While attending the University of Illinois as an undergraduate engineering student, I taught ballroom dancing part-time for Arthur Murray Dance Studio. As an employee of the studio, I traveled to other cities and entered dance competitions with my students. Then and for many years later, I worshiped grand champion ballroom dancers, and would have given anything to be as good as they are.I continued to study ballroom dancing (10 consecutive summers attending the BYU Ballroom Dance Camp in Provo Utah), and after retiring from Texas A&M, I opened my own dance studio in Portland. In 1993, I took my first Argentine Tango Class. It was with Luren Bellucci and Michael Walker at Oregon State in Corvallis. What an awakening that was! I will never forget when Michael (who was formerly a competitive ballroom dancer), demonstrated and compared the classic embrace of a ballroom dancer to that of an Argentine tango dancer. Whereas ballroom dancers are open at the top and heads turned away from each with a "cheesy" smile on their faces, tango dancers are closed at the top, introverted, with their focus and attention concentrated on each other. Michael explained that this is so because ballroom dancers are dancing for and trying to impress the judges and/or an audience, while tango dancers are simply dancing for each other. "WOW!" I thought, "What a concept. How could I have been dancing all my life and missed such an important concept?" That moment changed my life and my perception of what partner dancing should be about.
Since that time, I have only strengthened my opinion and resolve that tango dancing is no more about competition then sharing a feeling, or an emotion, or a conversation, or a sexual relationship with another person is. (Can you imagine, for instance, having a competition sex festival) Now, when getting ready to leave for a tango festival in some other city and a non-tanguero says something like, “Oh, are you going to compete?” I answer, “Look, competition dance makes about as much sense as competition sex–it’s not about competition. It’s about relating and connecting with another person.”
At this point some of you will argue that there is, and always has been competition tango in Buenos Aires. Yes, that’s partly true. There was some competition during the “golden age” of tango (1930-50’s), and again in the new millennium now that all the tourists are there to see it. But my guess is that there wasn’t much in between those two times. Furthermore, competition is not what sustained the passion and love for tango that made it endure during the down time before it’s resurgence. And competition is certainly not the driving force that makes tango thrive today in the same way competition sustains ballroom dancing. In my opinion, competition has turned ballroom dancing into a perverted and weird parody of itself–I only hope this doesn’t happen to tango.
Finally to rest my case, I have a little test. I ask everyone I meet from all over the tango world if they know who Paul Bottomer is. Not one person so far has known him. Well, for your information he is the “Four times undefeated World and European [Argentine] Tango Supreme Champion and World Cup winner“. And if you don’t believe me, just check his web site. But what relevance is Paul to the tango world? Is he, or was he really the best in the world? Was he, or is he even remotely as good as some of the great tangueros that you and I both know? Has any one of us ever seen him out dancing and enjoying himself at a milonga?
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