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Birdhouse in their Soul Saturday, 03 September 2016 print

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A new series of Strictly Come Dancing is due to start on the BBC tonight. And no doubt this year, as in previous years, the programme will serve up its own particular version of Argentine tango.

And there will be - as there always are - tango aficionados up in arms about it on social media. Equally, however, there will be many of us who have wearily grown accustomed to seeing our beloved tango misrepresented in the mainstream media. And other than a brief moment of irritation or a small squirm of embarrassment, we will move swiftly on to the next story in our news feed.

But, as one dance competition is about to begin, another very different one comes to a close.

In Buenos Aires, the Tango World Championship, El Mundial de Tango, has just crowned its latest champions in “tango salon” (dance floor tango) and “tango escenario” (stage tango).

Watching the footage of the final, I find myself wondering what Strictly fans would make of it. Because the difference between the winning tango and what they’ll see on Strictly, could not be greater.

El Mundial de Tango is the only competition that has any weight at all in the world of Argentine Tango. And contrary to popular belief, competitions in Argentine tango are not considered “the be all and end all”. Indeed they are a relatively recent innovation.

Many tango dancers think competitions can stifle our art form, turning it into a box-ticking exercise. By conforming to the rules or what the competitors think the judges are looking for, competitions risk creating uniformity and banality, inhibiting creativity and individuality.

But there was nothing uniform or banal about the winners of the stage competition this year.

What would a Strictly fan make of it? Well, I’m guessing they might detect a significant lack of bling and plunging necklines. Not that I’m anti-bling - I have succumbed to a fair few sequinned dresses in my time - but tango is so much more classy and complex than the cliché.

A Strictly fan might also miss the slicked-back hair of the classic tango Lothario. Our man is a foppish blond, bucking yet another stereotype.

But perhaps most striking of all, throughout the couple dance with a wrought iron bird cage with a red balloon inside. Around it, in their arms, even attached to their feet, the bird cage is the focal point of their choreography.

What’s it all about? Well, without some knowledge of the music, it is admittedly a little baffling. However, in Argentina, the piece - "Balada Por Un Loco" by Astor Piazzolla - is perhaps as well-known as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and no less surreal in its meaning.

“Love me this way, crazy, crazy, crazy … Climb up to this tender madness in me. Put on this wig of larks and fly! Fly with me now! Come, fly, come!”

You may love the choreography, you may hate it. You may like aspects of it - ideas, movements, musical interpretation - but not everything. You might respect its individuality but find that it fails to capture your heart. Indeed, you may dislike anything that isn’t purest the form of improvised tango salon.

But there’s one thing I think even the harshest critics will agree on. The choreography is different, original and innovative.

When I watch this video, I see dancers following their hearts and giving an honest interpretation of the form. They dance how they want to dance, without worrying about the judges’ scorecards - and it pays dividends.

It’s refreshing to see individuality, creativity and imagination applauded in a world of plastic commercialism and stereotypes. By embracing originality, I feel the judges of the Mundial did something important. I believe - and hope - that they have opened the door to a good deal more creativity and individuality in future competitions. I’m excited to see how tango will grow as a consequence and what the Mundial will give us in years to come.

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