Do YOU know what the judges like? Does ANYONE know what the judges like? To play the game to its fullest, we’ve assembled a list of qualities judges look for and why it matters to them. We’ve also put together a list of things that judges don’t care for as highly as you think they would.
What the judges like….
1. Dance socially (not performing)
Year after year, the judges have consistently reiterated, “Dance like you would at the milonga.” Many competitors come in with the mindset of “performing” when a more accurate one would be, “dance like you’re having fun at the milonga”. Connect with your partner, hold a nice embrace, move carefully but confidently, and play with the music. No more than that.
No need to impress anyone with fancy moves. No need to embellish every 5 seconds. And don’t be afraid to pause and enjoy the moment. There’s no rush, no pressure. The goal of this performance is to enjoy yourself out there, not showcase every tango step you know. The better you feel, the better you look.
This one counts for a lot more than you think. Judges want to see a grounded dancer, not just physically but emotionally. Confident dancers go for it. They do the moves they want, whenever they want. They’re not afraid to play with the music and play with their partners. The best part of all, confident dancers never make mistakes. WHAT?! How can that be? Easy—it’s because confident dancers are always “dancing”. All their mistakes are danced out. What if a really big mistake happens?…it’s still not a problem, they smile and keep on dancing. It looks good and more importantly, it FEELS good.
Confidence doesn’t mean doing everything perfectly, and it also doesn’t mean knowing how to deal with all mistakes. Confidence simply means believing in one’s own ability and not making a big deal of things that don’t go perfectly. It’s something everyone has—you’ve been doing it just fine throughout the milongas.
It wouldn’t hurt to PRACTICE your “confidence” before competition. Try difficult moves in practice that would usually make you come undone and practice not caring if you screw up. Dance through it without making a face or scolding yourself. It might be a good idea to practice “screwing up” in front of a camera.
This is one of the most cliche sayings in tango and yet still among the most valid and underutilized competition tips today. You have to connect with your partner. And you have to dance more for your partner than you do for the judges. It just looks better that way. Obviously, this is easier said than done as it’s hard to focus on anybody other than yourself when you’re so excited. It’s also hard to connect in competition when you’ve only been practicing technique. Try not to forget that technique is only a means on an end. The ultimate goal is always connection, regardless of the technique you used to find it.
It also helps to redefine what “connection” means in competition versus in social dancing. “Connection” in competition is not that meditative zen state and “breathing in harmony” type of mentality that you use for social dancing. Competition connection is more like moving together and giving the appearance of really dancing with one another. It’s somewhat a real connection and possibly somewhat a little bit of showmanship.
The truth is, almost nobody feels totally connected to their partner during a performance. Sometimes, not even the pros can do that. It’s not possible to dance for your partner AND for the spectators at the same time—BUT at least you can work on giving the [illusion] of it. Keep your head facing towards your partner more and try to move in-sync with your partner. Easier said than done, but that’s all part of the game!
The Argentineans like to say “dynamic” but Americans tend to interpret that word as to mean “powerful”. We’re choosing to use a different word, “variety”, to be more true to what the Argentineans intended. The judges like to see dancers with lots of different expressions. It’s not about having different moves and different figures but to literally change your character of movement.
One of the biggest critiques judges have about competitors is when someone dances well but looks the same for every song. Same movements, same figures, only a change in musicality. It’s not enough for them. If the song is rhythmic, they want to see more bounce and choppiness in all your movements. It’s not enough to use the same moves but only faster. If the song is melodic, they want to see more smooth and flowing movements. But it’s not just the movements, they want your entire attitude to change. You almost have to become a different dancer. This may feel extreme but keep in mind that you’re sharing the floor with other competitors and the judges only look at you for a few seconds during each glance. You have to make the difference obvious.
It wouldn’t hurt to practice having an entirely different attitude and even different moves and embellishments for each type of song. SHOW THEM that you can dance differently to each song; not only that you can dance to different songs.
5. Musicality (should this be a separate guide?)
Who DOESN’T like good musicality? Everyone loves it. In fact, watching dancers without musicality is so much worse than watching dancers without technique. The tricky part is deciding what musicality is and what it means to be musical. Most of the typical tango musicality workshops will focus on the different rhythmic structures (time, double-time, half-time, syncopations)…expressions of different orchestras and instruments (rhythmic vs melodic sounds)…or phrasing (when to walk, pause, do turns, add embellishments). All those things are still absolutely important in competition but there’s also one extra factor….you have to look like you’re ENJOYING the music.
It’s probably more important to look like you LIKE the music than to stomp out all the notes perfectly on beat. This usually isn’t a problem when dancing socially as it’s easy to dance for the joy of the music. But in competition, dancers can get a bit too scientific about how they approach musicality. The couple muscling to hit every syncopation perfectly probably won’t look as good as the couple that looks like they really enjoy the song.
It’s not a bad idea to challenge yourself by dancing to your least favorite ochestras. Try flowing with the music instead of chasing down every note. It’s ok to dance and pauses even when it doesn’t fit the music. You don’t have to dance everything you hear. Take your time and enjoy the music…you know, just like you do at the milonga.
What the judges don’t care much for…
Initially, we were shocked, too. But we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, “THE DANCERS WITH THE BEST TECHNIQUE DO NOT ALWAYS WIN.” Why? It’s because technique in and of itself is not dancing. Holding your posture, pointing your toes, and pivoting on one foot without losing balance doesn’t count as musical expression. You have to FEEL something. The JUDGES have to FEEL something.
The judges want to see that you care more about connecting with your partner and dancing with your heart rather than posing for the audience. The judges have danced for years; they’ve been there before and they can tell when an expression isn’t genuine. With that said, technique matters to the point that you should at least be somewhat comparable to the level of other dancers in the competition. There has to be quality in your movement but more important than that, there must be quality in your expression.
It’s been rumored before that competitors all had to dance a similar boring competition style or else be scored lower, but the line was taken out of context. The suggestion is that you have to dance social and elegant. “Social” meaning only using moves that you would typically do at the milonga. “Elegant” meaning moves that look clean, precise, and classy. Doing anything else beyond those two labels might also be ok if they don’t take away from your social/elegance factor.
That means you can pretty much dance however you want. If your style is comfortable and enjoyable for 95% of your partners the milonga, your style will most likely be acceptable for competition. If your tango style can musically express a wide range of tango orchestras, even better. If your style draws the eyes and makes people want to watch you, that is best.
Embellishments DO matter but not in the way many people think. As the saying goes…”It’s not what you do, it’s [how] you do it.” The way you move is the best embellishment. Having proper technique and emotional depth behind your movements is the best “embellishment”. Adding extra flicks and wiggles on every pasada….ehh, not so much. So technically speaking, you could have almost no embellishments and still look amazing.
Another way to look at embellishments is to think of them as showcasing PERSONALITY, rather than showcasing musicality. It can feel a bit empty or superficial when you flick your feet simply to chase down subtle notes. But do the same thing on your favorite part of the song and now that embellishment has meaning all of the sudden. The embellishment shouldn’t be only your foot hitting a note but your entire body dancing in that little flick.
4. “Salon-style” moves
That boring walking and flashy enrosque is definitely not required at all whatsoever. If you love walking to the music, do it. But if you prefer bouncing around and doing ochos to cover the floor space, that’s probably even better. Why is walking not so important? It’s because you can only use it a few times throughout your dance and it doesn’t often look interesting unless you’re doing it with such incredible technique/timing. Often times during competition, judges look away the moment you start walking…pretty much like how one changes the TV channel when the commercials come on.
The enrosque is another one. It used to be that enrosques were difficult “special” moves that only a few dancers could do. Now, it feels like every other leader is throwing one out a dozen times every song. Done right and to the music, it CAN be a beautiful expression of movement but 99% of the time, it’s boring and predictable. You already know what happens…the leader comes up on one foot, makes one turn (while the follower cranks a back pivot), then draws a circle with the free leg before sticking it out for the follower’s pasada. It’s like predicting the sunrise….BOOOOOORING! Enrosques should be add to the overall expression and creativity of your dance, not stifle it. Use them wisely (if at all).
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