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In defense of etiquette: Part II: Cabeceo

The cabeceo is not macho. It is not “old fashioned”. It is about consent, respect, and discretion. There is nothing “feminist” in violating the cabeceo. Whether a man or woman, mark or revel, violates the cabeceo, they deny their target full subjectivity and coerce them. Coercion because no matter how many times people argue that we can say “no” to an overt dance request it still feels rude and still risks humiliating the inviter, which civil or sympathetic people and dance friends will avoid. Respect for another person’s subjectivity means that we know that they have an array of personal desires, entanglements, and priorities. Denial of subjectivity is when we presume or impose our own perspective. For example: “you are wearing that short skirt, so you must be sexually available.” “You are here at the milonga, so you should be dancing.” While those ideas are already bad, they are not even complete, because the approacher insists that s/he is therefore entitled to the target’s bodily attention. “You are wearing that short skirt, so you must be sexually available to me.” “You are here at the milonga, so you should be dancing with me.”

 • • •

When a woman violates the cabeceo, she is not only disrespecting the man (her target). She is shoving her heel in the face of another woman (collateral damage). Last weekend, after an exhausting workshop, Roberto and I wanted to go dancing. The milonga ended at 22:30. We arrived at 21:00. We greeted a professional colleague, who invited Roberto for a cigarette. I whispered to him. “We only have about 6 tandas. That just gives you time to dance with her, me, and each of the students.” He organized to have the cigarette after the milonga, we affirmed that we would dance only the last tanda, and he headed for the first of our students. A few cortinas later, four of us are sitting together on a banquette skirting the dance floor. There’s a clock on the wall, and we know we’ve arrived at tanda 5. Roberto is sitting next to the last of the students he needs to dance with, chatting as the new tanda begins. A woman walks onto the empty dance floor, approaches our group, stops directly front of Roberto, and reverse cabeceos him. He accepts, of course. Later I found this woman. I explained to her the whole facts of our evening. I wanted her to  develop an imagination that the men she wants have their own plans and obligations. And that when she imposes her desires, she interferes with his intentions and steals from another woman. I remembered when I lived in another city, where the only other advanced female dancer (necessarily therefore my “friend” and practice partner) was always popping up in front of men before they had time to think or decide or approach someone. She always said “I’m not going to wait around.” She did this with a lot of guys who liked to dance with me. She was ok with taking their freedom of choice. I don’t think she realized that she was also kicking me to the ground every time. The codigos come from Argentina, a country that suffers political, economic, and social crisis with unnerving regularity. Anticipation of the inversions of the next crisis has taught people that they can’t afford to kick anyone to the floor. My “friend” surely did not foresee that someday I would move to Berlin and she might be in a position to inherit my milonga. Argentines know they cannot afford her careless disregard. Adherence to the codigos means taking care of your own unknown future by taking care of everyone in the milonga.

• • •

The woman who had assaulted Roberto told me  “well maybe in Germany the men can’t say no, but here we say that men can say no”. I said “I’ve lived all over the world, and nowhere are men comfortable to be rude or humiliate a woman.” When a man risks being rude or humiliating a woman, her overt demand is coercive regardless of her fantasies about his “freedom” to say “no”. What does the cabeceo do?
  • It permits the mark (leader) who has to generate the creativity and musicality and manage the traffic– decide when s/he is up for it and with whom s/he can dance well with right now. (I find that followers who do not lead dramatically underestimate how much work it is and especially how much effort it takes for leaders to compensate for followers’ lack of knowledge and skill.)
  • It permits dancers to discretely reject dances they don’t want without humiliating someone and getting a reputation for being rude, arrogant, or “stuck up”.
  • It acknowledges the fact that both parties need to experience desire, rather than coercively imposing the desires of one party.
  • It respects entanglements and obligations.
One time my tango boyfriend was literally entangled in my arms, asleep on my shoulder after a long day of work. A women who felt entitled to be danced by him at every opportunity came and tapped him on the shoulder, woke him up, and insisted that he dance with her. He, afraid of bad feelings with a frequent dance partner, obliged. Among friends, rejection can be even more painful and risky to the relationship. Overt demands are even more coercive among friends. While Roberto danced with the assailant, I stayed talking with our professional colleague. She confirmed her view that even when friends invite in more casual contexts, it should always be subtle, never a demand. The cabeceo works so well for this! Many friends will use the cabeceo even at short range, or during a conversation. If the person you are talking to pretends not to see it and goes on talking, that’s a clear and caring “no”. We also shared our experience that the few times we had verbally asked a familiar partner to dance (for me this is less than 10 times in 15 years), we regretted it. As artists, we want to experience maximum creativity and intensity. It’s clear when a Mark is really inspired and when he’s just going through the motions. Creative inspiration depends on his desire-driven assembly of partner and music. When someone else decides for him, it’s unlikely that he will be able to access inspiration. The women who “refuse to wait around”, who don’t have the humility and grace to let their partners make their own decisions, are trampling the conditions for the very best dances.

• • •

The new social and legal standard evolving from the “Me Too” movement is a beautiful refinement of “No means No“. It’s “Yes means Yes.” This means that you do not touch or approach a person until you have already received some “yes” communication, like warm eye contact and a smile. You need to gain their yes, not demand it. Perhaps some women-followers feel angered by the cabeceo because they think it is a man’s act. They do not understand that it too is a two-party dance, in which they have a role, “the mirada”. They have not yet learned the power of their desire.
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