When the cabeceo and mirada are employed by everyone in the milonga it creates a wonderful possibility for tango leaders and followers to find, connect and dance with everyone in a respectful, kind and efficient way.
What is a tango ‘leader’ and ‘follower’?
Leaders and followers are simple terms to describe the two dance roles in a tango partnership. Tango is an improvised dance. The leader role suggests or ‘leads’ the dance. The follower role ‘follows’ or responds and plays with the leader’s suggestions. The leader dances on the music and the follower dances ever so slightly behind the middle of the musical note.
Where do the words ‘cabeceo’ and ‘mirada’ come from?
In Spanish, the word ‘Cabeza’ means ‘head’ and, therein, the word ‘Cabeceo’ refers to the ‘nod of the head’. The cabeceo is the traditional way for a tango leader to ask someone to dance in the milonga. The Spanish word ‘Mirada’ means to ‘look’ or ‘gaze’. This is the tango follower’s way of showing a particular leader that he/she is interested in dancing. In our modern times, the cabeceo and mirada can both act as a way to initiate an invitation to dance.
Why do we use the cabeceo?
This is the most respectful way to ask someone to dance without placing them, or yourself, in a socially public and possibly uncomfortable situation. The person you are asking is able to accept or decline discreetly without feeling forced or cornered. Equally, the person asking knows that the person accepting actually wants to dance and hasn’t accepted out of social obligation. Consider the scenario where a follower has just finished dancing a tanda and wishes to rest. If a leader then approaches that follower and asks for a dance, in front of everyone, that follower is publicly forced to either accept out of social obligation and not necessarily because he/she wants to dance, or decline, therein, causing a scene and possibly embarrassment on both sides. Without the cabeceo, a leader cannot be absolutely certain that their partner truly wants to dance. Would you really like to spend a whole tanda dancing with someone who doesn’t really want to dance with you? Dancing tango requires an element of trust in your partner. By inviting and accepting using the cabeceo and mirada a couple establish eye-contact which is one of the most powerful ways to build trust. Both dancers know with certainty that their partner wants to dance with them and this connection is carried forward into their dance together. One of the most wonderful reasons for using the cabeceo is because it creates an open forum with unlimited opportunities for everyone to dance with everyone. A dancer is not reliant on knowing people or limited to only dancing with friends and associates. Strangers can ask and accept invitations to dance. Dancers can truly explore and enjoy dancing with everyone. Also, imagine if there were hundreds of dancers in a milonga and then imagine if everyone had to walk around, stumbling through the crowd, in order to physically approach and ask the person they wish to dance with. The milonga would be utter chaos. Certainly, it would be a time-consuming, exhausting process to get a dance. The cabeceo allows numerous dancers to ask and accept quickly and discreetly from across the dancefloor. If declined, a leader still has time to ask someone else.
As a leader, how do I ask someone to dance using the cabeceo?
Place yourself in a position that is visible to the follower you wish to ask. Catch their eye and indicate with your eyes and any appropriate facial expression the question ‘do you want to dance’.
As a follower, how can I use the mirada to suggest to a leader that I want to dance with them?
Choose the dancer you would like to dance with. Try to catch their eye and indicate with your eyes, with a smile or anything else that you are interested in dancing with them. If that leader wants to dance with you too they will cabeceo you. Equally, be mindful of how you appear. Sit or stand in a place where leaders can easily see you. If you want to dance, be aware of your body language and make it clear to everyone around you that you DO want to dance. For example, sit up in your chair, put your phone away, look interested in the music and dancing and be open to being cabeceo’d. Smile!
How do I accept a cabeceo?
Nod your head and smile to confirm you accept the dance. Stay seated or in your position while maintaining eye-contact. Wait for your leader to approach you to escort you to the floor.
How do I decline a cabeceo or mirada?
If you notice that someone is trying to catch your eye, but you don’t wish to dance with them, try not to make eye contact and turn away to make it discreetly obvious that you are not available.
What happens if I accidentally make eye-contact with the wrong person?
If you do make eye-contact, show no reaction and quickly look away to indicate to that person that you are looking for someone else.
What should I do if my cabeceo or mirada is rejected?
If you sense that the person you are looking at is aware of you, but is looking elsewhere, then move on to another dancer and maybe try that dancer another time.
Why would someone decline my cabeceo or mirada?
There are many reasons why someone might decline your cabeceo. They may not like that music or style of tanda, or, they may want to rest for a while. Perhaps they were hoping to dance with someone else, and, it’s true, they may just simply not wish to dance with you right now. And that’s ok! It doesn’t matter. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about this. Move swiftly on to find someone else to dance with.
Do I really need to cabeceo my friends?
Yes. Of course. Your friends also deserve your respect and the option to decline your invitation. Your friends are not obliged to dance with you just as you are not obliged to dance with them.
The cabeceo and mirada are fun! If you haven’t already give it a try next time you go dancing.
Subject: Opinion / Etiquette
Published: 5 September 2022 by Rita Horne
We created this wonderful photo at our beloved Counting House Sunday milonga during a cortina. A great many thanks to our outstanding models, friends and local dancers in the Edinburgh tango community. From left to right: Teo, Fiona, Piotr, Alastair, Sarah, Yavor, Agnietė and Emilia.