Over the last ten years, tango dancers around the world have warily observed the appearance of local competitions, many of which feed into the annual Tango World Cup or Mundial. Promoters grasping a new revenue stream tout the competitions as “motivational”. Critics fear that the inexperienced dancers who tend to be the participants will forego and thereby weaken the ethics of the “social” tango experience.
Competition is not new to Tango. The roots include payada – gaucho rap battles. In the Golden Age, men competed to innovate personal sequences. Today’s milongas sizzle with competition for romantic conquests. But there is a crucial difference: Informal competition stimulates dancers to search for individual expression. The Mundial’s strict rules and definitions channel dancers efforts into a homogenized and uniform repetition.
I was excited to discover that dancer Radman Shafie filed a dissertation about the emergence of competition culture in Argentine Tango, documenting its history in the touristic aspirations of the City of Buenos Aires and observing its effects on the milongas of Buenos Aires and Los Angeles. He also sites this development in the context of neoliberal economics, which champions individual accomplishment over culture and community (undermining national sovereignty to hand over our economies to multinational corporations).
Shafie sees that the “ballroomization” of amateur tango through formal competitions has had a negative effect on the milonga experience in both cities. But while I see that the valorization of the Mundial as the definition of desirable tango has resulted in a stifling restriction of tango movements, dynamics, and mood, his complaint is that ballroomization has resulted in too much use of “flashy moves” in milongas.
In his attempt to critique the impact of competition culture, Shafie uncritically repeats a double libel whose venom precedes competition culture:  that certain movements and ways of moving constitute “showing off” and  that showing off in a milonga is inappropriate and shameful.
Showing off is an accusation leveled at people perceived to be doing either “stage” tango or “nuevo” tango in contexts where only “social” or “traditional” tango is authorized. But there is no objective or reliable basis for distinguishing any of these terms as practices; they all draw on the same lexicon of inherited movements. Despite the ambiguity of their definitions, the terms have increasingly been dichotomized and mobilized to sanctify and slander.
Since the lexicon is standard, the accusations are often targeted at the quality of execution: Less skilled dancers who execute unpopular moves weakly are often castigated for showing off, as are high skill dancers able to use these moves densely in their dance, or dancers who have stronger or more flexible muscles that make movements more visible.
“Showing off” is shameful not because of objective mechanical or social error, but because of intent. The accusers claim to know the accused’s psychic intentions.
These slanderous accusations constrain innocents as well as the accused. Knowing they cannot prove their motives, witnesses may avoid movements that could attract slander to themselves.
The vilification rests on a concept entirely external to tango: that showing off is shameful. This is a view held in Commonwealth culture, where standing out in any way makes you vulnerable to be cut down as a “tall poppy”. Scandinavian, Swiss, and Japanese cultures have something similar. One should not –neither with words nor fast moves– seek to outshine others. The impulse is democratic. The result is stifling to all.
But African cultures, as well as the Italians they met in Buenos Airesm have other perspectives.
Throughout the African diaspora, assertive, colorful self-expression is encouraged and celebrated. Styling the personality and personal aesthetics is seen as a sign of spirit, the daring to thrive in the face of annihilation.
One should develop and show oneself as much as possible. The impulse is to keep your and others’ spirits alive.
In Latin cultures too, showing off is joyful and playful, a constant flirtation with the world, joviality amidst 500 years of trauma.
France and Italy have refined showing off to an art of self-representation. Sociality and presentation are intertwined through design, fashion, and charm.
Argentina’s folkdance Chacarera is a vehicle for hyperconfident showing off, for the express purpose of flirtation. In it you can see the proud posture of the tanguera/os.
Most people come to tango to “meet someone”. They stay because they find meaning, self-expression, community.
“Showing off” is a reasonable part of all those goals – if we re-word it a bit more sympathetically. We want to be seen. We want our accomplishments and our cool outfit to be witnessed. We want to matter to our community.
We want to contribute to the party.
We want to seduce someone.
“Community makes self-esteem possible by convincing the individual that he is an object of value in a context of meaningful action.” Ernest Becker
Where is the line between showing oneself and showing off? Do you contribute by being monotone and invisible? Or bring some sparkle and humor, with your outfit, with your attitude, with your cool dance moves.
While Shafie conflates competition with neoliberalism, the distinction that needs to be made is another. Competition and showing off are animal and tribal. They are part of mating rituals, individual self-esteem, and seeking the respect of one’s community. They are psychically necessary elements of sociality and identity-formation.
Tribal rights are rights of passage and rituals of seduction like the chacarera.
It’s worth noting that it is those things we take to be fundamentally human that must eventually be articulated as “human rights” against neoliberalism.
The Mundial’s competition takes a highly personal art form and essential social function that must be met with individuality– and turns it into a regulated sport. And the social manifestation of ballroomicized tango is likewise regulated, monotone, humorless.
If we are to re-consider the validity and merits of showing off, we may want to become connoisseurs.
Some people dominate the scene with their performance – “stealing the show”.
Others drop hints about their abilities by gesture or wit. A few pithy words tell all – to those they want to impress.
Another form of showing off is being delightfully entertaining –the life of the party– spreading warmth, compliments, laughter, and flirtation.
If it’s your party, you can show off by hosting with great generosity, displaying your wealth and/or good taste.
If something catches on fire, you can jump in to show off your grace under pressure.
Those with more skills and refinement can show off without drawing fire.
The reviled show-offs do it too loud, with too much cologne, too many Svarovski.
This distinction is about privilege, erudition, taste, subtlety … markers of class status.
And the other side of that fact is that the judgment itself is nothing more than repackaged classism. “You do not know how to show off in a refined way.”
The Political Economy of Impression
In fact some can afford not to show off. Because someone is reading their C.V.
Others must show off to put food on the table: Prostitutes… singers… start-up founders.
For a bullfighter, showing off is life & death. Also for those whose careers involve lethal force.
To not have to show off is a luxury. Or to show off only with words, not with your body.
And some of us with manifold privileges, adequate bank accounts, and rivers of words at our fingertips, who have yet somehow slipped through the focal point, return to the body as a site for witness.
Most (but not all) tango dancers find that the experience of a close embrace is sublime.
Some love to dress up, like old music, or savor simmering flirtations.
Some, apparently, get their pleasure from guessing at others’ intent and purveying slurs.
Others like the intensity of voleos, castigadas, volcadas, and colgadas: the power flowing from one body to another, the thrill of risk, the intensity of connection which makes such gestures possible.
Have you ever done these moves? Have you seen your toes at your ear? Have you done a spectacular castigada, feeling your leg whip against his back like a lover’s spank?
You have the right not to explore them. But you do not have the wisdom to impute motives nor the authority to condemn others.