Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Milongas in Buenos Aires and Elsewhere in the World

December 1, 2013
  • The cabeceo is the prescribed method of dance invitation in Milongas del Centro in Buenos Aires. The cabeceo consists of making direct eye contact with a potential dance partner from a distance (at an assigned table), followed by first the man and then the woman nodding their heads to indicate agreement to dance. After achieving consent to dance, the man approaches the woman’s table.
  • Gender segregated seating (sections for men, women, and couples) facilitates the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation in Buenos Aires Milongas del Centro. The cabeceo is not directed towards and does not emanate from the seating section for couples.
  • The cabeceo functions to allow mutual consent in the selection of dance partners. This prevents embarrassment from rejection of a verbal dance invitation for the initiator and allows the recipient of an invitation to refuse a dance invitation without providing a verbal explanation and therefore eliminates the possibility of unwillingly dancing with an undesired partner.
  • Effectiveness in the use of the cabeceo is limited by lack of knowledge and practice in its use, as well as by imperfect vision.
  • In general, the most common method of dance invitation at First World milongas is a Direct Approach to the table accompanied by a verbal request to dance. In First World milongas the cabeceo is understood by few, mastered by fewer, and this rarely successful as a method of dance invitation.
  • Gender segregated seating is virtually non-existent in First World milongas.
  • There are tango weekends called Encuentros Milongueros in the US and Europe where the cabeceo is advertised as the preferred method of dance invitation. These events do not necessarily implement gender segregated seating.
  • Education in the use of the cabeceo, in the context of gender segregated seating, can and should occur in tango classes and practicas. This will increase knowledge about and proficiency in the use of the cabeceo in First World milongas.
  • Although gender segregated seating greatly improves the efficiency of use of the cabeceo in finding available dance partners, its implementation in First World milongas has met with (and will continue to meet) culturally based resistance, even at Encuentros Milongueros.
  • Although the use of the cabeceo for partner selection is a highly desired improvement for First World milongas, improving the selection of music (i.e., classic tango), eliminating inappropriate dance movements (exhibition moves and navigation hazards) and prohibiting teaching on the milonga dance floor are higher priorities for increasing the culturally validity of the environment provided in First World milongas.


Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Buenos Aires Milongas

The cabeceo is the prescribed means of inviting someone to dance in the traditional (mostly ‘downtown’) milongas of Buenos Aires (Milongas del Centro) where there are separate seating sections for men and women (and couples). The cabeceo consists of visually searching for a potential partner and when that partner is found, fixing one’s gaze upon the potential partner (with men sometimes leaning forward to make the invitation more conspicuous) in the hope that the potential partner will perceive the visual fixation and return the gaze. This strategy is used by both men and women. Upon meeting each other’s gaze the man will either nod, lift his eyebrows or cock his head to the side and possibly look briefly towards the dance floor (or some combination of these movements) and the woman will nod in affirmation of the mutually agreed upon consent for dancing. The man will then rise from his seat and walk towards the woman, still maintaining eye contact, until he is at the edge of the dance floor near the woman’s table or, if the woman is at a table away the floor, at the point that is most convenient for the woman to enter the dance floor. The woman will rise from her table only when the man has reached the point for the woman to enter the floor.

The cabeceo may be used at anytime during the tanda, but it is most commonly used at the beginning of the tanda, when the floor is clear and lines of sight are least obstructed. The cabeceo is not used during the cortina. The near universal acceptance of this custom is indicated by the typical refusal of women to dance if a man approaches her table and makes a verbal invitation to dance (the ‘direct approach’). The cabeceo provides both men and women with the power to make their own decisions regarding with whom they wish to dance and, in theory, all couples dancing together are there by mutual agreement to dance.

Use of the cabeceo is not a foolproof method for negotiating dance invitations. A man may mistake a woman’s nod in return for a gaze as an acceptance of his invitation, whereas it may have been directed at a man sitting near the mistaken signaler, resulting in two (or sometimes more) men approaching the same woman in expectation of dancing with her. Such confusion is usually resolved amicably, with either the woman clearly indicating her preference upon the men’s arrival or by one of the gentlemen verbally deferring to the other man. However, in some cases women, particularly those seated in the front row, may (consciously or unconsciously) intercept a man upon approach by standing before the man has reached the floor entry point (Tango Chamuyo).

Use of the cabeceo coexists with the spatial segregation of men and women at the Milongas del Centro in Buenos Aires. The integrity of couples is respected at these milongas. Men and women who form a couple and sit together at a milonga do not receive invitations to dance and do not invite other people to dance. They are seated in a section for couples that is usually away from the dance floor. Mixed tables of couples and friends may exist and if any exchange of dances occurs for dancers at these tables, it is only among those sitting at the same table, who understand and respect the existing relationships. Thus, by seating men and women in separate sections, this indicates clearly that these dancers are available for dance invitations using the cabeceo. In most milongas, the tables for men are congregated in one or two sections of the milonga and likewise for women. These sections are closest to the dance floor, facilitating visual contact. The typical pattern is for men to be at opposite ends of the dance floor facing each other and likewise for women, who are seated in the rows perpendicular to the men. This allows men and women to look to the right and to the left to scan for potential patterns when dancers are on the floor (e.g., after the tanda has begun). An alternative seating pattern is for men to be seated on both sides of one corner of the dance floor and women to be seated on both sides of the diagonally opposite corner of the dance floor. In rare situations (e.g., El Arranque in Nuevo Salon La Argentina), the dance floor is at one end of the salon and an aisle will separate the men’s and women’s seating sections.

At the Milongas del Centro, dancers are escorted to their seats by the hosts or their staff. Seats can be reserved in advanced via telephone or, in some cases, by e-mail, text message, or web site. Regular milonga attendees get preferred seats, typically in the first row (i.e., on the dance floor), where there is the best view of potential partners.

There are exceptions to the standard pattern of dance invitations at milongas following most traditional codes (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics). For example, in Club Gricel, where there is a long and narrow dance floor, it is difficult to see from the seating sections at one end of the floor to the other end; in this milonga, tables of men may be interspersed with tables of women all along the edge of the dance floor. This allows both men and women to find potential partners at a nearby table, either directly across the floor or at a nearby table on the same side of the floor. In Club Gricel there may also be men who walk in the aisles inviting women to dance. This ‘walking cabeceo’ may also be seen in the Parakultural milonga in Salon Canning, although it is quite common in this less traditional milonga for many women to be inattentive to dance invitations initiated through the cabeceo, whether signaled from a sitting or standing position.

For porteños who are familiar with one another, the cabeceo may be supplemented by a prior approach to the table (usually by the man but sometimes by the woman) for a greeting upon entry into the milonga or in transit to the rest rooms, during which conversation (usually) the man may suggest dancing a tanda of a particular type (e.g., valses by D’Arienzo) and indicate that he will be signaling the woman via cabeceo from his seat at that time. The woman, of course, has the right to not look at the man during this tanda if she so chooses.

Other exceptions to the use of the cabeceo in traditional milongas in Buenos Aires occur when tourists are involved. Some tango tourists do not understand the use of the cabeceo and male tourists may approach women at their tables and verbally request dances. Sometimes the approach in this manner is to tourist women, or to porteñas or foreign residents of Buenos Aires whom these men have met previously, perhaps at another milonga. Sometimes porteño men may approach tourist women at their tables and ask them to dance, something they would not do with porteño women; some of these men are tango instructors in search of tango students. In rare cases, porteño women may approach recognized tourist men and sit at their tables and converse with them and suggest dancing together. In both of these cases of porteños approaching tourists at their tables, it is likely there is an interest in pursuing subsequent social interaction outside of the milonga. (For tourists who do not speak Spanish, the most common second language of conversation in Buenos Aires milongas is English.) It is also common for tango instructors (both men and woman) to approach their tango students in a milonga and ask them to dance. It is also possible that tango instructors and their students have pre-arranged to meet at a milonga and agreed to signal each other using the cabeceo. This relationship may also exist for tango taxi dancers (typically men but also occasionally women hired to dance at a milonga) who may sit separately at a milonga but use the cabeceo for dance invitation; these relationships are quickly recognized because these couples are seen dancing exclusively with each other.

The cabeceo is usually understood but rarely used at Milongas del Barrio, typically weekend milongas where most of the attendees are couples from the neighborhood. Not only are segregated seating sections for men and women generally absent (or limited in scope) at these milongas, but the size and orientation of tables is different; instead of small tables with seats facing only the dance floor, at Milongas del Barrio, it is typical for there to be long tables with people facing each other across the table, as can be seen from these videos of milongas in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires – Sunderland Club (Villa Urquiza), Glorias Argentinas (Mataderos), and Salon el Pial (Flores).

The cabeceo may be understood by some but is generally not used in the nontraditional milongas of Buenos Aires, for example, at tango venues frequented primarily by young people and tourists, such as La Viruta, La Catedral and Milonga 10, in the Practicas Nuevas such as Practica X and those at Club Villa Malcolm, as well as the gay milonga La Marshall (Milongas and Practicas: Cultural Tradition and Evolution in Buenos Aires Tango Social Dance Venues). In these milongas dancing is generally among friends and acquaintances.

More details on the subtleties of the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation in Buenos Aires milongas have been discussed previously (Terpsichoral; Tango and Chaos; Tango Chamuyo).

The Function of the Cabeceo

At crowded milongas, the cabeceo functions to minimize movement of people across the dance floor. Men walk across the dance floor (or in the aisles between tables) only when it is perceived that an invitation to dance has been accepted. Men who have not succeeded in finding a willing dance partner are not walking from their tables to a woman’s table (and back again if no partner is found). Thus, the cabeceo is a practical means of regulating traffic at a milonga. This is a benefit for the milonga attendees as a whole.

For individual dancers, the cabeceo allows choice in selection of dance partners. This choice is available to both men and women, both of whom must agree to initiate a dance. In particular this empowers women, who are not confronted with men with whom they do not want to dance approaching their tables and asking them to dance. For men, the cabeceo saves them the embarrassment of walking across the floor and having a verbal invitation rejected.

Disadvantages and Constraints in Using the Cabeceo

Because the cabeceo is a somewhat subtle signal given at a distance, it requires practice to make that signal recognizable without being too conspicuous. Miscommunication is possible, particularly when inviting a stranger to dance. Uncertainty in communication is indicated occasionally when women receiving a cabeceo point to themselves and raise their eyebrows signaling ‘Is the invitation for me?’ Women will and should maintain eye contact with men as they approach to be certain the cabeceo was meant for them and not rise from the table until the man has stopped his approach at the floor entry point and is still looking at her. Practice is required to establish communication and minimize miscommunication in using the cabeceo.

A pre-requisite for effective use of the cabeceo is good eyesight. Dancers at milongas in Buenos Aires (particularly women) can be seen donning their eyeglasses during the cortina in anticipation of dance invitations. These women will typically leave their glasses at the table when dancing. (Men still need their glasses upon approach to the woman’s table and may still need them for navigation on the dance floor.)

Although the cabeceo is an effective method for dance invitation, there are some limitations in its execution. In approaching the woman’s table, the man needs to be aware of traffic on the dance floor. At the beginning of a tanda, when there are few dancers on the dance floor, a straight line approach to the woman’s table may be possible. Movement along the outer edge of the floor in approaching a woman’s table is advised and, if possible considering floor density, men already dancing should allow enough men walking along the edge enough space to walk to the woman’s table. (In fact, they should be watching out for each other.) If a man wishes to invite a woman to dance by the cabeceo after the first tango of the tanda, it is most practical to do this at the start of the second or subsequent tangos in the tanda, when dancers are conversing with their partners before starting to dance again. [The primary function of the conversation is social, but it also functions to allow other couples to enter the dance floor with minimal danger of collision (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires)]. The cabeceo should not used to invite someone to dance during a cortina because, in theory, the selection of a partner should be based upon the rhythm of music (tango, milonga, or vals) and the orchestra playing the music.

Use of the Cabeceo in Milongas Outside Buenos Aires

As far as can be determined from available information, the traditional Milongas del Centro are the only milongas in Argentina and Uruguay, the birthplaces of tango, where the cabeceo is used in conjunction with gender segregated seating as the prescribed manner of initiating a dance invitation. When researching the available information worldwide, there was only one report discovered of a regularly occurring milonga outside Buenos Aires that used gender segregated seating and the cabeceo as the preferred method of dance invitation; this milonga has occurred in Hong Kong, China, about which is written:

A milonga with traditional settings where men and women are seated separately. We encourage invitation to dance by cabaceo.

However, this listing (dated 12 June 2010) may not be current.

There are some reports of the use of the cabeceo with gender segregated seating at milongas in the US during ‘encuentros milongueros’, tango festivals or weekends designed to promote adherence to traditional milonga codes (Siempre Milonguero). Encuentros Milongueros in the US have been (or will be) held in San Diego (California), Albuquerque and Sante Fe (New Mexico), Salida (Colorado), Phoenix (Arizona), and Indianapolis (Indiana), i.e., mostly in the southwestern US. It appears that all previous Encuentros Milongueros in the US have included tango workshops. However, the planned September 2014 Encuentro in Albuquerque is advertised as not including workshops.

However, (limited) personal experience in attending these events indicates that although the majority of dance invitations occurred through the exchange of the cabeceo between men and women in gender segregated seating sections, the cabeceo may have also been directed to and from tables reserved for couples, with members of a couple also signaling to the men’s and women’s seating sections; in addition, Direct Approach to a table for dance invitation was observed.

There are several announcements of Encuentros Milongueros that have occurred (or will occur) in Europe that indicate that the cabeceo is used for dance invitation – in Austria (near Vienna), in England (Dartington & Bristol), in France (Embrun & Lyon), in Germany (Kehl), in Norway (Lillehammer), in Portugal (Lisbon), and in Spain (Barccelona & Malaga). Only the planned Encuentro Milonguero in Sweden (Stockholm) mentions the implementation of gender segregated seating. It should be noted that an advertisement of dance invitation by cabeceo does not necessarily indicate that this is the exclusive means of dance invitation.

(Readers are invited to provide accounts of personal experience with the use of the cabeceo and gender segregated seating in milongas worldwide.)

Implementing the Cabeceo as the Primary Means of Dance Invitation at First World Milongas

Accepted social dance etiquette in First World cultures is different from that of Buenos Aires Milongas del Centro in several ways. The Direct Approach is the standard method of dance invitation. Refusing a dance invitation is considered impolite, except under extraordinary circumstances (e.g., intoxication, prior physical or verbal abusiveness, reckless navigation); refusing to dance with someone because of their dance skill or style is considered impolite. Those who refuse a dance invitation are expected to sit out a dance. Thus, introducing the cabeceo as a means to negotiate partner choice is not part of the social dance culture and in empowering dancers to select partners by mutual agreement, the cabeceo departs from generally accepted dance social practices, and herein lies the challenge.

Despite the unfamiliarity of the cabeceo and its departure from commonly accepted social dance etiquette, there is fertile ground for increasing its use as a means of dance invitation at First World milongas. Women in particular but also men to some degree frequently are invited by Direct Approach to dance by someone with whom they do not want to dance for one reason or another (the dance is uncomfortable due to differences in skill level or style of dancing; the person’s interpersonal behavior or personal hygiene makes them feel uncomfortable). In response to the Direct Approach, the invitee feels the need to make an excuse for not dancing (which may consist of lying) or feel obligated to dance with someone with whom she would prefer not to dance. Those who refuse a dance may feel obligated not to dance with someone else during the remainder of the tanda, thereby possibly missing to opportunity to dance to a favorite orchestra. Tango, if danced in an embrace, is a physically intimate dance, and should be entered into by mutual consent. The cabeceo, even if used imperfectly, facilitates the arrangement of dance partnerships by mutual consent, which is its primary advantage.

In First World cultures, resistance to the implementation of the cabeceo as the means of dance invitation is the result of cultural inertia. Lack of use of the cabeceo may come from lack of knowledge of the custom and inexperience in using it, or it may come from an unwillingness to abandon the ease of use of the Direct Approach. There is also likely to be hesitancy in deviating from established local social customs. Some people are unwilling to learn to use the cabeceo for dance invitation because they do not feel it is necessary or even advantageous within the local social environment. If few people know how the cabeceo functions and even fewer use it as a means of dance invitation, there is little incentive for changing the status quo. For example, if no one looks around the room in search of potential partners as a tanda begins, it will not be possible to use the cabeceo for dance invitation. For men in particular, there is an advantage in maintaining the Direct Approach method because it may result in obtaining dances with women who would otherwise not dance with them (even if would prefer not to). Men who attend a milonga where they are not known may not be able to obtain dances without employing the Direct Approach.

The replacement of the Direct Approach with the cabeceo as the primary means of dance invitation would require a concerted effort by tango community organizers to educate dancers. This education should occur within the beginner level tango classes and practicas and would also serve as a good topic for a pre-milonga lesson. Women in particular should be taught to not respond to the Direct Approach. They can even ask a man to return to his seat and use the cabeceo to invite her to dance, which is a good teaching opportunity. (She may even ignore his cabeceo if she does not want to dance with him.)

Implementing Gender Segregated Seating in First World Milongas

In Buenos Aires, the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation is facilitated by gender segregated seating. Initiating gender segregated seating at First World milongas is likely to encounter considerable resistance. Mixed gender seating is the norm at social dances in First World cultures. It appears the key to educating dancers in the use of the cabeceo in conjunction with gender segregated seating is to introduce managing this situation as an exercise and make a game of it in tango classes and practices (as has been done at the practica hosted by Monica Paz in Buenos Aires. This should be done in conjunction with education about tango culture and history.

However, at public milongas, there is likely to be more resistance against gender segregated seating because not everyone attending has been educated or is willing to participate in a system that spatially segregates men and women and expects the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation. It may be necessary to escort people to their seats to achieve the gender segregation, and eliminated freedom of choice in selection of a seating location is in contradiction to customs practiced at most social dance events in First World cultures. Alternatively, as a compromise, the host could allow dancers to select their own seats within the designated section (for men, for women, or for couples). This appears to be the accepted practice at Encuentro Milongueros in the US. However, in First World cultures dancers want to mingle with friends of both sexes, with singles and couples at the same tables, and not feel restricted by a code system imported from Buenos Aires.

Thus, in order to implement gender segregated seating at First World milongas, it may be necessary to be selective in inviting dancers to attend milongas, including only those in invitation who have been educated in the use of the cabeceo and in gender segregated seating. Given that this represents a small minority of dancers in most First World tango communities, this policy may not attract a sufficient number of dancers for a successful milonga (i.e., income meeting expenses, having a variety of dance partners, etc.). Thus, interaction on a regular basis between tango groups in geographic proximity may be necessary to support a First World milonga adhering to traditional Argentine milonga codes.

One endeavor that can and has to some degree attempted and achieved some success in the implementation of the use of the cabeceo in the context of gender segregated seating has been the Encuentros Milongueros in the US. By participation in these events, dancers willingly agree to abide by traditional milonga codes and thus this is the most fertile environment for the re-creation of a Buenos Aires milonga environment. However, to date these have been intermittent, expensive (about $100 to attend 3 milongas), and concentrated mostly in the southwestern US. A significant part of the expense comes from the need to pay traveling tango instructors. There is no reason like-minded tango dancers who respect traditional milonga codes cannot organize less expensive events focusing on social dancing rather than tango instruction, despite whatever value the instruction may have. Dancers motivated to travel for social tango dancing are also more likely to be dancers with higher than average tango dancing skills and thus instruction is not as critical for their successful participating at crowded milongas. The independence of Encuentros Milongueros from tango instruction is more common in Europe, as can be seen from their announcements for events in Austria (near Vienna), in England (Bristol), in France (Lyon), in Germany (Kehl), in Portugal (Lisbon), in Spain (Barcelona & Malaga), and in Sweden (Stockholm). This is a concept that should be explored more in North America.

Implementation of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating at First World Milongas: Setting Priorities

The cabeceo is used infrequently for dance invitation in First World milongas and gender segregated seating is even rarer. Although gender segregated seating is an integral part of the implementation of the cabeceo as the sole means of dance invitation in Buenos Aires Milongas del Centro, a distinction needs to be made in considering the integration of these traditional Argentine tango milonga codes into First World milongas. The cabeceo provides what can be considered an essential benefit – partner selection by choice without embarrassment or a sense of obligation. Absence of the cabeceo creates uncomfortable social situations for unwilling partners and removing this aspect from milongas has clear benefits. The primary advantage of gender segregated seating is that it facilitates (makes more efficient) identification of potential dance partners by congregating them in one or two sections that are clearly visible (in that those available for dance invitation are closest to the dance floor). However, there appears to be resistance to gender segregated seating, even at Encuentros Milongueros, which are designed to create a tango environment that incorporates traditional milonga customs. If there is resistance within a First World cultural environment to gender segregated seating, then the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation (preferably from a seated position) is in itself a significant improvement to the Direct Approach in providing dancers with consenting partners and thus a more satisfactory dance experience. It may take additional time for gender segregated seating to be accepted, if indeed it can be accepted.

However, in considering deviations from Argentine tango cultural traditions in First World milongas [Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)], some thought should be give regarding which deviations to correct first. Achieving implementation of the cabeceo as the primary means of dance invitation, within the context of gender segregated seating, would appear to have a low priority and perhaps even be considered a misdirected effort if there is a poorly recognizable ronda on the dance floor, if there is hazardous navigation in general, if there is exhibitionism, if there is teaching on the dance floor, and if the DJ is playing non-tango music for dancing. Higher priority should be given to correcting these misrepresentations of Argentine tango culture. Within this process, which involves instruction in tango culture and history, the foundations can be laid for more complete integration of traditional milonga codes into First World milongas. This is an ongoing educational process that is repeatedly thwarted by the economic motivations of tango organizers and traveling instructors (many of whom are Argentine) who gain higher profits from modifying Tango Argentino for resale in First World cultural environments than in modifying dancers’ cultural perspectives on the characteristics of Tango Argentino [Factors Affecting the Survival of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments (The Dominance of Tango Extranjero)].