You ask someone to tango with your eyes. Sure, you can walk up and verbally ask, but part of the fun is the challenge of making eye contact with your desired partner, engaging them, and then suggesting a dance with merely a flick of your eyes toward the dancefloor. Maybe even a slight tilt of your head in that direction, as if to wordlessly say “Want to go there with me?” If you’re lucky, you get a slight smile and an equally faint head-nod.
This move is portentously called “el cabeceo,” which I believe is Spanish for “the head-ing.”
You’re expected to dance three or four songs with each partner, and chat up/catch up with/get to know your partner between each song. It’s a great little social practice.
If the dance you are attending happens to be in a foreign country that you are visiting, that chance to chat after the first dance carries special significance – you get to see what language your partner addresses you in, and if you can even communicate subsequently.
Don’t worry about communicating the dance well, though – good tangueros and tangueras respond largely the same way from Bangkok to Boston to Buenos Aires.
Argentine tango is a great dance to learn if you like to travel. On every continent, nearly every major city has a collection of people who have taken a shine to the huggy, refined, improvisational partner-dance that defies other categories of dance.
Seeking out a tango dance (also called a “milonga”) in a city I am visiting is my go-to social play for meeting locals. I’m practically neutered without it. I’ve been to tango dances in Rio, Barcelona, Prague, Zurich, Munich, Geneva, Barcelona, and Rome. I’ve also danced in Buenos Aires, the heart of the tango universe, but far and away my favorite city to tango is Berlin. Practically on the strength of tango alone, Berlin is my favorite city in the world.
After the first dance, Berlin tangueras will usually address me in German, to which I reply “Ich spreche kein Deutsche. Sprechen zie English?” As you’ll recall, that’s German for “I’m a dumb American and don’t speak German … do you speak English?”
I had one German lady laugh right in my face when I said this. I asked her why, and she said “Well, I’m surprised! Americans never ask that, and they certainly don’t ask in German!”
My God … to just imagine what my fellow countrymen have been doing … “Uhhhh … yo hablo nein German … speaky Engly?”
Actually, it sounds like they don’t even do that … they just say “Soooo … I’m American, and therefore I’m in your country without speaking a word of your language or even having made a cursory effort. You can handle that, right?”
In Prague the ladies skipped that awkward step. Instead of querying me in Czech, they would just immediately say in perfect English, “So, where are you from?”
Really? Nothing? Not even an attempt to engage me in Czech? “Well, we know every dancer in Prague, and we don’t recognize you, so we assume you’re not from around here.” You’re lucky you’re beautiful, Prague.
So yeah … tango ’round the world.
On an unrelated note, here’s how to go to a tango dance as a lady and not get asked to dance, if you don’t want to. Between each 3-4 song set (also known as a “tanda”) the DJ usually plays a segment of a song that is obviously not tango, or even Nuevo Tango (Taylor Swift, AC/DC, Gipsy Kings, something along that line). That’s when everyone says “Thank you” to their current partner and goes looking for a new partner. During that moment, avoid eye contact. Don’t let someone give you the cabeceo. Hell, go so far as to look at the table and block your eyes ostentatiously. Then people will know you’ve been warned, and you’re specifically indicating an unwillingness to dance.
Or, just dance. You’re a women, which means you’re brave about trying new things, right?
QUICK PRIMER ON TANGO MANNERS:
- Don’t say “Thank you” to your partner until the 3-4 song set (“tanda”) is over. “Thank you” means that the dance is over. You know the tanda is over when the DJ plays music that is obviously not tango (this song is called the “cortina.”)
- Don’t ask your partner how long they’ve been dancing between dances. The implication is that you’re trying to gauge how good they are, or assess a reason that they suck. It’s okay to ask someone how long they’ve been dancing if you get into a conversation off the dance floor.
- The dance flows counterclockwise. A few steps in the clockwise direction are okay, but for the most part, keep the dance flowing in a counterclockwise direction.
- Try not to hit the couple near you. If the dance floor is crowded, keep it tight – no big fancy kicks or boleos.
- Don’t pass another couple on the dance floor without a really good reason. Especially don’t pass Tom Kamrath. When I was new and could barely keep track of my own feet, to say nothing of my surroundings, I passed him on the floor, and after the tanda he came up to me and growled “Don’t ever fucking pass me.” Yikes … mission accomplished, Tom.
What is your go-to activity in a new city?