Who initiates a dance?
The leader’s job is to create art. She needs to feel moved by the music, the follower, and the moment in order to do this. Otherwise it’s like commissioned artwork, which sours the experience of creativity and generally produces lesser work. When a follower asks a leader to dance they are commissioning work, and it’s not going to have the inspiration that the dance will have it comes from the leader’s own vision and desire!
Moreover, tango is a pretty intense experience, so I believe it should be totally consensual. The cabeceo (see next entry) is a good way to create consensuality in cultures where people don’t feel comfortable being so confrontational as to turn someone down verbally.
How can I invite someone to dance?
The purpose of the Argentine custom, known as the “cabeceo”, is to protect the ego. It makes the invitation to dance less stressful and the possibility to decline more discrete. Essentially you can avoid receiving or having to say a harsh verbal “No”. It spares everybody’s feelings.
To make the cabeceo, dancers use eye contact. Followers may smile encouragingly. If eye contact is held, a leader makes a small gesture, nodding their head toward the dance floor or raising an eyebrow or both (it’s a matter of personal style). The follower accepts the invitation by smiling and nodding agreement. The leader may come to fetch the follower from their seat, or the two may meet on the dance floor.
If the follower does not want to accept the dance, they break eye contact. If a follower does not want to dance with a certain person, the follower is careful not to make eye contact with them. If a follower does not feel like dancing at all, they communicate unavailability by not making eyes available. They can watch the dancers or have a conversation.
If a leader tries hard and is unable to catch a particular person’s eye, or if they avert their eyes as if they didn’t actually see you, that person is unavailable to dance with you right now. (Maybe forever. It’s their choice.)
If you don’t succeed in catching a person’s eye and eliciting a smile, please don’t resort to tapping somebody’s shoulder, extending your hand toward them, or even positioning yourself squarely in front of a person so they can’t avoid looking at you. It is considered very rude. If you see two people with their heads together, as in the photo above, they are not available to dance with you. If you want to dance with someone who is hanging out with someone they are romantically involved with, it’s best to acknowledge the partner as part of your invitation to dance. You can shake hands, kiss hello, or nod reassurance that you will respect their relationship.
Some dancers do not know or do not use the cabeceo. As a result, leaders walk up to followers and ask them verbally. Because we want to avoid making a public rejection, followers usually accept. Obviously the new people don’t know about this way of inviting people to dance. It’s ok to ask for and accept dances verbally. If someone asks you without using it, please make sure they know what it is and how to use it. You should expect them to use it in the future, and don’t feel bad turning them down if they don’t.
Once a cabeceo has been accepted you have a contract to dance the next song with each other. No matter what happens, you cannot change direction and dance with another partner. Even if someone stops to talk with you, you need to hustle to your partner. (Everyone understands this, so it’s not considered rude not to stop to talk.)
Special queer tango situations:
- Two leaders get eye contact: It’s very possible that two people who both want to lead the next song try to ask each other to dance! In this case, after one gives the nod, the other should reject it (by looking away), unless s/he decides they want to follow. If you accept another’s cabeceo, you are accepting to follow. If things get confusing, and you’re willing to go either way, let your partner step onto the dance floor first. If it looks like you’ll be walking backward in the line of dance, you’re following.
- Two followers get eye contact. Stare as long as you like, but no one will nod. You’ll probably figure out what’s going on. If a follower is so desperate to dance that s/he waggles a body part toward the dance floor, s/he better be ready to lead.
How can I avoid dancing (with someone, or at all)
If you prefer not to dance at this time, avoid catching someone’s eye.
If the eye contact avoidance does not have the desired effect and someone resorts to the shoulder tap method, it’s OK to just say no.
If you decline a verbal invitation to dance from somebody you generally like to dance with except just not right then, it is expedient to come up with an excuse such as “sorry, I really need a break right now”, “thanks, but I already promised the next set to …”, or “thanks but not right now, my feet hurt”. Obviously if you use fatigue or painful feet as an excuse, you should wait a little bit before leaping onto the floor with somebody else, or the excuse won’t look genuine.
What if some person just won’t dance with me?
Certain people will never dance with certain people. Don’t take it personally or get worked up over it, please. Nobody has an obligation to dance with everybody. It’s very much a consensual privilege and not a moral duty. To get more dances with more people, try introducing yourself, being friendly, saying hello to everybody, and working hard on your technique.
Who to ask for a dance?
Beginning and intermediate leaders should dance with followers at or below their level. You assess this by watching the dancers. Followers with very tidy footwork who never miss a step are advanced. Followers who look more awkward and seem to falter or take extra steps are newer.
Beginning leaders benefit from dancing with more experienced followers. This should be done at practicas. More advanced followers “invest” in new leaders and will accept occasional dances with beginning leaders, and may even “adopt” a few (but not all) beginning leaders in their community. This means they may regularly (once per evening, at practicas and milongas) accept a tanda with these leaders.
However, most of a beginning leader’s dances should be with people at their own level. A beginner should never expect an advanced dancer to dance more than one tanda. In the case of a very very beginning dancer, an advanced follower may excuse themselves earlier, but don’t be discouraged. It can be a lot of work to follow a beginning dancer.
Beginning followers will be easily spoiled by their first few dances with advanced dancers. It’s easy to follow an advanced dancer and it makes a follower feel confident in their skills. But the real challenge for a follower is dancing with a less skilled leader. A good follower can enjoy dancing with a beginner and make the dance wonderful, just as a good leader does. Dancing with less skilled leaders is an opportunity to work on following technique.
For intermediate and advanced dancers, Mitra recommends a ratio of 3:1. At minimum, one of every four tandas should be with someone below your level. This applies to leaders and followers.