When someone finds out that I love to dance, they nearly always ask, "Do you compete?" I am sure that I am not alone. How about you? My answer is an overly passionate "No! I dance out of pure joy. I've already won." Isn't it a shame that dance--one of the few biological markers of our essential humanity--is perceived as being a spectator sport? A dancing-with-the-elite-stars spectacle? Something to sit down and watch? Something to be judged by experts?
Why do people start dancing as adults?
As children we just dance naturally and without education when music plays. As adults we return to dance because a thirst for social connection (and maybe to re-find our humanity?). At least it is very rare that adults return to dance in order to get into a dance competition. Unlike what ballroom dance has become, Argentine tango for the most part remains a vibrant expression of a social community. If you dance for many years social tango, you just might arrive at being someone who could compete. But why? Is it good for you? Is good for your dance community?
Dance should be good for you
Social dancing creates a cascade of happy hormones (such as dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin), but dance competition in research literature has been shown to create a high level of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol in our blood is not all bad for survival situations, but in the majority of urban areas, cortisol baseline levels are way too high and create many problems with our health. The cortisol levels in my PTSD patients are so high that it slowly killing them. Cortisol through competition often helps activities (such as dance) that lead to self-actualization, but self-actualization does not need competition for motivation! Feeding the desire to compete or at least "go to the next level" keeps many business-focused dance studios open. In other words, new dancers come into the "store" to buy some happy endorphins and they leave with a bottle of stressful cortisol! Dancers sometimes get hooked a dance studio's goal to keep students coming back as paying clientele, looking to find the illusive adrenaline-cortisol high of "going to the next level." When you love dance so much and are talented, it is easy to promote dance. Competition is just one way. It's not all bad, but I am very suspicious of the "side effects" of competition in relation to dance.
But how do we keep people from abandoning dance?
People meet a partner and then disappear from the dance community. It's true. But why chase after them if they feel fulfilled? Should we put the dancer's motivation for dancing on "artificial life support" by creating a need to "graduate" from social to competitive dance? This new focus becomes an expensive means to motivate continuing in dance in order to reach bronze/silver/gold levels of dance. Therapy is cheaper and better for social skills and fulfillment. Business plans for dance studios are transparent money-focused strategies for affluent clientele in the world of ballroom dance. To be fair, my many friends who teach and organize dance events sacrifice a great deal to promote their love for dance. Many instructors and studio owners have a great love for dance, and they see how dance helps their clientele grow psychologically. Promoting dance is their passionate vocación espiritual. As it stands right now, tango communities, fortunately, are not top-heavy with the very wealthy as is often the case in the dance disciples in ballroom studios. The competitive view of many of these studios--if adopted by tango teachers--could easily harm the social nature of tango. This has already happened, for example, in Manila's tango scene, where Argentine tango is for the elite.* Other places could easily follow this trend. When I lived in Texas, I knew a ballroom that was doing very well promoting only social ballroom. So it can be done.
So I am now prepared for the next person you asks me if I compete. It'll go something like this:
"So do you compete?"
"No!" adding with a big smile, "I dance Argentine tango."
"Oh really? What kind of tango is that?"
"Oh, A not a kind of tango; it's kind tango. It's social tango. It's not a race and there are no trophies for going around the dance floor faster than anyone else." :-)
*Recently an Australian friend told me about his experience in Manila in the Philippines, and I asked him to describe what he saw. This is what he wrote:
Mark, here are some interesting aspects of the Manila tango scene:
- All the local teachers teach only private classes, no group classes - for preferred payment in US dollars, and it is very expensive!
- The foreign teachers who come, teach performance tango. They have group classes but again they are expensive with payment in US dollars.
- There are no practicas at all.
- Milongas all happen in restaurants in wealthy areas like Makati or Taguig ( Bonifacio Global City). Admission involves paying an up front fee for 'consumables' sold by the restaurant. A standard charge is 600 pesos Roughly $13.00 US. There may also be a 100-200 pesos fee for the DJ.
- Milongas often happen in the same night in the same barrio (Makati). Organizers compete with each other to earn an income from being a milonga organizer.
- Being a taxi dancer is for a small group of men a useful way to earn a good income.
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Photo credit: Argentina's Cristian Sosa, right, and Maria Noel Sciuto celebrate after winning the 2012 Tango Dance World Cup stage finals in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012