Tango has various codes (codigos) that govern our etiquette or behaviour at dance events. The codes have a long history, and first came into use in an earlier age and in a culture that can feel very remote today – but they continue to find widespread support, being firmly based in ideas of mutual courtesy and consideration. Those who are relatively new to dancing tango may find the whole subject of dance etiquette baffling, and sincerely believe that such ‘rules’ work against them; but if you want to be accepted into any social group, you need to learn to fit in – so whatever your personal feelings about the codes, it’s worth learning the rules.
One of the first things that anyone notices about tango is that the method of inviting and accepting invitations to dance is usually based on non-verbal signals. This confuses lots of people – particularly if they are used to the very different system of, say, modern jive. There, everyone is free to ask another prospective partner (man or woman) directly if they would like to dance. Usually, the acceptance is for just one dance (three minutes or so), but there is also a presumption that an invitation will only be declined for good reason – after all, what’s three minutes in a whole evening? This is a clear code, in itself: we’re all here to dance, so just ask, and accept if you’re asked.
Tango is different and for several reasons. One is that an invitation is not for just one song, but for a group of dances (called a tanda) typically lasting around twelve minutes – so the mutual commitment is greater. Another is that there is no presumption that an invitation ought to be accepted. We are free to decline invitations and need offer no explanation for refusal. Of course, no one likes to be refused – it can be embarrassing – particularly if the refusal is seen by others, so an alternate means of arranging things has arisen, known as mirada and cabeceo (often referred to as just cabeceo).
How does it work?
At the end of each group of dances the DJ usually plays a short piece of non-tango music (not intended for dancing) called a cortina. It announces the end of the group, and signals that all the dancers should leave the dance floor completely, so that all who wish to dance the next tanda have clear sight lines around the room.
As soon as the cortina is heard, anyone who wishes to dance the next tanda will make that plain through their body language. They may have been in conversation, or be checking their phone, or getting something to eat or drink; but now they give the rest of the room their full attention. They sit up (if they were slouching) and look around them with obvious interest, to see where their own friends and regular partners are sitting, or perhaps to locate new people that they think they might like to dance with. They will also try to notice who else is also actively looking around, and thus draw up a shortlist of prospective partners for the next tanda. This preliminary process applies equally to men and women: it is wholly gender-neutral.
As the music begins again, so does the actual business of arranging a partner to dance with. Each dancer will now look towards their preferred partner for a few moments and see whether their glance is returned. If not, they transfer their gaze to another, and then back again, or move on to another, until eyes do meet. If you have accidentally met the glance of another and don’t wish to dance with them, then you hold their gaze just long enough for them to register your response and then look away – there is no need for any further gesture. If you do wish to dance, then each offers the other a small gesture of acknowledgement. Typically the man may cock his head slightly towards the dance floor, perhaps raising his eyebrows, and the woman will nod in agreement (or it might be the other way around). An agreement has now been reached (and if it was a refusal, it was discrete, and not observed by anyone else). While no one wants to rejected, equally, no one wants to be someone’s second or third choice, so a hidden benefit of this process is that as no one saw the first refusal, equally, no one knows that they are not the other’s first choice. This process also applies equally to men and women: it is wholly gender-neutral.
With the agreement reached, the man now goes up to the woman, walking right around the floor, if necessary. The woman waits until the man presents himself at the lady’s table (partly to avoid the possibility and embarrassment of having mistaken an invitation intended for another), then she rises from her seat to be led onto the dance floor and the couple embrace to dance.
This process: the mirada (or glance) and the cabeceo (or nod of the head) is a very civilised and efficient way to arrange dances. But it doesn’t end when the first couples have taken to the floor. A second round of active glances around the room may well result in several more couples joining the dancing, and this process can continue to at least the beginning of the second song of the group, or even later. Sometimes, if you think that you might like to dance with someone, but are not sure (and perhaps a whole tanda seems too much), you might deliberately delay an invitation until the third or even the last song of the tanda. Of course, the other person will know that you have chosen to dance only part of a tanda (and may feel the same way towards you) but is still happy to be dancing, rather than not. If the dance has gone well, it is perfectly OK to ask whether your partner would like to continue to dance the next tanda too, but there is no obligation – just take care to leave the dancefloor, briefly, between tandas (or at least to make sure that you are not blocking anyone else’s sight lines).
Just about the only time that mirada and cabeceo are not used is when you are already with the person you wish to invite: it is hardly practical to ‘catch the eye’ of someone sitting or standing next to you. A verbal invitation may be the only practical option, but you may still be declined.
One vital thing that facilitates this whole process is that the organisers have arranged adequate lighting. If you can’t see your prospective partners easily, you can’t use mirada and cabeceo. It’s amazing how often organisers get this wrong. And who wants to dance in the dark?