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The tango competition game has evolved so rapidly over the years. Nobody knows what it takes anymore. The original competition judging criteria was founded upon 4 simple principles:

  • walking
  • connection
  • elegance
  • musicality

And right when you think one couple has captured and perfected those 4, another year comes and another couple takes it to the next level. It is with great regret that this guide only be written in hindsight. Nobody knows what the winning style of the future will be…but here are some predictions…

The Winning Formula

To be PERFECT or to be LIKED?

This right here should be the first question to every competitive partnership. Do you want to be perfect? Or do you want to be liked?

Ideally, both.

The couple with the best technique doesn’t always win. And the couple with the best technique doesn’t always have great musicality, connection, or that like-able X-factor. Sometimes you don’t even notice the couple with the best technique, because their dancing doesn’t make you want to look at them.

The perfect-technique strategy wins until the level of technique is so high that to showcase anymore technique than that just looks like you’re showing off. Elegant technique is appreciated but not so much for flashy technique. Back in the days, the couple who had the best walk and appeared the most connected would win. And then it evolved to the point where the couple who looked the most “professional” would win.

But now the line is getting blurred between amateurs and professionals, especially with professionals competing alongside amateurs, and amateurs picking up pseudo-professional moves early on that it’s harder to tell them apart. In this era of competition, it seems to be that the couple who dances the most while still having sound technique is the winning couple.

Your technique can be perfect, but never at the cost of your like-ability.

Real or Fake?

So how do you decide what is like-able? Do you think your natural dance is like-able or would you have to alter your style a bit to be more appreciated by the judges? DO YOU HAVE TO SELL YOUR SOUL?!

Style and musicality can be expressed in infinite ways. A good rule to remember is, “Less is more.” Quality over quantity. Instead of worrying on whether you should give up your style, focus rather on elegance and simplicity. Have a nice simple dance with a little bit of your personal flavor sprinkled on top and then you won’t have to worry that your style will be too much.

Never change your style; only make it more elegant.

Formula or Freestyle?

If you ever suspected there was a hidden formula to winning competitions, you would probably be right. Everyone’s GOT to have a game plan, right? But that game plan keeps being reinvented. And there’s a very good chance that the best are not only following “the formula” but also re-inventing the formula, so to speak. They are in a sense competing in a manner of “calculated freestyling”.

Basic formula:

  • avoid being the first couple to take the side-step at beginning of the song
  • if you don’t understand Spanish, avoid doing tricks when you hear singing
  • don’t go into open-embrace within the first minute of the song
  • stay clean during the variacion
  • end each song facing in the line of dance

Advanced formula:

  • dance like you’re in love with each other
  • followers should place bigger embellishments at end of musical phrases, and smaller ones in the middle
  • catch the syncopations and double-times rather than always following the beat
  • make slow movements powerful (it’s easy to lose presence during slow movements)
  • it’s better to miss the beginning but catch the end of the variacion, than vice versa 

Your formula:

  • what do you do best?
  • what moves should you avoid?
  • any other magical ideas…

4 Medal Strategies

Safety Game

This strategy is often used by: 1) developing competitors to avoid getting eliminated before the final round, and 2) by high-level competitors to guarantee a top-three medal placement.

Try not to be too noticeable. You basically do the same simple stuff and avoid doing any hard moves that will make you look less-than-perfect or expose your weaknesses. This strategy is especially helpful for the opening rounds when there are many competitors “trying too hard” to impress the judges. By staying calm and not trying to hard, you can earn the judges’ respect by looking relaxed and mature. And the less risks you take, the less likely you are to do something that will cost you points.

The biggest drawback to this style is that you risk becoming invisible against a backdrop of superstars. In a heavily-stacked competition, being invisible is the fast-track ticket to elimination. Other than that, it’s a pretty safe bet in most competitions. Most competitors will play it safe only for the opening rounds and then take risks in the final rounds. Some competitors have even used this strategy in the final rounds and won 1st place even though they were considered “boring”. But hey, winning is winning!

One difficulty to using this style is that you have to be incredibly composed. Imagine being handicapped during your favorite part of that awesome D’Arienzo song. You might think it’s easy to stay chill but wait until the crowd goes wild when all the other couples take off during the fun parts of the song.

Contrast Game

This strategy is often used by: 1) competitors trying to stand out in a competition of clones, and 2) competitors risking it all to win.

It’s basically a game of contrasting the competition in order to stand out. Everyone else doing turns to the left? You do turns to the right. Everyone else starting with a big side-step? You do a small side-step and turn 45 degrees. Everyone else dancing the bandoneon? You dance the violin. Everyone else ends the turn with the follower’s padasa? You end yours on the follower’s backstep. Does that sound easy enough?

The biggest risk of this strategy is that the judges don’t like your style and your movements make you stand out too much. This strategy is also notorious for getting a strong couple ranked lower than expected and even shockingly eliminated before the final round. The other risk is that your competitors have more polished technique and this strategy exposes you as a lower-level dancer.

This strategy requires a lot of technical ability and memorization of classic figures. You have to be able to do everything that everyone else is doing in order to deviate from that. You would also be forced to adjust your strategy to your competitors. One round might be full of walking couples, another round might be full of turning couples. It can be exhausting to readjust yourself each time.

Rebel Game

This strategy is often used by: 1) pure artists trying to showcase their unique style, and 2) dancers enjoying competition simply as a fun exhibition rather than trying to win.

Drink some wine, close your eyes, and do your thing. The old saying, “Dance like nobody is watching.” comes to mind. These couples may not always win, but are often the crowd favorites of the competition. This is because they truly dance for themselves and enjoy the moment. And it’s no secret that everyone dances so much better when they don’t care about how they look. To witness a true connection in the midst of anxious competitors can be the most refreshing thing.

The little known secret about the rebel game strategy is that it CAN and DOES win competitions. They are often known as the crowd favorites and do occasionally wiggle their way into 3rd place. How can you not like a couple that dances so beautifully, regardless of technique? Using this logic, judges may prefer a more unique couple in third place rather than another couple who looks too similar to first and second.

The biggest drawback to this style is that you can turn off judges if your dancing is too different from the usual style. A judge could even like your style but still won’t score you well because you don’t belong. Then again, it wouldn’t matter because you weren’t trying to win anyways.

Judge Clone Game

This strategy is often used by: 1) competitors who have trained with the judges before, and 2) competitors who have been ranked poorly by a judge in previous competition.

Dance the way the judges like to dance. Simple as that. If a judge likes the elbows higher, then lift your elbows. If a judge prefers a toe walk to the heel walk, then do the toe walk. A closer embrace, perhaps? Less tricks? More tricks? Sometimes, a tiny adjustment was all you needed to win.

It helps to have trained with the judges before, and for this reason, many dancers will do just that. You learn what they like and you try to dance like it. Some couples have missed first place simply because one judge did not like them. A bit heartbreaking but at least you know your dance is almost perfect to the judging panel.

The biggest problem with this style is that it can feel unnatural for you. You’re taking a risk by changing how you dance and even then, it might not guarantee favorability from the judges. Art will always be subjective no matter how hard you try to objectify it.

The Surprise of the Moment 

Nobody knows who will win. People THINK they do. There are crowd favorites. There are judges’ predictions. And then there are those who capture the moment. It happens every single year. Competitions would not carry the excitement and intrigue that they do if the expected winners were chosen every time. 

Everyone hedges their bets as the doors open from day one. Some couples look amazing from the first step while other couples lay just outside the radar. You start to recognize the dancers by name and number as the rounds pass. But on that final day, the impossible happens. Everyone shows up in their million-dollar suits and dresses and you can’t tell who the favorites are anymore. Every dancer’s confidence and adrenaline is jacked to an all-new high. All of the sudden, it becomes anyone’s game.

And the unthinkable happens. The favorites shockingly collapse under pressure. Meanwhile, the local couple with nothing to lose, dance better than they’ve ever danced. The “beginners” in the matching purple outfits have transformed into the purple monster couple. The “weird couple” in the corner becomes the only couple dancing to the music. And when the final round has ended, nobody knows anymore. Everything has changed.

Mass confusion fills the air as spectators start comparing mental notes. Couple A did ___ good, but lacked ___ qualities. Couple B was amazing, but messed up on the last day. Couple C was really REALLY mesmerizing to watch. Who won?! Nobody knows! It happens EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.

Many dancers win by surprise.

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Looking for some amazing pre-competition training? Check out Danilo Maddalena (from Italy) the weekend before the SCTC festival! See LINK for details: