Woo-Hoo - solving the (London) Cabaceo

28th January 2010

"Woo hoo!" - Homer Simpson


I think I've finally solved how the Cabeceo works in London.

First you need to consider the cabeceo proper

Japanese Kabuki plays are unusal in that they are performed in one continuous show, unlike western plays where periodically the curtains close to allow for sets, props and outfits to be changed. In Kabuki, stagehands dressed in dark clothing sneak around the stage adding and removing props, clothing etc as the play progresses. The deal is everyone ignores them.

However, that's not entirely true. If an actor needs a sword to fight a duel in a minute, it's a bad idea if his hand is tucked in his belt preventing the stagehand from putting the sword there. But likewise he can't suddenly jerk it away. Instead the actor finds a reason why his character just happens to have his hand somewhere else, eg scratching his chin. And the audience accepts this.

However say the actor's wife has unexpectedly just gone into labour. Clearly the stagehand can break his "invisibility" and whisper the message to him.

Illumination - at Negracha's

Tonight I realised an important parallel with the cabeceo.

A lady was at Negracha's, who clearly just wanted to watch the dancing. She was sitting down, wearing a jumper, with her boots on, all classic "I don't want to dance" signs. However

  • Her posture and confidence marked her as potentially a good dancer
  • She was good looking

So this meant that some guys asked her to dance anyway.

At first they approached using the cabeceo. And she developed a sudden interest in the dancing to one side of them as if she hadn't seen them. So much so that the only way they could get her attention was to verbally ask her to dance, at which point she pointed out her boots and politely explained that she wasn't dancing.

Here's the thing. It's completely implausible that she didn't see them standing there. If you're sitting down and a six foot guy comes and stands in front of you, how can you not see him?! But the etiquette of the cabeceo, much like the Kabuki play, lets you pretend they're invisible. Unless they verbally ask.

There's two really important things here. Firstly the implausibility of the woman not seeing you. Secondly her calm confidence, such that literally you'd feel that unless you spoke to her, you could stand there all night un-noticed. Indeed you should feel that if you wanted to stand there for a few seconds, yawn, stretch etc, she still wouldn't notice you (I wouldn't recommend this though). If both of these are present you've been turned down. Move on.

The London Cabeceo

This is slightly different. It's a version that's come about more through a mixture of social mores and instinct rather than actual awareness of the cabeceo.

In this case you walk towards a woman and cabeceo her. One minute she accepts your cabeceo. the next she looks away. And then she's kind of looking at you, but not. A whole mess of mixed signals. This isn't the cabeceo.

To be blunt, in order to get a dance with her, you're going to have to ask her out loud. What's important is that in this case clearly the woman is acting as if she has seen you. Trying to use the etiquette of the cabeco is now pointless because she's completely wrecked the "plausible deniability" that she didnt see you.

You have two options.

  • You can maintain your end of the cabeceo and implausibly pretend that you haven't noticed her (and her behaviour) and that actually you weren't interested in dancing with her at all. Then go and find someone who does use the cabeceo.
  • Or you can accept that it's the London Cabeceo and ask her.

The Rules - London Stylee

The Rules are (roughly) as follows:

She has to respond, but her answer doesn't need to be justified. "Yes" or "No" is quite sufficient. If for some reason she wants to add a justification you accept it, no matter how implausible it sounds.

Everyone plays nice. For example:

"Would you like to dance?"
"No, thank-you"

is fine. But:

"Would you like to dance?"
"With you?!"

is not.

Check your ego at the door when you do this. Don't think of it as her rejecting you. It's simply: does she want to dance, with you, right now? That's all.

Now some people will get bitter and twisted if the woman turns them down and then immediately accepts a dance from someone else. My advice is don't bother. They may be a friend. She may be injured and only want to dance with someone she trusts. Or, or course, she might be an evil man-hating so-and-so - in which case, would you really want to dance with her anyway? There are many, many possible reasons.

Another twist

In the "Real Cabeceo" (called simply "cabeceo" from here on), if the woman accepts, then part of the ritual is that she stands up by the time you've walked over to her. This avoids confusion as to whether you were asking her or the woman next to her. However in the London Cabeceo, often-times the woman will remain sitting. She'll maintain eye contact, smile, nod etc, but she won't get up until she gets a verbal confirmation "Would you like to dance?". To further confuse the issue, due to social mores, a lot of women in London will instinctively look away when cabeceoed, or even part way through.

When we tried this out at the Tango Practice Group, even though the women knew they were supposed to maintain eye contact, it was an exercise after all, they still found it remarkably difficult. But again, if they look away or don't stand up this isn't the cabeceo. Clearly they are aware you exist.

If you do Modern Jive, it's pretty much the way you ask for a dance there. If you don't do Modern Jive, you should seriously consider going along for one night. It'll all make much more sense when everyone's playing by the same rules.

The only difference is that in tango you start with the cabeceo. If you get turned down "properly" then you don't go to the London Cabeceo. If however they don't remain within the etiquette of the cabeceo, then you have the choice to go to the London Cabeceo. Think of the cabeceo as the secret handshake that not everyone at the London milonga knows. And, of course, there's no way of telling if a stranger is using the cabeceo, the London cabeceo, or something else.

To further complicate matters, women gradually tend to become aware of the cabeceo the longer they dance tango. Then their London Cabeceo gradually shifts to the actual cabeceo. (This is further complicated by the men doing roughly the same process and being thoroughly confused through most of it).

The conclusion I've finally reached is that this shifting stage still counts as the London Cabeceo. The actual cabeceo by its very nature is black and white. You can't, as the saying goes, "be a little bit pregnant". The woman either completely accepts the guy's cabeceo and stands up by the time he's arrived, or she completely pretends he doesn't exist. Otherwise it really doesn't work.

It's this interim phase that completely confuses guys.

In practice

Notably in the past, I've approached women with a cabeceo, they've responded with the London Cabeceo of being aware of my presence, but not maintaing eye contact etc. So I assumed they didn't want to dance and just continued past. Then they came over and verbally asked me to dance. Ok, so clearly they did want to dance. This has happened quite a lot actually over the last few years.

The huge benefit of the cabeceo is that it's a lot less rushed than you'd think. Provided you follow the advice in the previous articles (see links at the end) about not approaching her blindside and giving her some time to react to you (or ignore you), if she's using the cabeceo it should be obvious. You can literally pause in front of her for a moment to check (don't stop dead, think of it like the pause in a half time step) and then continue.

But what if she doesn't want to dance with me? There's a few things women can do to signal this. Not wearing the right shoes, keeping coats and jumpers on, looking for something in their handbags. Again it's a straight copy from MJ.

Conversely women doing the London Cabeceo can signal their interest, by looking around, standing up, moving in time to the music, doing adornments and generally looking like they want to dance. Yet again, MJ.

What about if she's talking to someone? There's a difference between someone who's deep in conversation and someone who's just chatting. If someone's chatting and wants to dance, it's pretty much their responsibility to keep some kind of awareness of men approaching to ask for dances. It works pretty much like the cabeceo. If you can walk up to them and they appear completely unaware of your existence, then just leave it and keep going. If they are aware of you, then go with then you're back to the London Cabeceo again.

And in fairness there's a learning curve here. If you were turned down by a cabeceo and you didn't realise and verbally asked, as long as you accept her verbal "No thanks" it's really not a big deal. Maybe in Argentina where everyone in the whole milonga is using the cabeceo it's different. In London, meh.

Putting it all together

The cabeceo works as a filter. If you chose to only dance with women who respond to it properly, you'll only dance with a certain kind of women. I'll leave it up to you to decide if this is a good thing for you personally.

I highly recommend reading the following for more information on how to use the cabeceo and London Cabeceo:

The following flow-diagram is designed to get you the most number of dances in a night. It's baised towards getting dances with women who know what the cabeceo is. If you don't want to dance with women who don't know the cabeceo, I'd still recommend using the London cabeceo to get you onto the dancefloor as the odds of getting dances through cabeceos from that point pretty much doubles. But it's up to you.

Christopher O' Shea, 28th January 2010