Fall 2021 In Dance

Beyond Aesthetics By Chiara Giovanni Bachata, Politics, Praxis

especially those which originate among lower-class and racially margin- alized communities, are codified and standardized in order to be pack- aged up as commodities to be resold to consumers in the form of dance lessons. Not only are these dance forms fixed in place and molded to become legible through numbers, counts, and step combinations to make for easier teaching, but their absorption into mainstream culture in the Global North usually follows an established process of what Desmond calls “whitening.” Over the course of the twentieth century, dance styles originating in Black and/or lower-class communities (like tango, certain kinds of jazz dances, and the waltz) needed to be stripped of those ele- ments perceived as ethnically or sexually loaded, like extremely close holds, interlocking legs, thrusting or gyrating pelvic motions, and bent knees, in order to appeal to upper- and middle-class white consumers who wanted to experience culturally exciting modes of movement with- out forsaking their respectability and, by extension, their whiteness. Bachata is no exception to this process. Originating among the (predomi- nantly Black) rural poor in the Dominican Republic in the latter half of the twentieth century, bachata music and the accompanying dance steps were stigmatized by the sociopolitical elite as vulgar, low-class forms of enter- tainment unsuitable for polite society. However, with increased migration from the Dominican Republic to the United States in the last few decades, and with popular musicians like Juan Luis Guerra and Aventura raising the profile of bachata music in the Caribbean and in North America alike, bachata quickly became a fixture at Latin dance clubs as a kind of little sis- ter to salsa, supposedly easier to learn because of the simple four-count and lateral basic step that itself was first developed outside of the Dominican Republic (as opposed to the bolero-inspired box step that forms the basis of bachata in the dance’s homeland). This former pariah of Dominican society reached a level of standardization that allowed for easy teaching and learning in dance clubs across the country, and by 2010 bachata was included alongside traditional heavyweights like salsa and cha-cha-cha in high-profile competitions like the World Latin Dance Cup. Beyond the usual process of standardization, whitening, and desexual- ization that Desmond describes as common to many social dance forms, though, bachata underwent a particularly dramatic transformation in the early twenty-first century, when white Spanish dancers Jorge Escalona and Judith Cordero created a new dance style they christened bachata sensual. Though they retained the musical count and basic step of the traditional dance form, including the soft tap or hip pop that has become the hall- mark of bachata dancing, they replaced almost all the main elements of Dominican bachata with modes of movement more typically associated with ballroom dance, including elongated and elevated postures and arm movements, body rolls, and dramatic dips and drops. Over time, as the popularity of this new dance form exploded across North America and Europe in particular, bachata sensual dancers became known for their pre- dilection for remixes of popular English-language songs over Dominican bachata music, and, especially for female dancers, form-fitting bodysuits and high heels to emphasize the sharp lines and artistic poses of bachata sensual choreography. In contrast, “traditional” or “Dominican” bachata maintained a focus on nimble, playful footwork performed to fast-paced Dominican music, often by Afro-Dominican bachata legends like Luis Var- gas, Anthony Santos or Raulín Rodríguez. Many bachata instructors posi- tion themselves as somewhere between these two styles, often conceived

dancers around me grapple with this question and through conducting aca- demic research on the phenomenology of the dancing body. In my work, I pay close attention to what the body does and how the body feels, and how this relates to deeper histories of oppres- sion and liberation. This is a useful approach when thinking about the political dimension of dance: unlike other art forms, like painting or liter- ature, stories are told and retold by dancers every time their bodies move. Our dancing bodies betray the truth about our political commitments whether we like it or not. Years of cap- italist and white supremacist structur- ing forces shape the possibilities avail- able for social justice commitment through dance, and straightforward aesthetic or optic change is well-in- tentioned, but largely insufficient in redressing this reality. What is required is a keener attentiveness to how white supremacist capitalism becomes embedded in the very gestures per- formed by dancers on stage or screen. T he Dominican dance form bachata is the per- fect case study for how dancers embody social forces that operate at odds with their political commit- ments, in large part due to the his- tory of how the dance has changed over the years in response to socio- economic pressures. The majority of popular Latin dance styles like salsa, bachata, and merengue origi- nated as social dances, loose collec- tions of steps and gestures that often developed organically and in paral- lel with the corresponding musical genre. Social dances are, at their core, improvisational forms of movement, and can often play important social roles, functioning as entertainment, communication, modes of cultural transmission, and methods of con- structing gender and ethnic identities. Critic Jane Desmond has illustrated the process by which social dances,

I n the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide demonstra- tions and precipitated waves of change in every area of American public life, the dance world was no exception. The diverse Latin dance industry (which I here understand as the community of promoters, organizers, instructors, students, com- petitors, performers, choreographers, and DJs work- ing with dance forms like salsa, merengue, bachata, kizomba, zouk, and more) was forced to come to terms with legacies of erasure and appropriation of the African/Afro-Latinx roots of many popular dance styles. Professional dancers within this community strove to recognize the seismic impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in their own ways, joining Blackout Tuesday, hosting fundraising events, dedi- cating choreography routines to Black ancestors, and calling upon each other on social media to recognize the inequities in their industry. Yet, after the dust set- tles and the protests dissipate, what are we left with? Which changes endure, and which are simply aesthetic nods to politically charged moments in history? Following the initial displays of unity and fiery con- viction on the part of many influential names in the U.S. Latin dance world, the past year has seen danc- ers, studios, and event promoters attempt, to vary- ing degrees of success, to integrate their stated politi- cal commitments to anti-racism into their movement praxis. For many, this has taken the form of encour- aging other dancers to explicitly acknowledge the Black influence on popular Latin dance forms like salsa, bachata, and merengue. Areito Arts, already industry leaders in educating dancers about the Afri- can and Indigenous roots of dance, has leaned even more into their role as culture-bearers, providing reading lists and other resources on dance history on

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their website, and leading virtual workshops for dance communities around the country. Meanwhile, In Lak’ech Dance, the nation’s first queer and trans-centered Latin dance academy, renamed their academy’s flagship event the Queer Afro Latin Dance Festival (previ- ously the Queer Latin Dance Festi- val). Dance publications, like Seat- tle Dances, Dancers’ Notes, and For the Love of Bachata, have all posted accessible online resources around anti-racism in dance, and Latin dance specifically. Yet, beyond a handful of examples, it is difficult to find Latin dance organizations whose initial willingness to engage in anti-racist work has formed a prominent part of their teaching or performance. Angélica Medina, co-founder of In Lak’ech Dance, pointed to the consequences of superficial commitment in her state- ment on the renamed festival: “[A] s important as words are, words without action are performative allyship, and do little to address the matters at hand. The [festival] name change is just the beginning: there is so much work to be done.” What does this work look like for Latin dancers? As a woman of color who is neither Black nor Lat- inx, I have approached this question both through observing the other

(predominantly Black) rural poor in the Dominican Republic in the latter half of the twentieth century, bachata music and the accompanying dance steps were stigmatized by the sociopolitical elite as vulgar, low-class forms of entertainment

unsuitable for polite society.


in dance FALL 2021 42

FALL 2021 in dance 43




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In Dance | May 2014 | dancersgroup.org

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