You've taken some tango classes. You're at your first milonga. No-one seems to be asking anyone else to dance, but leaders are approaching followers and they are walking to the dance floor together. What is going on? And how can you join in?
The tango world is full of customs and rules, known as codigos. They govern the direction of dance (anti-clockwise), where to walk at a milonga (never across the dance floor!) and, vitally, how to invite someone to dance and how to accept (or reject) that invitation.
At a milonga tango music is played in groups of 3 or 4 tracks known as a tanda. A tanda usually lasts about 12 minutes, and is danced with the same partner. It's understandable that all dancers want to exercise control over who they dance with when. And no-one wants to make someone feel bad by turning down a dance. Therefore a system of long-distance communication developed so that invitations can be made and accepted before the partners approach each other.
Here are the three steps you need to know to make and accept an invitation to dance tango.
1. Use the mirada to let someone know you want to dance with them
At the start of a new tanda, once you know the type of music that is being played, look directly at the person who you'd like to dance with. Either leaders or followers can initiate this. This look is called the mirada.
Staring directly at someone can feel difficult to start with. It’s not something we’re used to doing, in fact many of us have been taught not to stare at strangers. But if you want to dance tango, you need to get used to it.
If the person you are staring at returns your mirada, then it’s likely that you've found your partner for that tanda.
If they are ignoring your mirada, don’t worry. This is the system working. Maybe they'll dance with you another time. You can look at the next person you’d like to dance with, or have a quick look round to see if anyone else you’d like to dance with is looking in your direction.
2. Use the cabaceo to make and accept the invitation to dance
Once you are looking at the person you’d like to dance with and they are looking back, it’s up to the leader to make a movement of the head to invite the follower to dance. This is called the cabaceo. It could be a nod, a sideways movement of the head, or a raised eyebrow.
To accept, the follower responds with a cabaceo, usually a nod, often a smile.
3. Move towards each other to start the dance
Congratulations! You’ve found a partner for the tanda. But all of this could have happened across a busy room. Now you need to meet up. Traditionally, the follower remains seated while the leader moves around the room (always around the dance floor, never across it).
All the while, you should keep eye contact with your partner, as far as is possible. This is the stage at which any misunderstandings become obvious. It could be that two people have thought they accepted the invitation to dance – maybe there were two people in the line of sight of the follower, so two leaders are approaching for a dance – or maybe the leader was looking at someone seated directly behind the follower. If the two dancers maintain eye contact and the follower stays still, everything quickly becomes clear.
Once you are united the leader usually offers the follower their hand. You can say hello if you like, but your priority will be to get on the dance floor with your new partner and join the line of dance. (I'll cover the etiquette of this in a separate post.)
Learning to use the mirada and cabaceo
It can seem complicated to start with, but once you understand the system of mirada and cabaceo you’ll find it’s an elegant way to find a dance partner, whether at close range or across a crowded dance hall. The system is designed to protect people's feelings and give everyone, leaders and followers alike, full control and choice over who they dance with.
When you join our 6 week tango fundamentals course we'll show you exactly how the mirada and cabaceo work and give you a chance to try them out so that you'll feel confident inviting and accepting dances from your very first milonga.
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