Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cabeceo and its flip side, the power of the peripheral vision

Focusing our vision all the way across the dance halls, seeking an eye contact with the one and the only one we want to spend the proverbial quarter of an hour of a tanda ... I'm sure all of us remember the thrill of a successful cabeceo. The meeting of the eyes, the soft spark. We also remember the occasional misfires, those embarrassing moments when your supposedly laser-precise line of sight hits an unintended "target". Ouch!

But in this post I am going to concentrate on a different side of cabeceo: on our ability to see without focusing our vision. When I look around a milonga floor, checking who is around and who is up for what, it feels as if my vision stays purposefully slightly unfocused. Have you ever noticed that? Have you noticed that whenever your eyes meet, by chance, with the eyes of someone you don't intend to dance with, you end up slightly unfocusing and shifting your gaze with a very peculiar haste? The task there is not to see anything other than by using your peripheral vision. The direct look is strictly reserved for just one (but extremely important) target. Must not focus on anything else.
The whole world becomes a blur as the magic of the dance unfolds
"Mia en la Milonga" by Mauro Moreno
The feeling gets even stronger once I actually get on the dance floor, once we start moving in a ronda. There are so many people moving around, maybe approaching you too fast from behind, maybe taking a far too risky back step when they are in front of you, maybe shifting out of their lane to the side, or possibly spinning in a wild windmill of a spirited giro and who knows how tightly controlled it is. Dangerous feels, dangerous feet, dangerous speed, dangerous moments of the music, you gotta be watching it all (at least if you are a leader :). But wait, that's not all. A friend is sitting at a front row of tables, and your eyes meet, is it time for a smile and a silent promise of a conversation or a tanda soon? And who just walked through the door and stopped there momentarily, appraising the dance floor or looking for a place to sit? Oh, and look at this couple in the middle of the pista, fooling around as if nobody's watching? Wait, and what about this Mr. Celebrity dancing over there, with an unbelievably sour expression on his bored face - who is there with him, who's making him suffer? The point is, you can do a lot of people-watching at a milonga, and it may be really tempting to keep doing it as you dance.

Dave Donatiu with  Talyaa Liera
at their wedding reception/
cancer fundraising last month 
But is it even a good idea to focus on all the other people as you dance? I can't get one "attention / focus" tango class experience out of my head. It was many years ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. The instructor has been Dave Donatiu, then an itinerant tango psychologist, and his workshop topics were all crazy and enlightening at the same time. For the attention & focus class, one exercise was for the leaders or the followers to watch, intently, a dancer from another pair, as we tangoed around the room. Another one was to keep a conversation about something important you've done recently. You couldn't believe how much it ruined the quality of dance! It really helped me understand that intention and listening aren't some abstract tango metaphors. Fully focusing on your partner and yourself is so critically important!

Ideally, it means that one should be able to appraise the dangers, to navigate, and to keep my partner safe, with the peripheral vision alone, almost without shifting the focus. And if our eyes meet someone else's gaze, then we can let it slip out of focus right away... Indeed, I find it hard to observe who is doing what when I dissolve in the music and in the moment of dance. Take a look at Mauro Moreno's painting again. Do you see what I see? The world around blurs out of focus as the couple is overcome by togetherness and being in the moment.

On top of the fortress walls of Kumbalgarh, India
This complete, undivided attention thing, which is so intense that it makes the outside distractions disappear, always reminds me of a fable I read in a popular psychology book as a kid. It was about a Maharajah in India trying to fill a Grand Vizier vacancy at his court. The candidate's test was to circle the city, walking on top of its fortress walls, carrying a brimming full bowl of milk without spilling. All of them fail soon, except for one hopeful who keeps on walking. The Maharajah sends his soldiers to the walls to yell and to shoot in the air, but still the guy with the bowl of milk doesn't spill a drop. Afterwards, the ruler asks his new chief minister: "Have you seen the soldiers trying to scare you? Have you heard their shots?" - "No, my lord, I haven't seen anything, I was watching the milk".

More recently, I discovered that the fable originally came from a grownup book ... a book which can actually teach us a lot more about tango. "An Actor Prepares"is Konstantin Stanislavski's original intro into his "System" of acting, and it includes an amazing chapter on creative attention. There, Stanislavski's alter ego teacher introduces the concept of 3 circles of attention to his acting students. The smallest circle of focus / of attention is roughly equivalent to being alone in public, not seeing anything beyond the footprint of one's body. The medium circle, perhaps the size of a small room, allows us to pay attention to people and objects surrounding us, without losing the complete focus on what we are doing; but when the circle of attention increases even further, our attention escapes and drifts away, and only refocusing on something very small and very close by will restore your attentiveness. If my tango focus escapes into the Stanislavski's largest circle of attention, I often try to refocus my complete attention on a single flashpoint - on the tip of the heel of my partner's free leg. (And to me, tango has a lot in common with improvisational acting, where the music, the verse, and the emotion provide a loose blueprint to what will unravel through the expressive interaction of our physical bodies, and where we experience becoming other, imaginary people in the same way as the actor lives a role).

Keeping our focus on ourselves and our dance, and devoting just enough peripheral vision to the surroundings without spreading our creative attention thin, is about more than just navigating the floor and being aware of the physical objects around us. I also try hard to keep all the social disappointments and slights, all the unfriendly gossip and caustic remarks, outside of my circle of attention, where they barely register in my peripheral vision. The cabeceo power of laser-sharp focusing on a point can make all the bad stuff fade from out of focus!


  1. I think it's a good lifehack to teach dancefloor monitoring to leaders, as well as reckless listening to followers, by telling them to unfocus. Peripheral vision is used in speed reading (navigation!), and I often find myself NOT watching a person when I try to find out if they are sincere (bodily awareness).

  2. ... "tip of the heel of my partner's free leg." Interesting choice. Practical on many levels. I find that maintaining focus is one of the primary challenges, but when achieved leads to profound experience.

  3. Too dance tango is to know your inner dancer.