Las Rosas del Tango


An Invitation to Dance


The way in which you invite someone to share a dance with you counts. Tango is a dance which is essentially organised around making and sustaining contact with your partner, on a physical level, and also on an emotional level. The invitation is a part of that, as is the moment of letting your partner go, releasing the embrace that you’ve shared, and leaving the floor at the end of a tanda. Just as there are social conventions about greeting and making contact with people at a party, at a meeting, or in any other social situation, so there are conventions around making contact and inviting someone to dance with you at a tango salon.


Mirada and cabeceo. Two words which describe the deliberate eye contact we make to invite someone to dance and the nod of the head which confirms that they have accepted our invitation. It’s an exchange, not a one-way question or demand. Many of the women that I teach mistakenly think that they are passive in this interaction: nothing could be further from the truth.


Why is this so different for tango than the social conventions in other dance communities? One guess is that of all of the partner dances I’ve experienced, tango is the most intimate. We share our physical space for a tanda, heart to heart, listening to the breath of our partner, sensing their inner world, breathing in the scents of their skin and hair. Twelve minutes of intimacy. A friend of mine used to say that you can sense the soul of a person while you dance with them. This is something to be treated with mutual respect.


We sometimes forget that eye contact is a form of touch, as tangible as the squeeze of a hand. Think about the zingy, physical reaction when a loved one shoots a significant glance across a room, or the odd, creeping sensation when you sense (correctly) that you’re being watched by someone behind your back. It’s not a neutral thing. Whether you are conscious of it or not, the expressive quality of your eye contact carries the imprint of your personality, your current mood, of your intentions. The invitation to dance sets the tone for how we might dance together. It might be playful, or flirtatious, or warm. Or it might be melancholy, intense, or sensuous.


Norms around eye contact vary widely from culture to culture, adding another layer of complexity for travelling tango dancers. I can remember travelling on the metro in Barcelona for the first time and being staggered by the long, direct, bold eye contact complete strangers would make with me. Staring is rude in my culture, and we rarely make direct eye contact on the street or in public places. Suddenly it seemed to be a requirement, a wordless challenge to meet the other. After a while I got used to it, and grew to dislike the avoidance of eye contact that was normal at home. Local norms around eye contact may support cabeceo and mirada, or they might confound them! Nevertheless tango events are frequently meeting places for different nationalities, and having some shared ideas around social codes is helpful.


In some of the places that I’ve danced eye contact is made in a way that is quite blank and expressionless. I still find this disconcerting. A glazed expression is very hard to interpret: are you looking at me, or were you just looking around the room? Even more strange given that I’m rather short-sighted and my mirada habits are quite expressive to compensate. I imagine the comedy value as I catch a leader’s eye at the start of a tanda. He looks at me blankly, standing still-as-a-statue. As he remains immobile, my eyebrow wiggles and head tilting become more and more energetic in an attempt to check whether he really meant to invite me. It’s a complete mismatch. Later I hear from the same leader that he was indeed trying to invite me, but that my non-verbal ‘answer’ wasn’t clear to him. Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all.


And then there is a long list of cabeceo misdemeanours. Staring someone down in a silent wrestling match to submit to your will perhaps, or intercepting the gaze clearly intended for someone else. There’s a whole sub-culture of jokes in tango-ing circles just on this subject, as the inventiveness used to get around ‘the rules’ can stretch to some quite incredible lengths.


A lot of my students dismiss my attempts to enthuse them to make use of mirada and cabeceo: “What a fuss! For heaven’s sake what’s wrong with just asking?” is their first response. My answer is always the same: it’s important to allow the other person the chance to ‘say no’ to your invitation. I experiment by letting them feel how difficult it is to say no to someone when they’re right in front of you, hand extended, making a verbal request to dance. You need nerves of steel to refuse in this situation. And to be honest you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t: accepting an invitation to a dance that you really don’t want never leads to a good dance experience for either person; rejecting a direct invitation can be a toe-curlingly painful experience for both parties.


The point is: it’s not possible to open up to someone if you feel coerced or forced to dance. The experience of intimacy that we so treasure in this dance is based on trust, the possibility to relax into safe, shared contact. The chance to let our normal social defences down, to be more open and vulnerable than we might normally choose to be in everyday life. Mirada and cabeceo create the space needed to make what are always very personal choices about whom we feel comfortable with, for whatever reason that might be. The possibility of indicating ‘no’ also gives us the possibility to be honestly enthusiastic in giving a wholehearted ‘yes’.


And as with all social conventions there is plenty of scope for play and improvisation. Sometimes our communication or intention is not clear. This is true of all human communication frankly: so be it. The main thing is to appreciate the need to give the other person the space and permission to refuse our invitation, for whatever reason that may be.



Bring this blog to a friend's attention

reaction from Kristof --- 21-Jul-2017 13:36

I‘d buy a hat just to tip it to you. Well written!

reaction from Howard Jones --- 22-Jul-2017 00:09

This is a lovely and thoughtful analysis ‐ well reasoned and expressed.

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