Friday, March 12, 2010

Female empowerment and the cabeceo: A very linktastic post

Something has been brewing in my brain, lately, from thinking about the cabeceo and the etiquette of asking for and declining dances, combined with a recent burst of pondering about Nice Guys (TM) and what Good Girls do. They're all connected in a way that I could articulate clearly and succinctly at about 2 AM on Monday but somehow can't right now--but I'm going to have a try, while there's anything left at all.

See, the other day, after being honked at by passing cars twice in three days as I walked during my lunch hour, I'd had enough of politely ignoring this behavior like a Good Girl, and gave the guy a great big bras d'honneur--which I doubt he saw, because by then he was already busy honking at the two women walking their dogs farther down the block. Further discussion with a friend, who also provided me with a wider perspective on street harassment, ensued.

Good Girls, you see, are taught not to make a fuss. Don't hurt anyone's feelings. (Do you know how often I mentioned my concern for Babysitter Guy's feelings in my last post about the cabeceo? It was a lot.) Don't be rude. So we politely ignore it when something makes us uncomfortable ... And we sometimes tell guys who do, in fact, make us profoundly uncomfortable for reasons that we might not even be able to consciously identify, "You're really nice, but..." in order to protect ourselves and escape quickly--propagating the myth that girls don't like nice guys.*

And in tango, we often don't just say no to a man we don't want to dance with.

Well, I do, now, with some men. It took a while for me to reach that point, though.

My qualifications for a blanket no, now:

  1. I unconditionally will not dance with men who have made me uncomfortable when I've danced with them before. Made me feel inappropriately sexualized, skeezed upon, regardless of whether they said or did anything that would be judged, by an outside observer, to be inappropriate.

    Even though there may be nothing quantifiably wrong about what they do, this feeling is not just my imagination: on different occasions I have spoken to other women who reported getting the very same skeevy feeling from the men I am thinking of.

    Knowing that other women felt the same way was reassuring, but I recognize that I should not require anyone else's affirmation to tell me that I "had the right" to feel uncomfortable--but I still needed that support, at the time. Maybe that's sort of sad, in itself. But now I'm pretty sure that it doesn't actually even matter whether the guy intends to be skeezy or might be acting innocently; if he has this effect on me, I am within my rights not to want to dance with him, and unless the situation escalates in some way, that is the end of my concern.

  2. I do not dance with men who, although they've been taking classes steadily for years, consistently demonstrate poor technique that makes for a profoundly unpleasant dance (knocking me off my axis, etc.), and never seem to improve.

    I'm not talking about his having a bad night once in a while--we all have those--or new leaders who make beginner's mistakes (more on that shortly). I'm talking about men who've been dancing and taking classes for years, and yet with whom even a decent dance is the vast exception.
With these men, I simply say "No, thank you," with no other explanation or excuse. Because with them, no does not mean "not right now" or anything other than no. And there are only three men, that I can think of, who make this list in my community. I do not take this approach lightly.

Because most of the time, no does simply mean "not right now." Maybe I'm tired, maybe I don't care for the music ... Any number of variables might be out of alignment to disrupt what I want in a dance at that moment. Whatever it might be, I'm just not in the mood just then--but odds are, I will probably want to dance again some other time. Maybe later that evening, or maybe some other night. So how is one to behave in such a way as to keep these options open?

By the way, new leaders do not automatically fall into the second category. For instance, with Babysitter Guy, I suspect he will grow out of his leading problems, if he doesn't quit first--and I feel obliged not to be part of the discouragement that might drive him to quit. So I will probably dance with him again. But I do not know how he will grow into better manners in asking for dances.

I know I've been quoting Ney Melo's etiquette article a lot--it remains one of the most helpful resources I've found to guide me through the social perils of the milonga. Because sometimes, saying no is part of having an enjoyable evening at the milonga--and his article helped me learn how to say no and still do so in a way that was socially acceptable. Because here's the thing: He believes it can be good for women to say no.
"I truly believe that when women start using their power of declining dances and sending messages, then that is when the leaders will start working to improve their dance. It has to be a system of checks and balances. If we allow mediocre leaders to dance with amazing followers and vice versa, then why would they want to get better? I remember an argument that a friend and I had a long time ago. She was upset because a horrible leader basically manhandled her for a whole tanda and made her look and feel bad. I witnessed the whole thing and I didn't like what this leader did, but I also didn't like that my friend was too nice not to end the carnage early!! Ladies, please use your power to say "no" to bad dances. It is better to sit all night, enjoy the music, and have a good conversation than to be dragged around the milonga floor like Hector was by Achilles after being slain in the movie "Troy". There were many times in my tango infancy that I was rejected by good followers. I never took it personally. It only served to make me better."

But it can be difficult. You have to think on your feet, and you have to know what is acceptable and when, to preserve politeness--because you don't have to be June Cleaver to want to be kind to others. In fact, as I've noted, it could be motivated entirely out of self-interest, the desire to be able to dance later with a person that you've declined at the moment. (It isn't pure self-interest, in my case--nor, I expect, in the cases of most other dancers. That would be sort of sociopathic. But it could be.) But if you've been raised to be a Good Girl, even with some coping strategies in your arsenal, it might still be difficult to actually say no when the need arises. Situations might occur that you're unprepared for.

That's the beauty of the cabeceo--its practicality, efficiency, and empowerment. From, quoted on

"Their research showed that the traditional cabeceo was developed for important sociological reasons—the protection and preservation of male ego and female vulnerability. How else can one guarantee a man’s protection from public ridicule if he is to walk across a crowded dance floor to ask a woman to dance risking potential refusal? How else does one protect the tender nature of a woman who may not have the strength of character to refuse a dance with a man she does not want? The answer is the cabeceo—the mantle of protection that allows both genders a choice!"

Okay, let's ignore the irritating language of "protect the tender nature of a woman who may not have the strength of character to refuse a dance with a man she does not want." I don't equate kindness with weak character, and women are no longer the wilting flowers we are supposed to have been (supposed to have been!) in days gone by. We've got the vote now, and everything!

But still, the point remains. The cabeceo allows you to be a Good Girl if that's what you're comfortable with--be polite, don't hurt his feelings, don't make a fuss--and even protect yourself from confrontation (not that most people at the milonga would turn dangerous if you politely said no, but I have heard some absolutely hair-raising stories of the tantrums some men and women alike have thrown, and other such bad behavior, when they are openly rejected by the partner they desire; awkwardness would be the the least problem in such a case) and still exercise control over your experience. Indeed, over your self.

With all that going for it, I really don't understand why people don't use cabeceo more.

(And I'm pretty sure this was all much pithier and sharper at 2 AM the other day.)

* I am here to tell you now, we do like nice guys. But we like guys who are genuinely nice, and for whom niceness [or the facade of "niceness"] is not their sole asset. And sometimes there may be a genuinely nice guy who is kind and smart and pretty funny and reasonably interesting and not bad-looking, and yet still just does not float one girl's particular boat--and that is called life, my dears, and personal compatibility.

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