Codes of the Dance
The Cabeceo and Codes of Argentine Tango
The "codigos" (codes) or tango dance etiquette, have been developed over many years to create an optimum dance experience in the milongas. These are rules that are adhered to to maximize choice, freedom, and pleasure dancing while avoiding embarassing, awkward, and unsafe situations in the dance hall and on the dance floor.
The Structure of the Milonga
Music in a Milonga (tango dance party) is set up with "tandas" and "cortinas". Tandas are sets of 3 or 4 songs played by one orchestra. Generally, Tango tandas have 4 songs while Vals and Milonga tandas have 3 songs. It is polite to dance a full tanda with one person. However, if you begin dancing partway through a tanda you still end at the cortina. Cortinas are the non-tango bits of songs that are played between tandas. The cortina signals the end of the tanda and is the time to return partners to their seats and clear the dance floor.
The cabeceo is perhaps one of the most important codes of all. It is the way that people invite and agree to dance together. It is a system of mutual respect and delicacy. Leaders invite the followers from a relative distance by catching her eye and nodding. If she would like to accept the invitation she will nod back. If the follower does not want to be invited to dance, she must subtly look the other way (or not look his way in the first place). This system ensures that followers are not dancing out of obligation and leaders are not having to have their advances rejected or feelings hurt. Everyone is dancing with whom they choose and thus enjoying fully their night. In the traditional milongas in Argentina, inviting a follower verbally at her table is considered an encroachment and often rejected out of hand. The cabeceo is a subtle art based on mutual respect and desire. Thus, advancing toward a follower and nodding aggressively at her defies the whole reason and mutual consideration that is at the heart of the cabeceo. Make sure from a distance that you are requesting not demanding and that there is truly a mutual desire on her part. Likewise, follower's you make your desire known by looking at the leaders you may like to dance with, but staring intensely or incessantly can feel invasive and defeats your purpose - again make sure you are checking in and requesting not demanding. Once the agreement has been sealed, he will come to meet her at the edge of the floor closest to her table and the couple will dance the tanda together. At the end of the tanda, the leader will accompany her back to her chair or to the edge of the floor where they met. Leaving her in the middle of the floor is considered bad form.
The cabeceo happens at the beginning of the tanda not during a cortina. This way, everyone is aware of what kind of music they are committing to. Talking and not paying attention at the beginning of a tanda will often result in missing the tanda entirely. Also in general, followers stay in their seats throughout the night so that they are easily located. In traditional milongas, men and women wanting to dance with different partners throughout the evening are seated in separate areas adjacent or across from each other, thus facilitating the cabaceo. Couples who want to dance only with each other sit at their own table together where usually they are not cabaceoed by other dancers in the hall.
Cabeceo Tips (some of this is repetitious but I am trying to address the issues that crop up)
1) Bring your glasses and make sure your prescription is up to date (or at least good enough that you can see across the room)!
2) If you are talking and not looking to cabeceo at the beginning of a tanda, you might likely miss dancing that tanda. Often we have guys say that the women are talking and not attending to the potential invitations! You can talk and look.
3) Cabeceo at the beginning of a tanda (or during), but not during the cortina. This way you know what music you will be dancing to.
4) Make sure you both make eye contact, then the leader asks with an upward questioning nod and she nods to confirm. Locking eyes is not enough to seal the agreement.
5) The leader then goes to her table maintaining eye contact across the floor. This way if the women are unsure about who got cabeceo'ed they can figure it out as the leader approaches.
6) Followers, it's a good idea to not get up from your table until you are absolutely positive that he is coming for you. Confusions can happen, so wait to be sure.
7) Leaders, if two followers get up for you as you cross the floor, it's nice to apologize to the one you did not cabeceo. It is a courtesy to ask her to dance the next tanda, if you want to (but you are not obligated to).
Rules of the Road (Floor Craft)
1) The dance proceeds, counter clockwise around the dance floor. Typically, there is an outside lane and often a second and third inside lane.
2) Navigating in a peaceful, cooperative manner ensures that everyone is feeling safe and able to focus on their partners and their dance rather than having to spend their time protecting their partners from potential harm. The following protocol is very similar to driving on a highway:
a) Leaders, if you are entering the floor when people are dancing it is considerate to make eye contact with the leader that you want to be dancing in front of. He will make eye contact with you and nod his permission for you to enter onto the floor. This way he will know you are there and provide a place for you to dance. Followers, leaders are considered responsible for your safety, so allow your partner to lead you onto the dance floor when he deems it safe to do so not vice versa.
b) The dance floor is a communal space. Leaders stay aware of the couples around you. Take note of the speed that the couples are moving collectively and dance within the established speed of the floor, filling gaps ahead of you, while not tailgating the couple in front of you. It's nice, if possible, to keep two steps behind the person in front of you. That way if the couple needs to back up they can.
c) On a crowded dance floor, stopping for long periods of time to do numerous dance patterns is frowned upon since it backs up the line of dance and generally frustrates leaders behind you.
d) We only pass a couple under extreme circumstances not as a general rule. If a dance couple in front of you stops, be patient and take the time to dance in place until they move. If they are there for a very long time then you can choose to dance around them if you have the space.
e) Refrain from cutting across lanes, weaving from lane to lane, or cutting through the center of the floor.
f) Generally, leaders never back up against the line of dance unless they have to. However, if necessary one step back is OK provided the space is available.
g) Take care to not step into a neighboring lane or too close to the person dancing next to you. Everyone needs their space respected so that they can dance in comfort without feeling encroached upon.
h) In traditional milongas, showboating in the middle of the floor (or anywhere else) is not a particularly respected activity. In a social context, it is generally believed that tango is danced for yourself and your partner only - not for an audience. Social tangueros dance for each other and what they are creating. They do not diminish their dance by using it in the service of their egos.
On the Dance Floor
1) Talking in the introduction of a song is accepted. Talking while dancing is not. Dancers are expected to honor the dance by attending to the dance and the music, not to a conversation. The tanda is held as a contained space that two people share together until it is over.
2) Dancing begins when the couple connects with the music and each other. Dancers rarely begin dancing as soon as they hear the music.
3) Leaders propose the embrace as the signal that he is ready to begin the dance. Followers wait for this signal.
4) Generally when you agree to dance with someone you are agreeing to dance the length of the tanda. That said, if you wish to stop dancing with your partner, do so by thanking them at the end of the song. "Thank you" in tango means "thank you, no more". Likewise, no-one changes partners in the middle of a tanda.
5) Good leaders always dance at the level of the follower they are dancing with. It is considered bad manners to dance above her to impress her, show off to others, or fluff one's ego.
6) Teaching on the dance floor is strictly forbidden. It disrupts the flow of the dance floor and is considered a great disrespect to your partner. Not only does it establish power relations, but it generally ends up offending and hurting people's feelings. A harsh or insensitive, but well-intended comment can ruin one's evening. At the very least, it leaves your partner feeling uncomfortable and undervalued. The ultimate goal of the milonga is to create a pleasurable experience for all attending, especially your partners. It is respectful to provide a place for people to be able to dance their best without input. If you feel a need to instruct, save it for a practica, and make sure your input is solicited.
7) Never solicit advice, corrections, or teaching on the dance floor from anyone. Again, milongas are not the place for instruction.
8) No one likes being kicked, run into, hit, or stepped on, so avoid figures or movements that can negatively impact people around you. Milongas are supposed to be safe places, so people can dance freely and comfortably. Please dance in such a way that you ensure that for everyone.
9) If a collision occurs, be polite and friendly, make eye contact and acknowledge the collision even if it was not your fault. If it was clearly your fault, apologize at the end of the song.
Off the Floor and Other Info
1) When getting up to dance, dancers should be aware not to obstruct the dance floor or the path of others with their chairs.
2) Be aware not to obstruct someone's line of vision. This is a frustration for those not dancing and trying to cabeceo.
3) If you are not dancing, show respect to those who are by not walking through the crowded dance floor or standing on the floor talking. Likewise, loud conversations and partying can be a distraction for the dancers. Priority is given to the dancers dancing.
4) Argentine Tango is an intimate and elegant dance. For a pleasant experience, good hygiene is essential. Bathe before dancing and use deodorant. Use breath fresheners frequently. Do not over do the use of perfume or aftershave - some people are sensitive to them. If you perspire, use a towel or handkerchief often. If you perspire heavily, use a towel, take a break and cool down, bring an extra shirt, and change into it at halftime. If you wear glasses, consider contact lenses or removing your glasses while dancing unless you can't see where you're going (they often poke into your partner's head).
Happy dancing everyone!