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Salsa – Will Human Nature Spoil the Sauce?

By Jeff Allen 

Are there troubles brewing in the world of Salsa? I think not. I prefer to think that Salsa is having growing pains. Who knows? Maybe the future will record Salsa as the Americas’ number one dance. So what’s all the hoopla? Why would I start a series of articles that generally deal with technique and “how to” material – with an observation about current events, history, and human nature? The dance Salsa is in its adolescence. And as is the case with most adolescents, Salsa must experience some political, cultural, and technical metamorphosis. Continuing to grow through this metamorphosis is what any art form must do to survive. But the key word here is growing rather than dissipating like some fad. I believe that Salsa is destined to become our melting pot’s número uno Latin dance and enjoy the greatest popularity of them all!

The literal definition of Salsa is sauce. It is always fun to travel through history and regional linguistics to reveal the origin the name of a dance. And never has a dance been so appropriately titled as Salsa. Sauce is a composite, a blend; of many components, including spices, vegetables, herbs etc., and everybody’s sauce is different in texture and flavor. The chef takes pride in the selection and source of their ingredients, cooking process, etc. In the end, the chef tries making their sauce unique, palatable, and hopefully unforgettable, to the widest variety of samplers. The highest praise would be that their Salsa becomes the benchmark by which all others are measured!

The Hispanic culture if not rich in gold is certainly rich in its own ethnic traditions, celebrations, food, and festivals. Noting that at the heart of all of the above is dance! Each region has at least one its own native dances and yet each is tied together through the similarity of its Afro origin and the inherent similarity of their language –Spanish.

From these countries steeped in tradition but often wrought in political unrest, tyranny, and poverty their people come to the USA with hopes for freedom and a better life. Traditions and cultures merge – not only each other’s but also those of their new home. Dance, the human expression of music and the communication of basic human responses, is certainly the art form most notably affected. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Columbians, Mexicans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, and Venezuelans, to name a few, are uniquely tied together by essentially the same language as they come to their new home, America, and each adds their herbs and spices to the art of dance. Their dances mix with the highly developed ballroom and Swing (also including Hustle, WCS, & even C&W) dances producing a wonderful and intriguing dance known as Salsa.

More than just its standardization of syllabi, ballroom dancing has very effectively standardized its methods of teaching technique. This applies to the Latin and Swing dances as well. And while many of the dances may have lost much of their original ethnic charm and style, their present form communicates well on a World platform. These dances, like music, communicate beyond any language or cultural barriers. Our Ballroom and Latin dancing is like a sponge – ready and willing to absorb any nuance, fad, or trend, in dance and music. Because of this standardization of technique in dance, characteristics of a dance trend and its specific choreography can be absorbed and technique quickly applied to any “new” dance. Herein lays a source of controversy for Salsa and a hurdle which must be overcome.

As I see it; absorption, contribution, and sometimes human nature – including jealousy, the need for control, greed, etc. – all effect what is known as the Salsa community.

1. Absorption – Many in the Latin community have made the teaching of dance in the United States their profession for as long as fifty years. As a result, they have certainly been influenced, indoctrinated, and in many ways ‘conformed’ to ballroom dancing. The same is true with Europeans and Asians, etc. I would not term this historic pattern as undesirable. Like any other art form and certainly one so closely akin to high level athletics, dance must continue to grow, experiment, mature, and even compete. In turn, those Latinos who have appeared on the dance scene in, let’s say, the last decade, experience a certain healthy resistance to letting go of their heritage or authenticity even to those firmly entrenched in the Salsa community. I see this as being very important considering the dancer’s very close relationship to their ethnicity.The broad based American populace who have learned to dance and those that desire to learn, are always intrigued by new trends in dance especially those with passion and power. The Latino world of dance, certainly exhibits no desire to exist in a vacuum. With interest piquing, the Salsa community finds itself in a very enviable position of devising ways to meet the growing market place of Salsa consumers. These consumers have also been orientated to the customary teaching techniques of the ballroom community. Unfortunately, for some of the Salsa community this will require standardization of teaching techniques and quality of dance education, but in no way needs to EXCLUDE important contributions of choreographic and regional styling. The community heavyweights just have to get together for the sole purpose of hashing this out.

2. Contribution – We can call this the ‘politics’ of Salsa. I have already made mention of the contributing factors that need to be considered if the community desires to have one basic syllabus, but teacher training and testing should be a priority. I don’t think one syllabus is necessary nor do I think it will ever happen. To date, it has never happened in the “World of Ballroom Dancing”. Again, what we concern ourselves with is the need for good teaching and technique. There are numerous major dance organizations with many styles, but what Ballroom has accomplished as a whole is to have agreed on musical tempo. Each dance has a specific range of tempo. Each competition event specifically lists timing and tempo issues in its preliminary data. Nothing exotic is used for beginners and intermediates just ‘easy to hear the beat stuff’. With respect to solo or exhibition dancing where the dancers select their own music, timing is also left to them. It is only incumbent upon theatrical dancers to stay in time. Ballroom teachers use the term “strict tempo”, or a range of tempo that is standardized in accents and beat structure, often to the exclusion of some great popular music that is less than consistent within these ranges.

Ballroom organizations have agreed on this standardization for several purposes. For teaching beginners versus the more advanced, for the levels of teacher and student examinations, and for competitions. Where we want our students break on the 1, 2, or 3 of the music and/ or dance, we supply music that matches. We teach our students, well certainly I do, that the musical composition dictates when this will happen. In the case of Salsa, I have found myself breaking comfortably on any of the first three beats by just feeling the music. We also recognize that if a student has been brought up to break specifically on a certain beat it may take time, energy, and talent to do so interchangeably. Learning to hear music is an art all by it self and is definitely an acquired skill. I think some of those in the Salsa community discount or don’t attach importance to this acquired skill and this issue has been a source of discontent between the East and West Coast communities. What is the most important aspect of contribution is that it excludes no one with a “tried & true style”; it provides for a harmonious atmosphere to attract and teach beginners to be successful dancers and leaves the esoteric stuff to the advanced in the community.

Remember this: A dancer is a dancer. And a good dancer will be able to exhibit any characteristic or development and possibly improve on it. A weak dancer who uses poor teaching techniques will often resort to the less desirable traits of jealousy and criticism to protect them self in order to maintain what status they feel they have.

3. Human nature – By comparison to other dances, Salsa is still in its infancy. It really came to the USA and began its development in the mid-Seventies. In closing, let’s look at another popular dance – the Waltz and observe that the strength of a dance will eventually offset and override the negative aspects of human nature. As you will see, the Waltz prevailed through some scandal and turmoil that the Salsa will never have to face. Trace the parallels of people and places and let history be your teacher! (The following is a condensed version from “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Ballroom Dancing”)

“The root of all evil: The Waltz”

During the fifteenth century (The Renaissance), the European countries had different social standards based on the intricate relationships among the church, state, and military, as well as the events occurring at the time in each country. Although social standards and customs differed slightly within each country, decorum and behavior was much more reserved at the palaces and courts than in the agrarian areas.

If the times and locations warranted sternness in attitude, the dances became more subdued and less energetic. Dances were choreographed with complex patterns. The dance masters found this to be a favorable environment. The longer it took to learn a dance, the more students were dependent upon their teacher.

The lower and middle classes often endeavor to copy the examples of the aristocracy and upper class. It seems that it has always been important and considered correct to do “what the rich folk do.” At the same time, the upper class would closely examine the dance trends and fads of the lower classes. The dance instructors of this past era would then interpret these fads to make them fit for public consumption.

When the attitude of the times and locations reflected a more relaxed social demeanor, simpler dances were used. Often these more vigorous dances were welcomed. As the lower and middle classes copied the simpler choreography more easily, these dances grew in popularity. The ability of the middle and lower classes “to let it all hang out” seems to be a recurring theme throughout history. The upper classes, often clandestinely, tried to incorporate the fun and social freedom of the lower classes into their world of society.

The Dance Masters Create the Roots for Ballet

The dance masters interpreted the popular dance trends of the peasants and middle class. These dances were then refined and subdued in order to be more palatable to any regal court. The idiosyncrasies of choreography differed from one region to the next and circulated via travel. The aristocracy traveled with a full complement of staff and servants, including the dance master. Observations were made on parallel social planes. The wealthy observed the wealthy; the dance masters exchanged ideas and notes; and of course, at the taverns, the commoners enjoyed the local color. Exchanging social and cultural ideas was common in the courts of Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and England. The differences from country to country were essentially found in the music, since dance has always been and always will be the personification of music.

In addition to interpreting the various dances, these dance masters used a technique to portray refinement in dance. This technique consisted of five basic foot positions. One foot position was used to begin or conclude the dance’s choreography. The dance masters referred to the normal walking position as parallel feet. In contrast, these foot positions were described as being positions of turnout.

The typical amount of turnout for these court dances equaled 45 degrees from the dancer’s center, totaling 90 degrees; feet were placed at a right angle to each other. The dancers would proceed forward in fourth position or backward in fifth position. Although this 90-degree angle was not at all as extreme as today’s ballet, anyone of normal physical capabilities could find it challenging. Toward the end of the 1600s, a shift in dance emerged. What had been a simple proletarian dance presentation, in the courts of kings and queens, actually became the beginning of professional ballet.

These five foot positions become the major demarcation between dance as an art in the performance vein versus dance as an art to broaden the social spectrum of men and women. As the social dances that were known as court dances, became more jovial, interpretive, and relaxed, they tended to use the five foot positions less and the parallel feet more. Understandably, the dance masters who wanted to maintain control of the social art were not thrilled with relaxing their standards. Even they suggested that these simplified dances with more hopping and joy would lead to social improprieties. The diversity and complexity of dance patterns upheld the proper social decorum and coincidentally protected the job of the dance masters.

The Scandalous Waltz

Not unlike any other time in history, dance soon became a social controversy. Individual expression and male/female interactions were at odds with the church and state. The dance masters added to the mix. They were obviously threatened by the simplicity of a new dance: the Waltz.

Ländler, first seen in areas of Bavaria and Alpine Austria, was one of the first of these simplified court dances. The music was lively, using [3/4] time, and frankly was much more fun to dance to. The dancers turned under each other’s arms using complicated arm and hand holds, danced back to back, and grasped each other firmly to turn around and around. These figures and the triple rhythm have appeared in turning dances characteristic of German peasant dances from the Middle Ages. Ländler melodies became fashionable in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Vienna, and the music greatly influenced the popularity of dances like Llavolta and Ländler. The joy and freedom of movement could be expressed in a more personal style. The absence of strict adherence to the five foot positions was liberating. The gentleman had body contact with his partner. He supported her around the waist and had no complicated foot positions to learn. These dances were clearly far more intriguing and easier to grasp than the former court dances. Couples soon broke away from the traditional formations and danced as independent pairs. This dancing became quite popular among the youth and middle class! Owing to the circular and revolving nature of these dances, the term “waltz”, from the German word walzen (to revolve) was natural.

In addition to teaching and interpreting the various court dances like minuets and schottisches, the dance masters had always served as officiates at society balls. They started a dance, called a dance, and prepared the overall program and timeline for the evening’s entertainment. Since music education had become so prevalent for middle and upper class young ladies and gentlemen of the continent and England, they were able to begin the waltz on their own. Imagine being able to start a dance all by yourself! These practices remained the same in colonial America. The dance master’s control was clearly threatened, and his position as society’s head chaperone was endangered!

During the summer of 1816, the society pages of The Times of London reported on the Prince Regent’s grand ball. The writer was not as forgiving as his peers on the continent were. The writer reported the following:

“We remarked with pain that the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last [el] it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion.”

Interestingly, “voluptuous intertwining of the limbs”, simply referred to the styling used for the closed dance position of those days. The gloved hand of the gentleman was placed gently on the waist of his partner at virtually full arm’s length. The lady’s left gloved hand quite possibly was delicately placed on her gentleman’s shoulder, and she likely held a fan in that same hand. The left hand of the gentleman remained open and acted as the shelf for his partner’s right-gloved hand. The scandalous point of that reporter’s observation was that the gentleman’s foot disappeared from time to time under the lady’s gown in the midst of the dance. The bodies of the dancers were never in contact!

The waltz had become the forbidden fruit of the bourgeoisie-the greater the scandal, the greater the popularity. The end of the French revolution (1787-99) was a time of great growth for music and dance in Paris. Paris alone had over 600 dance halls, and the Waltz was king!

The dance masters felt they had to stop the Waltz. Society and religion had tried and failed, so the dance masters took their turn. The control they enjoyed due to the complexity of the court dances was slipping away. The waltz and its simplicity were gaining popularity. Slowly, partners moved closer and closer to one another. To the chagrin of many, sexuality started to reveal itself in society. Partnered dances arose. The intrinsic human desire to dance was a means of celebrating life, courtship, and mating. The creative need to express art was too powerful. All efforts failed to halt the growth of the waltz.

Well our object lessons are now concluded. I have been observing some very exciting material from the Salsa community and will be writing about it at length in the next few issues. See ya!
– Jeff Allen