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Reclaiming Competitive Tango: The Rise of Argentina’s Campeonato Mundial

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores Argentina’s Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango (World Tango Dance Championships) in the context of tango’s history in the English-designed ballroom dance competitions that have defined tango’s international image since the “tango-mania” of the early twentieth century. Use of the Mundial by the Argentine government to advance commercial and national branding agendas is examined in conjunction with the Mundial’s use by dancers to launch careers and expand acceptance of same-sex dancing. It is argued that Argentines are redefining tango competition on their own terms in ways that both reclaim the dance from foreigners and simultaneously reproduce some of the same aesthetic shifts that were effected through tango’s inclusion in ballroom dance competitions, resulting in a whiter, more homogenous, and externally focused expression.

Keywords: tango, Argentina, Mundial, ballroom dance, same-sex, competition

Since tango-mania first gripped Europe and North America in 1912, Argentine national identity has been hostage to the tango. Born in the slums and conventillos (immigrant tenement houses) of Buenos Aires, tango was scorned by Argentina’s elite until international obsession with a dance they considered the purview of ruffians, pimps, and whores turned into Argentina’s global calling card. The scandal of tango’s choreography, which featured African-inspired cortes (cuts) and quebradas (breaks) in the flow of movement that sent hips swinging and thighs brushing while the dancing couple clung together in full body contact, was as distasteful to “respectable” Argentines as it was titillating to the European and North American public. The global tango craze, however, brought the relatively obscure nation of Argentina such international attention that national pride soon trumped class rivalry and racial bias. Indignation that such a low-class practice of Afro-Argentine origins had come to define the nation in the global imaginary soon gave way to attempts by Argentine elites to control that image by developing a more “refined” style of dancing tango that departed both from tango in the arrabales (working-class neighborhoods) of Buenos Aires and from the misappropriations of foreigners (Savigliano 1995). Although tango’s association with its African origins had already faded, in part due to the surge of European immigration that reduced Argentina’s black population to less than 2% by 1900 (Chasteen 2004), tango crossed class lines to become national culture due to its exoticization abroad. Tango continued to develop and flourish in Argentina, becoming the country’s most popular music and dance during tango’s golden age (1935–1955). Concurrently, foreign appropriations of (p. 306) tango were thriving, especially the English style of tango, performed in ballroom dance competitions across Europe.

The parallel trajectories of these tangos did not intersect again until the unexpected success of a 1983 Paris debut and a 1985 Broadway run of the show Tango Argentino ignited the twentieth century’s second tango craze. The stark contrast of the Argentine style performed in the show to the ballroom tangos familiar to European and North American audiences proved to be a stimulus for the emergence of an international Argentine tango industry as well as a marketing hurdle for those forging a living through it. Teachers of the Argentine style were faced with the challenge of distinguishing their tango from ballroom versions. One of the primary points of distinction they maintained was that as an improvisational personal expression, Argentine tango could not be judged in competition. Given the extent to which competitions shaped the development of ballroom tango styles, it is not surprising that most Argentine tango dancers were dismissive and even disparaging about tango as competition. Competitions had produced ballroom tango, which many Argentines viewed as a grotesque caricature of their cultural heritage. Despite the disdain many tango dancers maintained for competitions, in 2003 the city of Buenos Aires began sponsoring an annual international tango competition, billed as the Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango (World Tango Dance Championships). This event, commonly referred to as the Mundial (World Cup), has been steadily growing in size and global status ever since, effecting significant changes in the aesthetic values, social practice, and business of Argentine tango. In 2016, I attended the Mundial in Buenos Aires and its subsidiary in San Francisco, the Argentine Tango USA Championships, in an effort to understand why Argentine tango dancers, who had disparaged competition for so long, are now entering this competition in record numbers. Based on fieldwork, interviews, media representations, and my own experience as a longtime dancer of Argentine and ballroom tango, I argue that Argentines are redefining tango competition on their own terms in ways that reclaim the dance from foreigners, while simultaneously reproducing some of the troubling consequences the competition frame has effected on ballroom tango. I invoke comparison of two broad tango traditions: that which evolved primarily inside Argentina, and that which developed outside of Argentina in ballroom dance settings. On the ballroom side, I examine English-style tango, also called international style, which, although danced in both social and competition settings, is so strongly shaped by its competition history that I address it almost exclusively as a competition form. In contrast, a vibrant social practice of Argentine tango has been maintained through the tradition of the milongas (public tango dances). Social Argentine tango differs markedly from the stage form, tango escenario, popularized through the aforementioned show Tango Argentino, although both social and stage Argentine tango share more in common with each other than with ballroom forms. Competitive Argentine tango has recently entered into this web of tango styles, resulting in emergence of yet another Argentine tango substyle, sometimes referred to as Mundial or campeonato style.

(p. 307) English-Style Competitive Ballroom Dancing Reshapes Tango

Compared side by side, major aesthetic differences between Argentine and ballroom tangos are unmistakable. Whereas Argentine tango dancers begin with their feet a few inches apart and lean forward to rest their hearts and cheeks together, international-style ballroom tango dancers maintain connection at their legs and hips while extending their chests and heads away from one another. In simplified terms, Argentine style tango dancers form an “A” shape when their two bodies meet, and ballroom tango dancers create a “V.” Other discrepancies stem from these postural features. For example, in Argentine tango, dancers keep their heads and chests still while their legs and feet engage in playful hooks, wraps, and displacements. Ballroom tango dancers, on the other hand, move their legs in harmony so that dramatic effect is created through whipping actions of the head and upper spine. This contrast can, in part, be traced back to cultural mistranslation on tango’s first transatlantic journey, when Europeans interpreted tango’s passion as anger, failing to recognize that tango passion was more often produced through control and sublimation of desire invoked through sexual, class, and racial difference. Even more important than prudishness or displaced passion, however, ballroom dance competitions have determined ballroom tango’s aesthetic values.

Evidence of ballroom tango competitions can be traced back to tango’s infancy, when French dancer and impresario Camille de Rhynal modified tango to make it palatable for ballroom dancing, hosting a tango competition in Paris in 1907 (Richardson 1931). Rhynal’s sanitized tango soon entered the repertoire of English ballrooms, where it was standardized alongside the waltz, foxtrot, and one step at a series of conferences convened by The Dancing Times in the early 1920s. Prior to the “Tango Conference” of 1922, European interpretations of tango differed so radically that some complained, “Everyone did it differently, with a result that only those who learned it together could dance together” (quoted in Richardson 1981, 40). Standardization of the steps, rhythms, and techniques not only helped popularize social tango, but facilitated the growth of ballroom dance competitions, which became the main focus of English dance teachers as their unified focus solidified after the founding of the ballroom branch of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in 1924.

Through the mid-1930s, tango practiced in European ballrooms shared with its Argentine namesake an emphasis on smooth, “cat-like and sinuous” movement (Hallewell 1991, 176). However, the sensation of competitors Eddie Camp and Alida Pasqual in the British Amateur Championships at the 1935 Blackpool Festival revolutionized the English tango. Camp’s style was described by ballroom dancer Kit Hallewell as an “explosion of vigorous action from stillness.” He continued, “the body stillness was itself instinct with the expectation of the next action. He had this ability to rivet the spectator’s attention in this expectation, and when the action came the crowd (p. 308) rose to it” (quoted in Denniston 2008, 88). The juxtaposition of explosive action and controlled stillness was so visually exciting that competitors thereafter copied their approach.

The new staccato tango departed from the smooth style of both earlier ballroom interpretations and tango as practiced in Argentina. The success of the staccato tango was not based on its pleasurable physical sensations for dancers, but its power to capture the attention of spectators and judges. Camp’s contemporary Monsieur Pierre, a revered authority on Latin ballroom dances, explained in a 1936 article that he could not enjoy dancing the staccato tango. Its popularity, he insisted, was based entirely on its effectiveness as a theatrical trope. “I believe that if competitions and demonstrations were to suddenly stop, the staccato Tango would not last another week!” (quoted in Denniston 2008, 89). Since the 1930s, competitions have only become more central to the ballroom dance industry, and the staccato quality of ballroom tango remains its most salient feature.

Other characteristics of international tango similarly evolved in response to the competition frame, which impacted tango’s development in two ways. First, how the dance looked to judges took precedence over how the dance felt to its practitioners, drawing ballroom tango further away from its social functions based in courtship, community, and play. It is hard to imagine, for example, how head flicks commonly used in international tango steps such as the progressive link, contra check, and Spanish drag could have evolved in a social context given their potential for discomfort and even pain. I recall a day in 1995 when I woke up at 5 a.m. in excruciating pain, unable to turn my head, the day after I received a tango coaching session focused on these whiplash actions.1 Although I never really enjoyed dancing ballroom tango, it was a requirement to participate in competitions, which highlights how the grouping of tango, waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, and Viennese waltz into a single category of competition eroded differences in technique and vocabulary between dances that in their cultures of origin shared few aesthetic qualities. Many sequences, such as the fallaway reverse slip pivot, are used so commonly across the dances that some lament that the ballroom dances are indistinguishable from one another. The posture in tango differs from that of other ballroom dances only in the placement of the woman’s hand, which is suspended like a knife under her partner’s triceps, thumb hooked under his armpit (Figure 13.1). Otherwise, the extreme shape of the dancers’ upper spines, which spiral away from one another at a distance nearing two feet, is identical to that used in waltz, foxtrot, quickstep, and Viennese waltz. This shape is bewildering to many spectators, who imagine that, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they would not “enjoy it half as much as dancing cheek to cheek.”2 This posture makes sense, however, in the context of competitions, which reward dancers who dominate space.

Many people assume that since tango is, after all, a Latin American dance, that it would be included in the Latin category of ballroom competitions. However, the other Latin ballroom dances (rumba, samba, cha cha cha, and paso doble) were popularized and standardized much later and were thus included together with the American swing (renamed jive) in a new category of competition called “Latin and America,” later shortened to Latin (Richardson 1981). Due to this accident of timing, the tango remained in the “standard” category of ballroom competition (which, in another (p. 309) troubling naming convention, is the corollary to “Latin”), resulting in an English tango that shares more aesthetic values with the waltz, originating in Austria, than with the samba, a dance from Argentina’s Brazilian neighbor. The Imperial Society vigorously exported English-style competitive ballroom dancing across Europe and Asia, as well as to its colonies in Australia, North America, Africa, and India. After conquering such a large percentage of the world market, English-style ballroom dancing was renamed international style in the 1960s. By the time Argentine tango recaptured the global spotlight in the 1980s and 1990s, international-style ballroom tango was deeply entrenched in most social dance markets that Argentine tango dancers entered.

Reclaiming Competitive TangoThe Rise of Argentina’s Campeonato MundialClick to view larger

Figure 13.1. Evgeniy Mayorov and Olga Lisovskaya competing in international style tango at the 2015 United States DanceSport Championships.

Photo by Alexander Rowan.

The Mundial as Argentina’s National Brand

Following the military overthrow of Argentine populist president Juan Perón in 1955, the tango was suppressed by the new military dictatorship, which persecuted and (p. 310) imprisoned tango musicians, banned public gatherings, and promoted rock and roll music over the national tango that had been endorsed by Perón (Denniston 2008). Over the next thirty years, tango fell into near obscurity in Argentina, until the triumph of tango abroad once again inspired Argentines at home to reconsider its value. As Tango Argentino (and subsequent shows such as Forever Tango) stimulated the growth of Argentine tango in social dance communities throughout Europe and North America in the 1990s, demand for Argentine tango teachers rose. Economic opportunity, buoyed by a nationalist impulse to prevent another wave of tango misappropriation by foreigners, inspired many Argentines to travel abroad to work in the new Argentine tango industry. When the Argentine economic crisis of 2001 resulted in a devalued peso that transformed Argentina into a bargain basement travel destination, tango finally returned home. Cultivation of tango tourism became a key feature of government economic recovery strategies, resulting in the rapid growth of tango tourism, rising from 2.9 million to over 4 million visitors per year between 2000 and 2005 (Fitch 2015). The tourist demand for tango soon revived interest in tango among Argentines themselves, many of whom launched careers in the booming tango business.

The Campeonato Mundial de Tango of Buenos Aires is part of the two-week Tango Buenos Aires Festival y Mundial held at the end of August, which in 2016 featured over 150 concerts, performances, lectures, films, milongas, and classes, all free and open to the public. Dozens of music offerings included concerts by tango legends Walter Ríos Octeto, Horacio Salgan’s Quinteto Real, Color Tango, Sexteto Mayor, Diego Schissi Quinteto, Tanghetto, and a full-length production of Piazzolla’s tango-opera María de Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colón. Dance fans could choose from a large selection of tango stage shows and exhibitions, or could participate in workshops and social dancing. Despite the impressive lineup of 600 music and dance artists, including the greatest living legends of tango, each year the festival program showcases the dance championship as its main attraction. The festival culminates in the competition finals at Luna Park, a stadium capable of seating more than 8,000 spectators.

Not only is the competition free to watch, it is also free to enter and open to any dancer, with no differentiation by age or status as amateur or professional. The championship offers only two categories: tango de pista (dance floor tango) and tango escenario (stage tango). Tango de pista, which was called tango de salon until the category was renamed in 2013, ostensibly represents tango as it is danced socially in the milongas. Couples are permitted to do any figures in common social use, such as giros (turns), barridas (sweeps of the foot), sacadas (displacements of the legs), enrosques (corkscrew actions of the legs), and lápices (pencil-like drawings of the feet), as long as the couple never breaks their embrace or lifts both feet off the floor in jumps or lifts, which are explicitly prohibited. In tango escenario, each couple performs a choreographed duet to a song of their own choosing and can incorporate all the actions excluded from tango de pista, including ganchos (hooks), boleos (leg flicks), lifts, tricks, and steps that break the embrace.

The production values of the Tango Buenos Aires Festival (Tango BA) and the World Cup are exceptionally high. A fifty-six-page color program in Spanish and English (p. 311) detailing all festival event times, locations, and ticket procedures is widely distributed. In a city that does not even publish bus schedules, this level of centralized organization is astounding. Even more surprising, events start and end on time, which is remarkable in a culture where time is so flexible that arriving two hours late could still mean arriving early. Such punctuality is facilitated by staff members who are posted at every corner to guide and assist festival attendees. The grandeur and elegance of the festival’s main venue, the Usina del Arte, a recently refurbished electric plant boasting stages and foyers of flawlessly polished wood, is a sharp contrast to the dilapidated buildings that tango dancers usually inhabit, where missing floorboards and three-inch splinters regularly threaten injury. Professional camera crews project live editing of multi-camera shots onto large screens during most festival performances, enabling audiences to enjoy close-up views of dancers’ feet and violin players’ bowing techniques. Lighting designers create drama and spectacle with bursts of color, not only in the theaters, but even on the exterior of the Usina building, which is illuminated in pink lights flanking a floating hologram of the Tango BA logo.

The ubiquitous Tango BA logo and its similarity to the city’s BA tourism logo, which shares the same stylized “BA” letters, highlight the city’s motives for investing such extensive resources in the tango festival. It is a tourism-generating machine, organized around tango as national brand. Even though festival attendees do not pay for tickets, the city is banking that out-of-town guests will liberally spend on hotels, taxis, restaurants, tango lessons, tango shoes, and tango clothes, most of which generate substantial tax revenue for the government. The festival draws Argentines from provinces and cities outside the capital, but the performance of tango as a modern, central, and well-supported feature of the city’s cultural life is targeted to foreigners. The goal of promoting foreign tourism through the Mundial has been transparent since its creation. At the close of the first championship in 2003, the newspaper Pagina 12 triumphantly reported statistics on festival-induced tourism.

La magnitud que alcanzó el festival hizo que comenzara a ingresar a la agenda del turismo nacional e internacional. Un 42 por ciento de los visitantes extranjeros que asistieron a los conciertos y clases llegaron motivados exclusivamente por el evento. Estos turistas gastaron un promedio de 242 pesos por día y permanecerán en la ciudad un promedio de 17 noches. El 62 por ciento compró discos y el 47 por ciento zapatos de tango, según una encuesta que hizo el gobierno de la ciudad de Buenos Aires. (The magnitude of the festival means it will start to enter the national and international tourism agenda. Forty-two percent of the foreign visitors that attended concerts and classes came exclusively for the event. These tourists spent an average of 242 pesos a day and stayed in the city an average of 17 nights. Sixty-two percent bought CDs and 47 percent bought tango shoes, according to a survey by the city of Buenos Aires.)

(Micheletto 2003)

Tourist attendance at the Mundial has been steadily growing since, especially after it was merged with the city’s International Tango Festival and moved to August in 2008, (p. 312) just a year after right-leaning businessman Mauricio Macri became mayor. Prioritizing tourist access by rescheduling the event to coincide with European and North American summer travel seasons exemplifies Macri’s approach to tango as cultural commodity for export. Macri’s declaration that tango is the soja porteña (soybean of Buenos Aires) during the 2010 festival has been widely cited as evidence of his investment in tango as an exportable mass commodity, at the expense of its artistic growth in local communities (Gubner 2014; Luker 2016). The 2016 festival attracted record numbers of foreigners, even in the midst of a general tourism slump, accredited to inflation approaching 50% in the first half of 2016 under the economic policies of newly elected Argentine president Mauricio Macri.

In addition to its ability to stimulate tourism, the Mundial offers Argentines the opportunity to regulate, define, and control tango and its image, wresting power away from British ballroom dance societies, which have been crowning world tango champions since 1922. “Ahora sí, Argentina es campeona mundial de tango” (Now yes, Argentina is tango world champion), read one newspaper headline after the inaugural Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango in 2003 (Micheletto 2003). The substitution of the entire nation of Argentina for the Argentine dancers who won the competition (Enrique Usales and Gabriela Sanguinetti) reveals the extent to which Argentine national identity is conflated with the tango. This headline reflects both the indignation many Argentines felt at the theft of their dance by foreign cultures and their pride at being able to legitimize Argentine superiority in tango through the medium of competition, the very means through which British dancers have for so long justified their own tango authority. The Argentine flag has topped the scoreboard at almost every Mundial championship since, with the exception of 2009, when a Japanese couple (Hiroshi and Kyoko Yamao) won the salon category, and 2006, when a Colombian couple (Carlos Alberto Paredes and Diana Giraldo Rivera) won the stage category. Many of the competition policies appear rigged to ensure that Argentine couples continue to dominate. For instance, all judges are Argentines, and foreigners dancing with an Argentine partner must represent Argentina unless the Argentine can prove that she or he has lived for at least two years in the foreign partner’s home country. Even preliminary competitions held outside Argentina, such as the Argentine Tango USA Championships at which the US national champions and representatives to the Mundial are crowned, are tightly controlled by the committee in Buenos Aires. The Office of Festivals and Central Events of the Ministry of Culture in Buenos Aires dictates not only the rules for the American branch competition, but selects the music, approves the judges, and sends an auditor to ensure adherence to all competition procedures.

The impulse for Argentines to maintain control over the Mundial, in an attempt to protect their tango from theft and desecration, is balanced by a concurrent pride in tango’s growing international appeal. By 2016, Argentine tango had so securely overtaken ballroom tango in global popularity that Argentine newspaper headlines did not reflect the earlier anxiety about the foreign appropriation of tango. Rather, the media portray national pride in tango’s triumph abroad, where dancers and musicians are studying the tradition seriously enough to perform at a level worthy of a Porteño audience. A Clarin (p. 313) headline from August 29, 2016, reads, “Las finales del Mundial de Tango, con muchas parejas extranjeras” (The World Tango Cup Finals, with many foreign couples). The article begins, “Furor global por el baile porteño. De las 58 que compiten, 21 son del exterior. Colombianos y rusos son los más numerosos, pero también hay de Coreo, Italia o Brasil.” (Global frenzy for the dance from Buenos Aires. Of the 58 who are competing, 21 are foreigners. Colombians and Russians are the most numerous, but there are also competitors from Korea, Italy, and Brazil.) An article in La Nación the same day entitled “Un festival de tango verdaderamente mundial” (A truly global tango festival) brags about foreign musicians invited to play in the festival, bandoneón virutuosos Wu Yung-Lung from Taiwan and Ivan Talanin from Russia (Apicella 2016). This iconic tango instrument is notoriously difficult to play and is virtually unknown outside of tango circles, offering further evidence of tango’s global triumph, this time on Argentina’s terms. Rather than playing tango music in the ballroom style developed in England during the 1930s, when the bandoneón was replaced by Western snare drums, foreigners are rigorously studying the tradition as it is practiced in Argentina.

Journalists were not the only ones enamored with the presence of so many foreigners at the Mundial. When speaking about their experience competing, many Argentines identified meeting fellow competitors from all over the world as one of their favorite aspects of participating. Sitting among approximately 7,000 spectators in Luna Park for the championship finals, I witnessed enthusiastic public reception of foreign contestants. With the exception of a few other underdogs, like the elderly couple Francisco “Choclo” Allo and Olga “Coca” Albesetti competing in a field of dancers in their twenties and thirties, the foreign couples garnered the most applause at their initial appearance. It almost seemed possible that national pride engendered by so many foreigners exhibiting such dedication to Argentine tango had overtaken the corollary impulse to protect tango from foreign exploitation—almost, but not quite.

The 2016 winners of both the tango de pista and tango escenario championships were, not surprisingly, Argentine. It is hard to begrudge them this victory. After all, winners of the Mundial, who are invited to teach and perform internationally as a result of their victory, become global ambassadors for tango. For Argentines, it is a matter not only of cultural pride, but of economics. Professional tango dancers living in Buenos Aires can barely scrape together enough money to live, even when juggling multiple jobs: for example, performing at a casa de tango (tango house that stages tourist-oriented tango dinner shows) or Caminito (the street in La Boca where tourists flock to have their picture taken posing with a tango dancer in front of the brightly colored buildings), teaching classes at multiple tango schools and milongas, and continually cultivating new private students amidst the rapid turnover of tango tourists. Touring to teach abroad, despite its disruption to family life at home, offers such an improved standard of living that most Argentine professional tango dancers who can establish the connections and secure the visas to do so opt to tour for three to six months a year. The Mundial is the platform through which up-and-coming Argentine tango dancers launch their international touring careers. At the individual level, it may seem somewhat unfair to the many foreigners who have immigrated to Buenos Aires to pursue careers in tango, especially (p. 314) to those from countries like Colombia or Brazil where citizens confront similar economic hardships, that non-Argentines face a handicap in the Mundial championships. Considered in the context of tango history, however, which upholds that for three-quarters of a century tango world champions were head-whipping foxtrot dancers named by English judges, does it really seem so unreasonable that the Argentine tango world champions actually be Argentine?

Government control over the external image of tango through the Campeonato Mundial, however, extracts a heavy cost on the practice of tango within Argentina. Government resources for tango are almost exclusively dedicated to the tourist-focused Mundial, resulting not only in limited support for tango during the rest of the year, but active persecution of tango by government agencies. Ethnomusicologist Jennie Gubner (2014) describes the negative impact of then-mayor Macri’s export-oriented urban development policies on local tango music communities, including permitting policies that favor mega-festivals over small, grassroots ventures and inspection sweeps that have closed neighborhood bars and community centers sponsoring tango music. Although these crackdowns are cloaked in the guise of ensuring safety, a platform on which Macri ran after the Cromañón tragedy of 2005 when nearly 200 people were killed in a nightclub fire, the inspections and bureaucracy concerning permits disproportionately impact tango nightlife. By 2015, the city government of Buenos Aires began targeting milongas for surprise inspections where minor code violations were cited as justification for closure of many of the city’s most iconic milonga venues, including Sunderland Club, Salon Canning, and La Catedral (Gómez 2015; Télam 2015; Valenzuela 2015). Despite protests and media outrage, the crisis of the clausuras (closures) continued into 2016, resulting in widespread resentment about this government hypocrisy during the festival. While the government elevates the carefully curated and polished competition tango as a trophy for all the world to admire, it simultaneously decimates the local neighborhood milongas that have nurtured tango for one hundred years. So great was the outrage at the injustice of the clausuras that the Association of Milonga Organizers boycotted the 2016 festival, declaring that members of the association would not allow any festival events to transpire at their milongas. Many Argentines recognized the promise of the festival slogan Tango, hoy y siempre (Tango, today and always), featured on festival billboards and film clips, as a ruse to fool tourists who do not realize that “always” only lasts until the end of August. The weekend after the festival concluded, I heard reports of city inspectors appearing unannounced at milongas to scrutinize paperwork, fire exits, and bathrooms. Although the motivation behind government persecution (a word frequently invoked by victims of the clausuras) of tango nightlife is not well understood, I suggest it is partially due to the fact that tango in Argentina is still marked by its underclass origins. Echoing the Argentine elite’s scorn of tango in the early twentieth century, clausuras reveal the twenty-first-century government’s disdain for tango as an old-fashioned, irrelevant, and populist social practice that is inconsistent with the progressive, Western urban expansion that Macri (as mayor and later president) has championed. However, as with international tango fever 100 years prior, global tango-mania compels Argentina to publicly embrace a marginal cultural practice (p. 315) as symbolic of the nation, resulting in two contradictory government initiatives: one glorifying tango to the exterior, and the other eviscerating it at home.

Cake Dolls: Externalizing Tango’s Embrace

Measuring something as subjective as dance may seem like a meaningless exercise in any genre, but the undertaking becomes particularly absurd in the case of Argentine tango. Many of its most treasured values (intimacy, sensitivity, connection, subtlety, internal sensation) are not even visible to an external viewer and are only accessible within the energetic web of the dancing couple’s embrace. Traces of the quality of connection or sensitivity to a partner may be gleaned from watching, but only insofar as they offer insight into the internal state of the dancers. For example, observers will often intuit the quality of a man’s embrace by the facial expression of a woman in his arms: a serene face with gently closed eyelids signaling that he has earned her trust, or a clenched jaw exposing his disregard for her comfort. Facial expressions in tango are not treated as aesthetic ideals in themselves, but rather as indexical signs of the dancers’ physical and emotional sensations. Most tango dancers value how a partner makes them feel above how a partner looks, appreciating the visual insofar as it is indicative of the sensual. How, then, is a tango dancer’s connection or embrace to be evaluated and scored by judges watching the interaction from the outside? It’s a bit like evaluating someone’s lovemaking skills by judging their performance in a pornographic film.

This paradox, the attempt to assess through observation what can only be understood through tactile and energetic sensation, is the justification that many people offer for dismissing tango competition and its winners as irrelevant to the true art of tango. Even in the midst of the Mundial’s growing influence, many Argentine tango dancers, including those who participate as contestants and judges, express ambivalence and outright disgust at the folly of quantifying tango. Yet, reducing each couple’s performance to a number is the task entrusted to judges on the Mundial panel. Each of the two competitions (pista and escenario) begins with two long days of preliminary rounds during which each couple is given a numeric score (between 4.0 and 8.0 in increments of one-tenth of a point) by each judge. In 2016, 404 couples competed in the preliminaries of tango de pista and 131 in tango escenario, although adding in couples who qualified directly for semifinal or final rounds brought the number of participating couples to 437 and 181. Scores from both days are averaged, and less than a quarter of the couples move onto the semifinal round, where they join winners of sanctioned championships held in various Argentine provinces and abroad throughout the year, who proceed directly to the semifinal round. In the semifinals, each of six judges grades each couple between 5.0 and 9.0, and the top-scoring forty couples in pista and twenty in escenario pass (p. 316) to the final rounds, which are held two consecutive evenings at the Luna Park stadium (Figure 13.2).

Reclaiming Competitive TangoThe Rise of Argentina’s Campeonato MundialClick to view larger

Figure 13.2. Tango de pista finals in Luna Park, Buenos Aires, at the 2016 Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango.

Photo by Gabriel Gutierrez.

In the final, tango de pista competitors are grouped into four rondas (rounds) of ten couples each, where their performances are scored between 7.0 and 10.00. I heard many criticisms of this system. Even though the final placements are based on the average of the judges’ scores, a single judge can have a much greater impact on the final outcome by using a wider spread than a judge who clusters marks in a narrow range. In addition, the fact that the finalists never dance side by side, nor dance to the same music, is noted by many as unfair, especially to those in the first ronda, who are at a disadvantage because judges score conservatively at the outset. Ballroom dance competitions, on the other hand, avoid these particular biases by whittling the finalists down to six couples who dance together in a single heat and are marked by relative rather than absolute rankings (judges rank the competitors in first through sixth place rather than giving them numeric scores).

The scoring system and the division of rondas are not the only nor the most commonly cited points of controversy in debates about fairness and transparency at the Mundial. Many people recognize the inherent fallibility of judges who cannot circumvent their own preconceptions, prejudices, and values. For example, the rules specifically state that costuming should not be considered in the tango de pista category, yet (p. 317) I heard tales that some judges admit over a glass of wine to docking points for any man not sporting cufflinks or a pocket square. I witnessed less controversy about the clothing choices of female competitors who, already used to having their appearance judged in milongas where men choose their partners as much on their beauty as their dancing skills, were exquisitely coiffed, painted, jeweled, and donned in velvet or shimmering hip-hugging dresses, with strategically designed ruching and slits accentuating buttocks and legs. Every aspect of their appearance, from the length of their dresses (upper calf to accentuate footwork) to the design of the hair (swept up in twists, braids, and curls to lengthen the neck line while maintaining a soft appearance), was calculated for its visual effect. Men too conform to a very narrow sartorial aesthetic: suits carefully fitted and pressed, ties and handkerchiefs selected to complement partners’ dresses, beards shaved or tightly trimmed, and hair slicked back, thick with gel.

The contestants’ meticulous attention to grooming reflects their understanding that moving social dance practice into a competition venue flips the priorities. In a social context, how the dance feels takes precedence over how it looks, but the competition setting requires that the visual trump the tactile. The rules for the competition, however, do not always take into account the way in which competition inevitably alters social dance. The first point listed on the festival website under evaluation criteria is: “Tango de pista is conceived as a social dance where the most important aspects are the musicality, embrace, and connection between the dance partners.” It seems plausible to evaluate dancers’ musicality by watching, but how can one evaluate the quality of their embrace or connection through visual inspection? The effort to maintain the primacy of these quintessential social tango values in a competition context has led to re-interpretation of what constitutes a good connection or embrace. Whereas most social dancers understand these skills to be based on one’s ability to continually sense, react, and adapt to a partner’s balance, comfort, and emotional state, Mundial competitors often strive to maintain an unchanging posture, connection, and embrace. Rather than allowing the embrace to breathe as it expands to make space for torsion required in giros, sacadas, and ganchos, many Mundial dancers hold a static position, the consistency of their posture easier to measure by eye than the sensitivity of their touch on a partner’s back. This interpretation of embrace and connection has resulted in a style that many critics refer to as “stick up the butt,” or, even more evocatively, muñeca de torta (cake doll). Like the figurines on top of wedding cakes who symbolize an idealized expression of heterosexual union, but as plastic objects are incapable of feeling or movement, Mundial competitors are ridiculed by some as dancers without souls.

The cake doll epithet also points to one of the most powerful effects of the Mundial’s popularity: it decreases aesthetic diversity in tango styles. Competitions demand a standard or ideal that contestants can strive to match or beat. In the absence of universal standards, tango competitors refer to the previous year’s champions as their model, resulting in a rapidly narrowing range of artistic expression. By far the most common critique of Mundial dancers is that they are all clones. Rodrigo Videla, who began dancing tango in his home province of San Luis before moving to Buenos Aires, recalls his own impulse to imitate former champions.

(p. 318)

Yo me acuerdo cuando yo empecé a bailar, miraba en los videos de YouTube. “Ahí, este es el campeón de este año.” Y lo tomaba, “O, mira ese. Mira lo que hace. Yo quisiera hacerlo.” Y yo copiaba. No solo como caminar, copiaba el estilo. También, cuando gana alguien, toda la gente que esté empezando, en el mismo año que se gana, lo tomo un poco como referente. Por ahí, ese generó que ahora todo bailamos parecidos. Y no está bueno. (I remember when I started to dance, I was watching videos on YouTube. “There, this is this year’s champion.” And I took it, “Oh, look at this. Look at what he is doing. I would like to do that.” And I copied. Not only how to walk, but I copied his style. Also, when someone wins, everyone who is starting the same year that he wins, takes him a bit as a model. This led to the situation that now we all dance alike. And that is not good.)3

The global reach of the digital video-sharing platform YouTube enables dancers in Russia, China, and Italy, as well as the Argentine provinces of Tucumán and Mendoza, to study and mimic the posture, steps, and embellishments of last year’s Mundial champions. Whereas the philosophy of Argentine tango as personal expression that privileges originality and creativity is still maintained in discourse around the dance, the practice of Argentine tango continues to diverge from this ideal as tango dancers increasingly resemble cake dolls pressed from the same mold.

This narrowing aesthetic range not only has impacted the style of competitive tango, but also has influenced the social tango culture of Buenos Aires. When the Mundial was inaugurated in 2003, a new style of dancing called tango nuevo was popular at many Buenos Aires milongas. Characterized by a more open and flexible embrace, moves that take partners off-axis in counterbalance, incorporation of vocabulary from foreign dances, and liberal use of large athletic movements, tango nuevo was regarded by some traditionalists as an affront to tango tradition (Merritt 2012). By the time I first visited Buenos Aires in 2012, tango nuevo had virtually disappeared from social practice, despite its persistent popularity in Europe and North America. The decline of tango nuevo coincided with the rise of the Mundial, which prohibits and punishes the very skills in which tango nuevo dancers excel: open embrace dancing with extreme torsion and extensive use of ganchos (hooks) and boleos (leg flicks). Although ganchos and boleos have been part of tango since its golden age, tango nuevo dancers developed new and daring techniques for stringing together complex sequences of leg play that included ganchos of the waist and high linear boleos that some thought inappropriate for the social dance floor. Andrea Monti, organizer of the US subsidiary and former judge at the Mundial, explains the rationale for prohibiting boleos above the knee and ganchos from the tango salon/pista competition.

So actually the competition also teaches the dancers how to behave. Because as you cannot do ganchos, you cannot do powerful sacadas, you cannot kick, you cannot do colgadas, you cannot break the embrace, you cannot do jumps, fancy stuff, you learn how to dance correctly in a dance floor where you are going to share with other people. This is very good. This is the most important. The competition teaches people how to dance in a social dance floor, in a real milonga.4

(p. 319) Monti is speaking specifically about the American context, where open dance floors breed poor navigation skills, in contrast to Buenos Aires, where the tightly packed milongas necessitate more cooperative and judicial use of space. However, her assertion that limiting the use of certain steps in competition decreases their popularity in social dance settings reveals how the Mundial’s restrictions on tango nuevo movements popular at the competition’s inception may have curbed these tendencies in Buenos Aires as well. Although the decline of tango nuevo is the result of many converging factors, including foreigners’ fetishization of tango as danced during its golden age, use of ganchos, boleos, and colgadas in Buenos Aires milongas has diminished so dramatically since the Mundial’s early years that the correlation offers convincing evidence to many of the Mundial’s influence over social dancing.

Tango’s Diminishing Africanist Aesthetics

Several historians of early tango have documented the African origins of not only the word tango, but of the music/dance traditions candombe, milonga, and cayengue out of which tango emerged, suggesting that early tangos were danced by Afro-Argentines (Chasteen 2004; Savigliano 1995; Thompson 2005). As tango gained traction in whiter and higher-class Argentine communities in the early twentieth century, Africanist aesthetics of the dance started to disappear in favor of more European aesthetics. Knees and spines straightened; hip movement was minimized; and syncopated rhythms were smoothed over. Compared to mambo or salsa dancing, for example, which clearly reference their African roots in the use of flexed limbs and hips, asymmetrical and curvilinear shapes, and call-and-response improvisational structures, tango does not at first glance appear to be an Afro-disaporic dance. Closer inspection, though, reveals traces of tango’s African ancestry, including polyrhythms expressed by the feet, subtle movements of the hips, and privileging of improvisation over choreography. Even the remaining Africanist aesthetics, however, are being pushed further out of tango practice as the Mundial’s influence spreads. Aesthetic values that are rewarded by competition judges (straight knees, pointed toes, vertical spines, extended lines) are supplanting flat-footed, angled, and idiosyncratic tango styles on social dance floors as well.

Dance scholars have argued that the commercialization of ballroom dances in the early twentieth century contributed to the elimination of their African aesthetics in favor of whiter and more easily salable products (McMains 2006; Robinson 2015). Likewise, I suggest that intensified commercialization of tango is once again shifting tango styles away from their (albeit distant) African origins. The Mundial, as a central commercial tango player, performs a key role in validating balletic, white, European aesthetics in tango. In selecting world ambassadors for tango, racial bias may influence the judges who (perhaps unconsciously) hope to access ballet’s white privilege and prestige (p. 320) by awarding higher rankings to tango dancers using balletic shapes of the legs and feet. This effort to elevate Argentina’s national status through association with white, aristocratic, European ballet is yet another example of how concern about Argentina’s external image is impacting the practice of tango inside its borders.

While, on the one hand, the influence of the Mundial brings Argentine tango aesthetics closer to Europeanized ballroom tangos, privileging verticality, unbroken lines, and static shapes, the Mundial simultaneously prioritizes other African aesthetic values that were eliminated from ballroom tangos: the interdependence of music and dance, improvisation, and individual variation. Competitive ballroom dancers perform preset choreography, rarely adapting their timing to respond to the music selected by the DJ, resulting in music becoming an accompaniment to the dancing, rather than motivation for it. Argentine tango de pista competitors, on the other hand, are judged on their musical improvisational acumen. Each round of competitors is required to improvise to three different tango songs (one lyrical, one rhythmical, and one dramatic), offering the judges the opportunity to evaluate how dancers interpret varying musical styles. Whereas DJs at ballroom competitions fade each song out after the first ninety seconds, the short length of tangos recorded during the golden age, limited to three minutes by the size of wax records, enables tango DJs to play each song through to its conclusion. Competitors are compared on their ability to construct a dance that complements the structure of tango music. How do the dancers respond to the entrance of the singer, to the repetition of the B section when the melody is established by the piano rather than the violins, or the speed of the bandoneón in the variación? Musicality is one of the most highly valued skills in the social practice of tango, and the Mundial maintains its centrality, sustaining tango’s (tenuous) link to Africa, where music and dance are so intertwined that many African languages do not have separate words to describe them. Although Argentines will readily admit that racism makes the discussion of tango’s African roots controversial (Tango Negro 2013), this resolve to maintain certain African aesthetic values in the dance, even as others are erased, exemplifies the tensions that Latin Americans must negotiate in global power plays. They will strategically emphasize tango’s similarity to white, European dances in order to elevate its international status, while simultaneously protecting some African aesthetic values in order to shelter tango from co-option and theft.

Mediating Mental Health Outcomes

All competitions have the potential to negatively impact the psychological health of individual competitors, whose sense of sense of self-worth is tied to the results. When dance, which might be described as self-expression, is judged in competition, the distinction between self-expression and self becomes difficult to maintain. A dancer is likely to experience a low competition result as a negative evaluation of self, rather than a critique of behavior (“I am a failure,” as opposed to, “I failed to execute my giros (p. 321) smoothly”). Whereas most sports competitors have the buffer of objective measures like speed or distance to help maintain a separation between athletic performance and self, the subjective nature of judging in dance competitions proves even more problematic for dancers’ self-esteem. The absence of quantifiable and transparent measures for explaining successes and failures leaves many dancers who participate in competitions vulnerable to destruction of self-worth. For example, Sidney Grant, who taught in the Dancing Classrooms ballroom dance program for New York City schoolchildren featured in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom explained, “while the idea of a school from Washington Heights and Tribeca and Forrest Hills, Queens competing against one another makes a great plotline for a movie, it makes a miserable experience for the children . . . I would literally watch these kids collapse in grief, uncontrollably sobbing on the floor when they didn’t win.”5 After watching competitions erode the self-esteem that the program was designed to build, Grant formed a non-competitive partner dance program for school children, Ballroom Basix.

The negative effects of competition on adults can be just as destructive. A professional ballroom dance competitor whom I will call Lisa explained, “I left ballroom because I didn’t want to be a part of that world anymore, the competition. It was very superficial. There was so much pressure to have a certain type of body, to dance a certain way. After so many competitions, if we didn’t get the result we wanted, my dance partner would ignore me, wouldn’t talk to me. I would get so much shit, I wasn’t happy. I was in a not very good place.” Because status and income-earning potential are so closely tied to competition ranking in the ballroom dance industry, poor competition results can lead to eating disorders, depression, emotional abuse between partners, and cruelty between competitors. Recognizing the destructive cycle of competition, Lisa made the radical decision to abandon the ballroom dance career to which she had devoted her life and move to Argentina, where she fell in love with tango. Now a professional tango dancer, Lisa reflected on her experience competing in Argentine tango at the Mundial in the context of her career in DanceSport:

I never felt once this pressure from him [my partner]. I felt I danced amazing because I wasn’t worried about what is he going to think or what is going to be the consequence after. And the competition, it was amazing because it was not like the competitive Russians from the ballroom world that you know for years, and then the day of the competition they don’t even say “hi,” and they look at you strange. It was like being in the milonga, like “hey, what’s up? How are you?” Backstage before we went on we were joking and laughing the whole time. . . . After the semi when we were waiting for the final results and there was nothing going on and I started joking around doing the wave . . . it took some time but I got everyone to do the wave in the Usina. Going out of it, I take more those memories and dancing and enjoying than anything else.

Such stories of camaraderie with other competitors as they waited backstage were recounted by many participants in the Mundial, contrasting sharply with the cutthroat (p. 322) culture of ballroom dance competitions (McMains 2006). Likewise, Lisa’s insistence that she did not feel attached to the outcome of the competition was shared by many Mundial competitors, who did not express disappointment when asked how they felt about their scores. They appreciated the Mundial for the benefits it could offer, even when they failed to advance into the semifinals or the finals: a goal to focus their training, a venue to showcase their dancing, and a chance to bond with other competitors. Because tango dancers receive validation for their status as tango artists through so many other avenues (performing at milongas and in stage shows, being highly sought after as social dance partners, invitations to teach and perform abroad), the outcome of this one event, even though it is billed as the world tango championships, does not have a strong impact on their identities as dancers. Whereas it is virtually impossible for a ballroom dancer to build a high-profile career without amassing a long résumé of competition titles, tango dancers do not need competition victories to earn respect or status. In fact, some of the most highly respected tango dancers in the world have never competed and are admired precisely because of the distinctiveness of their artistic vision, which cannot be forced into the mold out of which cake dolls spring. For example, Mariano “Chico” Frumboli violates nearly all of the aesthetics venerated by Mundial champions: his elbows droop too low, his knees are too bent, his embrace opens too far, he steps too heavily onto flat feet, his unkempt long hair hangs untethered and his shirts lay open at the neck, he rarely uses enrosques or lápices to decorate his own actions, and yet few tango dancers would deny his status as one of the most brilliant tango dancers of all time. Thus, even though the Mundial brings competition to the forefront of Argentine tango culture for the month of August each year, tango competitions are still are a minor aspect of most tango professionals’ careers.

Competitions are more often the springboard for careers that expand far beyond the competition frame. For example, Maria Nieves, who starred in Tango Argentino with her partner and the show’s choreographer, Juan Carlos Copes, entered tango competitions in the early 1950s. Nieves explains that it was due to “el éxito que tuvimos en esos concursos que nuestro nombre trascendió el mundo de los campeonatos” (the success that we had in those contests that our name transcended the world of the championships) (Oliva 2014, 71). In other words, Copes and Nieves outgrew competitions as soon as their competition achievements produced more desirable performing jobs. So although competitions may have helped to launch their career, competitions were not the driving force behind the dance style that Nieves and Copes developed and showcased in Tango Argentino, which sparked the second global tango craze. Whereas ballroom dance championship titles generate increased pressure to defend the title in the next competition, a win at the Mundial ensures that the dancers never need compete again. Like well-established Argentine tango professionals, Mundial champions have nothing to gain and everything to lose by returning to the competition floor. Perhaps knowledge that so few of the industry’s most well-respected professional dancers have entered the Mundial allows current competitors to laugh off low scores. Dancers choose not to take the competition too seriously because Mundial champions are only revered outside Buenos Aires. Within the tango culture of Buenos Aires, everyone knows the competition that counts (p. 323) is at the milongas. As one competitor exclaimed when I asked him if he thought there was rivalry during the Mundial, “the real rivalry is at La Viruta,” the late-night milonga that attracts the highest number of professional dancers who, in spite of dim lighting to facilitate its main function as a site for seduction, scrutinize every step of their rivals’ repertoires.

Queering Tango Competition

In addition to using the Mundial as a platform for launching their own careers, some competitors use the Mundial to advance social and political agendas. Argentina has been at the forefront of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer legislation, becoming the first country in Latin American to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010. The tango community, however, lags behind many other sectors of society in its resistance to same-sex and gender-fluid dancing. Buenos Aires boasts a vibrant queer tango scene where pioneers such as Augusto Balizano and Mariana Docampo have for over a decade hosted gay and queer milongas that attempt to rupture the link between gender and the role assumed when dancing tango (Gasió 2011). Outside these designated queer spaces, however, it is relatively rare to see same-sex dancing in the Buenos Aires milonga circuit, especially between men. For the first ten years of its existence, the Mundial promoted an exclusively heteronormative tango. In 2013, however, Mundial officials publicized that for the first time they would welcome same-sex competitors because, as Mundial artistic director Gustavo Mozzi explained in La Nación, “La competencia intenta reflejar la evolución del tango y los cambios sociales” (The competition tries to reflect the evolution of tango and social changes) (Massa 2013). Four same-sex couples entered the Mundial in 2013, garnering a flurry of international media attention (Agence France Presse, 2013). No same-sex couples advanced to the finals, however, until 2016 when Daniel Arroyo and Juan Pablo Ramírez, dressed in blacks suits and low heels, with only sequins on his lapels to mark Ramírez’s position in the role danced by women in the other partnerships, became the first same-sex couple to dance in the Mundial tango de pista finals. By 2016, Arroyo and Ramírez, who had entered the competition four years prior, had achieved widespread respect in Buenos Aires through their expertly crafted tango performances (often in drag) at many of the city’s more traditional milongas, including Salon Canning. Rather than launching their personal career, as it did for many heterosexual couples, their placement in the Mundial finals validated same-sex dancing in general, offering a stamp of public approval for work that Arroyo, Ramírez, and many other queer tango activists have been engaged in for many years.

The Argentine Tango USA Championships also welcomed their first same-sex couple into the tango de pista finals in 2016, Sidney Grant and Claudio Marcelo Vidal (Figure 13.3). Grant led Vidal who, wearing a neatly clipped beard, a white suit trimmed with black stitching to complement Grant’s black suit, and three-inch black and white polka dotted high heels, executed with expert dexterity and finesse the steps (p. 324) conventionally danced by women. The conjoining of beard and high heels on Vidal’s body produced even more anxiety and excitement than the sight of two men enrapt in an amorous embrace. Through his masterful control of high heels, one of the most iconic markers of femininity, Vidal troubled not only the heterosexual mandate of tango, but the category of gender itself. Vidal’s long-standing use of heels is so provocative that two judges are rumored to have recused themselves from the panel when he first appeared competing in heels at the 2013 Mundial in Buenos Aires. In 2016, the American crowd was captivated by the power, elegance, and musicality of Grant and Vidal’s dancing, and many were rooting for them to win, especially since Grant won the 2011 USA Tango Championships in New York dancing with female partner Gayle Madeira. Fans were disappointed, however, that after advancing to the final round, Grant and Vidal finished near the bottom of the pack of finalists in 2016. Despite hearing gossip that some of the judges expressed confusion about how to judge a same-sex partnership, Grant and Vidal did not seem troubled by the final scores given that their primary goal was to expand the visibility of same-sex dancing. The crowd’s positive reception was evidence that even though they did not walk away with the trophy, the couple had succeeded in advancing their agenda of expanding acceptance for same-sex dancing. Grant recalled, “everyone (p. 325) was so supportive of us, every one of the competitors, and especially the audience. When we walked out there, we just got such affirmation from the crowd.”6 Although no same-sex couple has yet won the Mundial or any of its subsidiary championships, the breakthrough of Grant and Vidal making it to the finals in San Francisco, as well as Arroyo and Ramírez advancing to the finals in Buenos Aires in 2016, was cause for celebration among queer tango dancers and their allies who (much like the state of Argentina) are eager to use the Mundial as a platform for promotion and publicity of an image of tango they choose to endorse.

Reclaiming Competitive TangoThe Rise of Argentina’s Campeonato MundialClick to view larger

Figure 13.3. Sidney Grant and Claudio Vidal competing at the 2016 Argentine Tango USA Championships in San Francisco.

Photo by Don An.

A View from the Stands

Despite my reservations about the effect the Mundial has on the social practice of tango, reducing diversity and creativity in social tango styles in favor of whiter and more externally focused performances, I could not resist getting caught up in the drama as I sat in the stands at Luna Park. My heart started to race as the tango de pista finalists were paraded out to stand wringing their hands, assembled shoulder to shoulder across the stage, and the scores of the fifth-place couple were projected onto the screen, their names withheld. A voice announced slowly, “el quinto lugar es para . . .” (fifth place goes to . . .), and another emcee took over to continue “pareja . . . numero . . . ” (couple . . . number . . .). When their names were finally revealed, I felt a jolt of vicarious joy as I watched her jump into his arms. My pulse rate continued to climb as the fourth, third, and second place winners were likewise presented with their awards. As the announcers geared up to name the champions, I was in such a state of anxiety I almost felt as if I were up on stage myself waiting to hear my name called. Like other sporting events, the Mundial creates communal experiences of shared trial and triumph for the 7,000 live spectators and thousands more watching the live video stream. The drama reached a climax as champion Cristian Palomo dropped to his knees when he heard his name (Figure 13.4). Palomo remained on the floor crying until a fellow competitor lifted him to his feet so that he could embrace his partner Melissa Sacchi and claim their prize.7 How befitting of tango, filled with songs of men publicly confessing their most intimate emotions (Savigliano 1995), that it was the male partner who claimed the center of the drama, the photo of Palomo on his knees appearing in several newspapers the next day. Fans were thrilled that Palomo, a portly young man with grace seemingly incongruent with his size, won the top prize, the departure from stereotypical dancer’s body type signaling to some a rupture of the cake doll mold.

The results of the tango escenario championships the next night likewise revealed a promising new direction. Tango escenario routines are typically packed with dazzling tricks and lifts, portray an intense relationship through facial expressions bordering on constipation, and are performed to the high-drama music of Osvaldo Pugliese or Color Tango. Many people feel as if tango escenario is more suited for the competition format because of the athleticism required and the exclusive attention each couple receives to (p. 326) showcase their skills. However, I found it impossible to absorb twenty such routines in a row. By the fourth couple, my focus started to waver, and everything blurred into a tornado of ganchos. After nineteen expertly crafted, but overwrought escenario routines, Hugo Mastrolorenzo and Agustina Vignau (Figure 13.5) offered a radical departure from the formula with their interpretation of Astor Piazzolla’s “Balada por un loco.”8 The audience exhaled into the spoken poetry and sparse music, telling the story of a loco in love. Mastrolorenzo, fully committed to the role in a suit thick with dust and unkempt half-shaved head of hair, tries to win over the innocent Vignau, clad in a white cloak. Central to their dance-drama is a balloon inside a birdcage, which they cleverly manipulate with their feet at select moments timed with the entrance of the bass and violin cutting over the poetry. By the time Mastrolorenzo has persuaded Vignau to adopt his worldview and she opens the cage to let the balloon float upward on the words vení, volá, vení (come, fly, come), it appears as if the audience too sees the world through this crazy man’s eyes when they burst into applause as if she has freed an imprisoned bird. The crowd was so enthusiastic about their performance that I feared they would riot if Mastrolorenzo and Vignau were not crowned champions. Mastrolorenzo placed in the top three in 2014 and 2015 with different partners, but each year judges complained that (p. 327) there was not enough tango in his theatrical choreographies. In 2016, he finally hit the golden ratio of tango to theater and was rewarded with the championship title. Upon hearing the news, Mastrolorenzo jumped off the stage to hug his mother seated in the audience, the male champion again monopolizing the drama of the awards. The stadium erupted in elation. For those anxious about the homogenizing power of the Mundial, the Mastrolorenzo/Vignau win was a hopeful sign that the championships might in the future inspire innovation over imitation.

Reclaiming Competitive TangoThe Rise of Argentina’s Campeonato MundialClick to view larger

Figure 13.4. Cristian Palomo (right) and Melisa Sacchi (center) reacting to winning the tango de pista championships at the 2016 Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango in Buenos Aires.

Photo by Daniel Jayo/

Reclaiming Competitive TangoThe Rise of Argentina’s Campeonato MundialClick to view larger

Figure 13.5. Hugo Mastrolorenzo and Agustina Vignau performing their winning tango escenario choreography at the 2016 Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango in Buenos Aires.

Photo by Gabriel Gutierrez.

Within a week after the conclusion of the Mundial, attendance at Buenos Aires milongas dropped to half of what it had been in August, as tourists concluded their holidays and Argentines embarked on tours teaching abroad. The heightened sense of competition and social posturing that had infiltrated even the social tango circuit during the Mundial subsided with the formal adjudication process, leaving potential dance partners, lovers, rivals, and peers to judge each other, rewarding their personal champions with eye contact, jokes, smiles, and a tanda (set) on the dance floor. In tango nightlife, where seduction reigns as the primary organizing logic, words cannot be trusted. “No” is rarely accepted to be a refusal, and “yes” could mean anything from “I’d love to” to “I’m only saying yes to be polite but would rather roast my dog on the parilla.” It is in this context of irony and double meaning that the paradoxes of the Mundial find home. The Mundial is both an exhibition of autoexoticism, Argentina performing for the Global North their displaced sexual desire, and Argentina’s means (p. 328) of reclaiming tango by appropriating the ballroom competition format. The Mundial privileges European aesthetics of verticality and linearity that characterize ballroom tangos while concurrently reaffirming African aesthetic values such as idiosyncratic play and choreomusical interdependence that ballroom tangos had eschewed. The Mundial is a machine for promotion of a state-sanctioned version of tango, designed to maximize tourist revenues at the expense of local tango culture. Simultaneously, it offers local tango artists opportunities to enter into and at times alter the trajectory of tango commerce in ways that are more consistent with their artistic and social values. Undeniably, the Mundial is effecting change in the aesthetics, social practice, and business of tango, in some ways bringing it closer to the English ballroom dance model that privileges codified form over social function. However, despite its growing influence, the Mundial remains a subculture within the larger complex of Argentine tango culture, which continues to maintain improvisation, individuality, subtlety, intimate personal connection, and respect for musical tradition as tango’s core values.


The author would like to thank all the dancers who generously shared their insights and experiences about the Mundial, especially Julio Azorin, Florencia Curatella, Valentina Ferronti, Victor Francia, Sidney Grant, Rachel Makow, Pancho Martínez Pey, Andrea Monti, Julio Montoya, Guillermo Nieto, Glen Royce, Marina Teves, Silvio la Via, Rodrigo Videla, and Jamila Williams, none of whom necessarily share the viewpoints expressed in this chapter.


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                Massa, Fernando. 2013. “Por primera vez, parejas del mismo sexo compiten en el Mundial de Tango.” La Nación, August 25. Accessed January 15, 2017.

                McMains, Juliet. 2006. Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.Find this resource:

                  Merritt, Carolyn. 2012. Tango Nuevo. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.Find this resource:

                    Micheletto, Karina. 2003. “Ahora sí, Argentina es campeona mundial de tango.” Página 12, March 11. Accessed January 15, 2017.

                    Oliva, María. 2014. Soy tango: Biografía de María Nieves. Buenos Aires: Planeta.Find this resource:

                      Richardon, Philip J. S. 1931. “The Story of the Tango: I. Pre-War.” The Dancing Times (December): 285–288.Find this resource:

                        Richardson, Philip J. S. 1981. A History of English Ballroom Dancing (1910–1945): The Story of the Development of the Modern English Style. London: Herbert Jenkins.Find this resource:

                          Robinson, Danielle. 2015. Modern Moves: Dancing Race during the Ragtime and Jazz Eras. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                            Savigliano, Marta E. 1995. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Boulder, CO: Westview.Find this resource:

                              Tango Buenos Aires Festival and Dance World Cup 2016. Accessed May 9, 2018.

                              Télam. 2015. “Convocan a una marcha contra la clausura de milongas en la Ciudad.” June 30. Accessed January 15, 2017.

                              (p. 330) Thompson, Robert Farris. 2005. Tango: The Art History of Love. New York: Pantheon Books.Find this resource:

                                Valenzuela, Andrés. 2015. “Así se baila el tango para protestar.” Pagina 12, July 4. Accessed January 15, 2017.

                                Audiovisual Sources

                                Mundial de tango, 2016, Final Pista, LA consagración de los 6 mejores y el campeón. 2016. YouTube video, 12:03. Posted by “AiresDeMilonga,” August 30. Accessed January 15, 2017.

                                “Mundial de Tango 2016 Final Final escenario, Hugo Mastrolorenzo, Agustina Vignou.” 2016. YouTube video, 5:21. Posted by “AiresDeMilonga,” August 31. Accessed January 15, 2017.

                                Pedro, Dom. 2013. Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango. Paris: AMA Productions. Distributed by ArtMattan Productions.Find this resource:


                                  (1.) I competed on the DanceSport circuit as an amateur from 1991–1997 and as a professional from 1997–2003, averaging one competition a month over twelve years.

                                  (2.) Lyrics from “Cheek to Cheek,” written by Irving Berlin for Top Hat (1935), starring Astaire and Rogers.

                                  (3.) Rodrigo Videla, interview with Juliet McMains, September 4, 2016, Buenos Aires.

                                  (4.) Andrea Monti, Skype interview with Juliet McMains, April 12, 2016.

                                  (5.) Sidney Grant, telephone interview with Juliet McMains, April 25, 2016.

                                  (6.) Sidney Grant, telephone interview with Juliet McMains, April 25, 2016.