The Argentine tango is a universe unto itself. Tango can be found from Buenos Aires to the Black Sea, from Seoul to St. Petersburg, from Tucson to Tel Aviv and from Perth Amboy to Paris. In New York there are milongas, (tango socials), every night of the week. We dance in restaurants and bars, in dance schools and social clubs. Weather permitting, we dance in Central Park and outdoors at Lincoln Center. We dance on a pier in the Hudson River and in the pavilion at Union Square. In other words, we dance everywhere, all the time.
Except when we are not, because we are sitting on the sidelines at a milonga waiting to be asked.
Dear Argentine Tango,
I am a little weary of defending your old fashioned rules of engagement: men asking women. I’m chagrined at having to pretend to my pre-tango friends that I’m okay with the one sided-ness of it all. And I’m running out of irrefutable justifications such as, “Without me, there is no dance!”
In Buenos Aires, the invitation to dance is more egalitarian. The enticement, called the cabaceo, is conducted entirely through eye contact. The man initiates this dance hall foreplay by gazing at his intended partner from across the room. She accepts by holding his gaze and he seals the deal with a nod, a wink or the raise of an eyebrow. Although men appear to do the asking by nodding first, it does take two. For this silent conversation to work, women have to actively scan the room to signal their availability. Both genders can either accept with a nod–or decline by looking away.
The cabaceo evolved as part of Argentine milonga etiquette and has saved many a turned down tanguero (male tango dancer) from great embarrassment. I’ve heard it said that for a man, after being rebuffed, it’s a long, humbling walk back to his seat from across a crowded dance hall.
Here in the United States, the cabaceo has devolved from a sly glance at one’s intended to a haphazard game of musical chairs with everyone jockeying for position when the music stops. Unlike the women in Argentina, we stateside ladies are not in the habit of staring at men. Heaven forbid we lock eyes for a brazen second longer than is acceptable and run the risk of it being misconstrued as an invitation to something else. But in the tango arena, these Victorian cultural norms need not apply. If we stare for that extra moment, we may get exactly what we are asking for: an invitation to dance.
Once, while practicing this Argentine art, I set my sights on my desired partner and waited for his signal of acceptance. And there it was! He nodded his head…and then covered his mouth with his hand. What I had mistaken for an invitation to dance was in fact an audible belch.
Although online dating has helped to level the romantic playing field for women, there are still a couple of situations where women will wait for men to pop the question. Whether it’s waiting for him to show up with a diamond in hand or for a proposal to dance tango, we permit ourselves to anxiously wait in a passive state of readiness.
There are nights when I am sitting on the sidelines and not being asked to dance–or not being asked by those I really, really want to dance with–and it just feels bad. Having to sit and stay in order to be chosen can rankle any of us, no matter where we are that day on the confidence spectrum. But if we persist in strapping on our tango shoes and venturing out into that good night, we best have a Milonga Management System.
Here are a few methods that I’ve used or observed to insure that we tangueras (female tango dancers) leave the bench and get in the game.
Sometime back, a dear friend, who practices age-blindness said that I shouldn’t be surprised if I were to eventually find myself batting my eyelashes at octogenarians. One night, I sat down next to one of these dapper, older gents. He was clad in suit and tie, and had white hair and a matching beard. On his feet, he sported a pair of pristine black and white spectators that nearly glowed in the dark. While batting my eyelashes, I was compelled to say, “A year ago I would have ruined those!” He then stood up, bowed and offered me his arm and escorted me onto the dance floor.
One way I amuse myself and help diffuse some of the rejection is that I keep a running list of the men that don’t ask me to dance the most. It is a list that is forever changing.
I have one hard and fast rule: I never engage in a conversation with other benched women about not getting asked to dance. Once we start talking about how this one never asks or that one only dances with the youngest and prettiest, it’s a downward spiral and our disappointment radiates onto the dance floor.
When chatting with a fellow tanguera on the sidelines, we follow protocol: We never face each other while talking. We would sooner talk out of the sides of our mouth than take our attention off the dance floor lest we appear otherwise engaged and unavailable. And when either of us is asked to dance, even in mid-sentence, (even if the conversation is about shoes), we have an unspoken agreement to put a bookmark there and continue post-dance.
What may not be immediately apparent is that while we ladies are sitting and waiting and talking (while not looking directly at each other), we are developing friendships–some that may last a lifetime–between dances, one or two sentences at a time.
In the spirit of full disclosure: There are many evenings when my dance card is full and I never return to my seat. Then there are the other evenings when 12 songs have gone by and I haven’t yet stood up once. It’s the top of the 3rd tanda (a dance set of three-to-five songs) and friends plop down beside me mopping their brows. They breathlessly say: “It’s so hot in here! Aren’t you hot?” To which I reply: “No, not at all. Try sitting out three tandas in a row and you’ll cool right down.”
At such times, I’m tempted to employ the wisdom of a fellow tanguera. When faced with an evening of not dancing, she said, her rule of thumb is to leave right before she is about to weep.
I had one of those nights at La Nacional a couple of weeks ago; an evening of too much time on the bench, blinking back a tear or two, eyeing my coat on the coat rack and looking for the nearest exit. I was even willing to miss a performance by my teachers, the delightful Ana Padron and Diego Blanco. (See them dance here). Halfway through an evening of tango-as-spectator-sport, just as I was about to grab my coat and run, Diego noticing my sorry state, asked me to dance. I almost wept with gratitude at his kindness. After the set, he asked if I had been to the bar. “Why?” I asked. “Do you think I need a drink? Would it help?” “Well, yes perhaps” he said. “What I mean is, why don’t you walk around and change the energy? Ana is at the bar, go stand by her, she has great energy.” Taking Diego’s advice and bidding farewell to my chair, I strolled across the dance hall to the bar. On the way, I was asked to dance.
There is a foolproof way to make sure that you’re not a tango wallflower. For the faint of heart and thick of wallet, there is dancing insurance! It comes in the form of a partner for hire known as a “taxi dancer.” A tango escort service if you will. It eliminates all game playing and disappointment and you can insure a night of wonderful dancing.
There are other ways to insure an evening on the dance floor. Laura (my dear friend in all things tango) has come up with a method that I have dubbed “tanguero wrangling,” whereby she texts many of our classmates and friends we’ve made along the way and invites them to meet us at a milonga. While I am more willing to go it alone and see what happens, Laura prefers to avoid disappointment whenever possible. You know, she just may have a point. Some of the most wonderful evenings have been spent dancing and not dancing with a lively bunch of dear tangueros and tangueras thanks to Laura’s wrangling.
In general, I approach tango the same way I approach life. A strategy I use both off and on the dance floor is to make friends. I meet everyone, men and women, good lead or bad, teacher or beginner. And just as I’ve been shown kindness from patient leads I try to return the favor. I’ve encouraged beginner leads and noticed them getting better mid-dance!
And while I’m at it, I try to encourage most leads. It takes a lot of guts for men to learn this difficult, nuanced dance and then have to navigate the dance floor. If that weren’t daunting enough, they have the awesome responsibility of showing us a good time. So, I try to make it a point to be gracious and let them know that I’ve enjoyed our dances. For just I as want to get in the game, it is my job to make sure that they stay in the game.
And quite often, that has been worth waiting for.
Copyright © 2013 Nancy Green