I have reflected on the experience as a whole and have received a lot of mail and commentary over the week. It has been fantastic to have the opportunity to share and voice my experience with friends and tango family worldwide. Thank you for that! And the following reflection is many layered as is tango!
I have come to the conclusion that the finals of the US Tango competition reflect the status of Argentine tango dancers in the US: confused.
We see this in our milongas: confused dancers. And why are they? Because of all the mixed ideas that are heard from teachers, these might be classified as styles. Teachers who tell you to share your axis, or to be on your own axis, to pivot, to not pivot, to lead with the chest, no with the legs! It’s amazing that we can even dance together in cities all over the world. So when dancers dance at milongas with all the varied understandings they have, how can it be expected that this idea of dancing in a salon or a Tango Salon competition be clear. I don’t think anyone in the US has ever really defined it for us.
There are many beautiful dancers in the US. Dancers who are musical, understand connection, have a clear walk, and good technique. There are dancers in the US who go yearly to Buenos Aires to train with other Tango Salon champions and more importantly with their teachers. Yet the US representation at the Mundial (the World Cup of Tango Salon in August in Buenos Aires) is small relative to the size and population of dancers in our country and the participation in the US is just as small. Why don’t the really good dancers compete?
The idea of a competition and the misunderstanding of the label tango salon has been a hindrance for the US. And I admit, I was skeptical, as those who have read my blog over the years know. But the truth is that the idea of Tango Salon as something separate from dancing socially is just not true and definitely misconstrued. Salon dancers do train by dancing socially at milongas. The idea is to dance to the music, in a comfortable embrace, socially. It is not about dancing off axis as a leader or a follower. It is about dancing in close proximity on your axis, showing an elegant walk, expressing the music through turns and dynamic changes of directions. It is about dancing! And when you begin to really focus on your dancing you just get better.
Through the competition, there is a fantastic opportunity sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture of Buenos Aires, to be acknowledged within the tango community at large as knowing and understanding Argentine Tango. It is amazing to me to learn that Argentines still don’t think that Americans can dance tango, that we can’t possibly understand it, because we are not Argentine! This reminds me of my Argentine, former soccer player father talking about how the Argentines / Latins feel the game of soccer and the team harmony and that the Americans focus on individual skills. In Buenos Aires you will find droves of dancers from Italy, Turkey, Colombia, Russia, Japan, China and Korea spending time, energy, and money training and dancing in Buenos Aires, participating every year in their own country competition as well as the Mundial in Buenos Aires demonstrating their understanding of the dance. Argentine Tango is being recognized not just as a dance for Argentines but a dance for many. Only 31 couples came to compete in SF this year. As I said, competition in the US is not widely accepted and it appears that there are few teachers making a case for it even if what they are teaching is just that, tango for salon.
The most unfortunate part of the US Argentine Tango Salon competition this year is that it resets a false understanding of what dancing in a salon is. If you have never judged a tango salon competition before or never participated in one, how can you judge objectively? The judges are a key factor for any progress, for the US to be seen as understanding the dance. The judges are responsible for giving a true representation of what kind of dancers are in the US. The goal should also be to have the chosen couple actually prepared for their participation in the Mundial (this is the prize for the first place Salon competitors from this competition, they are sent to Buenos Aires to compete in August). The level of dancing at the competition is so high not only from Argentines but from all those aforementioned countries. As an aside, the judging at the Mundial has been under fire for many years, so much so that many older milongueros told us that they choose not to be judges.
So what are those judges looking for? This is still a bit of a mystery to me but we are given the following rules: (the words in bold are not my own they were sent to us this way.)
- Once formed, the couple must not separate while the music is playing. This means that they will not break the embrace, which is considered the basic dance position in tango.
- For the position to be considered correct, the body of one of the members of the couple must be contained all the time by the arm of the other. It is understood that in certain figures, this may be flexible, but not throughout the duration of the dance. All movements must be made within the space allowed by the couple’s embrace.
- As is typical in a dancehall, couples must constantly move counterclockwise and may not stay in the same part of the choreographic space, as this would obstruct the circulation on the dance floor.
- Neither member of the couple may lift his or her legs above the knees.
- The jury will take into account the couple’s musicality and walking style as fundamental to the score.
- Within these parameters, the couple may perform any commonly used figures, including barridas (sweeps), sacadas al piso (drawn to the floor), enrosques (twists), etc.
- All other figures typical of Stage Tango such as ganchos (hooks), saltos (jumps) and trepadas (climbs) are completely forbidden.
Seems like there is lots of leeway and room for interpretation. It doesn’t say you must perform commonly used figures, just that you may. But it seems that there is an understanding among those who seriously train for the Salon Competitions that there are certain figures danced as an expression of the music. And not to mention that how you execute them will be different for an early Di Sarli versus a late Pugliese Orquesta, for example.
So it seems that we are left with a disconnect, a fissure, of sorts. The confusion lies within the dancers’ bodies and their understanding of how tango should be danced in the competition, the confusion lies with a lack of communication from the judges to the dancers as to what they are expecting to see, and finally, a lack of clarity from the organizers of the US Tango Salon competition, as to what their objective is in hosting this event? Is it to promote tango only? To improve the level of dancing in the US? Is it to Americanize tango salon?
On a final note, I saw beautiful dancing in the competition this weekend. It was a pleasure to share rondas with these dancers. Congratulations to the winners and we keep dancing!