Portland Tangofest starts in a few days, and the the topic of whether or not one should cabeceo (inviting with a glance/head gesture, from some distance away) has reared its ugly head again.
Traditionally, cabeceo gave women a chance to have some power in the decision-making process of who danced with whom. If she didn't want to dance with someone, she could either avoid eye contact, or look at them, but not agree to dance. Because women traditionally didn't invite men to dance, looking available or not-available provided a measure of control over dancing with certain people.
For those of us who did most of our tango learning in Buenos Aires, cabeceo is what feels comfortable. I prefer cabeceo because, if I am having a conversation with another person, it signals to potential partners that I am busy at the moment. If I want to dance, I am looking around. Putting my cultural anthropologist hat on, I think you should follow the cultural rules that go along with traditional dances; or at least know what those rules are.
Cabeceo doesn't work as well in situations in North America because only some people have been trained how to do it; and others don't like the fact that the person being asked might indicate "no" and so use direct invitation to coerce those of us who tend to be too nice to say "no" when standing a foot away from someone. Also, if two women or two men are doing the inviting, the traditional roles don't necessarily fit. As a woman who leads, I have found it almost impossible to cabeceo women, unless they have spent some time in Buenos Aires. Also, many North American men are not comfortable maintaining eye contact long enough to actually ask someone to dance via cabeceo.
This makes for a very confused muddle at a festival. People from different towns have different conventions (traditional Argentine and very non-Argentine), which is even harder to figure out than usual.
Here is what I do at festivals. I stick to cabeceo with folks who know my preference. For people who walk up and invite me, I usually say yes, but then ask them to cabeceo me in the future. However, if I see a man or woman looking at me hopefully, but then looking away/down/etc. I may approach them and ask if they would like to dance. I will especially do this if they don't look familiar. Folks who are new often have not been taught how to cabeceo.
I'll be hosting the Friday afternoon milonga at Tangofest. In that situation, not only will I ask folks to dance; I will also drag people over and introduce them to new people. I see my role as hostess as a connector, helping cabeceo-impaired dancers to find happiness on the dance floor :-) I will see you there!
And tell me how you navigate Argentine custom and North American practices on the dance floor!