The following two incidents both occurred this weekend and have had me thinking about the role of etiquette within our dance. I usually dislike pieces that are based purely on anecdotes, but in social dance communities they are often all we have.
I am standing next to my friend K at the edge of the dance floor of a very crowded milonga. I watch two gentlemen attempt to cabeceo her from further along the dance floor, but both step away as she continues to focus out towards the stragglers exiting the floor during the cortina. Then a third leader walks directly alongside her and also tries to catch her eye. She turns her head slightly away from him. He takes a step forward to re-enter her field of view and nods toward the floor again. The cortina keeps playing and she continues to avoid eye contact with him. He takes yet another step to move in front of her, adding a sweeping arm gesture towards the floor and a movement of the head that is about as aggressive as a sideways head nod can get without severing the spinal cord.
As the cortina ends, I quickly glance glance toward K and make a small gesture toward the floor. She responds with several small but urgent nods, takes my arm, and steps toward the floor breathing a sigh of relief that I can only compare to that of someone avoiding an altercation with a belligerent drunk at the bar.
I have just stepped off the floor after a series of tandas. I walk off the floor to my seat, avoiding eye contact as I make my way back to the booth where my friends and I are seated. Once there, I resume conversation with my friend C, turning my back towards the dance floor and the other dancers. A follower steps into my peripheral view, I glance over then turn my head away to continue my conversation with my friend. The tanda is Pugliese, which I usually avoid dancing with strangers for safety reasons. The same follower moves to position herself to standing a few feet behind my friend. I turn my head slightly the other way and continue the conversation. The follower then kneels down next to the booth, resting her head on her hands and continuing to stare at me. I begin speaking more animatedly, keeping my focus entirely on my friend's face. The follower then taps my friend on the shoulder, interrupting our conversation to ask my friend if she can ask me to dance. My friend responds, "You'll have to ask him." I agree, but only after the song ends. I finish the tanda with no enthusiasm, escort her back off the floor, say a brief "Thank you", and walk straight back to my seat without a second glance.
There is an enormous number of dance articles on how to say "no" gracefully to a dance (or whether you should ever refuse a dance). Many of them offer suggestions like telling someone that you're resting your feet, you're trying to catch up with a friend, or that you don't like the song currently playing. Many of these same articles will then suggest that you say you'd love to catch a dance later in the evening.
All of these things could be true. You may be speaking to a favorite partner, but the music or a particularly good conversation is keeping you from the floor. You could be speaking to someone you genuinely don't want to dance with but now have to offer a disingenuous explanation to because it's much harder to reject someone who is already speaking to you.
I have always loved that the codigo surrounding the cabeceo/mirada avoids these sort of half-truths. The shortest way I can describe this importance is that it allows both parties off the hook: Followers don't have to be asked to dance by men they don't want to dance with and leaders don't have to walk halfway across the ballroom to find out they don't want to be danced with.
These rejections of cabeceo may not have been personal to being with. Many people, myself included, do not want to agree to dance until they know what music is playing and so do not accept dances during the cortina. I dislike dancing with strangers to milonga or dramatic arrangements of music, as the demands of the music make it difficult to have a safe, enjoyable dance. Perhaps they want to want to rest, grab a drink, or have a conversation.
The main point is that no one is obligated to dance with anyone else, nor are we obligated to give any explanation why. The codigo should prevent any such conversation and attendant explanations from being necessary.
When these dancers refused to adhere to the etiquette of our dance, they expressed that their desires for a dance were more important than our desires not to dance, whatever our reasons may be. It didn't start as a personal rejection, but it certainly became one the more insistent they became.