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Here's Looking at You, Kid

I never used to have any trouble with cabeceos, and didn't understand women who did. I assumed they lacked self-empowerment. What was the big deal? You hunt, you are hunted, two hunting parties come to a mutually agreeable attack, you stand up, you bite into each other's innards. Child's play.

Until you've got something to lose.

Tangoland's dialect is more naked than the languages of many other cultures. Our bodies admit more in one night than many people's do in the course of a lifetime. But even tangueros need a refuge. If we can't hide our eyes, what do we have left to put between ourselves and potential evisceration?

I always say that tango is confession. I see now that it starts with the scariest confession of all: the unsought confession. You only get to dance after you've already risked your self. Anything you might say during the dance is, hopefully, accepted. But before, you look, and you run the risk of getting a friendly, slightly embarrassed, deliberate look away that says, “sure, you're nice enough, but I don't want to dance with you and the more you look the less I'll ask.” And I don't care about all that “the men have to do the asking,” stuff. It's true I never ask men to dance. But more than half of my tandas come about because I decide, “I think I'll dance with that one,” and then I give him the opportunity to ask me. Men and women do equal amounts of cabeceoing (but the women's cabeceo looks like a wandering gaze, a blank stare, or perhaps a vague wonder about the contents of a water cooler just behind your head). Therefore everybody has the same possibility for painful rejection. Fortunately we've all had it happen to us, so we can commiserate with our friends.

Dancing confessions go to preselected welcoming audiences. But with the cabeceo, there's no guarantee of reciprocity. And cabeceos being as delicate of a language as they are, it can be hard to tell the difference between someone cabeceoing and someone who just isn't asleep at the moment. They have their eyes open? That could be a million different things, only one of which is “a cabeceo.” And as far as dispensing one (or the blank stare that makes it possible) goes, well, it depends on how much is at stake. Walking on a tightrope one inch above the ground is different from walking on one fifty feet above the ground, although they should look exactly the same.

I was standing near the crossfire of a particularly beautiful one at el V one evening. “Man, those two are absolutely sleeping together,” I thought. I was just a bystander but in that one look, oy, I saw fights, smouldering passion, history, and any number of scorched bedsheets. The dance told the same story. After seeing that look I knew that mere words can never hope to have the linguistic range of expression that cabeceos do and that's why we use them. They spell out nuances that are hopelessly out of the reach of words.

But then, so do the nuances of not looking. As long as we don't look, we're in control. We're choosing not to open ourselves up to potential hurt. “If I don't look at you, you can't hurt me by not looking at me.” We shoot ourselves in the feet in order to avoid the possibility of someone else shooting us in the heart. But what if they weren't planning on shooting us at all? What if they wanted to give us a foot massage? Kind of difficult once your feet are a bloody mess.

It's easy to say, “be brave and have faith in your fellow man.” It's hard to actually do it. But, fellow tangueros, let's try. Let's hope for the best. People can surprise, people can shock you, in such wonderful ways, if only you let them.

It's time to open our eyes.