Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Coping Strategies for the Cabeceo-Challenged Gringo in Buenos Aires

"I don't have my glasses - is that a lady or a dude that I'm cabeceoing?" - Man Yung

Man Yung at a milonga is like a kid in a candy store. He tries to act all cool and stuff when I tease him about it but in reality for Man Yung, not even the Communist Party is close to being as fun as a Tango Party.

All that uncontrollable enthusiasm and a good dose of near-sightedness makes Man Yung "Tango a Go-Go" with an extra bit of "Geeky" on the side. Forget about being one of the level-headed, suave "Gringo Milongueros" lounging elegantly at the bar, dry martini in hand, dressed in their sharpest tweed suits and scanning the room with a cool, discerning, expert eye for the best followers on the dance floor. Man Yung wants to dance with every single follower at every possible moment using the greatest number of steps possible! And how about that pesky partner he drags around with him to every milonga?* Man Yung is the poster-child for the "Cabeceo-Challenged".

Sad to say, even though Man Yung’s tried-and-true technique of “Running up to every woman in sight in order to ask her to dance” may often work to get him dances in the local gringo tango community, the Portenas of Buenos Aires may not be so forgiving of such blatant violations of Codigo.

So what is Man Yung to do when he is at a Buenos Aires milonga? Is he forever doomed to dancing three tandas with Irene and then sitting out the rest of the evening because he has completely tired Irene out with all the turn, voleo and gancho combinations known to tanguero-kind?

Not at all. In fact, total tango geeks like Man Yung can still get to dance with the Portenas (or even Milongueras) of Buenos Aires! How does he do it? We humbly refer you to:

Irene and Man Yung’s Coping Strategies
for the Cabeceo-Challenged Gringo


1. The Gringo must take advantage of his advantage

Any Gringo that walks into a Buenos Aires milonga has a distinct advantage over the regulars. Believe it or not, the Portenas are not automatically disgusted by presence of the said Gringo - conversely, they are automatically intrigued. Said Portenas have danced with all the regulars for years and years and no matter how great asado is, sometimes they want a little chinese take-out (or whatever foreign cuisine may take their fancy). All eyes will be on the Gringo for at least the first 30 seconds.

You've got their attention - you should take advantage of it! Do not confirm the typical gringo stereotype of being loud and pushy by being rude to the waiter. Do not shove people to one side to get to your seat and start picking at your stinky bare feet on the nearby chair. Do not dress like you have just dragged yourself out of bed and you can't find any clean shirts and pants so you put on any ratty, sweat-stained old thing. Do not wear cologne that smells like eau de foxes' ass or worse, exude the natural aroma of dirty moldy dishtowel.

Smile and be friendly! Smell lovely and look presentable! You want to attract and not repulse the inquisitive Portena/Milonguera. First impressions count - make that a double for the Gringo.

2. You may not be able to see more than five feet in front of you, but there's no need to strike an iceberg and sink like the Titanic

Man Yung looks like he is bright and alert but he is actually blind as a bat without his glasses. He is so eager to dance that he isn't going to waste time by putting his glasses on and them taking them off after every tanda (besides he will probably lose them).

It will be futile for him to try and cabeceo the ladies on the other side of the dance floor when he can't even distinguish between man, woman, animal, vegetable or mineral at that distance. So what does he do? Man Yung cabeceo's the ladies sitting nearby within sight range, preferably the ones seated only a few seats away. He is never choosy. He operates on the principal that all ladies are lovely (and indeed they are), there can be no duds and besides, any dance is an opportunity for other Portenas to observe and hopefully approve of him.

I must admit, sometimes it's not possible to cabeceo the closest Portena due to the seating arrangements. At some of the barrio milongas like Glorias Argentinas and La Baldosa/El Pial where people are seated in couples and groups and singles all in a big mish-mash, the lovely ladies are often within Man Yung's reach. But what happens if he runs out of nearby ladies and has to target the ladies a little further out? And what about places like Maipu 444, Leonesa and El Beso where the single ladies are seated on the opposite side of the room? Man Yung has to try something a little different.

If Man Yung has already danced with a nearby Portena, and if he has made a good first impression (see #1 above), Man Yung will already have a little "dance credit" which makes the next step a little easier. In any case and whether or not he has already danced, Man Yung will have to find some excuse to take a walk to where the other Portenas may be seated - you know, just stride nonchalantly past the ladies' section on his way to the washroom, the bar, etc. While zipping past within sight range, Man Yung will carefully observe who is looking at him. Anyone looking with anything more than just a casual glance will be potentially agreeable for the next dance with an 80% certainty.

When Man Yung comes back from the bar or washroom (and washing his hands with soap and water before returning to the milonga is of utmost importance - you'd be surprised at the number of men who don't!) he waits for the beginning of the next tanda. As the first notes of the next tanda plays, Man Yung will cross the floor while staring intently at the most encouraging candidate. When he gets to the point where he could actually see her, it's a score if she returns his gaze - if she is looking away he better surreptitiously (the key is "surreptitiously") move on to his next choice or, if that is not possible, he will have to change his course and discreetly walk to the bar/washroom again.

What Man Yung should not do is what he did last weekend at a local milonga - walk confidently towards one lady, stand in front of her, discover she was uninterested and deliberately looking away, and then immediately turn to her friend seated next to her. How uncool is that! Of course he was rejected. "No-one wants to be the consolation prize," I sternly reminded him. In fact, one gentleman did this to me at Toronto's now defunct Milonga Sentimental and I gave him such a resounding "No!" that we have not exchanged a single word since.

3. Dance, and do not manhandle.

All Portenas would love to dance with the best of the best at all times but they know that will only happen in Tango Heaven. In making do with lowly Tango Hell, the Portena understands that leaders come in all sizes and shapes and levels of dance competence.

Therefore, even if you are not totally confident in your dance abilities, please do not hesitate to cabeceo the Portenas. They can be surprisingly forgiving of a leader's faults - so long he is still "Dancing".

By "Dancing", this means that dancing with, and not dancing at, to, or against the Portena. Within the first 15 seconds of the embrace, you know every thing you need to know about your partner. You know if she can follow some complex things, or whether she can just walk. You know whether she wants to dance simply or go for plenty of figures. It's not rocket science, and it's never wrong to play it safe and err on the side of simplicity.

What you don't want to do fling your partner about in some bizarre tango fantasy with splits and aerial acrobatics. You may also want to avoid aspiring to be "Head Bumper Car" in the quest to bump all other couples aside to make more space for your exhibitions. It is also inadvisable to make yourself as stiff as a board or as hard as a vice in trying to contain or control a partner that does not follow perfectly, or who is perhaps moving by herself in a frenzy of steps and adornments.**

Whether you encounter small stumbles or whether something goes terribly wrong, accept it with good grace and good humour. Don't throw a tantrum or look like you are in pain. Be a gentleman and not a dictator. Aim for a smile on your partner's face, not a grimace. The Portenas looking on will note your dancing - but what will be even more important is your gracious attitude. And they will tell their friends.

4. Treat your significant other as an asset, not a handicap.

It's not set in stone that couples will not get invited to dance in the milongas of Buenos Aires unless they split up, sit in different areas and pretend not to know each other.

If you are so lucky to have a partner, don't divorce her when you are paying the entrada, use her to get more "dance credit"! Dance with her to show off your skills and treat her like a queen. And, as in #3 above, do not manhandle. Portenas will judge you by your treatment of your partner - the nicer you are to her, the nicer you are likely to be with others. Gain enough "dance credit" - and the cabeceo stares will still come your way.

The above will obviously not work if your significant other is a total bitch. If she is visibly unfriendly, if she is staring daggers at every woman in the vicinity, or if she is throwing a jealous fit, Portenas will stay away from you like the plague. The last thing they want is to get into a catfight on the dance floor over a Gringo (Breaking News: You are not worth it).

5. Even if you are not irresistible, it doesn't mean that you can't make the prospect of dancing with you irresistible.

Know your music. If something particularly lovely and charming starts playing - a delicious Di Sarli, a moody passionate Malerba, a romantic vals - see who didn't get asked to dance.

Chances are that many of the Portenas left out of the first round will be more receptive to a request from you! They'll be likely to dance if you haven't horrified them with your behavior to date. Don't disappoint them (see #3 above). They're doing this because they can't resist the music and not because you are some Hot Shot Tango gift from God.

Please note: Don't do as Man Yung does. He'll dance the nice music with Irene and then leave all the milongas and all the tandas of muddy, aimless middle-of-the-road music for everyone else.*** Yes, Man Yung loves Irene - but this is not the way to get dances from Portenas.

6. The Portenos would like a bit of your attention too (Especially in the Barrio milongas).

All this staring at Portenas may mean that you are neglecting the Portenos - don't forget that they need attention too! After all, they may have escorted some of the Portenas to the milonga, and the Portenas you want to dance with may be their wives and friends. It is a winning strategy to be on their good side.

Have some manners. Be receptive and friendly. Look at the Portenos in the eyes when they look like they want to nod hello or speak to you. Smile and nod back, even if you can't speak or understand Spanish and the Portenos are going on and on about something mysterious. So long you are pleasant and agreeable the Portenos don't mind if you don't understand a single word and you don't have Irene to translate (happens to Man Yung all the time).

Enjoy and admire their tango! Or better yet: enjoy and admire their rock n' roll and their cumbia. Don't frown and roll your eyes when the Portenos steal all the Portenas or when they flood on the floor in tanda after tanda of "tropical music". Appreciate it! Smile, make eye contact, give the "thumbs up" or call out "Esa!" or "Lindo!" for particularly nice moves on the dance floor. But don't over do it. Be honest and sincere - because Portenos can see through any fakery.

If you are intent on being a rude, snobby "I'm better than everyone" a*hole with a sour expression on your face, don't blame us if you get the "Evil Eye".

However, if you make enough of an impression that you are a good guy, the Portenos will welcome you with open arms and introduce you to their friends. In fact, you and your significant other may even get stopped by friendly Portenos on the dance floor - I don't know how many times Man Yung has switched me with some Porteno's partner right in the middle of the tanda upon the said Porteno's request. In addition to a dance or two, you may even get an invitation to someone's house for asado.

7. If your heart belongs to Buenos Aires, do make sure you go back - often.

A Gringo with his regular gringo life may not be able to spend 365 days of the year in Buenos Aires - but being there two weeks out of fifty-two does not automatically mean that you can't be a "regular" at your favourite milongas.

Make your time at each milonga significant. Remember the faces of the people you meet, note down their names. Send them christmas cards and emails if you get to know them better. Go back whenever you can (whether on the same trip or on future trips) - and be surprised at the number of people who will remember and recognize you and embrace you with fondness.****

Conclusion: Be respectful of the Buenos Aires milonga, be friendly, honest and sincere to all the inhabitants therein- give out positive vibes. Lay down the appropriate groundwork, and it wouldn't matter how Cabeceo-Challenged or otherwise defective you are in complying with the Codigos. You will not only get dances, you will also discover life-long friends.




* Her name happens to be Irene.

** At Glorias Argentinas one night, Man Yung was stuck dancing with precisely this kind of Portena, namely, an ancient follower who will did every kind of wriggle, toe tap, kick, step, knee lift and leg flap in the world to her own delight far far away from "Realm of Following". Man Yung was too much of a gentleman to spoil her fun and she had such a blast. All the locals (except the organizer) had stopped dancing with this poor lady but did they think less of Man Yung for dancing with her? No. In fact, they were pleased that he treated her so well and was so good-humoured about it. It was one of the rites of passage at this milonga to dance with this strange old bird and after this, Man Yung was treated like one of the locals!

*** Don't think that the ladies won't notice. Our Toronto Milonguera friend always complains to Man Yung, "What's your problem? You only ask me to dance to music that Irene doesn't like!"

**** As one Porteno remarked to us upon seeing us again this year at a milonga: "Where have you been? It's about the time of the year that I knew you two would show up. In fact, we have been waiting for you to arrive since last weekend!"

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Alberto Dassieu

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