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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Partner poaching

Sometimes our eye-sight doesn’t serve us well, and our use of the cabeceo suffers accordingly.  There have been times when a lady has accepted my invitation from afar, but the man in the next seat has dashed across the floor before I’ve even risen.  The lady has a choice – insist on waiting for me to arrive and send the ‘sprinter’ away, or dance with him, and give me a nod to indicate “next tanda”.

I have also found myself as one of two men approaching a lady, only to find that I’ve got it wrong.  This situation has often been resolved by everyone laughing it off as part of the fun, followed by my retreat … although once, one of my regular partners at El Maipu, sitting nearby, fixed things by saying, “Come on Robert, let’s dance”!  No retreat necessary.

However, there is another, less pleasant scenario that is talked about in some of the milongas in Buenos Aires, and at my local ones; this is the one involving the ‘partner poacher’.   Certainly, the ‘sprinter’ above may be one of those, and if the lady doesn’t want to dance with him, she can choose not to. However, the talk is more about some women: they are close to the line of sight of the cabeceo from a man to a woman nearby; as the man approaches, she jumps up and enters the dance floor in front of the intended lady.  Again, there is a choice at hand – this time by the man.  He will normally not want to embarrass the lady on the floor, so will dance with her …. hopefully, with a nod to the lady still seated.

Sometimes the misunderstanding is unintended, and at other times, women talk about their partners being stolen.  The ‘partner poacher’ gets her dance, but at what cost?  Clearly, there is some ill-feeling from affected women.  And for the man?  He too will be disturbed, and may end up simply ‘going through the motions’ for the tanda, feeling resentful.  All in all, not a good result.

So, what is the protocol?  It’s quite simple really. Once the cabeceo has been successful, the man will approach the woman, making frequent eye contact solely with her; she will do the same, as confirmation that she is his intended partner.  The woman should stay seated until the man is at her table, gives her another clear nod, then she should join him on the floor.  In these circumstances the likelihood of mistakes, while never completely eliminated, is lessened and harmony in the milonga will prevail.


  1. This is what's also called mugging.

    And I don't know why, but I've found mugging by women to be more frequent in BsAs than in e.g. Europe. There's intercepting the line of sight as you describe, plus there's intercepting the guy's path around the floor edge -- the woman jumps up and blocks his way, usually with a smile :)

    I find a good remedy for the latter form is to keep one's sight on your intended partner as you walk, and when mugged, don't make eye contact with the mugger but just say e.g. lo siento, and step around the obstruction.

    I guess some might say such a display of impoliteness is not a good idea :) But I hope it does at least discourage further attempts.

  2. I spend a lot of time at the formal milongas in Buenos Aires and I don't know when I last saw a woman leap up before the guy got to her seat. Of course, innocent mistakes happen all the time with cabeceo/mirada. But "partner poachers" sound like a bit of an urban legend. Every city has its myths...

  3. I know this scenario well. Quite recently a man was making eye contact with me when a woman swooped in front of him, directly obstructing his view of me. The man was then talked into dancing by the "swooper". There was no mistake as I'd the same experience from this swooper before. Some men are actually flattered by this kind of swooping but this is sadly a reflection on this kind of men in the tango scene. Vice la cabeceo!

  4. Interesting that this phenomenon has several labels: mugging, swooping & poaching. Anonymous, that in itself, suggests that it's sadly more than an urban legend. Besides, I've also heard Buenos Aires milongueras complain about this behaviour and have personal experienced it.

    At times it was an unintended error, a consequence of a tanguera's unbridled enthusiasm, perhaps. On other occasions, I'm not so sure about giving the "swooper" the benefit of the doubt.

    On the other side of the coin, men who allow the cabeceo to be hijacked in this manner are part of the problem. They may not realise it, but they are contributing to a decline in respect at the milonga by rewarding the "poachers/muggers".

  5. I think we men do tend feel it’s impolite to refuse the woman who has stood up; we’re faced with a dilemma that needs immediate resolution.

    Where I feel it’s a genuine misunderstanding, I’ll spare the woman the humiliation of returning to her chair, and give my intended partner a nod & smile to indicate “next tanda”. If I suspect that it’s a deliberate strategy by a ‘poacher’, then I will use Chris’ strategy & keep my sole focus on the lady I want to dance with.

    To dance with the ‘poacher’, means I’m dancing with someone I hadn’t chosen to dance with; for a start, I’ll feel resentful – not the best way to enter into such an intimate activity. Then there’ll be lack of commitment to the dance – does she really get something out of me simply going through the motions?

    1. Bob, the problem of partner poaching (mugging, swooping) is actually a subset of a larger problem. In the US and in Europe women commonly stand up and jump out into the line of dance. And because of this, I rarely get the chance to catch the eye of the oncoming navigator before entering of light at dance. The woman is already standing it out on the floor, even if she was the intended partner.

  6. Do it the Australian Way and approach her directly and ask her.

  7. To be honest, I find the cabaceo a bit pretentious in our Culture and, as a result it does not work very well. I do object to ladies staring me down when they know full well that I have arrived at the dance with my partner. Now that would never happen in BaAs where singles & couples are seated separately

  8. Dear Anonymous,
    please don’t tar all of Australian tango with the same brush. The cabeceo is used extensively and effectively at all the Adelaide milongas, and is the norm at our Comme il faut & La Esquina milongas. The problem with approaching her and asking directly is: “What if she really doesn’t want to dance with you?” If she uses the cabeceo, you’ll know.

  9. Dear Tango SEQ,

    I find your description of the cabeceo as being “pretentious in our culture” rather curious.

    Is it pretentious to allow men and women choice regarding the person they will share 10 minutes of tango in close embrace? I thought that our culture supported the empowerment of women? Or do you think that women should politely and nicely accept any man’s direct invitation, for fear of otherwise hurting his ego? Would you like it if a woman (who you didn’t intend to dance with) approached you and directly asked you to dance? The cabeceo allows choice and shows respect.

    However, it does require confidence and practice. Like all skills, the initial, developmental stages can be awkward and fraught with clumsiness. Ladies who try to “stare you down” when you are with your partner, may simply not yet know how to be patient and subtly show their interest in dancing with a man. They may be unsure what to do when the man doesn’t reciprocate.

    If, for whatever reason, you don’t want to dance with someone looking your way, simply avoid their gaze. They should eventually get the message and look elsewhere. Here are some interesting anecdotes about the cabeceo http://www.totango.net./cabeceo.html

  10. Dear Pat & Bob. It seems to me it does not always work to copy another culture. Here in Qld, the cabaceo is not used and not understood. We are not set up for it; we don't seat single ladies & single men together or separate couples. In our culture, we much prefer to sit with friends of either sex and other couples. People will mostly chat with friends until invited to dance. Of course it still does not mean that a prospective partner won't look away if she does not want to dance. However most women I know enjoy chatting with friends until invited rather than sit watching for a glance. The invitor must be a lot closer to receive the subtle signals. It is the way it has always been in Australia since we started dancing in the '60's. It's not that the communication is not just as subtle, but it is different. We can still have choice and respect within our own cultural heritage. Interestingly, my observation at local milongas in Buenos Aires, where friends go to socialise, they do the same as us; many sit at tables with friends and politely invite friends to dance. Apologies I did not sign, I thought you knew my letter.

  11. Hi John,
    Good to hear from you.

    Here in Adelaide people also sit with their partner and friends, and chat. We don’t have milongas where men, women and couples are seated in different zones. Direct invitations are common amongst those seated at the same table, just as they are in Buenos Aires. However, that doesn’t prevent the cabeceo being used by those very people when they want to dance with others in the milonga.

    Their non-verbal signals show their willingness to dance, in the normal cabeceo manner. People who are used to this form of invitation report that they prefer it for a number of reasons eg. dancing with someone who really wants to dance with you. One of the writers on Keith Elshaw’s ‘Art of the cabeceo’ remarked: “For a tango to have meaning it has to be desired by both the woman and the man”.

    Why shouldn’t we adopt and adapt this aspect of tango culture to our cultural setting? What have we got to lose?

  12. John, of course friends do not always use a cabeceo/mirada to agree to a dance, just as you describe. However, dancing among friends, in most "humble" opinion, is not social dancing if the group only dances with itself. Social dancing begins when one dances with the community of dancers--not all the time perhaps but at least at times. If a dancer goes to a new milonga and only sits because the "milonga among friends" doesn't dance outside of their own little group, that newcomer has every right to tell others that the milonga was a "tango social" but not "social tango." Better said, the newcomer who did not dance at all may indeed feel that the it was "asocial" or even "antisocial tango." The proper way to dance in the atmosphere of social tango is to know how to ask without using ones lips, without standing in front of someone, and the focus of this blog post--being able to avoid "poaching." A teacher in Trier, Germany goes up and stands in front of women with his hands out. A teacher in Kaiserslautern, German teaches on the dance floor. These behaviors may fit well (in their minds) with German culture, but we are dancing tango, and that includes more than movements or music. Tango that includes asking for a dance at a social tango milonga has a very strong accent. If Texans can use the mirada/cabeceo well, so can the Aussies.

  13. It is hard to generalise, TT. At our own milongas we are watchful and attempt to ensure that the single ladies do not sit out too long, either inviting them myself or asking other (preferably single) guys. Often, my wife will let me know a particular lady has been sitting out too long. We seat visitors & newcomers at a table with local people so they can quickly intergrate. Attempting to offer guests the best experience (social, music, audio etc.,) is the organiser’s responsibility. However, when we are guests at a milonga, I prefer to sit and dance most of the night with my wife; not just because she is a great Tango dancer and I like her company, but I believe it is most disrespectful to bring your wife or partner to the milonga and then spend the night dancing around while she waits. We see that all the time, from both men and women. Ignored partners soon tire of this selfish behaviour. Either of us may accept an invitation, usually from a friend, but we do not go out of our way to “do the rounds”. We do the same in milongas in Buenos Aires, enjoying the entire experience together. I have no desire at all to “try out” or prove myself to a lot of strangers or to be seen with this or that celebrity. I agree with your comments on arrogant males; unfortunately they are everywhere. Thank you all for the thought provoking discussion. John

  14. Maybe it depends on the kind of tango experience you want and feel comfortable with. We have spent up to 6 weeks every year in BsAs for the past 15 years, and it took some time to gain confidence in both our dance skills and the personal challenge of dancing with others. Once we got to that stage, we wanted to experience how local dancers interpret the music, to feel their passion for tango (yes, some women do sing while we dance), learn about their culture, and gain new friendships.

    For us that meant sitting separately in most milongas and using the cabeceo to make those connections. We had to ‘earn our stripes’, by being patient, gaining a few dances at first, returning to the same milongas each week, and we found that we both looked forward to meeting regular and new partners on the dance floor. Of course, we’d dance with each other, too. We’re also aware that local couples attend the same milongas but sit separately. Sometimes one of us would have a ‘good’ night while the other had a ‘quiet’ one; but boredom was never an issue as the music, the dancers, and the social phenomenon that a BsAs traditional milonga is, never fails to fascinate. Then there’s the delight afterwards over dinner at a restaurant, sharing our experiences.

    In Adelaide, there are couples and singles, locals and visitors, and the cabeceo is used a lot; at our milonga, where it predominates, ‘rescuing’ ladies is rarely an issue. Maybe there’s a connection there.

  15. I find it interesting that a night of social tango dancing is called a milonga in so many countries. The musical sets are referred to as tandas. The dance floor codes of the milonga are followed. And yet the custom of a man inviting a woman to dance with a head movement isn't accepted. It's THE way in the milongas of BA. Foreigners want to choose the parts of tango they like, and throw the rest away.

    I was a victim of a partner poacher on Saturday night at Juan Lencina's milonga in La Nacional. There was a very light attendance on the third night. A friend invited me for the Di Sarli tanda. A woman in the front row looked around and assumed he was approaching her, though he didn't invite her and never made eye contact with her while crossing the floor. I didn't have a chance to enter the floor from the second row. Later when we danced, he confirmed that he had invited me for the Di Sarli tanda.


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