Thursday 19 March 2015

Strictly Come Dancing and the Tango World Championship

This post is here to clear up some mysteries about Argentine Tango on Strictly Come Dancing. It's going to be pretty long and it is VERY old news, that is, several years. [Update - I've just been forwarded a press release for "The Last Tango" dated 24th April 2015 repeating the claim "Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace - World Champions", so maybe not such old news after all.]

So, the mysteries. I have started from the premise that I am seeing, not a wickedness or an incompetence to be criticised, but a mystery to be explained.

If you're an SCD viewer and not particularly into tango, you may want to refer to Argentine Tango for TV Viewers. If you haven't got time, then just take it as read it's a ballroom show, and that's a totally seperate, unrelated community and practice to what I talk about on this blog.

The mysteries, in essence, are:

1.Why is it that when the Argentine Tango comes along, the celebrities usually look like perfectly decent beginners (and the men tend to look better than the women), but the professionals look awkward, stiff, effortful and disconnected? Sometimes, with good choreographies, this doesn't happen - but usually it does.
2. Why do the judges and commentators sometimes give technique advice for tango that appears to  contradict what we normally do in tango?
3. What exactly were Vincent and Flavia "World Champions" of?

It turns out, after some research, that the answer to each of these things explains the others, in reverse order. So I'll start with number 3.

What exactly were Vincent and Flavia "World Champions" of?

Here is the un-forgettable Bruce Forsyth, in an episode broadcast on 9th December 2007. At twelve seconds in, he says:
"Please welcome the two-times World Argentine Tango Show Champions, our very own Vincent and Flavia!"

Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace are a dance teaching and performance partnership who appeared on SCD for a few years. There is currently no such claim on their official site, but there is something like it on the website of their stage show,
Titles include: UK Professional Ten Dance champions 2002–2006; UK Professional Showdance champions 2003–2006; UK Argentine Tango champions 2006 (first time competition has ever been held); World Argentine Tango Show champions 2005/2006; UK Ballroom champions for several years; World and European Ten Dance and Showdance finalists 2002–2006. 2006 saw their move away from competitions, and from the fourth series onwards, into recurring roles on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
The UK part is clear. In 2006 there was a UK feeder competition for the Tango World Championship or Mundial de Tango, held at Negracha Tango Club.  According to friends and acquaintances who were there, there were very few entrants, and not of a high standard. Vincent and Flavia did a professional job, treated the event with respect, and won. No similar event was organised again until 2014 (see mega-footnote 1).

The "World Champions" part is the mystifying one. It sounds like the next level up of the same competition; but that's not true.

 This is the performance that won the Escenario ("Stage", or "Show") category of that same tango word championship ("Mundial de Tango") in Buenos Aires in 2005. The couple were German Cornejo and María de los Angeles Trabichet, of Argentina. German Cornejo, incidentally, is the choreographer of the current Tango Fire show at the Peacock, which I reviewed here.

In 2006 it was won by a Colombian couple, Carlos Alberto Paredes and Diana Giraldo Rivera. I can't find video of the performance, but there is plenty of video of them doing later demonstrations. Here's a tango-nuevo one, the style I think they look most at home in.

Neither of those couples, obviously, is Vincent and Flavia.

The Tango World Championship, or Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango, has been held in Buenos Aires annually since 2003. It has two categories, Salon (which means ballroom, that is, improvised dancing suitable, at least in theory, for a sufficiently roomy social dance floor) and Escenario (which means stage, that is, choreography suitable for the stage). It's very well known. I should clarify that not everyone who dances tango is particularly crazy about either the concept or the contents. Competition isn't much of a thing in tango communities; and a lot of excellent dancers, maybe the majority, maybe even a large majority, are uninterested in the Mundial or the styles of dancing that it promotes. However, it gets entrants from all over the world who dance extremely well in those styles. Most people who dance tango have heard of it at least once. It's definitely the only tango competition of which that is true. It's difficult to win, it's definitely prestigious in a certain way, and people get substantial career benefits as teachers and performers from doing well in it.

Although the official website of the championship is unhelpful, Wikipedia has a convenient listing of the winners from 2003, when it was first held. The first few years have had  to be compiled from newspaper reports, so I included those links above.Vincent and Flavia have definitely never won it in any year. So what was Brucie on about?

The obvious path is to email Vincent and Flavia at the address given on their website, and politely ask what competition it was that they won. So I did that. I got the following reply:
Hi Flavia

Can you help me with the answer to this one, or shall I ignore it? G X X 
This is what your web site used to say
2002-2006 UK Professional Ten Dance Champions,
2003-2006 UK Professional Show Dance Champions,
2006 UK Argentine Tango Show Champions,
2005/6 World Argentine Tango Show Champions,
2002-2006 World and European Ten Dance and Showdance Finalists

(Highlighting mine). This was actually rather helpful, as otherwise I wouldn't have been sure that they'd ever made any such claim themselves. Since it seemed needless to pursue an unwelcome correspondence, when I'd stopped laughing, I did a bit more asking around, with the help of a few friends.

The extremely careful and detailed stats website Ultimate Strictly has the following rather different information:

  • Negracha club UK Argentine Tango Champions, 2006
  • IDO World Argentine Tango Finalists, 2005/2006 (3rd place overall - winners, Show Tango section)
  • Aha! Ultimate Strictly to the rescue. So we're talking about an Argentine Tango championship created by one of the many general dance competition organisations, in this case the International Dance Organisation, IDO. They organise loads of  competitions, for all sorts of dances, and they classify Argentine Tango along with Salsa, Merengue, and West Coast Swing, under the "Special Couple Dances Department".

    The IDO's website says this:

    "Special Couple Dances department

    Some of these dances are traditional favorites all over the world. Salsa and Argentine Tango have probably some of the largest dance communities in the world today."
    My compliments to the writer. I might have done the same if I'd been paid to write copy for the website. It allows the reader to infer, if they wish, that this competition has a connection with that large dance community, without in any way saying so. Nicely done.

    The IDO's website only has results since 2008. So I emailed them, and they were extremely helpful, just as I would have expected from a professional ballroom dance organisation. The Vice-President, Klaus Höllbacher, said that no official results were available for years before 2008, but he was able to confirm the following from his personal notes:
    They have danced for the UK in Seefeld, Austria:
    European Championship Tango Argentino 2005 = 4th Place
    World Championship Tango Argentino 2006 = 3rd Place
    Unfortunately, no detail was available on the 'tango-show' section, if any. So, to summarise:
    • It looks as though they were, in 2006, placed first in an the "Show Tango" subcategory of an Argentine Tango category of a multi-category competition organised by IDO. They placed third overall. The IDO office was unable to confirm the Show Tango part, as they have not retained detailed records from that year, but there is still such a category, so this is surely correct.
    • The IDO competition does claim to be a "World Championship". It  is certainly not the one that people have heard of, as far as tango is concerned, but it is called a world championship by the people who do it.
    • They were in 2005 placed 4th in the IDO European Championship.  I don't understand the "2005/6" thing, but my best guess is that it  refers to some progression from IDO European to IDO World Championships, not a "two-time" anything.
    • They did once enter the UK section of what would normally be referred to as the "Tango World Championship", on that night at Negracha in 2006, where they won.

    I looked for video of the IDO competition, to get an idea of it, and I found this of the "Vals" final in 2012, and this of the "Milonga" semi-final. I would describe the milonga as awkward, hurried, disconnected, stiff and clumsy flailing in the general direction of the music; some of the vals is better, and looks like you might see from some long-term students in the intermediate class at a tango-salon kind of place in London. I am less inclined to criticise the samples of show-tango from 2012; I think the first one of those is sweet, sincere, technically nice, and more meaningful, musical, and engaging than tango-shows normally allow themselves to be. As for the second, although it doesn't look quite like what you'd see in Tango Fire, I've certainly seen far worse from people who ought to know better. It's interesting to see two such different approaches. Sadly, the first couple don't seem to have been placed. But they're dancing more like Mundial-style tango-salon, so I can understand that.

    It seems only fair to mention at this point that I haven't seen Dance Till Dawn, but I'd expect it to be better than Tango Fire. Tango stage shows tend to be technically accomplished but unimaginative,  and shows that use a variety of dance styles do a better job of being entertaining.

    As for the original claim in the video - the "two-times" part is an reasonable reading of the "2005/6" thing, but it appears to be wrong. It would be equally understandable for the viewer to assume that "World Argentine Tango Show Champions" referred to the Mundial, if they were aware that it existed. But mistaken. However, I think that most Strictly viewers who were into ballroom dance would be more likely never to have heard of the Mundial, and to correctly understand it as referring to something like the IDO competition. In their case, the only misunderstanding would be the assumption that it was world-class tango, which in my opinion is also very mistaken. But they might well not make any such assumption at all.  The general public might assume that world championships in dance are the same kind of thing as world championships in sport - but that's probably not a safe assumption for any kind of dance, least of all those that have real social communities.

    2. Why do the judges and commentators give such surprising technique advice?

    Short version: If you want to win a ballroom dancing competition that has AT as an event, like the IDO one we discovered above, all the advice given on Strictly is probably pretty good. Just don't expect anyone at a milonga to think you dance well.

    Long version about how it's a bad idea to "kick! from the knee!", as advised on an ITT episode in December - edited out: if you want some better advice, Oscar Casas explains it briefly at 00:42 here. To me, the difference is huge and explains the huge difference in how everything looks; but I also think you have to know what the tango way looks and feels like, and you have to try both methods in the context of dancing as a connected couple, to appreciate what the difference is and why it matters.

    On the same show, I thought following was explained completely wrong, but talking to ex-ballroom-professionals revealed that the explanation made sense from that point of view, given the changes they have to make to adapt to tango. So this also depends where you start from and what you are trying to achieve.

    As for arguments about the embrace, tango people argue about that all the time anyway.

    3. Why do the celebs look like perfectly decent beginners, but the pros tend to look just stiff?

    The pros are generally ballroom pros who have carefully adapted their dance in way that would do well under the rules and description of Argentine Tango for the IDO competition (page 81 in the PDF). Tango dancers - social and professional - use a range of rather different techniques which it would take far too much time for a ballroom pro to learn, and which the videos suggest wouldn't benefit you in that sort of competition.

    The celebs haven't been through this training, so they look like beginners who are trying to lead and follow, which normally looks fine. And the reason why the men look better than the women is that they mostly aren't being told to "kick from the knees", or indeed kick at all, and they also aren't attempting to do anything that physically can't work. Both the beginner women and the professionals are usually trying to do things that only look good if you've got a specific, very relaxed technique that just isn't there. Doing what Oscar says at 00:42, and having it work, physically takes more than a week's or a month's practice.

    It's certainly possible to do a good job of Argentine Tango coming from a ballroom/latin background, especially with the right partner, but I would expect it to be quite a lot of effort.

    As for the question of why nobody sorted this out before, I think the answer is that nobody cares. It's taken me bloody ages, and I think these interactions, confusions and relationships are actually  interesting.

    1. The attempt to hold a UK competition was not repeated, as far as I know, until a different organisation had another go at the franchise in 2014, billing it as a "European Championship" and accepting entries from various countries, which is a whole other story. I watched the first round, and got a lot more entertainment for my £20 than I expected. There were thirteen couples, generally of a low to reasonable standard, but there was, again, one professional couple who turned up and treated the event with a great deal more respect than it deserved - for their own reasons which became clear afterwards and had to do with qualification for the actual European Championship in Turin. They were disqualified on the second night after (a) spectators had concluded they could not lose, because they really were genuinely rather good and (b) the representative from Buenos Aires pointed out that they were, in fact, not eligible to enter in the London section under the London organisers' agreement with Buenos Aires, despite the fact that the organisers had taken their (steep) entrance fee and confirmed in writing that they were, as well as so claiming in the list of eligible countries on their website (of course I have screenshots). The excuse given was that Valentin was "from the wrong part of Russia". The only sensible response to which was, "What?" followed by a lot of bemused but exciting speculation as to what could possibly really have happened, how many pissed-off Russians the tango world can handle, and how this made any sense when Russia is so hard-to-miss that even random rocks from space can find it all the time. Generally, it was the worst-organised sporting event I have ever had the privilege to see. Obviously, it was always going to start an hour late. But if you have the job of announcing the competitors' names, which are in several languages you don't know, this is what you do: you ask each of them beforehand to pronounce their own name for you two or three times, try it, get them to correct you, then write down what you said, phonetically, next to the name on your list. Then you concentrate and read it out. You do not stand there and insult the efforts of the competitors and the intelligence of the audience by foolishly simpering a mangled mess of names as you glorify your own cluelessness. And if you're going to run a sporting event certified by a governing body, you make sure you publish, and use, and stick to, a correct version of the rules. I am really not crazy about the Mundial, the dancing is boring at best, but I was embarrased at how the competitors had been treated in my country. Regardless of standard, they'd stood up and put themselves out there, and they deserved better. I was, though, happy with the result in the Escenario section, as the winner after the disqualification was in fact the performance I most enjoyed of the three total entries. It was somewhat well executed, and thoroughly sincere. I've never seen happier legs in my life. If you want to enjoy next year's edition, good luck.

    This epic footnote is in memory of Terry Pratchett.