By Alberto Paz
According to the excellent reference source Gotta Tango, cabeceo is a nodding movement signifying “Shall we dance?” prevalent at the traditional dance halls of Buenos Aires. The gesture is used by the man as an invitation to a lady, who allows eye contact to be made from a distance. A lady’s nodding of the head, or any other subtle facial movement, indicates “Yes, you may dance with me.”
The operative words are, “gesture used by the man,” “lady allows eye contact.” It goes without saying that by avoiding eye contact women can blow a lot of people off. There is a reason for this.
In the 1940s World War II distracted the U.S. entertainment industry from promoting their music abroad. In that vacuum, as Argentina remained neutral, the 1940s unleashed a period of glory for the tango and its music.
These golden years were the pivotal time in history when the tango dance, the music, and the poetry reached every corner of the city of Buenos Aires, traveled across the interior of Argentina, and crossed the borders into most of Latin America. There was very little influence from the rest of the world, which was preoccupied with the war. As a result, the art form was kept in a rare state of purity and authenticity. The dramatic changes in the music, the dance, and the poetry of the tango once again matched the structural and social changes of the city of Buenos Aires.
The urban demographic of the 1900s, with five men to each woman, had long disappeared. However, the way in which couples resolved conflicts in life as well as in tango was still ingrained in their psyches. What had changed was that women were no longer the exclusive targets of blame for disappointments in love. Men shared the blame as well as the responsibilities and consequences of failure. The new generation of poets of the tango displayed in their lyrics an entirely new body of work that acutely reflected the transformations in ethics, anguishes, and hopes prevalent not just in Argentina but also worldwide.
In remarkable contrast to the generation of immigrants that descended from the planks of ocean-crossing vessels in the 1870s, the young generation that ruled the tango in the 1940s came from nearby provinces such as Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Santa Fé. They immigrated to the capital city of Buenos Aires, bringing along a meticulous musical education. They looked out for
one another, rooming together in boarding houses that soon became filled with the sounds of their instruments. The inspiration of these musicians as a whole was uninhibited. The fruits of their unusual talent resulted in an orgy of melodies that enhanced the repertoire of the best orchestras, delighting audiences with spectacular tangos, valses, and milongas. They introduced
the tango singer as a human instrument. Meanwhile, a new generation of dancers began to incorporate new concepts in order to differentiate themselves, since copying steps from other dancers was against the strict codes of conduct prevailing at the dance halls. Men and women developed a discreet and intimate way to invite, accept, or reject an invitation to dance. It was eye contact and cabeceo, or nod, a subtle movement of the head (cabeza) from a distance.
Men sought the best female dancers and vice versa, because part of tango dancing involved honor, prestige, and a desire to look the best on the dance floor. This required that both men and women first learn to dance well before attending a dance hall. The first public dances most men and women attended were with friends and relatives in a rite of passage into the world of the dance halls of Buenos Aires.
The ritual for asking, accepting, or refusing to dance afforded a distinct advantage to the female dancers. Prospective partners were judged on the basis of their skills, demeanor, and grooming. The ladies were seated in prominent areas around the dance floor based on a protocol that took into consideration their experience and reputation. From their vantage point, the women could assess the pool of male dancers. An invitation was allowed by making eye contact with the candidate. The men standing by the bar, or seated in special bullpens according to their reputation and seniority, scanned the room to make eye contact with those ladies who either had a reputation as dancers or had shown their skills on the dance floor.
As a man scanned the room, a connection might be made with a gazing lady. The man would nod his head in a silent invitation. Upon receiving the assurance of a gentle nod, a subtle smile, or a deliberate batting of the eyelashes, he would begin the journey toward her table with his eyes locked onto hers. This was necessary to avoid embarrassing situations in which more than one suitor might have misinterpreted and intercepted a lady’s green light.
When the man reached the table, then and only then would the lady stand up and take one step onto the dance floor, waiting for the man to stop in front of her. He would raise his left arm, offering his open hand, palm up, to gently wrap her hand with his fingers. She would then raise her left arm to allow him to embrace her while she rested her left arm on his shoulder. Then
they would take a side step to the left of the man and begin to move into the line of dance. This action of getting onto the dance floor was expressed in Spanish as “salir a bailar,” which translates as exiting to the dance floor, to begin the dance. It’s possible that the name of the Salida we learn in tango refers to that initial move.
The reasons for certain codes in the dance halls of Buenos Aires are the result of sociocultural behavior, and it has nothing to do with things that foreigners need to do in order to get certified as good tango dancers. No serious teaching professional nor seasoned dancer would ever suggests that tango tourists should dream about becoming instant dancing porteños by doing monkey see, monkey do. No matter how hard one tries to hide it with silly behavior, a tango dancing gringo will always be a tango dancing gringo. Gringo used with the most endearing of intentions.
Aspiring tango dancers should spend their time learning the techniques and the know how of the tango from the very few that actually know how to teach it. Then they should stop acting like fools with silly characterizations they heard on the grapevine, and dance the way they are, be themselves, and be pleased they have learned a new skill. Nobody expects them to be anything else.
Reference source : GOTTA TANGO by Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart – Published by HUMAN KINETICS, Champaign, IL 2007
Autographed copies of Gotta Tango can be purchased HERE.