Believe it or not, this is a somewhat hot topic around the world.
We start with Pichi's perspective from Buenos Aires and follow with others.
Feel free to add your comments with an email.
Cabeceo (nod of the head) is how one invites and acknowledges a partner for a tanda in the milongas of Buenos Aires. It's not as easy as a verbal request at a table, but a man doesn't have time for this. By the time he has walked across the floor to invite a woman, she could already be dancing. Or worse yet, she could refuse him.
My favorite milonga is on Saturday afternoon. This milonga usually has at least a few milongueros, because Daniel provides the best music in BsAs. The regulars all have a reserved table. I arrived too late last Saturday to get a front row table. In fact, there were almost no chairs left when I arrived at 7:00. I was seated with a couple I know; he's a milonguero. It was a hot afternoon, and the air conditioners and fans couldn't compete with the 200+ dancers who were keeping the temperature up.
I had my first dances with Alito for the salsa/merengue tanda. While we were on the floor, I happened to notice another milonguero Jose Alberto seated at a table. I was hoping he would look in my direction for the next tanda, and he did. However, when he nodded to me, the woman seated in front of me thought he was looking at her. She got up and walked towards him on the floor, and there was nothing I could do about it. I stayed in my chair, knowing that he would dance with her. Why? Because milongueros are gentlemen. He gave me an indication that we would dance later. This wasn't the first time I had a tanda taken from me by another woman. And it won't be the last. I know there will always be another tanda to dance. I hadn't danced with Jose Alberto for months. When the next tanda began, we made eye contact through a maze of people, and we danced.
The cabeceo takes practice. It takes right timing and a sharp eye. One can avoid an awkward situation by learning patience. Give the man time walk across the floor. He will make eye contact with you to confirm his signal. The cabeceo isn't fool-proof, but ladies, it's the only way you can get to dance with the best of Buenos Aires.
Pichi de Buenos Aires
I continue to be surprised to learn that Americans are resistant to and threatened by something as simple and charming as the "cabeceo".
What could be more natural at a Milonga (and in life!) than to be engaged with other people by making eye contact?
What could be more gracious than expressing an invitation to dance and accepting or declining through the simple expedient of a look?
What could be more mortifying to a man than to cross a crowded room to invite somebody to dance, only to be turned down? What could be more embarassing to both parties than to turn somebody down who had made that trek?
What could be more brusque than a man walking up to a woman and peremptorily extending his hand to her, as if demanding a dance...often without even looking at her at all?!
Are Americans resistant to the cabeceo because they fear and misunderstand the "intimacy" of eye-contact?
Mark Rector, Chicago
I agree with Mark that it's surprising that so many people have such stong feelings against the cabeceo. OTOH I certainly agree that when it's done as a command or a demand, as was described in another post, then it does completely lose it's charm.
I think part of the problem is that in the US, women don't usually make sustained eye contact, even when they're interested in a man. To do so could brand them as "forward" or (worse) "easy." Instead there's a look-for-a-moment-then-look-away coquetishness. A woman friend told me the only time she makes sustained eye contact with a strange man is when she's angry and being confrontational, ie. "getting in his face." In Latin countries the women are more bold and perhaps more self-assured (recall the comments about being more comfortable with their bodies) so eye contact is not a threat.
It's true that dim lighting and poor eyesight make it difficult across a room. A technique I learned (by watching a local) and subsequently used successfully was to walk around the room, and as I approached a woman I wanted to dance with, I just looked at her (now from close range), and if she looked up and met my gaze, I would nod towards the floor in invitation. If she didn't notice or look at me, I just kept walking. It IS an elegant method, in my hukble opinion.
Jay Rabe, Portland
There's been lots of discussion about the eye-game called the cabeceo: technique, variations, problems, advantages, experiences pro and con. I could add my own two cents on each of these (the one I can't resist, under "Advantages": two men are converging on a local tanguera to ask for a dance - at ten or fifteen feet distance from her, both are closer to her than me. Since I'd like to dance with her also, I catch her eye and raise an eyebrow from twenty feet away, and receive a nod of acceptance before any of the approaching men are close enough for their own version of asking. Ahh, life's little victories...;)..) But I admit to being surprised at the disfavor and even hostility the cabeceo invokes for some, based perhaps on a bad experience or perhaps on a disinclination to break through our own cultural taboos.
Let's remember what the cabeceo is for: it's a way of quickly and easily inviting a potential partner for a dance, AND for that partner EITHER to accept or decline, with a minimum of embarassment and social risk for all concerned.
The Argentines didn't fall into this method by accident - this EVOLVED to solve a social problem, and was thus better suited than other approaches, in their experience. If you've talked to people who have grown accustomed to this method, naturally there are "cabeceo stories" about both humorous and ingenious uses as well as awkward and uncomfortable moments of mistaken intent, etc. (My partner and I refer to these occasions as "milonga moments", which often provide much grist for conversation in the car on the way home.) Most of us regret such misunderstandings if anyone ends up feeling needlessly uncomfortable. But this doesn't change the historical fact that, in an emotionally charged social setting where effectiveness and clarity of intent were VITALLY IMPORTANT (namely, the hunt for a dance partner/date/mate in the Golden Age of tango) this is what a million or so active dancers settled on over the course of decades as a way of handling this how-to-get-a-partner problem. This is worth something!
Until someone else can point out another method that has been similarly refined by so many people in such high-pressure settings over a similarly long period of time, maybe we can at least agree that the cabeceo is a worthy point of departure to solve this problem. It's not perfect, but if we can maintain the attitude of courtesy that gave rise to it while we create variations on it, we can still benefit a lot from its legacy.
Brian Dunn, Boulder
Prior generations discovered that certain behavior caused certain problems and created rituals to forbid the behavior that could cause such terrible consequences.
Rituals are passed from generation to generation. They are no written rules, but those who do not follow them will feel like an alien among his peers, he may be destroyed by the same problems that affected his ancestors initially.
In times of my grand parents, at the milongas in Buenos Aires it was customary to ask a dance by walking to the table where the lady was sitting. This was done only after the eyes of both the man and the woman had established prior contact. That eye contact said to the man "if you come and ask me to dance I will dance with you". This was very important because if ...
...If a man walked to the table of the lady and she refused to dance, this effected several consequences: The man had to leave the milonga, the lady had to seat for the whole tanda, it would be inadmissible that after rejecting an invitation she could accept another; the man rejected and none of his friends would ever ask that lady to dance again.
This rejection occurred very seldom because to enjoy dancing tango you as a man have to be certain that that particular lady is really anxious to dance with you. If you make her dance against her will, the tango will have no meaning. It will be like kissing a woman that you do not love. Like sitting under a sun that is cold. Looking at a cloudy sky. A worthless experience.
For a tango to have meaning it has to be desired by both the woman and the man.
To avoid the problems above mentioned the ritual of "el cabeceo" was created, actually it developed by itself as a consequence of the original 'eye contact consultation'.
The man places himself in the visual area of the lady, in front but somewhat to one side or the other to allow her the choice of staring at him or not. This is very important because he wants to be certain that she wants to dance with him. She scans the room with her beautiful black eyes and meets his eyes, she continues scanning but ...then comes the important part, what he is waiting for: she continues looking in another direction (this means "I am not interested in dancing with you") or she returns her eyes to meet his and stare for an instant (this means "I really would love to dance with you"). He nods (cabecea) she nods in response to seal the date.
They walk to meet each other at the dancing floor, they stand in front of each other, smile, wait for a moment to feel the music and to allow the couple in front to start dancing. He gets closer, places his right hand around her waist allowing room for her to decide how close she wishes to dance, he then offers his left hand, she accepts it. He wants her to determine how close she wants to be, this is very important.
He leads with conviction and she follows him with absolute trust, she allows herself to be taken, to be transported, she is not afraid to surrender and express her deepest sentiments because she knows that she is protected by the rituals of the milonga.
She can do all that without any further consequence because she knows that the real world and the world of the milonga are totally separated.
The rituals that take place here are courtship : represented by staring , nodding, then comes the union or communion : the embrace, then the separation, the music stops, the magic ends, he keeps her in his arms for an instant more and then takes her back to her table, but stops about three feet before her table to fulfill the last ritual of not invading her space. A love story in one tango. Birth, life and death.