The literal translation of cabeceo is 'nod of the head'. In simple terms it is a non-verbal invitation to dance the tango from man to woman. The man looks at the woman and indicates with a movement of his head that he would like to dance. if she accepts the cabeceo, she will move towards him and they will tango; if she refuses she will look away.
The reason for the cabeceo
The cabeceo's immense charm is in its subtlety - it avoids an awkward situation and unpleasantness by the smallest of gestures, whose meaning - particularly if the woman declines - is kept private between the requester and requestee. Indeed what could be more natural at a milonga than to communicate by eye contact? No longer is there the danger to cross a crowded room to invite a woman to dance, only to be turned down in front of everyone.
Where is the cabeceo used?
The cabeceo is used in Buenos Aires, but many Western countries, including Australia, are resistant to it - probably because sustained eye contact is seen as confrontational or forward.
What does the cabeceo convey?
The cabeceo is a request, never a command. The request says: 'may I have the pleasure of this dance?' - and the response is either 'Yes' or 'No'.
The advantages of the cabeceo
Simple; charming; avoids embarrassment; enables an invitation from a distance. The fact that a woman's decline is so subtle as to be almost imperceptible also means that the woman does not have to sit for the entire tanda, but can accept another invitation without consequence. Also (for followers) it is much easier to decline a dance.
The disadvantages of the cabeceo
Mistaken intent; need to have a keen eye-sight; and (for leaders) it is much easier for the ladies to say 'No'.
The cabeceo's negotiation
For optimal effect, the man should place himself in front but to one side of the woman, to provide her the choice of meeting his gaze or looking away. If the woman scans and locks in, the answer is 'Yes' - he nods, she nods in return, and the deal is sealed. If she scans, looks momentarily, but then continues scanning, the answer is 'No'.
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