I am currently building my own website called TANGO NOTES, a resource about tango music. Feel free to visit here:

Selected Tango Immigrant posts will continue to be up for the foreseeable future.

29 January 2021

The beginner’s guide to the cabeceo

 Originally written for 030tango in 2016. 

“I’ve never gotten the hang of this cabeceo thing.”

Many tango dancers will recognise this statement. Even the advanced dancer who uses the cabeceo all the time has experienced that it sometimes can lead to strange and funny situations. If you’re a beginner dancer, though, you might not have heard of it yet. So I’ve put together a guide in order to demystify the concept a bit. I’ve also added a couple of extra tips and tricks if you’re already using the cabeceo.

1) What is it?

In short, the cabeceo is a way of inviting someone to dance in tango. Instead of walking up to someone to ask verbally, you just catch the person’s eye and make a non-verbal invitation / agreement with your head. The custom originated in Buenos Aires, but it’s becoming increasingly more common in Europe. Some events even ask that the cabeceo should be the only way of asking someone to dance.

2) What does it mean?

Cabeceo is a noun and means “nod”. It’s related to “cabeza”, which means head. As you will see below, though, the cabeceo can’t really happen without the mirada, which means “look”. Since we live in the age of phrase-shortening, we often say only “cabeceo” instead of “mirada and cabeceo”, but using both words describes the concept better.

3) How do we do it?

When you have decided who you’d like to dance with, you try to establish eye contact. This is the mirada. If both parties keep the eye contact, it means that you are interested in dancing with each other, and then (traditionally) the man will incline his head towards the dance floor, and the woman will nod if she agrees to dance. This nod is the cabeceo and this is what seals the deal. At this point, the man will go and fetch the lady. Both men and women can do the mirada, which means that also the woman is active in indicating who she wants to dance with, also by looking away when she doesn’t want to dance.

4) How do we *not* do it?

The most important thing to remember is basically this: there’s a difference between showing your interest and engaging in a staring contest. If the person you are trying to invite doesn’t respond – or especially if (s)he looks at you, then looks away – don’t continue staring. Try again later instead. Also keep a respectful distance – don’t walk very close to someone and start ogling them. Especially do not install yourself directly in front of someone and stare, because this is in practice the same as a verbal invitation. If you are sitting very close to your object of desire, you might want to get up and do the mirada from a bit of a distance. In my experience, though, a close-range cabeceo can be nice if done carefully and discreetly – especially when you know the person that you are inviting.

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5) What is pre-cabeceo?

The pre-cabeceo happens in the cortina. It means to look around to see where your favourite partners are and maybe make eye contact to indicate that you might be interested in dancing with them. Personally, I think the invitation should not happen in the cortina, but rather after the next tanda has started. Inviting in the cortina is a bit like false-starting in a race: better secure the lady before anyone else gets her! But most importantly, many dancers want to hear which music is being played before they know whether they want to dance (and also whom they want to dance that particular music with).

6) What if it doesn’t work?

Sometimes, the whole thing can indeed become a bit weird, like when a friend did the cabeceo and five girls nodded eagerly in his direction. When he got up to get the girl he had invited, four other guys got up and walked together with him… It all turned out allright for everybody involved, but my friend reports that this moment was slightly ticklish. A tip for both parties is to keep eye contact with each other while the man walks up to the lady. If there has been a misunderstanding, it will become obvious at one point, and then there is still time for the guy to retreat. And girls: stay put until he’s by your chair. If two women get up to meet the guy, the misunderstanding is more visible. Don’t worry too much, though. Misunderstandings happen to absolutely everybody.

If you think you’re doing everything right and it STILL doesn’t work (in an environment where the cabeceo is used), you might want to consider a few other factors, like your dancing, people skills, or hygiene habits. This may sound a bit harsh, but sometimes the cabeceo can help by telling you if you need to make any changes in your tango life.

7) Seriously, so much mumbo-jumbo. Why can’t I just ask?

The whole point of the mirada and cabeceo is to avoid putting pressure on anyone. When asked by mirada and cabeceo, it’s easier to say no. This doesn’t sound like a good thing, but it actually ensures that the dances you do get, are with people who actively want to dance with you. Not having to go up to someone and ask also prevents you from being openly rejected.

And actually, it’s also a very practical concept. If the person you want to dance with is on the other side of the room when your favourite song starts playing, (s)he might be taken by someone sitting at the neighbour table because you spent too much time walking all the way around the room to do the invitation. Shoot them your best mirada across the room instead! If you’re good at long-distance cabeceo, you’ll score both some extra dances and some extra credit.

That’s about it.

Oh, and a quick note from the language department: Only one A, please: ca-bE-cE-o.

23 July 2019

Is it a tango dress?

This post is dedicated to all my tanguera friends. You all look magnificent.


Recently overheard in the milonga:

Woman to my (ultra stylish) friend: “That’s a beautiful dress!”
My (ultra stylish) friend: “Thank you! It’s not a tango dress, but…”

Women’s tango clothes are subject to three things: feminisation, commercialisation, and “trendification” - maybe more now than ever. I do love dressing up for the milonga and am influenced by tango clothes trends myself, but I think it has gone too far if we women feel that beautiful and perfectly useful dresses aren’t “tango” enough just because they’re not made especially for tango, or just because they don't have those particular "I'm going to the milonga" features.

So I made this small dress check list:

Image © T. Antzée

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13 September 2017

Breaking our musical habits

My partner recently came up with a new term: “Musicality Fatigue”; being tired of your own musical interpretations. Even when we're putting a lot of thought into interpreting the music, we might realise that in reality, we're often doing the same things to the music, or always choosing the same elements to interpret. These things might be seen as leader issues, but they apply to us active followers as well! Actually, when we're at it, I’d like to coin a term myself as well: “Compulsive Musicality”; when you sort of *have* to do certain things to certain musical elements.

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When suffering from Musicality Fatigue or Compulsive Musicality, it can be a comfort to think that our partners probably aren't tired of us! But we still might feel we want to move on with our musicality for our own sake, because we don't want to express ourselves in the same way all the time. It's not always super easy to get out of automated habits by oneself. Sometimes, it's helpful to just pick particular elements that we know we tend to overdo, and then practice not doing them. But just taking away elements won't really make our dance a lot more creative. We also need inspiration to do new stuff, and inspiration to do old stuff in new ways.

Personally, I’m finding that the simplest solution is still helpful: musicality classes. I'm still taking them. But maybe the goal for going to classes shouldn’t just be to learn new, fixed interpretations - those will soon become as hard to break out of as our old habits. And maybe we shouldn’t always pick musicality classes with teachers whose musicality we admire and want to copy. Maybe we need to try someone else as well, someone whose musicality we don’t really get. For me, a good musicality class is a lot about ideas and concepts that might fit the music in ways that we haven’t thought of yet. Maybe we even need to try ideas we don't like - it could be we discover that there's somehing in there we can use after all. That’s how we can change and grow musically!

And again, working with technique also makes us more musically nuanced dancers. Because in the end, it’s our body that dances. ❤❤❤

27 February 2017

Finding your tango self

“Sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself.”
(Miles Davis, jazz trumpetist)

Last week, I found myself. Yes I know. How cheesy isn’t that? But seriously, that’s what it felt like. After all the technique classes and all the practicing and the thinking and the frustratingly slow progress, this one sentence from a teacher brought everything together. I kept thinking of it, and suddenly, it felt like it was my body that was dancing, not my brain trying to understand how to dance. What also happened was that the mental pictures I had were not just of my teachers, or other dancers I'm inspired by, anymore. Now I was able to visualise how I myself wanted to dance.

It’s not like I am a fabulous dancer now. It could be that I look and feel about the same as before. And I'm sure there's lots of frustration ahead of me! I’ll always be somewhere intermediate-ish. The difference is that suddenly, I'm getting more enjoyment from the way I dance now instead of constantly thinking about how I want to dance in the future. At the same time, I'm looking forward to continue working on my dance and learn more. Improved joy of dancing, improved joy of learning. Win-win situation.

I know this may seem a bit navel-gazing. But I want to share this experience in case there's someone out there who needs a bit of encouragement. Don’t give up! If you want to improve, keep at it. Keep taking classes. Learn from different teachers even if it seems like they contradict each other. Sometimes they do, but often they’re just using different language and different pedagogics to teach the same thing. And keep practicing. Go to prácticas, do solo exercises at home. Listen to the music. Everything you invest will pay off somehow.

And, most importantly: if you want to improve, don’t let anybody tell you that you shouldn’t. If you want to get more out of your dance, and if you want your partners to get more out of dancing with you, keep learning.

Keep collecting the pieces that build your dance.

23 January 2017

Spotlight on the essence

Once upon a time, there was a super famous couple who visited a European city to teach at a workshop weekend. During the Saturday night ball, they gave a totally magnificent performance that more or less left everybody in awe. After the show, the milonga continued as per usual. At some point, the DJ put on Troilo with Marino and the super famous couple went back on the floor together - not to perform this time, just to dance together. And then time just stopped a bit as they embraced each other in the ronda, he in his black suit and she in her red 1950s inspired dress. With one spot of light shining down on their jet black heads, the rest of the dancers a sizzling mess in the darkness, they quietly tuned in on each other and on the music, becoming the eye of the hurricane. Finally, she took one impossibly long, smooth, soft step together with him.
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It might have been the most meaningful step I’ve ever seen. I remember thinking that that moment was just perfect. In my mind, that moment is still there, like a photography of the essence of tango, reminding me to not lose sight of this essence as we’re constantly trying to learn more, constantly practicing to improve our dancing. But it also reminds me that pushing our limits can help us understand the essence. By learning more, we’ll know how to do less. By practicing the complex, we can master the basics - a soft, non-intrusive embrace, a body that’s strong but without tension, smooth walking, awareness of our axis, knowing the music well enough to understand when to walk and when to pause and when to be fast and when to be slow - all these things that make us capable of tuning into our partner without disturbance. Knowing we can do more if we want to, knowing that we’re not on the edge of our capacity might be just what will give us the confidence to find the essence in our dance: our own essence, and our partner’s essence - ultimately, each couple’s essence.

— Music: I don’t know if this was the exact Troilo tango that was played that night, but here’s “Torrente”, Aníbal Troilo’s orquesta with singer Alberto Marino, recorded 1944. It’s the perfect dramatic music to dance quietly. Click here to listen.

8 November 2016

Balancing beauty

“I thought of wearing this one. But maybe I’m showing too much skin.”
“I don’t know what the others will be wearing. Hope I won’t be too overdressed.”
“So sad that the girls are undressing just to get dances.”
“That looks awful.”

Most of us women dress up before going to the milonga. Since we started dancing, we’ve spent lots of money on tango dresses and too many pairs of fabulous shoes. And every evening before going out, we agonise over what to wear, we pick matching jewelry and shave our legs and put on makeup and paint our nails and try desperately to find a nice way to wear our hair so it’ll actually look good throughout the milonga, even though we know that no matter what we do, the hair is going to look ridiculous after three tandas.

So why all the fuss? Seriously, all this time worrying about tube tops sliding down and skirts riding up and splits moving to the wrong place. And don’t get me started on the makeup issues we’re having. Why can’t we just wear something normal and comfortable so we can focus on the actual dance?

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Dressing up for social happenings is a big part of human culture, of course. And for me, it’s a big part of going to the milonga: to dress up even on a grey and boring Thursday, and to arrive in the milonga and meeting all the other dancers - men and women - who all have made an effort to look beautiful. I actually love that part. But if we're to be a tiny bit cynical about it, we also hope that looking good will help us getting more dances. Dressing up helps us finding courage and confidence to invite people, and it helps us getting noticed.

But it has to be done just right, doesn’t it? We ladies, we have to balance carefully. We need to make sure that we look good, but not too good. This involves carefully hiding our ugly bits and showing our good bits - although without showing too much of the good bits, of course! If you make a misjudgement of how many percent of the good bits you’re showing, or if you accidentally mistake a bad bit for a good bit, all kinds of things may be said about you.

You might be criticised because your body isn’t beautiful enough. The fashion industry already taught us what we should look like, and society in general have been monitoring us since we were kids, so by now, it’s our responsibility to know our place in the body ranking hierarchy. Believing you’re beautiful, and showing yourself as such, is only really accepted if you're meeting the standard.

On the other hand though, you might be disapproved of because your body is too beautiful. If you’re showing too much of your good bits, you might be accused of not playing fair towards the other girls since you’re actually feeling good about yourself and therefore able to shamelessly use your good bits in the competition to get the best leaders. You shouldn’t be too confident!

Of course, you also risk being pitied because maybe actually, you’re not being confident enough. If you’re showing too much of your good bits, someone will make assumptions about your lack of self esteem since you obviously believe you have to undress to get dances.

It could also be that you’ll be held responsible for not being feminist enough. If you’re showing too much of your good bits, you’re reinforcing the idea that looks are necessary to get dances. Actually, you’re spoiling the men so they’ll stop thinking with their heads and start thinking with their d*cks, and in the end no one will want to dance with the women with the bad bits, even if they’re great dancers.

I'm sure it's even more intricate than this. But to sum it up, we're stuck between fashion, morality, and politics, between liberation and censorship, even in the milonga. 

Yes, I’m being polemic! But I’m quite sure that all women have these thoughts - sometimes about others, and too often about ourselves. I do realise it’s a very complex matter. But I’m thinking that if we want to make it easier for ourselves, we have to make it easier for the others, and in order to do that, we need to let go of jealousy and criticism. For me, this goes beyond competing for dances in the milonga. I believe that dressing the way you want should be part of being a free individual, and it’s important because every day, millions of women are hiding their body due to the rules and the shame and the fear that comes with different types of objectification. And I don’t think that hiding our bodies helps to win over the fashion tyranny and the morality tyranny. Let’s not support what brings us down. Let's support each other and - ultimately - ourselves.

18 October 2016

Seizing the stars: exploring musicality in tango

It’s not musicality. They’re just doing rhythms.”

I’m thinking about musicality again, trying to understand what it is. It seems we sometimes reduce it to only a reproduction of rhythmical structures. And I’m thinking that since music is more than rhythmical structures, dancing to music should be something more than that, too - like being observant of which musical ideas and elements and qualities that exist in each piece, and noticing how they all have different flavours, and understanding which choices you have in any given moment, and seizing the ideas and elements and qualities that you believe are beautiful and interesting, and recognising how they make you feel, and expressing it all clearly and precisely.

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Maybe some have more musical talent than others, but I believe that people are musical as long as they are somehow touched by music. Having musical skills is something else, though. Musical skills have to be learnt, worked with, practiced consciously. It doesn’t have to be done in class, nor do you need to have played an instrument at all - some of my favourite musical dancers tell me that they have no clue about the technicalities. But it has to be worked with.

So how do we grow our musical skills? I haven’t got all the answers, but I have some ideas. Starting with listening: not just hearing the music, but really listening to it. Listen to everything in the music, try to understand what the sounds are doing, why everything is there. It’s useful to listen a lot to tango music because it’s good to know the music you’re actually gonna dance to, but you can do the listening to all kinds of music. The idea is to practice listening.

The second thing we have to do is to revise our repertoire: Are the moves we’re doing automatised, old habits? And if so, how can we change our habits so that our repertiore can be used to serve the music instead of existing parallel to the music? And how can we be more creative with our repertiore? And, finally: even if you think that good technique isn’t necessary to be a musical dancer, keep practicing technique, too, because you’re going to discover that you cannot really express a musically rich-spectered interpretation without it. Why? Because musicality in dance doesn’t just exist in your analytic head and in your foot hitting the floor. It must be expressed through your whole body.

And in all this, let’s not forget this weird thing that we often say is undefinable, the thing that happens when the music resonates inside ourselves. The artistic expression, or the feelings, or the presence, or the passion, or whatever we try to call it because we don’t know what it really is. Maybe it’s not so mysterious, though. Maybe it’s just about believing that the musical idea you just seized is the most important and beautiful thing in the world right now, because you’re letting it seize you.