Improvisation versus Competition – is there a winner?

There seems to be an interesting trend currently within the Tango community to become a parody of the Ballroom community, which ironically, is the very thing that so many Argentine Tango Dancers used to dislike.

Why do I say this? Well, when I started dancing Argentine Tango some 15 years ago, the Ballroom world was viewed with some disdain by many people within the Argentine Tango community and I heard frequent comments from people at that time, describing Ballroom as false and cheesy, with the dancers being seen as somehow inadequate because they danced choreography and had a strange, stiff hold.

At that time, there was a big difference between the Ballroom world and the Argentine Tango community. The Ballroom dancers were beautiful, glamorous and hard working couples who strove for perfection, producing beautiful choreographies, seen frequently in competitions. You can see an example of this at the Blackpool Open filmed earlier this year. If you watch through to the end, you will see the eventual winners Michael Malitowski & Joanna Leunis performing their final dance, as they retired after their 8th consecutive Blackpool Open title.

In contrast, to my eyes, many of the professional Argentine Tango dancers at that time, seemed to be raw and had no sense of style or presentation. These Professional dancers would wear the same costume throughout their demonstration, that is if they bothered to change their outfit at all from the one they turned up in. With a Ballroom demo, the dancers tended to change costume for every one of their 4 or 5 dances, not to demonstrate how many costumes they had, but because they realised that the costuming was a big part of the presentation.

It seemed to me however, that this rawness of the Tango, was the very thing that set the Argentine Tango apart from the Ballroom community. As much as I loved the Ballroom community for it’s glamour and beauty, I also loved the Tango community for it’s reality and unpredictability.

Today however, the very thing I love about Argentine Tango, it’s improvisation and freedom seems to be being worn away and I’m worried that the authentic Argentine Tango is in danger of losing it’s very essence, the freedom that makes it so beautiful.

Why do I say this? Well, think about it. One of the main things that the Tango community hated about the Ballroom people was their obsession with competitions. To have a number stuck on your back and be judged by a panel of judges was laughed at by most people. Yet now we have a yearly London competition which acts as a springboard for the annual competition held in Buenos Aires. Whilst I appreciate that only one part of the competition is choreographic, there is something strange about the way that the Tango world is trying to copy Ballroom competition.

Another thing that the Tango community disliked were the movements that were danced and taught by Ballroom dancers – how they all looked the same. There is a type of Ballroom dancing called Sequence dancing whereby all the couples on the floor dance the same steps at the same time to the same piece of music.  There are currently a number of student shows being performed by Tango Schools where the students are basically doing sequence dancing. Again, it seems the community is trying to parody the Ballroom world.

Of course I appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into creating a choreographed performance and I’m not trying to take anything away from the students that have been practicing hard at their routines. Doing a team event like this can be fun and rewarding. What I am saying however, is that the very thing that made the Tango community so beautiful, its freedom of improvisation, is being eroded.

Whilst I understand peoples love of competing, I would just offer a word of caution. If you look back at archive footage from the Ballroom period, you will see how the dance developed because of the competition. The style went from a more natural hold to the more formal, exaggerated, stylistic hold we have today because of the obsession of being bigger, more beautiful and ultimately better. Have a look at this short piece of archive footage here which demonstrates the progression of the hold with past champions of Blackpool:

It could be said that this is already happening in the Tango world as well, with more and more dancers encouraged by professionals, adopting stylistic, unnatural holds, which have more to do with the Tango hold of the Ballroom world than the natural embrace with which Tango started. It could be argued that this is what competition encourages, do we want the social Tango to go down the route of competitive Ballroom?

Ultimately, whether you like it or not, competition is driven by ego, to have the satisfaction of being able to think that you are the best. But be careful, you may be the best on that day in front of that one panel of judges who all have their personal preferences but that’s about it. If you enjoy the element of competing and performing then do it – I know I enjoyed my time competing in Ballroom. It was fun and gave me something to work towards. If you want to perform, then enjoy that experience too, but can we keep it real so that we don’t become a community of sequence dancers?

Having watched the recent Championships in Buenos Aires, I have to admit I was slightly surprised at the Final. I was expecting to see a group of 6 or 7 couples, (as in Ballroom), dancing for the judges. Instead what I saw was approx 40 couples dancing in heats. I was even more surprised when they announced the winning couples from this huge crowd of dancers. The following evening I watched the final of the Stage category. As you would expect, the routines were choreographed so each couple had to dance individually but it did at least feel more like a final as you could focus on the individual couples skill. The conclusion I came to, was that there was more importance placed on a choreographed show than on the skill of the improvisation. It was almost like the Salon category was being brushed aside in order that it’s more important cousin, ‘the stage’ could shine. Don’t forget that many professional Teachers of Tango took part in the Salon category as well and they work just as hard as their professional counterparts in the Stage category.

I think it’s this that disturbs me the most, the idolisation of choreography, that it is somehow better. It’s not better. To me, improvisational dancing and stage dancing have different skill sets but are equally challenging. One does not deserve to be rated above the other.

I guess my message is really, “don’t lose sight of the real improvised Argentine Tango”. The dance is fluent and beautiful. It strives to be the ultimate expression of 2 peoples connection. Enjoy the competitions, enjoy the performances, but don’t lose the improvised beauty of the social art form of Argentine Tango.

About Tracey Tyack-King

I'm a professional Teacher and Dancer of the improvised art form of the social Argentine Tango. Together with my partner, Leonardo Acosta, (Leo Fandango), we teach regular weekly classes under the name of Tango Fandango, mainly in the South of the UK. We also teach our own Teachers using our defined teaching methodology under the name of 'The London Argentine Tango School'. We believe passionately in the social art form of improvised Tango and dance as we teach - all our performances are improvised.
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2 Responses to Improvisation versus Competition – is there a winner?

  1. mamborambo says:

    Tango started as a dance of the amateurs, but nowadays it is increasingly a dance of professional amateurs. A mass of people expending lots of energy and without a clear direction inevitably creates its own false idols — since people seek outside validation of themselves — and drifts down the path towards competitions and clones. It happens in sports, arts, even cooking. To break this hivemind, the tango world needs some role-models which deviate from the current norm.


    • You make an interesting point – it sometimes feels that as there are no rules or guidelines for the Tango,the direction of the dance is dictated by those who shout the loudest and not necessarily those who are best suited for the role.


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