Beyond Aesthetics: Bachata, Politics, Praxis

By Chiara Giovanni

September 24, 2021, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide demonstrations 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, competitors, performers, choreographers, and DJs working 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, dedicating choreography routines to Black ancestors, and calling upon each other on social media to recognize the inequities in their industry. Yet, after the dust settles 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 conviction on the part of many influential names in the U.S. Latin dance world, the past year has seen dancers, studios, and event promoters attempt, to varying degrees of success, to integrate their stated political commitments to anti-racism into their movement praxis. For many, this has taken the form of encouraging 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 African 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 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 (previously the Queer Latin Dance Festival). Dance publications, like Seattle 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 difficultto 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 statement 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.”

Whatdoes this work look like for Latin dancers? As a woman of color who is neither Black nor Latinx, I have approached this question both through observing the other dancers around me grapple with this question and through conducting academic 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 oppression and liberation. This is a useful approach when thinking about the political dimension of dance: unlike other art forms, like painting or literature, 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 capitalist and whitesupremacist structuring forces shape the possibilities available for social justice commitment through dance, and straightforward aesthetic or optic change is well-intentioned, 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 performed by dancers on stage or screen.

The Dominican dance form bachata is the perfect case study for how dancers embody social forces that operate at odds with their political commitments, in large part due to the history of how the dance has changed over the years in response to socioeconomic pressures. The majority of popular Latin dance styles like salsa, bachata, and merengue originated as social dances, loose collections of steps and gestures that often developed organically and in parallel 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 constructing gender and ethnic identities. Critic Jane Desmond has illustrated the process by which social dances, especially those which originate among lower-class and racially marginalized communities, are codified and standardized in order to be packaged 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 elements 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 without forsaking their respectability and, by extension, their whiteness.

Bachata is no exception to this process. Originating among the (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. 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 sister 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 desexualization 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 hallmark 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 predilection 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 Vargas, Anthony Santos or Raulín Rodríguez. Many bachata instructors position themselves as somewhere between these two styles, often conceived of as oppositional poles, and traditional bachata and bachata sensual often peacefully coexist at festivals and clubs all over theworld.

Nonetheless, despite the utopian mission of dance festivals to provide a kind of artistic buffet for the enjoyment of their patrons who can sample everything from belly dance to voguing in a safe and inclusive environment, it is impossible to sidestep the political and moral associations with any of these forms of dance, and bachata is a crucial touchstone here. For many dancers committed to anti-racism, traditional bachata represents a deeper appreciation of and engagement with Afro-Latinx cultural creativity and therefore offers an opportunity to embody pro-Black aesthetic and corporeal politics. Embracing or rejecting bachata sensual becomes an easy shorthand for marking out one’s ideological territory, and it is not hard to see how a performance or class by white European dancers, clad in leggings and high heels and showing off their ballroom-ized arm styling and chest isolations, might seem to contradict the commitments to anti-racist work that many of us profess to hold.

It is certainly a fool’s errand to attempt to trace a straight line from pre-enslavement African rhythms to today’s bachata footwork, and there is undoubtedly an essentializing element to any argument that traditional bachata, itself commodified and standardized for the circulation of forms of entertainment within capitalism, as well as subject to the inevitable shifts of historical and geographical transmission, is somehow perfectly representative of a mythical Blackness altogether absent from bachata sensual. However, if we take as a starting point the phenomenological assumption that our body is our opening onto the world, along with the common refrain among dancers and dance scholars alike, that dance is one means of creating new worlds, then it so follows that the postures we choose to inhabit, the movements we choose to incorporate, in many ways reflect the kinds of worlds we want to create, enliven, tear down, and imagine anew. It is the job of festival promoters, year in and year out, to decide for themselves the role, if any, that European takes on Caribbean dance forms should play in the Latin dance world, but it is clear that political commitments cannot remain purely in the aesthetic or representational realm when it comes to dance. Dance, being naturally corporeal, necessarily embodied, carries within its shapes and lines the residue of centuries of violence and oppression, as well as the latent possibility for reconnection and liberation. Even if it is not stated, it will certainly be felt. If we are to honor our commitments to social justice within Latin dance, we must recognize the processes of whitening, commodification, and standardization we help to perpetuate every time we teach or take a class, or promote a dance form stripped of its historical and social context.

As we slowly return to dancing together in the world instead of purely on our screens, we must continue to make space for open conversations about politics and prioritize history lessons given by culture-bearers that enable us to truly grasp the significance of the “Afro” in “Afro-Latinx.” Further, we must be willing to venture beyond familiarity and prestige when choosing dance teachers, and instead engage with voices who do not enjoy the same platform as many heavyweights in the field, but whose histories and movements have much to teach us about the dance forms we hold dear. Thanks in part to the increased access to virtual classes during the pandemic, we have more power than ever before to educate ourselves through workshops and reading, to form connections with dancers beyond our usual social sphere, and to use this moment of pause to reimagine our movement praxis once we can all safely dance together again. In doing so, we will move away from attempting to loosen the knots of historical marginalization through name changes and hiring choices alone, toward a focus on the rhythms and freedoms we accord to our dancing bodies.

This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of In Dance.

A writer and critic originally from the United Kingdom, Chiara Giovanni is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature. She is working on an essay collection about desire, care, and intimacy, and how these concepts structure 21st-century novels, Latin dance clubs, and our post-COVID bedrooms. The pandemic propelled conversations about the importance of desire, care, and intimacy into the mainstream; even as it wanes, Chiara intends to keep the spotlight on these themes within academic scholarship and beyond. Chiara writes a newsletter that blends scholarly criticism, cultural commentary, and personal essay; she also tweets at @carambalache.