First of all, what is the cabeceo? This is the name for the way in which dancers, typically in Argentina, invite other dancers to dance. It is a method of using the eyes, to look at the dancer in question, he/she then returns the look and accepts with a quick nod of the head and then the man goes to the table where the lady is sitting, and escorts her to the floor.
It is a great method to enable people to be invited or to accept a dance without any embarrassment. It saves the man for example, walking to the table, to ask a lady to dance, only to be rejected. It saves the lady the irritation of being interrupted in the middle of a conversation by someone asking her to dance, when perhaps she is more interested in the conversation but is too polite to refuse.
However, in the UK, it is still rarely used and what is worse, something stranger seems to have happened. Rather than both sexes being able to ask someone to dance, even if the cabeceo is used or not, it now seems to be the right of the men, with the women lined up waiting for them to ask.
To be quite clear, the cabeceo is for both sexes to invite someone to dance. The fact that it has become ‘anglicised’ is irrelevant, it needs to be made clear in any milonga that it is perfectly acceptable for men and women to ask the other sex to dance.
Very often, it is made a negative by opponents of the cabeceo, that if you haven’t got good eye sight or if the venue is quite dark, then you can’t attract or make the eye contact. The point is, that you don’t just stay glued to your seat! You can move around the milonga so that you are in a position to make a connection with your intended partner.
For myself, when I first went to Buenos Aires, I found the cabeceo difficult to use because in this country very often when someone makes connection with you in the eye you look away. Somebody said to me recently that this was classic ‘Tube behaviour’! You avoid looking people in the eye because you don’t want to attract wierdos! I can understand this and it is a difficult cycle to break. However, if you stop this habit of looking at your feet, or anywhere else that is suddenly fascinating, instead of keeping your eyeline, then you will find the cabeceo a great way to interact and make your evening more pleasant.
In our milongas we always teach and make the students practice the cabeceo but I acknowledge that it is hard to break the natural habit of a culture. I am more concerned however, that the choice to ask someone to dance should be available to both men and women and not just the men and this is something that I want to encourage.
If you think of the milonga as what it really is – a social club – then the original purpose of going to one of these gatherings was to talk, meet your friends, listen to music and yes, dance! The main purpose of the milonga however is to socialise, it is not a place where men dictate the pace of the evening whilst women sit and wait!