The cabeceo is quite special. Whichever way you give or receive this silent communication, the Cabeceo is the magic that binds you and your partner to the music of the next tanda. It is the reassurance of a private engagement post haste that urges you through the hustle and bustle of dancers, pausing momentarily to smile when you meet and finally, to step into your partner’s embrace, ready for the dance.
It is in essence, a contract to dance! Offered by the subtlest little gesture, approved and sealed by the simple ‘nod of the head’ in return.
In Spanish, ‘cabeceo’ means, ‘nod of the head’. And in the traditional milongas of South America, the Cabeceo is the only way to secure a dance.
There are numerous advantages to this way of asking someone to dance. As a social custom it protects the dignity of the person asking. Some courage is needed to walk across the dancefloor, stand in front of another, perhaps a stranger, and ask them to dance outright. In the case where the offer is declined, face to face, it can be quite defeating, embarrassing even! On the other hand, the Cabeceo allows the receiver a way of declining that is kind. No-one loses face. No-one loses time. No-one feels awkward.
With this element of social risk removed, the floor is suddenly wide open for infinitely more opportunities to ask and accept or decline.
So. How do you cabeceo?
Generally Leaders cabeceo Followers. That’s the tradition, but these are modern times and there are always exceptions!
If you are doing the asking; you can do it any way you like I suppose! A solemn wink? A slight sweeping gesture of your head towards the dancefloor? I have seen serious eyebrows raised, hands pointing at me like pistols in a shoot out, tongue’s sticking out (not entirely recommended..), rolling over hands, a single finger pointing up – ‘question?’, little happy dances on the spot, hopeful grins and nods and oh… so many different, wonderful, endearing gestures I can’t recount them all. As a follower, I don’t think I have ever been Cabeceo’d twice in the same way!
However, I am willing to attempt to explain the principle of it in the least:
1. Leaders: Catch the eye of the Follower you want to ask to dance. If you are not sure what the music will be and who you want to dance that music with, do not give up! You have time to hear the music of the tanda start and quickly catch someone’s attention. Followers will still be open for an offer even after the tanda has started.
2. Followers: Keep your eyes open and be alert to who is looking at you, who you want to dance with and who you don’t. No-one will be able to ask you to dance, if you are not looking. Also, bear in mind that this is an instinctive game. Ensure that if you want to dance, your body language advertises that you do. Take it from me.. I have missed a few potentially outstanding dances because I didn’t know better.
3. Leaders: Once you have caught the eye of your potential partner, gesture in some simple, subtle way that you are asking for the dance. Be clear about your intentions. Don’t let there be any confusion. Sometimes, another social custom of simple greeting – ‘Hi, How are you? Nice to see you!’ – may be confused with – ‘Hi, How are you? Would you like to dance this tanda?’.
4. Followers: Once you have received an offer from a potential partner, you can simply reply in like manner. Your reply to the cabeceo is called ‘the mirada’. Nod your head in return – ‘Yes, I accept! Lets dance!’ If you would rather decline the offer, then try not to catch the person’s eye in the first place or simply provide a polite but negative response by shaking your head once and then looking away. Its probably not cool at this point to launch into wild gesturing about your feet hurting, or you need to rest or you have promised someone else. We would all end up looking like Baseball Pitchers in that case, wiggling our noses and waving our hands about. And frankly, it doesn’t really matter ‘why’ you don’t want to dance in that very moment. Don’t hold the Leader up, let him/her move on to the next opportunity. Time is of the essence!
5. Leaders: If you are declined. You are declined for this dance. Not every dance forever more. Move on to catch another persons eye. There are plenty of fish in the sea as they say. Perhaps you can ask that person who declined another time, when they can accept your offer.
6. Both: Once you have agreed to dance with each other, move directly to meet each other on the dancefloor. Don’t keep each other waiting. Don’t stop to chat with friends, or dilly dally. Respect your contract to dance.
The ‘art’ of the cabeceo is an expression. An instinctive language, refined, without the use of conventional words. You will just simply know how to imply that you want to dance with someone and you will simply know how to say yes or no to that proposition.
The cabeceo is the ‘way’ of the milonga.
It is an intrinsic element of Traditional Salon Tango, and, it is… the beginning of the dance.