Silvano’s Dance of Internal Conflict

From Tango Express newsletter (February 2012)

Silvano Colombano is  a pioneer worthy of our admiration. Last year,  he braved the first Argentine Tango USA Championship. He agreed to share some high–and low–points of his experience.

I have always been ambivalent about the idea of artistic competitions, mainly because of the inherent subjectivity in the judgment of peers and even “experts” in any human activity that is not quantifiable either in terms of scores or times, as in competitive sports.

So, one of the attractive features of Argentine Tango was precisely the fact that there seemed to be less emphasis on competition, favoring instead connection and individual style, whereas ballroom folks seemed to be always preparing for the next competition, and working on style and steps for that purpose.

On the other hand, I soon came to realize that Tango is very much about competition but not the official kind, instead the constant underlying competition for the acceptance of our respective followers and leaders. So, last year I jumped at the chance of finally exposing my dance to the critical eye of experts.

Well, my first loss in a tango competition hit me much harder than I had envisioned and in ways that I found analogous to the five stages of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Death and Dying”(denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). However, I found seven phases in this type of loss:

Denial: 1. After the final qualifier run, they announced the couples that were advancing to the semifinals. These were the longest two minutes I have ever experienced. There must have been a mistake! We had coaching for this event. We were ready. Am I having a bad dream? At this point I actually performed my lucid dreaming “test” to see if I was dreaming or awake.

2. Anger: These judges are crazy! What are they looking for? I can’t believe they picked Couple #-over us!

3. Depression: Note that I’m skipping the “bargaining” step that accompanies actual dying. That seems appropriate only in the contest of possibility still being open. But, man, depression hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat there stunned while the milonga got going. I was holding back my tears. I did a perfunctory dance with a friend I had invited to come and enjoy the event then went off to find my partner.

4. Drama: I’ll never set foot on a dance floor again. I’m tired of the tango scene. I’m going back to Europe. I’m definitely not coming back tomorrow.

5. Embarrassment  There is no such feeling in Kübler Ross’s stages, but it was strong here, at least for me. I had announced the contest on Facebook! And I had added that it was part of a celebration of my upcoming birthday. Got lots of support and wishes, and congratulations for participating. This is far worse than having been turned down by one of the followers I admire. Not only that, but if one of them was present she would see her dismissal of me reinforced and confirmed by the “official” judges: It’s now official. Silvano can’t dance!

6. Rationalization: OK, so I needed to calm down and step back. First, the contest was in strict Tango Salon, therefore no ganchos, high voleos, leg wraps or any moves that take a foot more than a few inches off the floor were not allowed.  That put us in a situation we were not used to, and a leg being too high at any point could have cost us points. We accepted being part of the game. How we were being judged depended only in part on how we “normally” dance Tango.

Second, we, along with other participants, had the courage to put ourselves out there in front of everybody and fight the butterflies in our stomach. People will only remember the winners (who really did deserve to win!) and the fact that we took part. Whether we made it to the first or second round or whatever, is something that loomed gigantic only in our own minds. As a friend of mine aptly put it “nobody cares” and nobody really should. We took our participation seriously, with extra lessons and some extra practice to adapt our dance to the requirements of the competition, but we didn’t go overboard, and we were fully ready concede that there would be many other couples that would do better than we.

7. Acceptance: I still went home determined not to return the next day. I felt I needed at least a day away from the scene in order to “detox.” Well, by 6 pm next day, I called my partner. “I’m ready to go back,” I told her. I was ready to be there to support and cheer on our friends who had moved up. We were all on the same team and we had put on a show together. Now somebody would go on to win and they deserved our friendship, support and rejoicing. “It’s all about spreading happiness,” I had been saying prior to the contest. “Either we win and we’ll be happy, or somebody else will win and they will be happy, and we can be happy with them.”

To my own surprise, at first I found this harder to do than I had expected, but I got there, and I hugged everybody and the new winners, and I danced the night away.

A year after Silvano’s day in the limelight, we asked him for some more insight of his on the competiton experience.

La Pista: What did you like about the competition?

Silvano: I liked having a chance to measure myself against some possibly objective dance standards, and I liked the motivation it provided to take a deeper look at my movement and how I connected with my partner.

LP: Do you feel you got enough helpful information ahead of time?

S: Not really. It remained unclear what “tango salon” really meant. We were simply told “no ganchos”,  “no voleos” etc.  I understood that flying legs couldn’t be part of salon, but there was no reason why low voleos and low gancho/leg-wraps shouldn’t be allowed. In fact several couples who advanced included these in their repertoire. I think I ended up following the “rules” too rigidly  and I handicapped myself. It wasn’t clear how, say, a voleo, would affect your score. Would you be disqualified? Lose points (however point might be given…)? Ignored if graceful and small?  I still don’t know.

LP: What did you not like about the competition? Were there any unpleasant — or pleasant—surprises?

S: Didn’t like the lack of clarity mentioned above.  A couple that missed something as basic as moving with the flow and thus blocked everybody (we were told NOT to pass) was still allowed to advance, so, again, it wasn’t clear what the consequences were of violating “rules”.

LP: What tips would you offer people entering the contest this year?

S: Relax,  do your best, enjoy and accept whatever happens.

LP: In the end, regardless of outcome, was it a rewarding experience?

S: Yes, it was. I was disappointed by our results, but still proud of “our dance” no matter how it was judged. I was also impressed by the sense of comradery  among the contestants and the feeling that we were all in it together and “putting on a show.”

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