Tango is loved the world over, but if you’re looking for a city to host a competition for the world’s greatest dancers, there’s really only one candidate: Buenos Aires. Every August, Argentina’s capital draws thousands of dancers, musicians and enthusiasts from around the world for the Tango Buenos Aires Festival y Mundial from August 17 to 27.
Competition hopefuls compete in one of two categories: Tango de Pista (salon tango) or Tango Escenario (stage tango). While the salon tango competition is stricter and more traditional, dancers in the stage tango category liven up their performances with dramatic jumps and influences from other dance styles, such as ballet. An estimated 800 couples—nearly half of them foreigners—will compete in this year’s championship.
Tango traces its origins to the working class barrios of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and has evolved into both a powerful symbol of Argentine identity and a global cultural phenomenon. As the festival’s artistic director, Gustavo Mozzi, explains, “[Tango’s growth] is due primarily to a generational change—many youth have opened their musical horizons thanks to the Internet, and have taken interest in music that before they did not have access to. […] Today people have more eclectic taste, and that strengthens genres like the tango.” This growth received an added boost in 2009, when UNESCO declared tango an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as “one of the most recognizable embodiments [of the regional identity of the] mix of European immigrants, […] descendants of African slaves and the natives of the region known as criollos.”
The Mundial reflects tango’s global reach. In addition to the 14 national preliminaries that take place across Argentina, there are 14 international preliminaries in cities as far off as Seoul, Paris and San Francisco. Champions of the Mundial also gain international prestige—last year’s winning couples, Lorena González and Sebastián Acosta, and Juan Malizia Gatti and Manuela Rossi, are currently on tour.
In 2014, more than 600,000 fans attended the festival, which lets tango lovers deepen their appreciation of the dance through an array of tango-related activities. Organized by the Buenos Aires Ministry of Culture, the festival is free to spectators and participants alike.