Are You Dancing?

28th January 2011

(This article is based on material originally written in You Dancin' and Dance Or Not)


"Do you want to dance?"
"With you?"
~ Cordelia Chase

Let's face it, a fundamental problem in tango is actually getting dances, particularly when you're beginning. In Argentine Tango, it almost seems that most people want to be there to watch everyone else being there. Maybe we're all just looking at each other's shoes?

OK, clearly some people do dance. But less than in other dance forms, or at least in some venues.

For example, when David went to Corrientes (a milonga venue in North London), he estimated that less than half the people were dancing at any one time. He went to Ceroc Chesham a week or so after that, and at least 80% seemed to be dancing at any given time.

Does it matter?

Cordelia: You can always tell when he's happy. His scowl? Slightly less scowly.

As a self-confessed "man of very average looks", David can visit any Modern Jive venue in the country, and still be confident of not needing to ask any women to dance throughout an average evening, but still be able to dance most or all of the time, should he want to. Yes, OK, some of that is because he's an experienced dancer, but he got asked as much or more when I was a beginner. Women in Modern Jive ask men to dance - sometimes they even demand. And it's great that they do so.

Coming from that egalitarian environment, the social mores of the milonga have been a real culture shock to him. Women rarely ask men to dance - and almost never ask men they don't know, They almost always sit and wait to be asked by men.

Because most milongas are women-heavy (or men-light, depending on your point of view), this can lead to a room where women sit on chairs lining the perimiter of a venue, sitting, talking, watching, and waiting to be asked.

Fantastic news for the men, you may think. Well yes. Well, sort of. Well, no. Because there's a lot of confusion as to how the whole asking process actually works.

Dancing with Beginner and Advanced Dancers

Kicking Bird: "I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life there is one that matters most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail and it is good to see." ~ Dances with Wolves

To begin, it's easiest to break it down into two sections; "beginners" and "more experienced". Keep in mind that there's shades of grey between these two though.

Dancing with beginners

The great thing about wanting to dance with a beginner is that they want to dance pretty much all the time. For a beginner, getting some mileage on the dancefloor is usually the main priority.

Although more experienced dancers will use a non-verbal system based on the mirada and cabeceo (basically looking and nodding, discussed below) this is rarely if ever taught in tango classes in London. As such, most beginners are unaware of it and so it doesn't work well with them.

Fortunately if you're coming from a Modern Jive background, you already know how to get dances with beginners in tango. If you're a man, look around for someone you'd like to dance with who looks like she's interested in dancing (looking around expectantly, tapping her foot to the music etc). Go over to her making eye contact. Ask her to dance. Voila.

If you're a woman look like you're interested in dancing, make eye contact. When someone comes over to you and asks you to dance accept and again voila.

Dancing with More Experienced Dancers

John Dunbar: [writing in his diary] If it wasn't for my companion, I believe I'd be having the time of my life. ~ Dances with Wolves

Sooner or later you'll run into the Mirada and the Cabeceo.

I've actually described both in the above Dancing with Beginners section.

The Mirada simply means the man and woman are actively looking for someone to dance with and make eye contact. Technically tango's a bit fussier in that you should choose one person at a time rather than randomly looking around the place, but it's the same basic principle.

Having made eye contact there's then a nod to confirm: Cabeceo (on reflection this tends to be a smile in Modern Jive, but again same basic idea).

Here's where it changes. When the guy goes over to the woman she stands up to meet him. (Again this is often unnecessary in Modern Jive, where women who want to dance are already standing at least half the time). This replaces the verbal "would you like to dance?". You go straight to the embrace without any words being spoken. Like the episode "Hush" of Buffy where everyone loses the ability to speak.


The two approaches don't mix well. If as a woman you've made eye contact, nodded and the man's come over, but you remain seated and wait for him to ask you to dance (the beginner's version), more experienced dancers will often simply continue to walk past you as if they hadn't noticed you.

This is because by not standing up, you're indicating that you don't want to dance; maybe you were nodding to the guy who's slightly behind him and to his left? Either way, to "save face", the man simply continues. This avoids the embarrassing situation of asking someone to dance having them say "no" and then turning to the woman next them and asking them. However, a beginner follower used to other cultural norms could think that she's the one who's been rejected.

So do you have to use the second method? Not really, no-one's going to directly force you to.

The terror of the clump

Xander: Okay, let's not say something we'll regret later, okay?
Cordelia: You crazy freak!
Buffy: Vapid whore!
Xander:... Like that!

Women tend to clump, in groups, chatting away. And clumps of women can be scary.

As we know from our clubbing days, it's much easier to approach a woman on her own than it is to try to pick one off from a group. Isolated rejection is bad enough; the possibility of a group witnessing such humiliation is much worse.

Yes, sure, we know in our head that the chances of being rejected are extremely low - these women have come to dance, and as long as you don't try to interrupt an intense heart-to-heart, or physically separate a woman who's obviously part of a couple, then you're almost certain to get three dances from almost anyone you ask. We knows this. Rationally.

But on the dance floor, rationality doesn't get a look-in. We are, after all, asking a girl to dance - something that in UK culture has historically (well, in the past 20-30 years) been seen as the equivalent of asking for her hand in marriage. Well, OK, asking for something similar, at least...

And so when we asks, there's always that still small voice, saying "She might say No", with the addition of "And in front of all her friends, too". Asking someone to dance is a pressure - always. It's less pressure for experienced dancers (most things become easier with experience), but for a beginner leader, it's a big inhibiting factor.

However realistically if there are more women than men, then they usually can't avoid sitting in groups, and they are usually friendly to each other because anything else is not going to work out at all well, as Xander demonstrates above. Using eye contact is your best bet.

But should women ask verbally?

Cordelia: Aren't there laws against this sort of thing?
[walks over to Buffy and Owen]
Cordelia: Owen! Look at you, here all alone...
Owen: Cordelia, I'm here with Buffy.
Cordelia: Oh! Okay. Do you wanna dance?
Owen: No, I'm still here with Buffy.
Cordelia: You are so good to help the needy.
Buffy: Cordelia, Owen and I would like to be alone right now, and for that to happen, you would have to go somewhere that's away.
Cordelia: Well, when you're ready for the big leagues, let me know.

Although the obvious answer is "yes", and indeed woman are encouraged to do this at Let's Go Tango. However like many obvious answers it's not quite as helpful as it seems... (which is why women only verbally ask other LGT members)

If you take the attitude that the cabeceo is 'outdated' and you shouldn't have to do it, it's just a fact that many of the better dancers in London won't dance with you . However as the Modern Jive parallels show, it's really not that hard to do. Indeed it's a good idea (and much less stressful!) to try it out at your local Modern Jive venue. Some women will still get a bit puzzled that you're not verbally asking them, but it can also be a lot of fun.

One step back from verbally asking is holding out your hand. Again this is perfectly acceptable in Modern Jive and works well in tango with beginners. However many more experienced dancers will consider this to be rude.

Christopher found it extremely helpful doing Modern Jive while he learned tango, as frankly it was nice to be able to go there and dance as much as he wanted.

Some more thoughts from MsH

Here are some more thoughts on this area.

And more problems

There are a number of added complications when it comes to getting dances in tango in London. Firstly working out who you actually want to dance with. Looks can be deceiving in tango. The best followers Christopher knows don't look like they intend appearing in a show or a brothel later in the evening. Then you have to work out exactly how you're going to ask them to dance. But by and large that's it. As you get more experienced, the music, floorcraft and how tired you are might become more important, but again they're pretty binary choices. You either want to dance or you don't - if you do you're back to who and how to ask.

After experienced a certain amount of discomfort and pain, people start to factor that in too...

Cordelia: Look, Buffy, you may be hot stuff when it comes to demonology or whatever, but when it comes to dancing, I'm the Slayer

Gradually people start to see the differences in the way people dance tango and start to gravitate towards what they prefer - anything from calm musical dancing to all out show dancing and everything in between.

On the whole, pain and discomfort gets through to men as a priority much faster than women, whereas the look and feel of the dance and the actual music tends to get through to women faster than it does to men.

It's like in Modern Jive, when you begin you want all the dances you can get. When you reach the intermediate level, you still want dances, but you start to develop a feel for the type of dances that you want - fast, slow, bluesy, lots of moves, good connection, smooth, bouncy etc - and the types of music you prefer to dance to. So, now there will be people / songs you'll avoid, not because they're "bad" (you may well have enjoyed dancing with them a year ago), but simply because now they just don't suit where you are

"It's a fast track next, I wouldn't bother going to ask her" - a rather helpful Ceroc DJ

If you watch Christopher dance Modern Jive with the women he regularly dances with and you didn't actually know what Modern Jive was, you could be forgiven for thinking that he's dancing completely different dances with each of them. On the other hand if you watch him dance tango with the women he regularly dances with, it's remarkably similar. He recently wore a full mask and cloak to a Halloween milonga effectively disguising my appearance, but friends were able to recognize him by watching him dance.

Two rooms

Imagine the two following rooms. One is filled with the following types of people


You can dance with anyone who has at least one matching letter, though two matching letters are better and all three is nirvana. Woo hoo! You can dance with anyone in the room. That's Modern Jive.

Now imagine a room filled with the following types of people and the same rules apply.


Gulp. Now you can only dance with a third of the people in the room. That's tango. Pretty much it's all or nothing. To make matters worse you have to figure out who the matching people are.

So it's not that the women (and indeed men!) sitting down don't want to dance. They just can't figure out who they want to dance with and how to get them to ask (or they've been nailed by another factor such as they don't like the music or the floorcraft is terrible).

So because in Modern Jive Christopher has a much broader range of how he dances, he can dance with considerably more people and still enjoy himself. In tango as his focus gets smaller and smaller, the number of people he can dance with and enjoy it gradually diminishes. And the same seems to happen to women. To be fair this also happens in Modern Jive where women get to the point where they are no longer willing to be manhandled and injured whilst the leader shows a complete disregard for the music, the people around them....

This can be further exasperated in many ways by the layout of a venue...

Don't take it personally

Cordelia: You know, we've never really been close, which is nice, 'cause I don't really like you that much, but... you have on occasion saved the world and stuff, so I'm gonna... do you a favor.
Buffy: And this great favor is...
Cordelia: I'm gonna give you some advice. Get over it.
Buffy: Excuse me?
Cordelia: Whatever is causing the Joan Collins 'tude, deal with it. Embrace the pain, spank your inner moppet, whatever, but get over it.

In shifting from "I want to dance with someone" to "I want to dance with someone and enjoy it" there will be times when you'll look around and despite there being plenty of people sitting down, there won't be anyone you'll be sure that you'd enjoy dancing with; or maybe you'll ask / cabeceo and get turned down - trust me, they've just saved you an awful experience.

I've learnt the hard way that in tango it's much better to sit out a dance and then dance with someone who wants to dance with me, than to suffer with someone who doesn't.

 - Christopher O' Shea / David Bailey, 28th January 2011