Sunday 4 December 2016

Perfect Things

There are things I want to be able lead and that I could go to a class and be told how to lead.

But they're things of the kind to which I have a deep-down awkward attitude that says, if I can't work out from first principles how to do them myself, I ought not to be doing them at all.

Monday 28 November 2016

A Brief Rant on Poetry

One of the things I like about tango is that when I DO pay attention to the lyrics, which is not always, I normally find that they're not shit.

Sometimes I don't understand them, sometimes my reaction is "yeah, right", sometimes they're kind of routine, sometimes the content is morally or aesthetically objectionable in one way or another, and sometimes they're hard to take in the sense that the writer presumably intended, but I can't think of an occasion when they annoyed me by being badly written. Very often, they're great, like "removiendo fotos en mi corazón" and things like that. Or maybe I just don't notice the bad bits because it's not my native language and even when they are a bit weak, I don't take it personally, so I instantly forget it. If you have an example of badly-written tango lyrics, please put them, with your analysis, in the comments.

Today I encountered a poem by a Poet Laureate, no less (the official state poet!), specifically commissioned and written to be carved in stone at the UK Supreme Court. And it's dire. He starts with a nice idea about the setting; he trips over his scansion in line three by adding an unnecessary word that makes the line more twee and less meaningful; and then what a limp, superficial, witless, smug, plodding, naive, insincere four verses. And this appears on the website far too close to a picture of Lord Denning, who besides being a famous and unusually talented judge, really was a poet, in his own way.

Could we not have got somebody good to do this? There must be so many rap artists who could have done a better job of a thoughtful, historically-informed, engaging and aesthetically vigorous poem about the difficulties and importance of the administration of justice. And it would have scanned, rhymed, and made sense to music.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Krissy on Kennet Radio: the magic of tango

My friend Krissy King does a wonderful job in this, describing the magic of tango. The whole programme is fun, with chat about sewing, salsa, Strictly Come Dancing and other matters, but Krissy comes on just before 01:10:00 and finishes at about 01:20:00. I think her description, and the reactions in the studio, are worth studying for anyone who might find themselves in the position of trying to describe tango to a friend or stranger.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Night of the Swooshpout

A month or two ago I happenend to be at a practica which, for some reason possibly something to do with some other events on the previous few days, had attracted a slightly bigger than normal, and slightly unusual, crowd. Not in conflict with its usual crowd, but taking the usual theme and extending it well beyond its normal parameters.

It is a peculiar and fascinating experience for a middle-aged woman to lead on a floor where the men - many of them youngish and prettyish - are so wholly and competitively focussed on each other*.

They glare, they pout, they sweep about, in bubbles of anxious pretensions and a fog of masculinity.

Their partners - pencil-skirted, peeled, and vertiginously heeled, fluffed, big-eyed, and glittering (for a practica), are there only to applaud, more or less. They have to work hard for attention, because the boys are focused on each other and who can do the best imitation of a six-foot plastic Carlitos.

A few attempt the plastic Chicho, but he's rather out of fashion, if not quite far enough out of fashion to be retro. Yet.

It reminded me more than anything of the crying-with-laughter moment in the 2012 Olympics when Clare Balding started to relate how the male swimmers allegedly beat their chests before a race "... and the women [pause, during which Clare realises that this sentence has nowhere it can possibly go and Ian Thorpe collapses in giggles] ... do not."

It is most peculiar to feel this atmosphere overwhelming me and demanding that I either fight it, which is hard work and extremely distracting, or be sucked in and try to do the same myself, which is ludicrous. Somehow or other, I have to find a way to float and let it all wash past me. It's not easy and it requires a constant, determined effort at maintaining the connection with my own dance, my own pleasure, my own partner and my own priorities. And also at asserting my right to be there and to occupy my equal share of space, which is in itself a challenge. The answer may be to develop some sort of Somebody Else's Problem field; I will let you know if there is an outcome to my research on this.


* Or, to be fair, about 60% on each other and 30% on Carlitos, with the rest left over for female and other matters. I specifically want to say that I wouldn't want to give Carlitos any shit for this. I know from direct firsthand information that when he was teaching a regular beginners' class in the south of France he produced some of my absolute favourite dancers anywhere, with not only the purest warm-hearted modesty and competency of dance, but the kind of embraces that leave behind a little trail of floating hearts as we dance around the floor, exactly like on Periscope. I saw nothing at the practica that was on the same planet as any of those. That is the way tango should be, and very often is. But not in the fog.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Very Sad Tango Social Media Retweet

This is "Tati" Caviglia, who was murdered three weeks ago.

I didn't know her, but I know a lot of people who did. Their grief is part of the reason it upsets me more than a report of a faraway murder usually would.

There are two suspects, one of whom has already returned from his flight and given interviews, but doesn't appear to be under arrest (although I have some trouble making sense of the relevant news reports, lacking any familiarity with the normal operations of the justice system in Argentina, so I could be wrong about that). In an interview with a local newspaper he accused the other suspect of the murder, here quoted by a TV journalist:

Or in English: "[Her] employee Ezequiel Blanco recounts that the other suspect Joel Baez said to him 'what's up with this old woman? Is she alone?'"

It's not clear to me what, if anything, he has said to the police, although his lawyers have been on TV.

So it seems there were two young men, doing jobs in her house, at least one of whom decided that he had the right to violently destroy her body, that body that was moving so beautifully on the beat, but only belonged to an old woman who didn't matter, so she couldn't live in it any more, and that if he put it in a suitcase and set fire to it some distance away, and then went to Bolivia, no one who mattered would notice and the consequences of his other thefts from her would be less, rather than more.

I repeat: one of them says that the other one checked that she didn't belong to anyone who mattered; that he wasn't taking her life from anyone but her.

I may be looking in the wrong places, but I'm only seeing "find this person" tweets from her many friends, not the police. This picture only shows the witness already interviewed:
This one shows the other fugitive, now supposed to be in Bolivia.
The news reports do not explain what efforts are being made to find him. As someone brought up on Crimewatch this seems weird to me, but I have no information about how these things are normally done and a few seconds' thought makes it obvious that it is much easier to be a permanent fugitive anywhere in South America than it is here. I just had to talk about this before I could talk about anything else. So for now I'll leave it at that.

Friday 29 July 2016

Judging Correlation in the Mundial de Tango (more Fun with Data)

Ok, in the previous post I said that there's no agreement among the judges during the final of the Mundial de Tango (Pista) or Tango World Championship. I showed you the charts that convinced me, but I didn't properly measure and show the degree of disagreement.

This second Power BI report has a page for each year available. You can select any two individual judges and see how far they agreed with each other about how to rank the couples. So, if you think, for example, that two of the judges dance a similar style to each other, you can see* if their opinions about the finalists' quality of dance correlate with each other. (Spoiler: nope.)**

To change the year, move to the next page using the arrows at the bottom centre. If the report is too small, misbehaves, or won't fit on your screen properly, try popping it out with the diagonal arrow thing at the bottom right hand corner. You might have to scroll the selectors right and left to see all the judges.

The judges' rankings of the couples do not correlate with one another.

1.00 is a perfect correlation: each judge agrees perfectly with him-or-her self. A low correlation between two judges means they didn't agree much, and a negative correlation would mean they ranked the couples in the opposite way to each other. There are one or two cases of small negative correlations.

I'm sure all the judges' opinions on people's dancing, in various circumstances, are highly valuable - that's why they were picked to judge - but they have nothing to do with one another, and their collective decisions are therefore, to put it mildly, not much help to anyone else in distinguishing between the finalists.

One reasonable interpretation of this result is that the judges have an impossible task; all the couples in the final dance in much the same way, and there is no real difference between them that the judges could possibly agree about. It is as though you, I, and five of our mates solemnly and conscientiously gave scores to the aesthetic qualities of six eggs from the same nest.

Why are the eggs all from the same nest? Perhaps because any excellent dancer with a visually-apparent difference of style and musicality would, on the face of it, have much to lose and nothing to gain by entering this competition. But even if the dancers were different, while all good, it's not clear that would help; it might be even more meaningless to decide between them.

There may be different interpretations: go ahead and put them in the comments, and let's see if we can think of a way to tell which is right. One would be that there are real differences, but the judges don't agree about which ones are important; they are using totally individual and independent criteria. No information is published about what criteria they use.

In order to distinguish between the couples, the judges would have to agree both on what differences exist and on which ones are important. For example, because of the way the couples get to the final, one of them is usually much older and less mobile than the others. It seems to me that the judges have agreed that the differences which go with that are not important, although I don't have the couple-number data to show that; the only way to get it is to watch the video.

As for what it means, and whether it is a good thing, we began to talk about this in the comments on the previous post.

I think it is a good thing that the Mundial is not like a ballroom competition, with the rigidity and the arms-race that implies; that could be very toxic for something that wants to remain a living social dance.  I don't think that finding the best dancers out of a good bunch is what the Mundial is really for. As I said before, it makes more sense to think that its purpose is to bring a steady stream of decent young salonsters to public notice, while honouring the occasional veteran; it's a very pretty industry-promotion and heritage-publicity thingie, not a sport.

Indeed, perhaps the Mundial has a somewhat paradoxical role in protecting tango from ballroomisation. All the finalists indisputably have good looking technique, whereas there are ballroom schools teaching a genuinely ballroomised argentine tango with a totally different  technique and approach, completely clueless about the social scene. The international dance associations even include it in some of their competitions (and that, for UK readers, was what Vincent and Flavia were up to with their "Tango World Champions" thing, which I've explained elsewhere). We can fairly confidently say that nobody dancing that way would ever get to the Mundial final, at least not in the Pista category - and that is a good thing. It's good that the Mundial exists and people can discover, quite easily, that the ballroom competitions are not it. But the relationship between regular ballroom schools, various international dance organisations, and Argentine tango, is another interesting subject for further research.

It would be great to have judge-level scores from earlier rounds. I'd expect to see a lot more agreement at the lower end; if we could combine that with video, we'd be able to learn something about what criteria are really being applied. And, if so, I'd expect to find that those criteria are by their nature useless in the final. Unfortunately, that data isn't published. If you think you can obtain it, please comment.

Bottom line: there's no evidence here that there's any point in remembering who won.

*You'll notice some straight vertical and horizontal lines in the charts. Judges rank a lot of couples equal with one another. They don't give forty different marks to forty different couples. I haven't done the calculations over the marks seperately from the rankings; I thought doing rankings would be clearer, as the judges don't work around any common average. Some judges give out marks only from a restricted set of integers, but others try to make fine distinctions. They see each couple dance three tracks. The see them in groups of ten to a dozen couples, and the couples don't all dance the same tracks - have a look at the post on Music in the Mundial for a description of the procedure, and links to video. 
** To be fair, there is one case of a nearly 0.7 correlation, which is very impressive compared with all the others, and you probably could say the two judges involved went together. I won't spoil that one, as it would be much better if you tried to predict who it would be and then looked. Maybe it's real, or maybe it just had to happen accidentally somewhere. There are also some cases of unimpressive 0.3 or 0.4 correlations looking strong against a background of zero to negative correlations. People who are personally acquainted with the judges might feel there was something to say there, but I'm sceptical that it isn't pure chance.

Monday 25 July 2016

Judging in the Mundial Final (Fun with Data)

You would think it would be easy to download the scores for a fairly simple dance competition. There are forty-odd pairs of competitors, there are seven judges, the judges observe the competitors doing their thing, and each judge utters a score for each pair. The scores are recorded and tabulated, an average is calculated for each pair, and they are ranked accordingly. It's that simple. They don't even do a 'sporting average' - which would mean they knocked off the highest and lowest scores before calculation. Repeat yearly.

As it turned out, it's rather a pain, but the data for 2015 was published by someone who apparently knew what they were doing and could create a relatively sensible PDF table of results, so I started there. But below, you can explore results for each year from 2012, which is where we start to get half-way useful data. [Edit: I forgot to mention that I use, here, only the Tango Pista (improvised Tango de Salon) competition in the Mundial. I do not look at Tango Escenario (choreographed 'Stage Tango'). That might be a useful comparison.]

The data is not perfect; in particular there are errors in the names of couples where I had to look these up from different documents that were very poorly formatted and I didn't have time to fix all the problems. There are lots of messed-up accented characters, and some town or country names mixed in with the couple names. But relationship between couple ID number and score should always be right, and the name recognisable, where it's available at all.

It's possible that there is cleaner data somewhere else, but I decided to go entirely from the official website and do the data cleaning myself. If two people do this independently, that's no bad thing.

Before starting, I had some questions.

  1. How much agreement is there between the judges about which couples are better than others?
  2. If the highest and lowest scores were rejected before calculating the average, as is done in most competitions with subjective scoring, how much difference would it make to the results? 
  3. Supposing there is agreement between the judges, is there anything we can observe about the couples that explains high or low scores?
Below, I've embedded a Power BI dashboard addressing these questions.

It's interactive. You can navigate between the pages using the arrows at the bottom, and select the year using buttons.  It has a page of notes, but I'm going to repeat the gist of them below. The big tables take several seconds to load. If you can't see it well, it may behave better if you make it full screen using the arrow thing at bottom right.

The data all comes from, but you can download my cleaned-up compilation instead (from a few minutes after posting time).

For some years, the names of the couples are not given in the final rankings, only their competition numbers. Where possible, I have looked up the names from the published scores of preliminary rounds. I assume that the couple's ID number stays the same throughout the competition. Not all couple numbers appear in the scores of preliminary rounds, perhaps because they reached the final via other rounds in other countries or other competitions. In these cases, the couple name reads "Not Provided" with the year and ID number.

In this report, as well as the official average, I also calculate what I call the "sporting average" as used in most subjectively scored competitions; that is, the average if you ignore the couple's highest and lowest score. Finally I calculate the standard deviation of the scores.

The pages are as follows:
  1. Scores chart - shows the scores given by each judge in the selected year.
  2. Hi/Lo chart - shows the high and low scores averages for each couple.
  3. Ranks chart - shows how far the judges agreed on how to rank the couples.
  4. Scores table - shows how many places each couple moves if you ignore high and low scores in calculating the average.
  5. Ranks table - shows detail of how each judge ranked the couples. If they gave two couples equal scores, those couples get the same rank.
  6. Competition ID - we'll come back to this below.
  7. Notes, basically this information.
  8. A table of all the data, not as it looks in the underlying spreadsheet, but as it looks after Power Query mashes all the years into one data set for calculations. This also shows the average score and the standard deviation calculated over the population as a whole; you can select individual years and judges.

Question 1: agreement between the judges

There is not very much consensus between the judges on either the score or the ranking of any particular couple. They make it difficult for themselves to make fine distinctions by not awarding the full range of marks. Marks are out of ten, but the lowest that appears in any of the clasificatorias (not shown in this data) is 3.75.

I see a floor in the marks for the final; in 2015 the flat lines at 7 stand out in the scatter of scores, as though the judges felt collectively that anything lower would be impolite.

The second-placed couple in 2015 has a high score of 10 and a low score equal to that of the lowest couple. The first-placed couple were not ranked first by any judge. The only couple ranked first by more than one judge was placed 9th. To find the lowest-ranked who were placed top by at least one judge, we have to go down the couple ranked 25th overall. The lowest-ranked couple with a top-three ranking from at least one judge were placed 39th of the 41 couples. Looking at the other years, 2015 does not look atypical. In 2012 and 2013, exactly one of the top five was placed first by more than one judge, and in 2014 two of them were, including the winners.

There seems, looking at the Hi-Lo charts, to be slightly more consensus at the bottom than at the top, but this could be just because of the unofficial floors (which it looks as though not every judge agrees on). When I look at the chart of rankings, rather than scores, I don't see any more agreement at the lower end than the higher end.

In the ranking table, you can de-select a particular judge or combination of judges to see how your favourite couple might have done without them.

On only two occasions from 2012 has any one of the top five couples been placed first by more than one single judge.

On the final page of the report you can look at the standard deviation in the scores awarded by individual judges. Some judges appear in more than one year, sometimes with their names formatted differently, as full names were given in only one year. If a judge has a higher standard deviation, it means they awarded a wider range of marks; presumably, they were more convinced that some couples were better than others. A lower standard deviation means they awarded similar marks to everyone. Unfortunately the judges don't seem to agree on which couples they are, or are not, so convinced about.

Question 2: Sporting Average

Because the marks are, in my view, all over the place anyway, eliminating high and low scores before calculating the average doesn't make a lot of difference to the competition overall. It does make a difference to individual couples: it would have reversed the top 2 in 2015, and the couple placed 30th would have risen 8 places. This is the largest gain in any year, and also occurred in 2014. The largest loss is 12 places in 2012, and there seem to be bigger losses than gains for individual couples generally; someone goes down by a lot and everyone they drop below gains one. This seems consistent with the observed 'marking floor'; when a judge disagrees with their peers, they apparently tend to do so by awarding a very high mark rather than by going below the general 'floor' for that year.

Question 3: Is there anything we can observe about the couples that goes with high or low scores?

There isn't, in my view, enough agreement between the judges - or enough good video - to say much about this question.

I noticed is that there was a pattern to the numbers pinned on the couples' suits; there are a lot more lower ones. Closer inspection of the source data shows that this probably has something to do with the geographical origin of the couple and their route to the final. The system of awarding numbers is not covered in the published rules, but it seems the lower numbers are given in Buenos Aires and the higher numbers further afield.

So, taking this as a proxy for where couples came from, I checked to see if it was also related to their scores, and this is shown in the final chart, "Competition ID". Answer: not really.

The line in the same chart shows the average score for each block of 10. There are more couples with lower numbers, so perhaps we'd expect their average score to end up closer to the overall average of all couples than it is; it's rather higher. But those couples are also likely to have had more serious competition in previous rounds, which should also drive their average up compared to everyone else arriving via other routes. There isn't an obvious relationship between couple number and score as such. The foreigners are fine too, there just aren't that many of them.

More precise geographical origin of the couples is at least partially given in the source data, but as it's mostly in the form of tiny flags in graphics it would be a lot more work to get it, which I haven't done.

So, basically, no, there isn't anything I can say about how to do well, based on this data. There's no couple who did so clearly well or so clearly badly that you could watch and learn.

General remarks

In my own opinion, it's rather unrealistic of me to look at the Mundial as though it were a sporting competition. If it were you were really going for an exciting sporting competition, or some sort of mechanism for identifying the best dancers, then you would probably design a rather different event. It might, for example, include challenging tests of the ability to dance well to a variety of music, including milonga and vals, on a floor more than one-third full. There might be more rounds, with the judges taking longer looks at fewer couples in each. Judging criteria would be a matter of public record, rather than rumour. And there would be a system for creating agreement between the judges over time, beyond simply agreeing that scores below 7 were impolite. What it is, rather, is a marketing exercise for the 'Tango Salon' industry, designed to honour the heritage and disseminate awareness of the music and dance, while bringing lots of young couples who dance in a certain popular, standard-ish way, to public attention and prosperity.

If you are choosing a teacher, having reached the final in the Mundial indicates that a couple dance well in a particular style and have good tango technique, at least when dancing with their competition partner - as opposed to the very different sort of technique that is used for "Argentine Tango" on Strictly Come Dancing. It is not evidence that even one judge in the final thought they were the best. They may have been, but the chances are the judges didn't know - or if they thought they knew, they certainly didn't agree - in which case, I definitely don't know, and you don't know, either. Their ranking within the final says very little, if anything at all.

This is, in my opinion, pretty much how it should be. I don't think a true sporting competition in these circumstances would necessarily be a good idea. It didn't do ballroom any good, as a social dance.

In particular, I think it's probably a good thing that the judges don't agree. Standardisation would be toxic.

I do have a couple more questions.
  • Can we seperate the level of disagreement between the judges from the question of whether there is any real difference between the couples that they could possibly measure? I can compare the real data with simulated data based on having and not having a real difference, and the results are amusing, but I think I end up assuming what I set out to prove. It might be more interesting to compare the Campeonato de la Ciudad.
  • Does the order in which the couples are called - in four rondas - have any relation to their scores? I do have at least partial data for this, but putting it together requires some more work.
  • It would be nice to have tidy data about geographical origin, but again, it's a lot of work to peer at all the little flags in the published data and write down what they are, and it probably doesn't tell us much more than the competition ID numbers do; most of the people who are both interested in entering this competition, and competent enough to do well, are Argentinians.
Anyway, enjoy interacting with the report, and go ahead, share and comment. I'll upload the data so you can download it and do your own analysis.

Mundial Dialogue (Fun with Data)

This dialogue is an imaginary summary of at least a full day of faffing about trying to get the data together.

Hello. I notice there is rather a lack of anything fact-based about how the Mundial actually works, the judging, and so on. I'd like to download all the published results from previous years and analyse them to see if I can say anything interesting about it.

Hello. We have a website that covers each year since 2009, and most of the results are probably there somewhere, except for 2009 when they aren't.

Great, I can get all the files and mash up the data with Power Query.

We don't publish any individual judge scores, even for the semifinal or finals, before 2012.

Not to worry. Four years is a good start.

Before 2012, the results are sensible tables. From 2012 onwards, the semi-finals and finals are just PDFs of pictures of the scores. We don't name the couples. For 2014 and 2015 we do name the couples, but seperately from the scores, and in different formats.

I have access to some pretty good OCR technology, I have a great text editor, I know Regular Expressions, I have Power Query, and if it comes to that, I can put the PDF on my tablet on a book-chair and retype it all at 50wpm. I bet you named most of the couples in the classification rounds.

The links for the 2012 Final and Semifinal are broken. Those documents are just Error 404s.

But I know exactly how these things work, and I can guess, by analogy with documents that are there,  that for the final, instead of
you meant And for the Semifinal, instead of, you made a different mistake and you actually meant

Do you think this is a good idea?

Do you think you're going to win this?

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Beautiful art on a big decision

Matthew has made a brilliant little piece of art; the way the Remain campaign should have been done.

If you are on a mobile you will have to "request desktop site" (it's always there somewhere) - it's because of the music, which is hilarious.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Music of the Mundial Final

This post studies the music used in the final of the Mundial de Tango in the years 2012-2015. I have no information about how or why the music is chosen, or whether any guidelines exist for the person or committee choosing the music. In this post I simply observe what they actually chose.


I compiled this data by watching the videos in this playlist. They are kindly provided by Aires de Milonga, a website I recommend; they provide these videos for nothing, but they offer additional services to those who subscribe a very small annual sum via Paypal.

Each final consists of approximately forty couples, and is divided into four Rondas. For each ronda, three tracks are played. Only tangos are used; no milonga or vals.

Over the four years, this gives a total of 3 x 4 x 4 = 48 tracks, but there are actually 49, because in the first ronda of 2013 something happens off-camera during track 3 that bumps the floor and disturbs the competitors' concentration. A fourth track is played, in the same style.

To begin with, I noted the orchestra, singer, and title of each track.  I then searched for the tracks on and on YouTube until I was reasonably satisfied that I had identified them correctly.

The full data set can be downloaded here: if you notice an error, please describe it in the comments. The tracks are announced at about the 3-minute mark of each ronda, immediately after the couples do their preliminary walk around the floor so the judges can see their numbers.


Style rotation

I perceived the tracks for each ronda as covering a predominantly dramatic style, a predominantly rhythmic style, and an in-between, lyrical, or other style, in no particular order. I have added these wholly subjective categorisations in the full data set. You will probably disagree with at least some of them, perhaps many. The word "Lyrical" is fairly meaningless and just refers to the in-between or mixed or melody-led style of track that isn't either of the others; often it is the track that would allow competitors to show off the technical achievement of a slow, smooth, graceful walk. I may update my classifications to make them a bit more meaningful and regular.

The use of these three broad styles in each ronda makes sense on the basis that each couple gets the chance to show off a broad range of technical and musical powers. Each ronda in each final obviously needs to be stylistically similar to the other two. I note, though, that 40 couples seems a lot for a 'final'; the naive observer might have expected to see, say, only ten different couples, and see them dance for a little longer or to a wider range of music.


The orchestras used looked like this.

Orchestras of recordings used in the final of the Mundial de Tango, 2012-2015

It seems notable to me that there is absolutely no Biagi, and absolutely no Canaro.

Given the volume and excellence of their output, if they were going to be used at all, you'd think they'd be in there somewhere, over the four years. If you were practicing for the final, and you didn't have this data, you might spend time with those guys; but it seems you'd be wrong.

It can imagine a pretty good argument for not using any Biagi. There's no reasonable substitute, so if you used, say, one of the great Biagi instrumentals in one ronda, it might seem very unfair not to use another in each of the four Rondas. Everybody needs a roughly equal chance to either shine or make fools of themselves; and that would make Biagi too prominent and would mean you had to sacrifice something else. I hypothesise that if there were a vals competition, there'd be plenty of Biagi in there.

There is already a widely-held belief that Argentinians consider Canaro a bit 'common'. Nothing in this data really supports or dispels such an idea; but they don't use any in the final. Nor do they use any of the orchestras that come to mind as stylistically similar to Canaro's most currently-popular output; Lomuto, OTV, Carabelli, Típica Porteña, etc. So it does support the idea that this style of music is not considered appropriate for competition. And again, if there were a milonga competition, we'd see Canaro.

Years of Recording

This is what the years of recording look like.

Year of recordings used in the final of the Mundial de Tango, 2012-2015
It's notable that there's a long tail to the right, stretching all the way to 1959, but nothing at all on the left earlier than 1934.

Decade of recordings used in the final of the Mundial de Tango, 2012-2015
It's no suprise that most of it is from the 40s. But the notable thing for me is that more than a fifth of the recordings are after 1949; they slightly outnumber the ones from the 30s.


If you were doing well in the Mundial and you were practicing for the final, it would make a lot of sense to spend about a fifth of your time on each of D'Arienzo, Di Sarli, Pugliese, and Troilo, and the other fifth on exploring how what you have learned applies to whatever else you like among tracks that can be used as stylistic subsitutes for those four; provided that it is not Biagi, not Canaro, and not anything recorded before 1934.

You would also think about three (or more - this is very subjective) broad classifications of style, and you would focus on forming a range of improvisational habits that worked well for each style, regardless of the orchestra.

If you dance socially in Europe, it might also make sense to spend some extra time improving your dance to the 50's output. There's some support in this data for the widespread idea that the Argentinians think the Golden Age of tango music began and ended five to ten years later than the Europeans think it did. You may be less familiar with the nearly 30% of these tracks that were recorded after 1945, and you will probably have no chance to show what you can do with anything before 1935, so that experience is somewhat wasted. Being able to hit 80% of Biagi's off-beats will also be 100% useless, while being able to dance to 50's tangos generally without getting the giggles could be something you need.

Further research, or exercises for the interested reader

Yesterday I attended the first round of the related competition organised in London (there were 14 couples, one from the UK). You might be wondering if the pattern I've seen here was followed, or if it is followed in your own local competition, or the European competition, or anywhere else. I haven't gone through my notes yet, but the data so far says no. Despite dividing thirteen couples into a rather excessive three rondas, I don't think they followed the rotation of styles, and Pablo played both Canaro and OTV. I probably won't attend rounds 2 or 3, as it costs £25 to get in, and that adds up to a bit much, but if you feel like having something to focus on while you're there, go ahead and collect the data. It would be good to note the couple numbers in each round, too, along with your personal top six, and the results.

My guess is that no guidelines are published anywhere about the music, so the practice in local competitions is probably completely unrelated to what's done in the final. I have not tried to collect data for the semi-finals, either, and there's no reason to assume it's the same.

An interesting exercise for the reader - or for further research - would be to consider what three tracks you would use if you wanted, by observation, to identify the best dancers - by your own definition - in a room.

[Edit: I think the announcement at yesterday's competition was that there were 13 couples, but my notes show 14 different numbers; so I've changed it to 14. I could be wrong].

Wednesday 18 May 2016


Sometimes people take video clips of tango events I travel to. And occasionally, like everyone else, I can see glimpses of myself dancing, in between other couples.

If I see myself leading, which is rare enough for me not to be used to it, the one thing that really hits me is how TINY I am.

Now, this could be partly in relation to my partners. I usually (not always) change into flat shoes if I want to lead, and most (not all) of the women I dance with usually (not always) wear about a 7cm heel for following. I am about 166cm tall, which when I look it up turns out to be two to four centimetres taller than average for an English woman. The women I dance with vary a lot in height, but most of the time their heels will prevent them looking much smaller than me. And I am rather lightly built, so I don't look like much of anything from a distance.

But I don't think that's what makes me look tiny. What does that is the contrast in size and bulk of us as a couple, with the other couples led by men. And that's something I simply never think about, and am never aware of, until I see it.

I am like a little dog that doesn't know what "small" is.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Red silk tango boots, 1910-1920

How did I miss this?

"These red, silk satin French-made “barrette/Tango boots” are in the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto ( and date circa 1910s-1920s. Even if you do not fancy dancing, they just beckon you to have some fun, don’t they? In order to dance the Tango, the shoe needed to be well-fitted and secure. The lacing, or barrette-style straps, run up the ankle (and often the calf, as in this example) adding a provocative, sensual twist – appropriate for the dance itself."
Look at them! I don't have permission to use the image; if I can find a way of getting in touch, I will ask, and if it's ok I'll add it here. But comments are restricted, and I can't find an email.

Everything SilkDamask writes about the requirements for a tango shoe still applies; it must hold firmly to the foot, flatter the leg, look beautiful, be sensually pleasing, and fit well. They must also have a very flexible sole, on which the dancer can easily pivot. The fashion for heels is thinner, and the shoes themselves are generally less substantial.

These days we have numerous manufacturers to choose from, and they compete for the custom of serious dancers on comfort, fit, function, beauty, and to some extent price, although generally not on prompt delivery or reliable service.

I invite you to compare the Yeite glossy red by Balanceo, the Silver Ramona by Madame Pivot, and the Recoleta in purple polka dots by Regina. From the Argentine manufacturers, Fabioshoes make this rather gorgeous practice shoe. Comme Il Faut have continued to make their more extreme, colourful, elaborate and detailed designs, but are possibly collected as art objects about as often than they are used to dance in, at least nowadays in the European market.

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Vague, Subjective Guide to Obvious Tango Orchestras

In no particular order, not even alphabetical, this a dump of my 100% subjective and fairly eccentric mental catalogue. In no way should this be taken as reliable or comprehensive.

Sounds the most orchestral of all orchestras - the most like a symphony orchestra. If there seems to be a lot going on, with numerous different sounds having equal prominence, and at the same time it's all rather grand and maybe wants to be part of a larger work, it's probably Troilo. Also sounds like everybody, so if you know you know it, but can't think who it is, it's probably Troilo.

Di Sarli
I can't improve on Mike Lavocah's insight: Di Sarli does everything with the violins. Recorded over a long time with huge variations of style and sound and feeling, but the violins thing is consistent. Also sounds like Fresedo with a difficult girlfriend. Some of the late stuff sounds like Di Sarli trying to be Pugliese; with results that are kind of wonderful, if you can keep a straight face.

Sounds loud, even when playing quietly. Dense texture. Had Biagi at the piano for a lot of it, and sounds like Biagi without the holes. Some of the late stuff sounds not just intense, but completely bonkers, until you compare it with Biagi. The flesh and organs of tango.

Sounds like D'Arienzo with holes in. A lighter texture, and not just intense, but genuinely eccentric. The offbeats are much more unexpected. Appears never to have recorded a bad or boring track. A truckload of amazing valses, not enough milongas. In the late recordings he doesn't fall into the trap of imitating Pugliese; he's influenced by changes of style, and grows, but remains his entirely genuine, electric, eccentric self.

Kind of the backbone of tango, including the dodgy discs and the odd hernia, gunshot splinter or missing fortune. Always sounds totally professional, brisk, and organised. Best when there's a really strong tune and Maida singing. But recorded a lot, for a long time, and is very various.

Sounds glossy and dark. Salon in a dark suit. Tbh I can't describe it very well because are only a few tracks I like all that much, and most of those remind me of the JAWS theme. The ones that are good are magnificent.

Sounds like a 30's Hollywood movie involving palm trees and pineapple hats. Tuneful, romantic, often a bit sugary. Or like Di Sarli with a nicer girlfriend and fewer violins.

Sort of buzzy. Like dancing bees. The most famous tracks have Alberto Podesta doing the operatic tenor thing. When he flies, he still comes down at the right moment. Bermudez has a darker, lower voice. But the bees are still there.

Sounds kind of like teeny-tiny Troilo for a much smaller room. Still a lot going on, but more portably.

The sound of the orchestra itself, with or without the singer, is full of love. This is music of a bigger picture, but expressed for and by two humans in one embrace that embraces a whole world.  Pugliese is never caught up in narrow emotionality; but is deeply and satisfyingly real, like a plate of egg and chips. Pugliese was so influential that all the modern orchestras seem to be trying to sound like him, which is a trap better musicians than they are have also fallen into.

Sounds like walking along very carefully, one step at a time, not stepping on the lines on the pavement, because of the bears. But either quite amiably tipsy, or, in some tracks, weeping drunk.

Sauntering, episodic, and sounds a bit pissed off, or rambling drunk. Nice to play with when you're not going anywhere in particular. On reflection, I prefer the ones where Vargas comes in early and sings his thing, and the orchestra provides a fairly brisk, minimal frame otherwise.

De Angelis
Another kind of sauntering and episodic that wanders off in no particular direction and has a giant drama while staring at some random wall. Generally a bit art-movie. History's most annoying Cumparsita, which wurbles on for what seems like twenty minutes, is instantly forgotten, and then keeps coming back in your head for days.

Probably the one that sounds most like late 19th century opera that you can dance to. Like the Pearl Fishers or Tosca. Properly entertaining music, with loads of rhythm, super tunes, and the occasional quite good joke.

Lush (Mike Lavocah again). A gooey chocolate hazelnutty sort of sound with a trace of jazz. I love it.

Daaah-dum. Dark woodwind with a distinctive ending.

OTV (Orquesta Tipica Victor)
Victor studio house band: sounds incredibly professional and picked good songs. Wants to be driving scene music for a low-dialogue film.

I usually don't hear the opening of the first track and name the orchestra in my head, unless the track is a particular favourite or has a very distinctive opening: I usually just focus on how much I like it, and who I am most interested in dancing with, based on the general feeling it gives me. When I name the orchestra it's usually later, whether I'm dancing or not. This is why I get absolutely ropeable if the DJ plays their weakest track first in the tanda, or plays inconsistent tandas that don't carry through what the first track promised. Don't do it!

Friday 11 March 2016

Undead Tango at the Peacock, and scenes I'd like to see

So, one of the reviews said "you have to admire Cornejo’s effort to rejuvenate tango for 21st Century", and I think it would be a very good thing if somebody actually did try to reinvent the tango show for the 21st Century. So I thought I'd better go and see if it had been tried. I expected the reviewer to be mistaken, but I was open minded.

Content warning: some adult language.

It really was trying to be different. It contained things I didn't expect. They included a farthingale, a longish session of ballet pointe-work, a Disney princess and a lot of schmaltz. At least it realised it should try.

Its attempt to avoid cliché opens with "Tango de Roxane" in gold Kylie dresses. The first half continued with various slightly steampunk-themed scenes, musical solos, a wedding with a kind of Widow Twankey thing going on, then the Disney princess, an extended scene of one ballerina en pointe with six men as props, and a lot more that I don't remember. The tango was pouting, one-paced, unvarying, frenetic, kickety kickety kick.

The second half consisted mostly of what you would expect - a succession of the kind of single-couple choreographies that usually do well in the Escenario section of the Mundial. Mundane is what they certainly are. One of the couples paused twice and looked briefly at each other, rather than exclusively at the audience and into space. Then they did an endless turn through a long silence. That, and the obvious fall, were the only moves I remember.

The Widow Twankey bit came back with a clown scene all about the huge impractical costumes, which were pretty much the theme of the production as a whole. There was also the obligatory single scene of men dancing with each other, and of course they had to make it a play-fight, because two men who can actually dance, actually dancing with each other would be - well, what?

On New Year's Eve I was at a festival in France and one of the things I was privileged to see, when I wasn't too busy dancing, was two of the most truly charming and attractive men on the European tango scene dancing together socially and having fun. There's no video, because it was social dancing and it was about actually being there (although if you took video, you should TOTALLY send it right now. I won't tell). I got to dance with each of them as well, and they were both lovely.

This wasn't that. This was so utterly terrified of appearing remotely interesting, let alone sexy, that it threw a punch and ran for the hills. They had to bring a woman on to calm things down with the magic tits of pornobanality.

Tango is a traditional partner dance and a gender-role-play game. It's also a social dance scene in which women dancing together because they want to dance with each other is common, and normal, and often looks compelling and wonderful; and in which men dancing together because they want to dance with each other is much less common, and is also normal, and also often looks compelling and wonderful.

And I'm somehow supposed to be impressed by this on the stage at Sadler's Wells?

This production seems completely unaware that anyone, anywhere in the world, dances tango with another person because they want to. The 'tango' presented is an achingly narrow bonsai product. Irrelevant to its global practice, contemptuous of its audience.

I have no problem with anybody arranging Skyfall as a tango and dancing to it. None. I think that's a great idea. It has a pretty good tune. If you've got a good arranger and a good band, and the song says something you want to say, totally go for it. Dive right in if you think you're good enough. The more good songs get well arranged and well played as new tangos, the better; eventually some of them will be good enough to dance to, and to get there you have to experiment and practice.

I also quite liked the steampunk look. Why not? Long skirts are challenging for the cast, but if it means something to you, do it. Some of the costumes near the end reminded me of passing through Birmingham on a bus at 5am in 1997 on my way to the British Grand Prix, happy days. What they meant to the director is anyone's guess, but I have no problem with it. I just don't think it counts as innovation. Nor does ballet, and nor does rock-and-roll, especially if not very good.

There were moments of genuine emotion; the emotions were misogyny, transphobia, and the kind of sexism directed mainly by men at men which is often referred to as 'toxic masculinity'. The production seemed unconscious of these, so I can only suppose they were sincere.

I would have left the theatre indifferent, but not especially cross, if I hadn't seen the encore and read the programme notes. In the encore, they put on 80s 'fame' costumes and danced tango to 50's rock and roll. If you want to dance rock and roll in a tango show, I would like you to dance rock and roll, preferably well. As for the programme notes, I'll spare you.

It's possible that the costumes were intended to be the plot.

In fact, I'm not going to discuss the production any more. It met my expectations, which shouldn't be an excuse. Instead I'm going to discuss what a tango show should be. Let's make up some possible ground rules and just put them out there.

Ballet is not innovation. Rock and roll is not innovation. Gymnastics are not innovation, nor are they in themselves good dancing. Long skirts are not innovation. 80's timewarps are not innovation. Dancing to a Bond theme has been done rather better on Strictly Come Dancing nearly a decade ago. Same-sex dancing is not innovation. It may be striking, significant, beautiful, or even unusual on stage, but it is not new.

I would like to see innovation, ambition, and imagination in tango shows. I would like to see choreography that means something and says something. I would like to see things more like the performance that came second in the Mundial this year, which made me feel something. I've seen tango performances in the last twelve months that moved me to tears. It is totally possible.

Here are some things I would like to see in a tango show. Not all in the same show. These are just some ideas, some possible directions, in no particular order. They are not revolutionary. Most of them are extremely conservative, and would be tiny steps in relation to the format and traditions of tango shows. They're things that might give you a reason to dance tango on stage, rather than something else.

Innovation, in tango shows, would be literally anything that wasn't crap. But, how about:

  • A variety of styles and ways of dancing, chosen for the ideas they communicate. Tango is expressively rich, technically diverse, and global. Like Shakespeare.
  • A scene that tells the story of its music, in the sense of addressing its content. There are songs about gender violence, dead babies, loyal dogs, has-beens, falling in love, selfishness, poverty, crushes, breakups, second thoughts, pretentiousness, humanity adrift in a mechanical world, bad dancing, warfare, emigration, immigration, homesickness, money, church bells, and lots more. The content is sometimes difficult. Why not take it on?
  • If you're going to dance to 'Ojos Negros' as a vals, and you have a good band, a costume budget, and a talented arranger, why not tell some of the story of that tune? You could still have the Disney princess dress in there, if you wanted.
  • A scene that subverts, defies, or reimagines the content of a well-known tango, or uses it as a clever joke.
  • A scene that tells a story about travel and Europe and Japan in the history of tango. 
  • An ethnically diverse cast.
  • If (as it's clear this production does) you have total contempt for the very existence of European social tango, why not satirise it? I saw enough plastic Chichos at a small festival in France a couple of weekends ago to make anybody laugh out loud. I bet the cast could make fun of that. You could dance in vomit-green swooshpants, bare feet, a bath-ring beard and a man-bun. Hell, you could make fun of Noelichicks, Carlitoheads, Salonsters, bloggers, wielders of the Minirig, or dancing in airports. At least you wouldn't be insulting our intelligence, and it could hardly fail to be funnier than the Widow Twankey. Or show me the hilarious and touching things I don't know about that (probably) happen in Seoul and Shanghai.
  • Any scene at all that alludes to tango as it exists in the world.
  • Scenes of same-sex dancing that are more than displacement activity. Why not make it about love, or friendship, or teamwork, or learning, or solidarity, or society, or even, for fuck's sake, sex?
  • Any scene at all about about complex human feelings or the way people take care of and teach and support each other in bad situations.
  • A scene that shows someone wanting to dance with someone else. For any reason.
  • A scene about how dancing enhances people's lives. 
  • A scene that communicates how magical it feels to find that you are apparently leading because someone has decided to follow you, and how amazing that process is.
  • A scene alluding to the contemporary experience of tango tourism, from any point of view. Daring, huh?
  • A funny story about a badly-organised tango competition. Even more daring.
  • A scene alluding to the funny, complicated or stressful side of organising a social dance. 
  • A musical story that says something about the relationships between tango, jazz, blues, and rock, and shows off the versatility and knowledge of cast and musicians, without abandoning what music means to people.
  • A cast spending less time obviously out-of-breath.
  • If you're going to have a backdrop of random stars, why not have a backdrop of obviously non-random stars, with the Moon and Orion the Southern way up?

I don't think the explanation for all this is commercial. It looks commerically stupid to ignore the European tango scene. It has an absorbing hobby, it has time, and it has money. You don't have to limit yourself to standing ovations from randoms who have no idea what they've just seen. You could carry on pleasing them and still refrain from insulting the people who should be your fans and evangelists.

The show wasn't "Immortal Tango". It was undead. If you are a stage producer or choreographer and think you can revive it, please contact Sadler's Wells. Please.

[Review: Immortal Tango, Peacock Theatre, Sadler's Wells, till 19th March]

Saturday 13 February 2016

Day-making ice skating

Apropos my ice skating reference in the previous post, thank you Detlef for sharing this absolutely beautiful performance from the European Figure Skating Championships, by Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, of France:

Gabriella PAPADAKIS & Guillaume CIZERON - 2016 European Champi...

Gabriella PAPADAKIS & Guillaume CIZERON - 2016 European Championships - FD

Posted by Ice Skating World on Thursday, 4 February 2016

Absolutely beautiful. Not a moment or a movement without meaning. Not a transition in sight. And you'll notice the commentator stops talking, after a while.

Update: I would draw your attention to this interesting interview with their coach from last year.

Sunday 7 February 2016

What's good Argentine Tango?

What's good dancing?

Performance and Choreography - the easy part

If it's a show - a performance - that we're talking about, then this is a relatively easy question. I expect to see a whole lot of technical things that make it look good, plus something more.

For example, I want to see the really good technique, and the ease and precision of leading and following, that makes a simple walk look smooth, strong, and easy; and that makes things like voleos, wraps and ganchos (if used) look graceful, expressive, and exciting instead of forced, stiff, clumsy and pretentious. 

I also want to see the couple perfectly on the beat. I want to see comfort in their head positions, stillness in their pauses, a relaxed, comfortable, appropriate embrace, a smooth walk, and a really good connection and relationship, so that they move as one rather than appearing to take turns. The leader should not appear too dominant - this looks very ugly. Neither side should ever look anxious, stressed, or rushed. 

I want to see the couple move as one whole of two equal parts. I want to see both partners moving musically, embodying the sound, not just stepping on the beat. I want harmony, interest, and taste.

I want to see those things both in choreography and in improvisation.

If it's a choreography, I also think we should expect communicative meaning, since that's what choreography is for. And the choice of music should serve or inspire that communicative meaning. A meaning is more than a theme. Most tango choreography, though heavily themed, is meaningless, and very boring. Two exceptions are the ones I mentioned here and here.

For a choreography to get a 9 or a 10 from me, I want to see meaning, and I want to see all of the difficult stuff serving the meaning, and I also want to see an absence of difficult stuff if that serves the meaning better. I want to see the difficult stuff left out if the dancers' technique isn't up to it. It's not the difficulty that I want to see, it's the meaning.

The distinction between theme and meaning may be rather fine, but I know it when I see it. If you are old enough to remember not only Torville and Dean, but also Natalia Bestemianova and Andrei Bukin, then you know what I am talking about (even though what Torville and Dean did was obviously very technically difficult, the difference was that they managed to fill it with meaning beyond theme). It has something to do with emotional content, or point.

For an improvisation, musical expression and other kinds of appropriateness more or less replace the concept of communicative meaning. I want to see something that is honest and appropriate for the audience and purpose of the show. I want to see a certain self-confidence and individuality that is doing its own thing and not trying too hard to be like something else, or even trying too hard to be something it thinks is should be instead of having an actual reason to be there.

I want to see differences and nuances of scale, pace, and dynamics. I don't want to see a dance that's frantic, frenetic, or excessively one-paced. And I particularly want to see a couple stay away from anything they can't do sincerely, or do well.

Social dancing - a harder question

What makes good social dancing is bit more complicated.

When we get into social dancing, a lot of things really matter that are not directly physical dance skills. Roberto Finelli (in Melina's thread on facebook about this question) put it so:
A good dancer is someone who makes happy the partner AND the people dancing around.
A good dancer is someone that you WANT to dance next to you because it makes you feel better.
A good dancer is able to handle the tango-jungle with elegance.
A good dancer is able to keep relaxed and enjoy (and have fun together with the partner) even under the worst circumstances, without any need to complain.
By "dance", Roberto means full participation in a social dance event, not just the physical activity of dancing with a partner. I think he's taking it quite far in the last point, which requires some working-out, but, okay.

There are social dance events, and there are clubs where they play tango. In the latter, no one is expected to care about anyone else beyond an apeish battle for status. But if enough good social dancers turn up, by this definition, then it will turn into a genuine social dance event regardless.

Of course, your partners deserve an adequate technical level. A good dancer is easy, comfortable and enjoyable to dance with. But what exactly that means can be any combination of a huge range of things.

Let's unpack Roberto's first point. To make one's partner happy, a good social dancer (for me):
  • Is comfortable to embrace and easy to lead or follow
  • Is on the beat
  • Moves musically, embodying the sound, not just stepping on the beat
  • Has a dance that is not completely one-paced or single-scale
  • Stays away from doing things they can't do well or do honestly
  • Stays away from doing things that make it difficult for their partner (as opposed to merely challenging or exciting, which can be fine on occasion)
  • Is sensitive to their partner's movement
  • Is sensitive to their partner's state of mind (this is how you get the "exciting" thing right)
  • Is 'into it' - whatever it is, and it can be a variety of things - with that individual partner
  • Has good manners in the milonga and does not embarrass their partners or make dancing  difficult for other people.
Pretty much all of that applies to both partners. Those who lead have some opportunities to be obviously bad-mannered and incompetent that those who only follow don't have. The fancy-shoe who charged out of the middle and drove my friend's heel into me with force last Friday, looks like a good dancer, unless you watch very closely and are very demanding; or unless you share a floor with him as a leader, when he becomes very hard work very fast.
You can look the epitome of geek and be a world-class genius when it comes to social dancing - although chances are, the informed or perceptive eye will also notice a very well-managed posture and embrace, a great connection, economy of motion, and nuance to the dance.

Good social dancers quite often do, in fact, have a level of technique equal to or better than the stage professionals, especially the mediocre ones. But in practice, once they get beyond the basics, they tend to learn and focus on whatever most interests them and seems worth the work, so they dance in diverse ways and express their personalities differently, depending on personal taste, talent, physical abilities and style, and they're all good.

If your interest in social dancing is not genuine, you're likely to be a weak social dancer even if you're a good professional on the stage. Nobody gets or stays excellent at something they're not interested in. There's no substitute for actually caring.