Some Tango traditionalists around the world promote the use of the classic non-verbal invitation to dance - the cabceo, and acceptance - mirada, as a desirable custom for milongas anywhere.
Let’s have a look at how the silent eye-contact invitation and acceptance works in Buenos Aires and around the world.
There are some interesting dynamics in this (almost) uniquely Buenos Aires custom. We know that non-verbal communication is more revealing than words. In some ways it is an extension of the unique non-verbal communication of the dance itself. As with other aspects of Tango, it is the distillation of human experience, a feature that makes Tango intriguing and fascinating.
Central city Buenos Aires milongas are (or were) carefully organised to facilitate this custom. When you enter the milonga the host/ hostess asks if you are single or a couple. Foreign couples, wanting to dance with locals, will often separate at this point. Ladies are directed to the women’s quarter on one side of the room, men are allocated to the men’s tables. Woe betide dancers who occupy the reserved seat of regular milongueros / milongueras.
The room, especially this area, is brightly lit, to facilitate the cabaceo/mirada process.
Dancers understand the rules - ladies are mindful to watch for an invitation. The best milongueras will only look for their favourite milongueros. They will not respond to random “invitations” from unknown men, especially tourists. There are stories of young boys waiting for years for a dance at the big milongas. (I’m sure the lads would have had older friends whisper to some of the ladies to give them a start). Men will look to catch the eye of the best, or their favourite, milongueras.
Couples sitting together are directed to the couples section. It is accepted that these ladies are not available for random dance invitations, and men wold not leave their partner to invite another random lady to dance. Occasionally, a man may, very politely ask a friend of visitor to dance, with the approval of her partner. We have had this happen.
The advantage of this formality is that it may save a lady from the embarrassment of refusing a man that they may not know, and save a man from the humiliation of being rejected. Of course, it does not always work. A close friend was confronted on the dance floor after rejecting an invitation form a notoriously ill-mannered man.
This custom is not universal in Buenos Aires, in our experience. More casual and suburban milongas do not appear to follow this custom. At Torquato Tasso, La Viruta and even the famous Sunderland, our experience was that people sat at tables with their friends. There was no expectation that a stranger would stare at a woman across the room in search of a dance.
As with many aspects of Tango, this custom was not unique to Buenos Aires, but it was
concentrated into a formal custom. In our milongas, we are more like the casual milongas, where couples and friends sit together. Ladies are more likely to be chatting with their friends, rather than sitting on the edge of their chair, waiting for an invitation to dance.
This leads to men, hopefully politely, being required to approach a lady to ask for a dance. Of course, it’s a brave or stupid man who approaches a lady who clearly averts her eyes. It is also necessary for men to accept that a lady may not want to dance at that moment if they are tired or otherwise engaged in conversation. Suggestion: don't just take one step left/right and ask the next available lady. It looks desperate, and does not go down well.