Tango world cup

Tango world cup. Mundial de baile. El campeonato. All three are synonyms for the competition part of “Tango festival y mundial del 13 al 31 de agosto” which is approaching the grand finale here in Buenos Aires.

The festival and mundial are annual events. This is the 11th year of the festival and the 8th year of el campeonato (the championship). There are 2 categories: salon and stage. So far as I can tell this is only the second year that there have been international entrants in el campeonato. Last year the winners of the salon tango category were Japanese.

I’m a tango newbie and when I booked my trip back in January I was unaware of the festival and the competition. In March when I persuaded a couple of tanguera friends to spend part of their summer holiday here we were still unaware of it. It was June before I learned of the festival and I was happy to discover that it would partly coincide with Sam and Jo’s visit. When I arrived here in April the milongas were still fairly busy but through May and June the numbers dropped off since Southern hemisphere winter is not most tango tourists’ idea of a good time to visit Buenos Aires. I figured the festival would boost the number of milonga-goers and hence my friends’ enjoyment of their trip. Then in late July I had the crazy idea of actually competing in el campeonato. It is free to enter and there are no requirements other than to turn up. There was very little information available on the official website but Jo was up for it so we registered anyway. For us it would be a fun thing to do and a fantastic experience.

It was only when we turned up in person to complete the enrollment process that we found out the exact format of the competition and when and where we would be dancing. In the salon tango category there are three rounds; qualifying, semi-finals and finals. Anyone is able to enter the qualifying round. In this round each couple dances twice, 3 tangos each time to music chosen by the organisers. The top 64 couples from the qualifying round go through to the semi-finals. The winners from the affiliated competitions automatically start in the semi-final round. The highest scoring 16 couples of the semi-finals will be dancing in the finals. The format for the stage category is similar except that the couples only dance once in the qualifying round and to music of their own choosing.

We registered and enrolled for the salon category and we had no expectations of surviving beyond the qualifying rounds. Actually it would have been awkward if we did because Sam and Jo’s trip ended a couple of days before the semi-final round. The qualifying rounds were held over two days at La Trastienda in San Telmo. We were told to show up at 2:30pm both days, and to expect to dance about an hour later.

Of course, Jo needed a new dress for the competition so the three of us went on a shopping expedition. In the first shop we visited she found a stunning, backless silver/grey dress which would go nicely with one of her new pairs of Comme il Faut shoes. The straps needed a slight adjustment so we went and had a coffee and returned 45 minutes later to collect it. Being a backless dress it needed a backless bra to go with it. There is no shortage of underwear shops in Buenos Aires but finding a backless bra was not easy. Especially when we didn’t know how to ask for one in Spanish. The assistant in the third or fourth shop told us what we needed to ask for – corpiño espalda libre – and suggested a shop on Avenida Florida which had just the thing. I think this was probably the day I earned the “endless patience” award in the acrostic email which they sent to friends at home describing their adventure so far.

The three of us arrived at La Trastienda a few minutes early on the first day – Monday 23 August. La Trastienda is a rather small venue and there was already a queue of spectators waiting to be let in. While we were waiting to register at the competitors entrance desk, Gustavo, a festival PR representative approached us and asked where we were from. When we told him the UK he asked if we would be prepared to do an interview with the BBC the following day. Let’s see, summer in the Northern hemisphere is quiet/silly season on the news front. A cat getting dumped in a wheelie-bin makes the headlines and sparks an inquiry. Being the UK’s only entrants in the tango world cup is surely more newsworthy, especially for say the BBC South local news programme. Spotting our chance for “15 minutes” of fame we said yes. An unrelated TV reporter/cameraman interviewed us briefly. We didn’t think to ask which station he represented.

The bouncers on the spectators entrance looked mean and menacing in their black trousers, shirts, sweaters, fleeces and shades, especially as it was a sunny day and nearly 25 degrees. They reminded us of Hale & Pace and “The Management”. I heard one of them say to somebody that the venue was full and they were only letting people in as others came out. Poor Sam was about 20th in the queue. We were worried she wouldn’t get in. Proving it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts, I asked Gustavo if he could give Sam a press wristband. Being cheeky I asked if she could have one for Tuesday too. Gustavo, our new best mate said OK. So Sam, our super roadie and photographer breezed straight in and later told us that she had watched the proceedings from the press gallery, right next to the judges booth.

Jo and I signed in at the competitors desk and began our waiting/preparation in the backstage area. There were chairs, a cloakroom and refreshments available. We did another short interview, this time for Brazilian channel SBT. People were straightening their costumes, attaching their competition numbers, touching up their make-up, warming up and practising a step or two on the miniscule practice floor. It was black melamine, very slippery. I dance wearing a pair of wonderful 2×4 alpie shoes with interchangeable soles. The suede soles were a bit slippery but the rubber were too grippy so I went with the suede option. We were in ronda (group/round) seven and when we arrived ronda three were dancing. Rondas four, five and six were called in turn and went and did their thing. There were 12 couples per ronda. As each group went off to dance, and came back they were clapped and cheered by the other competitors. The atmosphere backstage was very friendly and supportive. There are some photos in my Mundial de baile set at Flickr. A little over an hour after we signed in the stage assistant re-appeared and we expected her to call ronda seven. We were a bit surprised to hear her call ronda ten. We heard something about testing the floor. She returned for rondas nine and eight and finally our group, ronda seven. We were herded to a second holding area, and then upstairs to a final holding area just offstage. Ronda eight came off and feeling a little nervous we were lead on and given a few minutes to get a feel for the floor. We looked for Sam or anyone else we knew in the audience but couldn’t see well enough against the lights. The floor was eight metres by nine metres.  With 12 couples that meant there was about two metres between each couple. The lights were very hot and we could understand why many of the couples we saw after their ronda looked so hot and sweaty. We were herded back downstairs to the second staging area and another group went up to test the floor. While we were waiting the stage assistant told us who the judges were, who had chosen the music we would dance to and what that music was. Di Sarli, Tanturi and someone else. No D’Arienzo or Troilo. I breathed a sigh of relief. The other group came back downstairs and about 2 hours after we had arrived at La Trastienda we were finally on.

We were lead back upstairs and introduced one couple at a time using our names and home cities/towns to the audience. The host managed our names fairly well but struggled a bit with Basingstoke. As soon as all 12 couples were in position on the floor the host called for the music. We took a deep breath and as the first strains of Di Sarli sounded I offered Jo my hand and took her into my embrace. I could feel her heart beating against my chest and her whole body trembling slightly. We settled together, I ran my pre-tango mantra in my head, and we were ready. The couple in front moved and we followed suit. I was vaguely aware of the heat from some of the lights as we passed them but was oblivious to everything else except our dancing. At the end of the track we paused, separated, congratulated each other on nothing bad having happened and waited a couple of seconds for the next track. The nerves were gone and we had stopped trembling by this point. The second and third tracks blurred past, we were lead off stage and we had just danced in the tango world cup. We changed our shoes, collected our stuff from the cloakroom and went upstairs and outside to meet Sam. The sun was still shining, the queue of spectators had grown and at the front was Janis who writes Tango Chamuyo. We chatted briefly and left her waiting patiently for the chance to enter while we went across the road for a celebratory drink.

We arrived earlier than planned on the second day – our taxi driver had taken a different route – and Gustavo appeared as if by magic. He gave Sam her press wristband and whisked Jo and I past the check-in desk and downstairs to the backstage area and the waiting BBC crew. There was a reporter, producer and cameraman. The interview was commisioned by BBC Mundo based in Washington DC. They provide all of the BBC coverage of the Americas. They wired Jo up with a microphone and asked a couple of general questions about tango and our background. Then they asked about what we thought the effect of non-Argentinians entering el campeonato was. The reporter explained afterwards that the piece would go to Washington who would edit and decide what to do with it. It would almost certainly air in the Americas, might make it online and might make it back to the UK. She promised to email and let us know…

We collected our competitor wristbands, signed in and found we had been moved from ronda seven to ronda five. We assumed they had had a no-show for ronda five and as we were the first ones there for ronda seven they bumped us up a couple of slots. The backstage organisation on the second day was much more efficient than on the first. In almost no time at all they were calling our group and we were again herded to the second staging area while ronda three danced. Again they told us who the judges were, who had chosen our music and what it was. This time Biagi, someone and D’Arienzo. Uh oh! There may be trouble ahead. There was no time and no point worrying about it. We applauded the ronda three couples as they came downstairs and we were lead upstairs to take the offstage waiting area while ronda four danced.

The host made a better job of pronouncing Basingstoke as we walked out onto stage and this time we saw Sam waving from the press gallery. We took our places and waited. The host called for the music and once again I offered Jo my hand. We were less nervous this time and I was aware of the moment about half way through the first tango when her trembling stopped. We danced less well on the second day because I was a bit stressed by the couple in front of us, a different couple than on the first day. He liked to move backwards and he liked to move backwards a LONG way. Wherever I went to stay out of his way he seemed to be able to back up and find us. A couple of times he crashed into us while we were doing a figure on a spot about two metres behind where he had been when we started the figure. Luckily he didn’t manage to knock us off axis and hopefully he lost points for bumbling around. Our three tracks were relatively calm tangos which was a relief. Almost before we started our three tangos were done and the host lined us up for a group bow before we filed offstage.

And that was that, we had done something that no-one else in the UK, not one other person in 60 million or so, had done.We were fully fledged competitors in the Buenos Aires tango world cup 2010. We met Sam outside and went for another celebratory drink. Afterwards we collected our certificates and I took a few photos of one of the other rondas. Some of them are in my Mundial de baile set at Flickr.

On Wednesday evening we got the results of the qualifying rounds. As expected we did not make the semi-finals so Jo was able to go home on Thursday without any worries about changing flights or what might have been. We didn’t hear from the producer but on Friday and Saturday a couple of people told me they had seen us on TV in Argentina. I think I have tracked down the BBC Mundo piece they were referring to. You can see it here or here. They binned our interview and went with last year’s winners instead, but there are a few seconds of us dancing at 1’55 in.

One benefit of entering the competition is that they give each couple a pair of tickets for the final of whichever category they enter for. None of that queueing up for 5 hours business that everyone else had to endure. Couples who make the semi-finals and finals are given additional tickets for the later rounds. So tomorrow night I will be at Luna Park watching the finalists show how it should be done.

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