I've been reminded again how much the cabeceo facilitates a pleasant experience for both men and women, when I attended two milongas for a workshop weekend here in my hometown (but not the workshops themselves; have to pick and choose events these days).
The first milonga turned out to be the most satisfying evening of tango I've had in quite a while--rather unexpectedly, since all of this was based among the open-embrace dancers in town, where I usually feel less at home and more self-conscious, and find fewer partners. Enough of the partners that I like were there, including several from out of town, that I could dance nearly to my heart's content--even with only sporadic use of cabeceo. (Nearly. But I can never really get enough good dances! Am very greedy in this regard.)
Here is the thing, for me, a lot of the time: When cabeceo is not used, I worry that I will be imposing myself on a man who doesn't really want to dance with me, if I go over and ask him. (You see, I do not believe in depriving myself of the enjoyment of dancing because of some old-fashioned--and, in this case, dysfunctional--notion of the impropriety of a woman asking a man to dance ... If I have to. But this is part of why I so much prefer to use cabeceo.) And what if he accepts, because he feels like he must be polite, and then I dance poorly, or we dance incompatibly, and he ends up regretting it?
That's the great--and extremely practical--thing about cabeceo: since it allows both men and women to decline a dance without embarrassing the initiator of the invitation, it is quite empowering. Without it, I am very shy about approaching strangers to ask to dance--and so I was this weekend, though at the first milonga I managed just fine anyway. The second milonga, not so much.
(The only thing is, in the US, it can be tough to know whether people just aren't using cabeceo, or are using it and rejecting you. I usually figure they're not using it; observation can usually tell you for sure. In the milongas I went to in Buenos Aires, the air became positively electric with silent communication at the start of each tanda. You can tell.)
When it is not used, one winds up in awkward situations like this...
New Guy I've mentioned before, a borderline babysitter, has unfortunately morphed into a full-blown one. Late in the evening at the second milonga, I wanted to dance a particular tanda with a man I'd been observing for a while (who, unfortunately, was not using cabeceo). Just as I had worked up enough nerve to start over to ask this guy--when the music was good for what I wanted, and he was not already occupied--New Guy approached me. I had stood up and started off a few steps toward my intended target, when New Guy cleared his throat beside me.
Put on the spot (I didn't feel like I could say "I'm sorry, I was just off to ask this other guy"; that seemed very rude--not to mention very embarrassing if Other Guy had said no), I claimed to be on my way to the restroom. And hid there for most of the rest of the tanda, as a form of self-protection; if I returned too soon, I would have felt obliged to dance with New Guy if I danced with anyone, since my excuse for declining him had expired. It's a form of the penalty box concept.
(It turned out not to be so unnecessary; my stocking was bunching uncomfortably under my foot. But I could have fixed it a lot more quickly than I did...)
When I returned, near the end of the tanda, New Guy was watching me and, not taking the hint of my steadfast avoidance of his gaze and my intent focus on the contents of my purse, came up to me again. Since it was the last song of the tanda, I accepted, but when it finished, he stood over me in my seat. I explained that I never accept a dance before I hear what the music is, because I don't like to dance to, for instance, non-tango music.
(I think that it can be danced well, but I usually find that it does not feel right to me, and it is difficult for me. But even if the DJ is playing only traditional tango music all night, I still don't say yes to a dance before I hear what the tanda is, because there are certain people you might particularly want to dance a milonga or a vals with--and others you definitely might not. Some orchestras may be more difficult for you than others, some tandas might not suit your mood... etc., etc.)
Still he stood there, through most of a non-tango tanda, obviously waiting for it to end so he could ask me again.
And what can you, in politeness, do? I had not danced too much that evening, because of my shyness in approaching the leaders I didn't know, so it's not like I could plausibly claim to be tired. And you can't very well tell someone, "Hey, buddy, don't be a stalker; when I want to dance with you, you'll know."
I'm sure he means well and is perfectly nice and will become a better leader with practice; he just has New Leader Problems right now, compounded by my own lack of ability in the open embrace. And while I believe in encouraging newbies by dancing with them--I received kindly indulgence and encouragement when I was just starting out, too; we all need that, and it would be bad grace indeed not to pay it forward--I don't want to jeopardize my overall evening's enjoyment by (possibly) ending with a bad dance, if I'm not able to make up for it with some more pleasant partner.
(I've heard it said that it takes two good dances to make up for one bad one. I usually find that one is enough for me, these days.)
So he's just a puppy and doesn't know... But what am I supposed to do? I can't correct him without risking hurting his feelings, but how will he learn better behavior if no one points out the problem to him? That evening, a timely text from a friend, calling me away from the milonga, saved me, but you can't count on that.
So, you see, it gets very tricky without the cabeceo. Usually (not necessarily always) I've found that men who know how to use the cabeceo turn out to be better leaders than those who don't.* I understand that that is definitely the case in Buenos Aires--where, I am told, if you don't know how to use cabeceo, the regular milonguer@s will assume you don't really know how to dance. And certainly my own experience there backs up this assumption... But that's a story for another time.
More on the cabeceo. I am more inclined to agree with more of what JanTango writes, in Roman type, in response to Milena, quoted in ital, but Milena's ideas do not seem entirely without merit (for instance, I've been told that I should present a more confident posture and look around more if I want more dances, in Buenos Aires--and it is probably equally true anywhere else), and I don't or can't fully agree with absolutely everything Jan writes (for instance, I'm hardly in a position to know how friends may invite each other in the milongas down there). I just think she gets closer to it.
TinaTangoes, on a very clever double cabeceo from a man seated behind her. I managed something sort of similar, one time...
One night, in El Beso, I had a surplus of cabeceo invitations from one man (the only time I ever had a surplus of any kind of invitations there!). He was a lovely leader, but I was worried about the possible implications of dancing too much with him, and I wanted the friend I was with to have a chance with him too. So I tried to use my own sideways cabeceo (I'm sure not as subtle as I believed then) to ask him to ask her. Like a true gentleman, he did. I'm not sure whether that was polite of me or not, whether I forced his hand, but my friend dances well, and she was not getting any invitations that night, so for her sake I can't regret it too much.
The only thing I do regret is not saying "Oh, who cares!" to my concerns about propriety** and just dancing with such a nice leader as often as we both wanted to, in such a difficult venue.
* I make an exception for the tall, cool drink of water I met this weekend, who invited me verbally with a kiss on the hand. He can invite me that way any time he wants to! Sorry for the inconsistency, but I am only a human girl, after all (and he is a nice leader, to back it up). My potential problems with him are a different matter entirely--another sad case of a Tango Crush.
** My teachers told me later that he probably would not have assumed that multiple dances meant anything improper--not without inviting me for "coffee," anyway. And I now think that if he had made any, um, advances, I could simply have made a big show of not understanding him. With my infant-level Spanish, it probably would not have been pretending, either.
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