aregjan (aregjan) wrote,

El cabeceo in tango

In the recent few months there has been lots of talk in various tango circles about the supposed benefits of the use
of cabeceo (the use of eye contact and various head nods to signal invitations on the dance floor). In various Boston
tango milongas and tango related forums people have lauded cabeceo as a great way to invite and to be invited. So
here I would like to go over the stated advantages of cabeceo vis a vis the standard invitation technique, and then debate
the possible downsides of this method.

The proponents typically provide these arguments in favor of cabeceo:

1.   "Cabeceo allows for mutuality -- some women will say 'yes' not because they want to dance with you, but because they
don't want to say 'no.'"

Cabeceo is hardly the only, or even the best way to achieve mutuality. Assuming that we're all adults, we all can learn how
to say "no," or how to accept a "no." Furthermore -- if one doesn't know how to say(or take) a "no," then cabeceo only serves as the
rug to sweep the real problem under. I would even give it a harder crack and say that if a man doesn't know how to take a "no" then
he should be _forced_ to, over and over and over, thus either learning how to be cool about it or leave tango altogether (to be clear:  very few, if any, of my fellow tango dancers fall in this category).
2.  "It saves the man the embarrassment of rejection."
Embarrassment? Really?? Is there anything that defines a man's confidence  better
than the ability to take a "no" gracefully and
move on without getting hung up about it? Besides, a dismissive cabeceo is still a very clear rejection.
Perhaps not as obvious as "Hell no!", but still quite an obvious one.
Here I have to step back and admit that the issue of embarrassment is not entirely baseless. You see, in many parts of the
world (including in my native Armenia) there's no
bigger humiliation for a man than being publicly rejected by a woman. If that happens,
you can be guaranteed a month's worth of ridicule and teasing from your drinking buddies. So, I can totally see why this can be an issue in Argentina.
Despite all the confusion and awkwardness that cabeceo engenders it was selected precisely to avoid the much bigger problem of
Argentine women having to choose between humiliating a stranger and an undesired dance.
Yet, we are not in Argentina. We are in the USA. Where most men are quite ok taking "no" without getting mortally offended (this may partially
be because they _have_ no drinking buddies to be teased by:)).
Which is where we get to the pivotal maxim: do not blindly adopt foreign customs simply because they seem cool to you. A custom in society
A may be perfectly well suited, yet may be totally out of place -- even ridiculous -- in society B. Just because it works for Argentinians doesn't
mean that it has to work for us.
3. "Since either the leader or the follower can initiate it, cabeceo actually allows women to invite men, without having to break the
social taboos."

This is the best argument so far in favor of cabeceo. I've always found it to be deeply unfair that men get all the initiative when it comes to deciding who dances with whom. Cabeceo makes the process of invitations symmetric -- either the woman or the man can initiate the contact. In fact, I'll speculate that this is the major (unstated) reason why many ladies prefer cabeceo. But then --
wouldn't it be much, MUCH simpler to altogether abandon the antiquated patriarchal taboo that bans women from inviting?
Wouldn't _that_ be a step up! It's 2012 you know, not 1912!

So far we limited ourselves to the stated advantages and benefits listed by cabeceo proponents. Now, let's debate some of the most
obvious limitations.

1. Cabeceo can be confusing and awkward. It involves staring across the hall to a potential partner, and then having to do a massive
guesswork -- is she looking back at you, or at the person next to you? Is she just greeting you, or is this an actual response? How do you
tell her "hi" without it being interpreted as a cabeceo?
2. If this is someone that you do not know, is she looking away because she doesn't want to dance, or because she is simply unaware
of cabeceo and expects people to walk up to her? Because if its the later, then nobody is going to ask her to dance.  And
beginners -- precisely those that need to dance the most -- will be hit the hardest.   Clearly, cabeceo works only if _everyone_ is following it, while the standard technique will work in any environment (assuming people are courteous and polite).
3. Exacerbating the problem with visual contact is the fact that many of the tango floors are rather wide, making it rather hard
(even for someone with a 25/20 vision like me) to make a meaningful visual contact. And if your eyesight is less than ideal, and if
the dance floor is dimly illuminated (as is the case most of the time), then good luck figuring out what's going on.
4. Many of us go to tango not only to dance, but also to chat with our friends. Yet pleasant chit-chat doesn't mean that we do not want to invite
or be invited. With the standard technique one can always maintain small talk while remaining open to invitations. With cabeceo, however,
the invitee (man or a woman -- remember, cabeceo is a 2-way street) has to choose: either they scan the floor with their eyes, indicating
willingness to invite or accept invitation, or they chat, but hardly both.
5. Many beginners have hard time following and keeping track of the myriad of the various rules that come with
tango, and may find that the cabeceo is yet another joy kill, discouraging them to the point where they give up their pursuit
of an already demanding activity.
6. To extend the previous problem, I hear many young people say that tango is "granddad's dance," and that they rather dance salsa or other less constrained dances, where the rules are simple and people are friendly. Cabeceo only exacerbates this problem and
adds to the stereotype of tango being a "tradition-obsessed people's dance." Do we really want this?
7. People pursue tango because they find it fun. Loading the dance with stifling rules and artificial formalisms of marginal benefit will only serve to
negate its authentic beauty and natural appeal.
8. Many members of our society suffer from autism of various severity. Mild forms of autism are a lot more common than
most people think.  One of the main symptoms of autism is the difficulty of initiating and maintaining eye contact. Some of these folks may want to join the tango scene. However, by demanding that they use eye contact as the primary mode of communication  we effectively tell them that they are not welcome among us.  This is clearly not what we want.

While I do use cabeceo when I have to, I dislike it and much rather prefer the clarity of a simple yes or no. That said, elements of cabeceo are ubiquitous in all social settings: eye contact is an important non-verbal communication protocol, on or off the dance floor.  We all practice that, cabeceo or no cabeceo, and obviously I am not against this. I am however against attempts to formalize this into a binding rule. Let us allow things to occur naturally and organically, rather than trying to impose them as yet another "important rule."
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