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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.