Salsa and Its Transnational Moves.

2 Mar

I stumbled upon a paper called, “Embodying Canadian Multiculturalism: The Case of Salsa Dancing in Montreal” », written by Sheenagh Pietrobruno », published in 2002. This paper was based on research she conducted in 1998. This lead me to discover her book,
Salsa and Its Transnational Moves
published in 2006.

Chapter One: Beyond Caribbean Roots, Page 56:
… The salsa music that has been popular since the late 1970s differs significantly from the music that reigned during the explosive years of the 1960s and 1970s. Concern with the working-class conditions of barrio life and the issue of Latin solidarity, related in Fania-produced salsa, has been replaced by sentimental love lyrics. Salsa has lost its political edge … Modern salsa is marked by a mechanical and flawless polished sound produced by recording different parts of the music separately. Cuban classics or early Fania records were often recorded live, giving the music of the 1960s and 1970s a raw, vital, spontaneous sound that has vanished from modern commercial salsa …

Chapter One: Beyond Caribbean Roots, Page 56

This book was very challenging to read, both on a technical reading comprehension level, and on a substance level. It is based on the author’s PhD dissertation: “Salsa and Its Transnational Moves: The Commodification of Latin Dance in Montreal”, i.e. It was written by someone who holds a PhD, to be read by those who have a PhD.

If you are brave enough to pick-up this book, I would almost recommend skipping, or just skimming, the first chapter or you might never get to the juicier chapters. The first chapter is mostly background material about the history of salsa dance and salsa music, and you can come back to it later.

Chapter Two: Transnational Identities and Multicultural Connections, Page 107:
… The practices of listening and dancing to salsa enables immigrants from diverse countries in Latin American, Central America, and the Caribbean to unite under the all-encompassing identity category of “Latin.” … At the same time, through the commodification of salsa dancing in the city, many Montrealers who are not of Latin descent are exposed to this cultural practice. Montrealers of Latin and non-Latin descent are involved in teaching and promoting salsa. People from all backgrounds enjoy listening and dancing to its rhythms. Affiliations that arise through the commodification of salsa have the potential to bring diverse people together and consequently to be highly inclusive …

Chapter Two: Transnational Identities and Multicultural Connections, Page 107

Now, it’s starting to get interesting. The author uses pseudonyms for all the dance schools and people she interviewed, and for all I know, she could have been writing about salsa in Toronto. Her description of salsa in Montreal in the late 90s could very well be a description of salsa in Toronto today.

Chapter Three: Staking Claims, Page 113:
… The acquisition of salsa by individuals who grow up moving to the rhythms of the dance differs from its acquisition by those who learn it in a studio or club. As salsa has evolved in many cities and countries throughout the Americas, it is difficult to delineate precisely the “true” and “authentic” salsa sites that develop this dance in actual circumstances. Identifying salsa in what I call a “lived context,” I am less concerned with where individuals have learned the dance than with how the dance becomes a part of their cultural heritage. In a lived context, salsa is not formally learned but is passed on from generation to generation. Most people who grow up with the dance acquire it in childhood, its movements often being taught indirectly through the corporeal language of the body; thus they may not have a sense that they have learned it …

Chapter Three: Staking Claims, Page 113

Here, the author alludes to the “salsa is in my blood” statement that one sometimes hears, and she does a good job of describing why this is probably true, that salsa is in one’s blood, or not. I would refer you to the bachata baby » clip from an earlier post. I know I wasn’t encouraged to “Baila! Baila!” to Antony Santos, when I was a baby.

The author also describes the reality that the paying customer in Montreal often doesn’t have salsa in their blood, and is mainly interested in the steps and turns that will get them dancing in a salsa club. Because of this reality, most instructors, regardless of what is coursing through their veins, sell what the customer wants to buy, and in a way that the customer wants to buy it. Sell me the sizzle, baby.

Chapter Four: The Couple in Dance, Page 162:
… Salsa’s emphasis on male leadership in the dance keeps the practice firmly anchored to gender relationships in which women are dependent on men and in which men are responsible for women. Salsa dancing cannot be easily configured within feminist perspectivies on dance as a site of liberation for women. The Latin tradition appears outdated in these terms. Nonetheless, salsa is progressive in its potential to create multicultural connections. As previously illustrated, the contact element of this dance allows individuals from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds to mingle in the city’s schools and clubs. Although after the 1980s many music and dance subcultures became stratified along lines of race and ethnicity, salsa in Montreal embraces people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds …

Chapter Four: The Couple in Dance, Page 162

Can you tell we are getting to the juicy stuff? Here, the author gives an enlightening background on the rise, the fall, and the rise again of the couple dance. She describes how some dance forms have evolved to be an expression of the “feminist ideal”, and how salsa is not one of these forms. Is this a slam on salsa? That’s not the author’s style. Her writing is very scholarly, even and fair, balanced. Almost cautious, unlike Glamour Addiction ». There’s more in the next chapter.

Chapter Five: Commodifying the Gendered Embrace, Page 169:
… two predominant ways to frame the relationships between men and women that arise through the leading and following arrangement within salsa. Both the man and the woman can find fulfillment on the dance floor by moving together as one, which mediates the predominant position of the male dancer, or they can jointly yield to masculine dominance, sharing in the enjoyment of this power dynamic. The two models of heterosexuality that Richard Dyer identifies in the couple dances of the musical are analogous to the two prevailing ways that Montreal dance teachers interpret gender differences in salsa. He cites the “Jane Austen model,” in which male and female partners achieve equality and joy in dance through the blend of their opposite roles. On the other hand, the pleasure that dancers experience in what Dyer refers to as the “Barbara Cartland model” lies in the performance of inequality. The woman revels in her relinquishment of power to the male dancer, who in turn luxuriates in his mastery over her …

Chapter Five: Commodifying the Gendered Embrace, Page 169

For me, this is the steak. Why do I dance salsa? I know why I started to dance salsa. It was for the salseras. Why do I still dance salsa? It is still for the salseras. For me, without salseras, it would just be a bunch of salsa gigolos in a room, doing shines, and I’m not into that kind of sizzle. No matter how good the music.

What do I like about dancing with a salsera? When I reflect on this, I am shocked to think that I actually do luxuriate in my mastery over a salsera. I luxuriate in a salsera’s willingness to submit to me. The greater her submission, the greater the luxury. I am further shocked to realize that what I really like about salsa, is the way I can interact with a salsera that is socially impermissable outside of the salsa club. It is like taking a vacation in the city, where it’s OK for a little sanky-panky ».

However, I also recognize that a salsera’s willingness to submit to me is a privilege, and one that is granted by a salsera, one dance at a time, and that this privilege can be revoked at any time. I also tend to think that a salsera’s willingness to relinquish her control is a form of escape from the demands of her everyday life, in a society that expects equality from her, as much as she expects equality from society. I think back to the time when a salsera once lead me in a dance. I remember feeling safe and protected, in a dance without worries, like I was on a very safe amusement park ride.

Final Thoughts

Why did I read this book? Well, the cover was kind of sexy. I am sure the author is not unaware of this irony. I fell asleep almost a dozen times trying to read this book, and it took me over a month to finally get through it. Really, that first chapter is like a mental speed bump, and the second chapter is not much better. Chapters 3-5, however, really caught my interest. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in salsa. It will make you think. A strong warning though, that it might take you a month or more to finish.

Gender-balancing social dance by Alex de Smet » and Anup Thomas ». Song is “La Llave” » by Grupo Latin Vibe »:
Not in Montreal or Toronto, but I wish.


2 Responses to “Salsa and Its Transnational Moves.”


  1. Salsa and Its Transnational Moves. « Salsa Gigolo in TO | Mi Musica Latina - March 2, 2009

    […] original post here: Salsa and Its Transnational Moves. « Salsa Gigolo in TO Share and […]

  2. Salsa Stress. « Salsa Gigolo in TO - March 22, 2010

    […] 4, Adulthood, Page 233Salsa is both a dominance interaction », between a salsa gigolo and a salsera, and a dominance display », between dancers and audience. […]

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