Last Man Sitting

Story | Opinion | Martin van Kesteren | 29 Dec 2019 | 5 comments

I thought I had my cabeceo under control until someone came to the bar of our milonga to tell me our relationship was over. It was remarkable, because we hardly knew each other.  It was about some code I had broken, but don’t ask me which one: when discussing inviting codes in tango, I feel quite lost. Subtlety, or etiquette, were not really the thing when growing up in my family. I notice, that women’s eyes glisten whenever they talk about the intimate eye-to-eye communication, the little nod of consent, or, the polite turning away in rejection. Men frown: to many of them this cabeceo stuff is a skill at which they may potentially fail gloriously. I am one of them, I guess.

As a milonga organiser you are supposed to have an official position on inviting codes, but, I don’t. Clearly the tango community loves to discuss these mysterious, wireless communications preceding dances. Unfortunately, I am regularly struggling. My eyesight fails me in low light, I am focusing when I should be scanning, or the other way around. At encuentros, I am usually the last man sitting. After everybody magically hooks up with a dance-partner, I have to walk to the other side inconspicuously to see who else was scanning while she should be focusing, or the other way around.

Our milonga’s lack of an explicit policy gets us into trouble. Once, during an announcement, I asked rhetorically if ‘everybody was having a good time’. A stranger got up and said loudly “You are the most arrogant, cold lot I have ever seen in tango”, his arm making a wide sweeping gesture to include everyone present. It wasn’t our finest moment. After that incident, we, the cold crowd, did some internal investigating. Our followers and leaders mingle chaotically in our bar area. Many of them are old friends, so our codigos have watered down. As a result, everybody is primarily reconnecting with people they know, which, to outsiders may appear as excluding them. I started to advise newcomers to talk to as many people as possible, a method known as chateceo, disclosed to me by women, of course. The advantages are: self- expression, clarity and discretion. The disadvantages, well, the investment in time for talking, where you could be checking your iPhone.

I recently went to an ‘invitation only’ marathon. It felt as if, on arrival, someone had thrown Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak over my body. I was warmly greeted at the entrance, but many of the other ‘amigos’ were mostly looking for, and seeing everyone, except, you know, me. So, it’s my turn now, I thought, this is how it feels. Their gazes crossed mine without even a blink. They saw right through me. The lay-out of the dance floor encouraged dancers to congregate in one particular corner of the room, putting short people at a distinct disadvantage. I went straight to the large, brightly-lit dining room. After a while, I was joined by another fugitive. ‘I bet you know a lot of people here’, I chatted. ‘I’m afraid I’ve been away a long time’, she chatted back. Attagirl… it’s chataceo time.


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Published: 29 Dec 2019 @ 12:16


3 Posts
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Alex Tango Fuego commented:

Thanks for this, Martin. I try my best at cabeceo, but I didn’t know about my invisibility cloak. It’s difficult to cabeceo successfully if they never make eye contact. – Read
Comment | Alex Tango Fuego | 30 Dec 2019

Martin van Kesteren (Author) responded:

Keep working at it. I’m thinking of switching to the side of the Dark Lord, learn a couple of fancy spells. – Read
Comment | Martin van Kesteren | 31 Dec 2019

Anonymous commented:

A problem I see is that some organizers do not have control of the tone of their event. It is our responsibility as host/organizers to set that tone or else someone else will. I make a big effort to welcome as many people as possible, and yes I barely dance at my own milonga. I make myself available to help people meet each other by introducing people to one another. I’m sure someone out there will have a bad time because I didn’t get to them, but we all do what we can.     The other part is as an outsider, I think people expect that they will be welcomed with opened arms. Now that would be nice, but I find that most of the time, I need to make my own luck. While everyone says they watch to see how a person dances, I don’t look at the dance floor. What I do is I spend the first 15 – 20 minutes to see who the head honchos of the milonga are. That’s not always the organizer. Sometimes the social anchor is just a regular that everybody knows and loves. This can easily be identified as who everyone goes and greets. In my experience, this is typically an older man or woman. If it is an older woman, this is the person I dance with first. If it’s someone younger, I ignore her because the line to dance with her is way too long and I need to earn the milonga’s respect first. If the head honcho is a guy, I offer him tribute like sharing wine or something like that. Being in his festive company can validate me as a decent person worth taking a chance on. I understand that this advice does not apply to followers, but it’s worked for me. I am sure there is some follower who has broken the code and can share their two cents. – Read
Comment | Anonymous | 12 Jan 2020

Martin van Kesteren (Author) responded:

I see that my response to this has been rudely disturbed by a pandemic. I actually dance a lot at my own milonga, leading by example so to speak, pun intended. Of course, I try to enroll as many leaders in the same mission to give everybody a good time which over time has been successful, creating some critical mass of leaders willing to contribute to the bigger cause next to the ones that are more selective, which is also totally okay. As for the outsider part, your strategy is also very useful for me. I wrote a piece on our primate roots that sort of explains the background of it, purely in the interest of science of course 🙂   – Read
Comment | Martin van Kesteren | 17 Feb 2023

Martin van Kesteren (Author) commented:

ha ha ha! thank you for this insight into entry strategies..very useful:)   – Read
Comment | Martin van Kesteren | 14 Jan 2020
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