When Salsa Swipes Right on Somatics, There is a Match

By Juan Urbina and Amelia Uzategui Bonilla

headshot of Juan Urbina showing Juan in a black tank top, Juan's face with eyes looking down and off to the side and hands near their right ear

Photo by David Poertner

What if the digital space could be a reprieve, an alternate reality for postcolonial dance research? Perhaps now, working outside of institutional demands, brown perspectives can be rearticulated. What follows is a conversation between two Latinx dancers and educators. They are recent graduates from the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts’s MA in contemporary dance education. They both moved to Frankfurt, Germany for the program two years ago. During the COVID-19 shutdown, they choose to co-teach, turning their prior conversations as researchers into a shared online practice. Their first class was on March 18th. Since then, they teach six days a week. Their continued inquiry has led them towards the recognition of a shared practice they have both experienced since childhood, Salsa. In spite of their memories with Salsa, this is not a technique they have studied or researched formally. Born into vernacular traditions, they both went on to receive Western dance training. During the pandemic, they have the opportunity to work in a third interval.

Juan: “Trucupey,” my dad used to call to get my attention. The nickname referred to a Salsa song, Juancito Trucupey. At family gatherings, as I began to walk I also observed how my parents stepped to the Salsa rhythms: sudden, contained, and joyful. When I was 10, I went to Cuba and learned to improvise Salsa movements socially in Old Havana’s Malecón. It was the Cuban Carnival. Celia Cruz was still alive and releasing hits like La Vida es un Carnaval. When I want to express my embodied childhood memories and identity, I return to these moments.

Amelia: La salsa se bailaba en mi casa desde que tengo edad para contarlo. I learned by following. The dance was already happening, at birthday parties, after baptisms, y en las Quinceñeras. As a young adult, I was introduced to NYC’s Spanish Harlem underground concerts. During the summers, Abuelitos danced on the sidewalk outside El Museo del Barrio. Heading further south and dancing at the weekend descargas in downtown Lima, my Nuyorican and Limeñan influences converged, un poquito de aquí, un poquito desde allá. 

Juan: Hearing this music, I developed an ear that moves me off the down-beat, responding to the music and making my own rhythmic composition at the same time. I can distance from it yet I can become it. It’s a contradiction that sets me free from rhythms and patterns while simultaneously dancing to them. Contrapunteando the down-beat with the up-beat. Feeling the empty spaces, the punches, and the unaccented notes.

Amelia: For me, it is all about the instrumental descarga section where one can dance like mad, crying while laughing, making fun with ecstatic rhythmic possession. Living in diaspora, meeting folx from across the American continents, we unite in the bigger cities, in the nightlife, at concerts and performances. We share without restraint our passion for Salsa, Cumbia, and Reggaeton. At this point in my political awareness, I have no interest in nationalist identification. A nationality is not a culture. When Juan and I met at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts, we saw the potential for transmitting knowledge together. Practically speaking, from where do we start? ¿Quizás la Salsa nos úne?

Juan: What I remember as kinaesthetic communal learning had no space in my formal dance training. As I hear in Frankfurt, “Salsa is not a concert dance.” If it is indeed just a social dance, why doesn’t the social have space in contemporary art academia? What makes a movement practice worthy of Eurocentric eyes? And who defines that hierarchy? If it doesn’t have access to dance academia, how can this practice be taken into consideration? I don’t mean that the practice of Salsa should become standardized, because then it would turn into something else and lose its essence, la calle, el barrio, la fiesta. Yet it needs to be a subject of relevant research, otherwise Latinx and minority communities will continue to be denied cultural recognition and access to cultural participation. We can start by calling it by its name, Salsa, and not another vague label like “Latin dance.”

Amelia: In the white-dominant society where we both live, Salsa is not a valid art form. It is a hobby or cultural tourism, at best ethnomusicology phenomena. Meanwhile in 1976 (1), Thomas Hanna coined “Somatics” from the Global North perspective and with it claimed heightened physical awareness, trance-like improvisation, imagery-fueled body states and embodied understandings of anatomical systems. What if instead of practicing Somatics by lying, sitting, walking and otherwise rolling around, we danced Salsa?

Juan: A movement practice that emerged in the 60’s and 70’s in brown and black communities in New York City with strong roots in Afro-Caribbean culture, “in particular the son-guaguancó,” (2) Salsa has evolved outside the “concert stages.” Yes, it is a social dance, with few mentions aside from recent publications (3) in Dance Studies and Latin Studies, perhaps because of the marginalization of immigrant, Latino communities in white supremacy culture and the misconception of African Diaspora dances as “too sexual” or inappropriate.

Amelia: That makes me wonder, why does the academic institution refuse Salsa, yet defend the European social dances adopted by classical ballet techniques in their cannon? Could it be like you say, the profanity of the tail wagging, pleasureful perreo misclassified as a “courtship dance?” Then why do grandparents dance Salsa? Why do children? Aren’t we past this?

Juan: History tells that choreographers have been influenced by social dances from the African Diaspora, e.g. Trisha Brown (4) with the Lindy Hop and William Forsythe (5) with Hip Hop. What can a social sphere that centers black and brown dancing bodies teach about movement that is missing from the academic dance curriculums? Like the recent Dance Magazine article said, “Are college dance curriculums too white?

Black and white headshot of Amelia Uzategui Bonilla
Photo by Katherina Speckman

Amelia: Or did the white dancers and choreographers have more opportunities to access recognition and power? In contrast to more recent techniques labeled under “Somatics,” Salsa has no singular founder. In that resistant, unable to be pinned down kind of way, it has no trademark, no Guru nor disciples. Grandmothers, aunties, uncles, and children are all practitioners. It is a product of social learning and practice, informal learning environments, generational dissemination, migration patterns and artistic excellence toured and recorded internationally. The music was one avenue for achieving recognition. For example, check out Celia Cruz and The Fania All Stars – in Zaire, Africa 1974 (6) on Youtube. As a result of these artists, who in the world in 2020 hasn’t heard of Salsa?

But to box something up, to limit it because of its seeming simplicity or commercialization without even trying to understand the polycentric and the polyrhythmic outside of the Western music framework is nothing less than a form of cultural racism (7). No one questions the historical significance of Bach. From my perspective, the roots of Salsa are my body’s Bach.

Juan: Mind you, it is not simple to dance Salsa, nor any other movement practice with African roots, nor any other dance technique, period. Each develops different skills. We have to recognize that Salsa requires social learning, kinaesthetic empathy, coordination, and an ability to let loose.

Yet, has this dance also suffered from ableism? The complex patterns that require embodiment of polycentric coordination are difficult for most able-bodied people. Then what of disabled bodies? This complexity may have contributed to misinterpretation in the scientific movement realm, still unable or unwilling to study it in depth. Since this dance emerged in a place that searched to strengthen the Latino immigrant identity in marginalized communities, primarily a hetero dominated one, it left little space for different dancing expressions. As mostly Cisgender Latinos, African Americans or able-bodied white people gained recognition by showing their athletic capacities in this dance, I wonder if another movement ghetto was created?

In the same way that practices such as classical ballet have developed in elite and ableist environments, I would say that the Salsa field marginalises disabled and queer cultures and limits the forms of expression. Today, I recognise that Salsa both enacts ableism and receives cultural racism. It is not considered an art like ballet. And it still pre-establishes itself as exclusive to certain bodies. How can a queer or disabled person move within the circles of this practice? How can the movement practice of Salsa become accessible?

Amelia: Accessible facilitation practices allow us to teach Salsa in a more inclusive digital space where an international (albeit English-speaking) audience can be reached. Given the restraints of social distancing, we can take another route and decenter the focus from teaching gendered steps and formalized patterns.

Juan: In order to detox from ableism in the digital space, it needs to be accessible. Thus we deconstruct the components of Salsa and use our knowledge in somatic improvisation-based exploration to center the feeling and sensation of dancing to Salsa music.

Amelia: This comes from our collective experiences of dancing in intimate, familial, and social spaces. Dancing to Salsa connects me to my root and sacral chakras. Singing and drumming limbs throb my body up and down, vibrating my cells made up of earth, air, water and fire.

Juan: This dance is rooted in diversity and community, because it emerged in the midst of different cultures and nationalities coming together celebrating what one may call “Latinidad.” Yet the heteronormative behavior has haunted the practice. So far, few have tackled the non-binary. One story told by this music genre, El Gran Varón by Willie Colón, tells of a person who struggles with normative society, dresses femme, and suffers an unfortunate ending. It reflects back on a “machista” society. It leaves me with the question: does Salsa’s evolution in the contemporary realm need a different movement practice to become more queer/non-binary?

Amelia: I didn’t know that about that song. I need to listen to it more carefully. Some friends in the Bay Area queer couple dance like Zouk. I don’t know if anyone else is working specifically on queering Salsa. What is needed for our online class participants to recognize Salsa’s somatic potential? How can we aid in the recognition of their experience of fun as consequent to this exploration?

Juan: Fun can also be described as a trance-like ecstatic expression. Not dancing like an idiot like that Youtube video said.

Amelia: The internet is a playground for niche proposals, and we found our audience for this unlikely combination that emerged as, “Salsa Somática.” Folx visited us from the safety of their homes, and attended our virtual class from the United States, Australia, Ireland, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Mexico, Korea, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Russia, etc.

Online classes are an opportunity for physical fitness while sheltering at home, and participants’ comments add to the physical by describing “Salsa Somática” like a sudoku puzzle or a healing, cultural recognition space. It moves school-teachers, retirees, people with physical injuries or limitations, and working-at-home professionals. Their feedback nourishes our inquiry.

A participant from Australia shared, “I am a contemporary dancer with a South American background. To have that somatic approach and yet hearing that music connected to a personal place of me as well as my trained body, it blended really beautifully.” A PhD student in Germany reflected, “Polyrhythm is increasing the space in the mind. Each rhythm brings a new dimension to the coding space of the mind, the space where percepts are represented, thoughts unfold, and memories and concepts find new associations. Adding new dimensions to this space opens up more possibilities for our conscious experience (which becomes richer, dynamic and diversified.)”

Juan: The “electric” field has shown me that this dance can be more accessible and culturally diverse — inclusive to queer and disabled cultures. It has been helpful to deconstruct the components of Salsa, and abstract them in a way that an individual can experience them without feeling foreign and uncoordinated in the practice. This enables the joyful aspects of this dance and its music to move to the forefront, its emotional “affect.” However, this leaves us with the danger of developing a practice that is so individual that it lacks its primary social potential and aesthetic cadences.

Amelia: As we identify these dangers, are we picking and choosing what we like from our cultural background and dance practices? Avoiding the parts that we find problematic? Is that not a weird form of appropriation? But perhaps, when we return to the studio, to real time and place teaching, we can explore the Salsa couple dancing (Juan: which is central to this form) from the perspective of having researched the sensing and feeling body in Salsa. We have recognized the somatic aspects of the dance and put them forward. The couple-dance is also important as well as the potential for playing with gender performativity. These are inquiries yet to be fully explored in our research of this form and tradition.

Juan: This one cannot predict. How to stay true to the characteristics of a dance while opening up to more diverse movement possibilities that draw from the ecstatic? That is my question.

Amelia: As you say, making something accessible means offering more options. As we have brought our cultural practice forward, I recognize that I have found a sense of validation and belonging in the digital, entrepreneurial space.

Juan: Teaching Salsa during pandemic social distancing. Developing a practice.

Amelia: Holding space for fun in times of crisis and trauma. For me, this is a form of resistance. Finding joy and pleasure in the body. As brown people, working class bodies, we are constantly reminded of our “migration background” status. “They” don’t want us to enjoy our bodies and experience pleasure.

Juan: This is how we heal our brown bodies. Go for the Drama! As Celia sings,

“Para aquellos que nos maltratan (bua)
Para aquellos que nos contagian (bua)
Para aquellos que nos contaminan, para aquellos que no nos quiereeeeeen!” 

Amelia: Se sufre pero se goza! Because no one is ever really alone. And COVID-19 is one helluva drama.

(1) Isabelle Ginot, From Shusterman’s Somaesthetics to a Radical Epistemology of Somatics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0149767700000802 Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 April 2012

(2) Handbook of Hispanic Culture-Literature. Pages 302-308.

(3) Ana Paula Höffling, Dancing Latinidad: Spinning a World of Salsa Scholarship https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327947368_Dancing_Latinidad_
in Latin American research review 53(3):666 · September 2018

(4) Wendy Perron, DANCE; Paying Heed To the Mysteries Of Trisha Brown  https://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/08/arts/dance-paying-heed-to-the-mysteries-of-trisha-brown.html

(5) Ariel Osterweis Scott. “Body Impossible: Race, Sexuality, and Virtuosity in the Dance of Desmond Richardson.” (UC Berkeley: Fall 2011.)

(6) Celia Cruz & The Fania All Stars – Quimbara – Zaire, Africa 1974. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXN-_asIaYs

(7) Mukhopadhyay, Carol C.; Chua, Peter (2008). “Cultural Racism”. In John Hartwell Moore (ed.). Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Gale. pp. 377–383. “a form of racism (that is, a structurally unequal practice) that relies on cultural differences rather than on biological markers of racial superiority or inferiority.”

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of In Dance.

Amelia Uzategui Bonilla creates multi-disciplinary curriculum and performances influenced by postcolonial dance history narratives. Born in Peru, and raised in California, they have collaborated with Anna Halprin and the Tamalpa Institute, NAKA Dance Theater, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Luna Dance Institute, and Cunamacué, Afro-Peruvian dance theater. Amelia is currently developing an artistic production with Juan Urbina and a multi-generational Latinx team based in Germany while nourishing collaborations between artists living in different contexts.

Juan Urbina is a Venezuelan dance artist. In addition to Western dance training, he embodies traditional and popular dances from social spaces, la rumba Latinx. He moved to Ireland in 2013 and collaborated with artists from diverse disciplines including Dorota Konchevska, William Frode (Cork Community Art Link), and John Scott (Irish Modern Dance Theatre). Juan developed a community dance project with homeless people living in Dublin city, and choreographed an evening-length piece called Baile Bua: Sounds Like Celebration in 2017. His work advocates for social justice and accessibility. Currently, he collaborates with Amelia Uzategui in Perfectionism Detox: A Dance with Voices from the South.