is a machista world in BsAs.

  5. i’m sure you have your ways of making it clear you want to dance with him and your ‘no’ wasn’t a ‘never’, but after a rejection the initiative is up to you, in my opinion; and the advantage of cabeceo is that it is not ‘yes/no’ (though it can be), but ‘yes/nothing happened’

  6. In theory, I’d be happy to pick a seat, return to it after each tanda, and never roam. But at many of the milongas I attend, about half the ladies are hip to cabaceo and about half are not. Unless I want to miss out on dancing with the latter in hopes they’ll get with the program eventually, I have to make my requests to dance with them more obvious. The cabaceo from, say, 20 feet away seems like a decent compromise between strict adherence to the codigo and the blatant uncoolness of the verbal request.

    • One of the problems with the cabeceo from a random point in the room is that, as someone who seeks out specific partners, I have trouble finding roaming leaders. Otherwise, a cabeceo from that distance probably wouldn’t bother me. But if it works for you and is comfortable for your partners, that’s great! It’s mainly about making it work for you and your community, no? (By the way, I have to admit doing a quick Google search–are you a fellow translator? There seem to be a number of us in tango!)

  7. Rachel, the way to make this work in our community is through the women. They have to start refusing men who interrupt their conversations with an outstretched hand or walk out onto the floor during the cortina to ask before they have even disengaged from their previous partner. If I used the caabaceo as it is intended in our community, you are probably the only woman I would get to dance with (maybe not such a bad thing). I can’t count the number of times I have been looking at a woman to catch her eye, only to have some guy walk right in front of me and ask verbally, whereupon she accepts. Most of the women here are expecting verbal invitations, and are oblivious to men asking nonverbally.

    • I don’t think you can put it all on the followers. Yes, followers need to take an active role in encouraging the cabeceo and discouraging verbal invitations. However, men need to stick to their guns and continue to use the cabeceo. Maybe the follower who accepted the verbal invitation really did prefer to dance with that leader (and didn’t want to reject him purely because he asked verbally). Leaders need to accept that their cabeceos may be rejected and not pressure followers by resorting to verbal invitations in order to get more dances.

  8. I reviewed Alejandra Todaro’s Tips for Success with the Cabeceo. I have an entirely different approach after 12 years in the milongas.

    1. I get comfortable at my table and begin by watching the dancing to see who is there. During the cortina, I look around to see which of my regular partners have arrived. I can wait tandas before dancing, but then it’s with someone with whom I want to dance.

    2. I don’t engage in any conversation and keep myself focused on the music whether I dance or not. I look around the room to see who is not dancing and looking in my direction during the first two dances. I don’t line up any possibilities.

    Anyone visiting the milongas for the first time should spend at least an hour observing the dancing. That way you are less likely to be disappointed with your first tandas.

    Alejandra danced more than she sat because she didn’t care about the quality, only the quantity of tandas. Her husband thought she was a partner in demand. Milongueras don’t want to dance every tanda; they are satisfied with one tanda with a milonguero.

  9. I went to a milonga that was organized as a traditional BsAs milonga, with the codigos printed on a brochure, dancers were seated by the host, men and women on opposite sides of the room and the cabeceo was strictly enforced. The problem was that a lot of the ladies weren’t scanning the room to see who was trying to cabaceo them, but were rather looking around non-chalantly. Coupled with the fact that the lighting in the studio was mostly spotlights casting deep shadows on everyone’s face, it was really hard to cabaceo ladies.

    I know because I’ve been at other milongas where, even though the cabaceo was not strictly enforced, those ladies that were hip to it were really easy to cabaceo 🙂

    • I can’t imagine trying to recreate a traditional BsAs milonga in the US, at least not to the extent of being so strict about everything. But creating the right conditions (good lighting being an important one!) and encouraging individuals to pick up cabeceo-friendly habits could make things work more smoothly here. I think teachers could also really help in teaching people how to cabeceo. It definitely takes more than just a meandering gaze around the room! In any case, those of us who know about the cabeceo seem to do well with it.

    • What you assumed were women looking around non-chalantly were women keeping their radar working to catch a cabeceo.

      I agree that the lighting at El Beso leaves much to be desired. They may want to attract those with good eyesight.

      When in doubt that your invitation was confirmed, just give another nod before crossing the floor.

  10. Buenos Aires and tango are so closely linked by history and culture, that if you separate them, you end up with something else. Milongas in the United States hardly resemble those in Buenos Aires. Milongas are called as such because of the presence of milongueros. Americans organize parties for socializing and tango dancing, but they aren’t true milongas without the codes. In Buenos Aires, one’s personal life is left at the door when a man enters the milonga. Tango is more than a dance for the milongueros–it is their life, what they have lived. [Tango Chamuyo – April 23, 2008]

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