“¿De dónde es usted?”, I asked the best Latin dancer I had ever followed around a dance floor. It was several summers ago in “centrally isolated,” as the locals say, Ithaca, New York, where a friendly gay club went Latin on Wednesday nights. Once a week we broke up the bucolic boredom that helps to make Cornell University so intellectually restless.
“Sorry I don’t speak Spanish,” said my partner.
“Where are you from, then?” I code-switched
“From Bosnia,” he answered. “My name is Nedim.”
That stopped me short. He had kept me in step through changes in rhythm and turns I only half anticipated, but now he lost me. Still grateful for his creative control as a dance partner who knows how to heighten the fun of following by almost losing the partner with unpredictable segues even when the moves were familiar, I let my mind wander. It went back to Brooklyn, to my cultural roots and to those of salsa. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, in this North of Caribbean island, deterritorialized music was mixing one rhythm with another in patchwork patterns where guaguacó interrupted rumba and slid into merengue anticipating rumba’s return. Though the Bronx and Manhattan must have been spots just as hot for salsa, Brooklyn stays central for me, maybe because master pianist Larry Harlow—“el niño judío de Brooklyn”—made the musical mixes especially open to cultural chameleons like myself. Years later, in 2005, we would celebrate him and other unlikelysalseros in “The Jewish Latin Mix: Making Salsa”
Hosted by Cultural Agents at Harvard University, with participation from the Smithsonian Institute and the Americas Society, “The Jewish Latin Mix” honored the ways that music builds inter-ethnic bridges so wide that everyone is invited to dance. The connections now link the base in New York City to fans and followers throughout Americas, Europe, and beyond. Along with Harlow, there was Leon Gast, who filmed Our Latin Thing (1973), Salsa (1976), and won an Oscar for When We Were Kings (1996); Martin Cohen, photographer and founder/president of Latin Percussion, the company that developed the major source of Afro-Latino percussion instruments, and Marty Sheller, composer, arranger, and Grammy winning producer who worked closely with Willie Colón and Celia Cruz. From the provisional Latin quarter of Ithaca, my thoughts continued to wander to other clubs in other cities less exotic for Latin music where I had found dancers like Nedim creating urban oases of sociability. A kind of utopian Jetzeit, to use Walter Benjamin’s word, flashes through memories of dancehalls in Monterrey, Montevideo and Montreal, in Santo Domingo and San Juan (where the guy in a baseball cap and too chubby to be Elvis Crespo turned out to be the real thing when he invited us to an outdoor concert the next day), dance floors are the spaces of urban utopia.
I mean by utopia that everyone fits in, not by looking and acting the same, but by improvising variations on a given theme because dance is a creative art that values difference over conformity. Ernesto Laclau might describe the design of differences on the dance floor as “universal” in the contemporary sense. For the classics, universalism meant conformity so that difference looked like a deviation. But for post-moderns, universality is the space that accommodates differences (a language made up of many styles; a government sustained by divergent views). Its very name suggests how salsa depends on differences of rhythm, origin, mix.
Surely urban dance halls were an inspiration for shaping a better world. Seriously. I heard myself saying so about eight years ago after an international meeting at the Social Science Research Council to discuss what kind of scholarship and education could promote equitable development worldwide. A day of speeches and debates left us academics clear about obstacles to the good life but mostly clueless about the goal.
“What would a better world look like?” I asked my anthropologist friend Arjun Appadurai at the end of the meeting. I teased him some more about not being able to say what it was that we were working towards. “Do you want a glimpse of a world you can dream towards?” I went on. “Let’s look at dance as a cultural agent.” So the intrepid anthropologist let me lead him, loathe to allow his skepticism to sidetrack us from a field trip into the night of New York.
Half an hour into a taxi ride that brought us only two blocks closer to the river at 10 p.m. that Friday night was enough to make us go native and walk the rest of the way to 57 Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. There once stood the late Copacabana of glorious memory. This legendary Latin nightclub of the late 20th century is no more. In its wake, a rhizome of lesser locales now multiplies the points of entry to radically altered world of exquisite dance that has replaced the democratizing denizens of basic moves and broad-based grace. Throughout the 1970s and’80s, hundreds of clubs throughout New York were packed nightly with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans and other Latinos dancing to the music of Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto. And though salsa is experiencing a revival in popular culture, with the filmEl Cantante, “the dance form has largely disappeared from the New York clubs where it was born. The Cheetah Discotheque, Ochentas, Corso Ballroom have all long been closed.” Even the last holdout, a consolation Copa in Chelsea, closed in July 2007. “Today salsa is kept alive by an ardent band of semiprofessional dancers, not only in New York but around the world,” a recent New York Times article observed.
But on that night, the midtown club close to the river was still marking its prominent place on the street with a long line of patrons patiently waiting to get inside. The line was something of an antechamber to heaven, like a programmed pause to prepare roughened souls for the refinement on the other side. Detained for the while, we stared at other celebrants who, like us, lagged behind the threshold and inched toward the neon light and the electrifying music.
Dark people, light people, and every shade of African and Asian mixed together sometimes with white, some old ones, more young ones, maybe a mother with young girls or a madam with youngish girls, mixed couples and hybrid singles, glamorous gowns and skintight jeans, the lineup seemed as endless in variety as in length. Difference is the norm in these multicolored and intergenerational havens of strict civility that Nick Quijano portrays with his full palette from Puerto Rico to New York. Anyone who mistakes the atmosphere as informal or unstructured may be surprised to see what amounts to a written contract of comportment on entering the Brazilian equivalent of inner-city dance halls. At the entrance to typicalgafieras, a list of commandments dissuades all comers from anticipating anything but exemplary civic behavior with such instructions as “Gentlemen will be respectful and not get drunk” and “Ladies will accept invitations to dance from gentlemen who ask them appropriately.”
The democratizing design of Caribbean dance has been clear at least since the Cuban Wars of Independence, with their vanguard of leading Black militants and the whites who slowly learned to keep step. But readers of novels like Cecilia Valdésabout the 1830s already know that the popular bailes de cuna—where classes mixed freely—had undoubtedly developed a collective taste for freestyle partnering. Dances in the revolutionary camps turned out to be testing grounds for a nascent democratic culture. Campaign diaries collected by historian Ada Ferrer are telling: Two similar incidents, one in 1876 during the first war and the other in 1895 during the final war show that dance became the cipher of democracy.
One night in 1876 at a gathering in a rebel camp, a white woman rejected the overtures of an officer of color. The officer became furious, insisting that she refused him only because of his color. In anger, he then threatened her and anyone who dared to court her in the future. Twenty years and two wars later, at a dance at another rebel camp, another black officer tried to court a white woman. He asked her to dance, and when she refused the black officer again became angry and confronted the woman with an accusation similar to the one made in 1876. “You won’t dance with me” he said, “because I am black.” In this instance, however, the officer made no threats. Instead he gave a long speech on valor, patriotism, and equality, and he condemned her refusal as anti-patriotic. Now, to be racist was to be anti-Cuban. (Ada Ferrer, “The Silence of Patriots: Racial Discourse and Cuban Nationalism, 1868-1898” paper at “Our America and the Gilded Age: José Martí’s Chronicles of Imperial Critique,” Irvine, January 27-28 1995. 20-21.)
By the time Arjun and I passed through the Copa’s portals and realized that the delay was due to bouncers who frisked the men and scrutinized the women up and down, our participant observer vision had become focused enough to notice the miracle inside: Beyond the floor-to-ceiling florescent palm trees and before the stage that boasted a twenty-piece live orchestra alternating with another one just as fabulous to keep the club throbbing through the night, everyone was dancing to the same music.
They danced gracefully, either showy or subtle, and with variations that kept partners attentive to each other. A good move may be part of a familiar repertoire of dance steps and sequences, but the moment and the combination of moves and pauses can take a partner by surprise. A good follower, quick witted and supple, will absorb the surprise as if she anticipated or even exacted the move from the controlling lead. Liberating for a feminist like me, dancehall democracy brings relief from self-reliance and gratitude for a strong partner. My freedom in the civic counterpoint of voice and exit is to take or leave him for the next number.
In this art form, as in others, the aesthetic effect is in the small shocks that refresh perception and that the formalists called defamiliarization. This enabling preference for aesthetic play is why choreographed ballroom routines of Latin dancing can seem boring to Latin dancers. But at the Copa, the rule was to improvise; Improvisation on the dance floor with a range of combinations repeated the spirit of unorthodox mixing and matching of races and regions of the devotees who kept coming to the club. The one feature we all had in common was love for the music and for the combinatory art of movement. It made us almost infinitely interchangeable partners. Not that one dancer was the same as another, but that each would invent moves from the same music in a particular style cribbed and combined from others.
Almost unbelievably, men who were too old and frail even to approach some distant potential partners still managed to show some flair and fluidity on the dance floor. Barely bar-age youths struck classic poses to rhythms that syncopate across generations. At one spot on the floor, a stranger might ask a master to dance (I’ve done it more than once) in order to feel the thrill of expert creative control; at another spot, a man and wife may be doing variations on the steps they have been taking together for decades. The point is that everyone is moved by the music to make signature moves.
Nedim was a master of those moves, I thought, which brought me back to the syncopated conversation.
“Did you learn to dance salsa in Bosnia?” I asked incredulously.
“No, actually, it was in Germany.”
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