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?

The Present Moment

Walking meditation is meditation while walking. We walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips. When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease, and our steps are those of the most secure person on Earth. All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

If I had to label my spiritual path, I would say that I am mostly focused on Zen Buddhism. (I don’t usually use that label for myself, though. I am a terribly inconsistent practitioner.) If I had to pick one of my greatest spiritual influences, I would say that it is Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings on mindfulness meditation. His teachings are simple: Be mindful of the present moment; you will see that peace and happiness are here and now.

I talk a lot about the technique used for dancing tango, because it is easier for me to find the words to talk about the physicality of the dance. Its spirituality is more elusive. For me, however, tango is just like walking meditation. I relax; I feel at ease; I feel peace and joy.

Walking meditation helps us regain our sovereignty, our liberty as a human being. We walk with grace and dignity, like an emperor, like a lion. Each step is life.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

As soon as I start dancing, I find myself. Even on my most frustrating days, if I can slow down and walk with a smile on my face, I find myself. I feel the grace and dignity that is always there, inside me. I reconnect with the present. I feel my frustrations and concerns drop away as I focus on walking. I find life.

I feel lucky to be a follower in tango, because I don’t know if leaders have this same experience. Leaders tell me that they have to deal with decision-making, with negotiating relationships with other couples on the dance floor, with ego. I get to just walk. I think my favorite leaders are the ones who let go of all of those concerns, smile, and just walk.

Will you walk with me?

Technique

A tanguero without solid technique has no floor on which to release his or her emotions.

I know there are people who claim that tango is all about emotion, not technique. I continue to disagree. A lifetime of dance tells me that the ability to fully express yourself is based on a foundation of solid technique. We build up the muscle memory so that in the milonga we can forget about it and just dance. But the technique is still there.

I can be happy with the simplest movements, executed with the utmost grace. Walking can be sublime. And I noticed two strengths I need to walk nicely: abdominal strength and foot/ankle strength. Of course, there are many ways to gain this strength. If you want to strengthen your feet, check out Jennifer Bratt’s foot exercises. If you want to strengthen your abs, do some crunches. Or hang out in plank position.

Then, while you are walking, think of keeping your abs engaged (not sucking in your stomach, just flexed and firm). Keep your hips relaxed—don’t let your abs pull your free hip up. As you step, control your foot at the ankle. Use that ankle strength to roll through your entire foot—whether stepping forward or backward. I believe that (1) keeping your torso lifted while (2) controlling your foot will go a long way toward a nice, smooth walk.

Not that those are the only elements you need. They are just thing I have been paying attention to. There’s also the issue of not bouncing up and down. And arriving right on top of your foot, balanced, whenever you transfer weight. It helps if you actually push off the floor with your foot when you step. One of my favorite exercises is based on that idea. Maybe that will be the first thing I share, as soon as I can convince someone to hold the camera for me.

Until then, happy walking!

Tango Barre Workout

For years, people have said that my dance background probably has made me a better tango dancer. It isn’t about the skills involved; it is mainly about strength and flexibility. I have strong feet and ankles, good balance, a strong core, a flexible back, etc. These come from a lifetime of dancing. I started thinking about how I could use that experience to help other dancers. After a lot of deliberation, I decided to try teaching a tango barre workout.

Specifically, it is a class that draws on ballet barre exercises and applies them to tango. (It is not like all of the pilates-based “barre” workouts, many of which have nothing to do with ballet.) Like all new classes, it is taking a while for me to get the feel of the class just right, but I am getting there. It’s a pretty simple approach:

  • Strengthen feet and ankles
  • Improve posture
  • Improve balance
  • Practice fluid motion
  • Build muscle memory
  • Build body awareness
  • Stretch

I think ballet has a lot to offer tango dancers. It is fun to play around with the intersection of ballet and tango, to explore ballet exercises that are so familiar to me and approach them as a tango dancer. Of course, many of these exercises are inspired by conversations and classes with other dancers and teachers, so it isn’t as though I have invented them from scratch. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to play around with them!

If I pulled out my camera and started recording some of the exercises, would anyone be interested in seeing them?

P.S. Contrary to what is stated in a recent post by MIM, ballet does not teach you to lift the free hip. A good ballet dancer will drop the free hip, just like in tango. Unfortunately, this error is often overlooked by teachers and thus not corrected properly. You can lift out of the standing leg and drop the free hip, which allows a nice sway of the hips without “sitting” into the standing leg and ending up with salsa hips. On the other hand, there are differences in the quality of movement in ballet and tango, which is why my class is geared toward tango dancers and isn’t just a normal ballet class.

Musicality

Some you may already know about Joaquín Amenábar, and some of you have probably had the privilege of taking classes with him. I had heard of him, but I had never had a chance to learn from him. Until today. I noticed that he posted one chapter of his book Tango: Let’s dance to the music! on his website. You can download the chapter as well as the accompanying audio and video.

I highly recommend taking a look! I am a musician and have developed a part-analytical, part-intuitive approach to dancing tango musically. This exercise really breaks down the music—without getting bogged down in music theory—and demonstrates how we can use this musical awareness to create a more interesting dance. In the case of this sample chapter, we look at how the leader and follower can dance to different bandoneon parts.

If you are interested in musicality, I also suggest you take a look at what Mark has to say about dancing to the pulse v. the music. This approach to tango takes a little more work and thoughtfulness, but it opens up so much enjoyment in the dance. If a leader does nothing more than walking, but he can do it with sensitivity to the music, he can hook me as a follower. (Don’t believe me? Ask some of my favorite leaders! It’s true!) It’s that important!

Priorities

I hope I didn’t scare anyone away with my last post. I haven’t quit tango, nor do I think that all tango dancers are thoughtless or careless with other people’s feelings. I have just noticed that there is a very real sort of clique that exists in the upper echelon of tango society. It’s that little club of dancers who have been dancing for ages, or who DJ, or who go to festivals together, or who command respect as dancers or organizers. Sometimes that little club is a group of real friends who take care of each other, and sometimes it’s like a junior high clique where you can come and go and be forgotten when you no longer conform. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference. I just needed to kick myself and remember who and what is important in my life, so I can go tango without getting swept up in things that don’t really matter.

It helps to get my priorities straight—and tango is one of my priorities. I love to dance. The darkest parts of my life have been the times when I stopped dancing. I think I am made for it, in one form or another. But it’s the dancing that is most important to me. I don’t need to belong to a special club to enjoy a night of dancing with my favorite leaders. And the people who really care about me, who are truly important to me, will find a way to be with me whether or not I make it out to every milonga. So now that I have my head screwed on straight, I am looking forward to many more beautiful tandas. Happy dancing, everyone!

The Illusion of Intimacy

Will your Tango friends remember you, when you stop going to Milongas, because you‘re ill or old or just fed up. Won‘t most of them forget you? When I am going to stop teaching and dancing, people will talk about this for a couple of weeks. Some of them will regret it deeply, I‘m sure. But soon they‘ll forget, because there are so many new people, faces, impressions. It‘s overwhelming.

– Melina, Tango Friends

Melina’s blog post expresses my feelings so well. Of course, this is not unique to tango. This is life. We meet many people, we interact with them, and then many of them slip away as quietly as they came into our lives. We forget. A few people stand out, and we take the time to truly know them—those are our true friends. But most people we meet will eventually fade away.

The problem I have with tango is how often we exaggerate the connections we have with the people around us. Maybe it happens because of how intimately we connect with our partners on the dance floor. We can know them deeply without knowing anything about them. In the dance, we feel incredibly connected. In the milonga, we are able to strip away the outside world and be in the moment. We call everyone friend and hug and kiss and embrace. And when we walk away from the milonga, that world easily fades away along with the people in it.

There are some true friends who came into my life through tango. I don’t think it’s impossible. I believe that some of them would still be around, even if I never stepped foot in a milonga again. But there are so many others who call me friend and yet would probably let me slip away. What does that do to us? How does it change us to feel so close and yet so detached from the people around us? (It seems like a strange form of anomie.) I suppose these are the times to intentionally focus on those people who are truly our friends. To remind ourselves of reality and put our energy where it really matters.