Salsa for me is an opportunity to explore a part of my
identity that cannot be explained by
my genealogy or heritage, but rather
by cultural experience. I am a descendant
of Ukrainian Jewish and Genovese Italian,
of German and Spanish. I grew up in Peru and studied
at the American School of Lima, where we danced
to modern rock (mostly in English) and
wore clothes we bought in trips to the United States. Musica tropical was not comfortably
accepted in my circle when I was young.
Yet at 15 I left Peru on a visit to
the Dominican Republic and discovered
a passion for salsa dance. There was
a local club where the hotel staff, the
real locals, would go to. That’s where
I went to submerse myself in a dance
that was foreign, but at the very same
time, that felt completely mine. It deeply
resonated with me; I felt I could do
it forever. I felt as if the dance wasn’t
something I was “picking up” from my
surroundings, but rather it was inside me, always, already a part of me. Salsa was part of
my essence, and I only had to let it
out; and I did that joyously!
I did my undergraduate as a scholarship recipient in a
college in New Hampshire. The school
was primarily white; the few Latinos
and Latin Americans bonded closely. We
celebrated what we shared, what we considered our own. We protected the components
that we felt made us different and that
identified us as Latinos. I took on an
identity as a Latina woman that was
different from my identity in Peru, but that also
felt very personal and intense and beautiful.
Dancing was a joyous experience, and
I wanted to share it. Dancing was also
the opportunity to enjoy a part of my
identity that didn’t involve pain; political
action and education can be painful as
you remember times of suffering, of struggle,
of discrimination. We worked as an organization
to bring about change in the school and
in our community. Dancing was the moment
when we could be happy and proud of our
heritage and leave behind the weight
of our history. (Again, this based on
culture, on growing up Peruvian and wanting
to identify with the indigenous, on discovering
that my blood was not as strong as my
cultural roots … that I felt Peruvian
I began to teach salsa in college. Teaching was a way
to rediscover salsa because if forced
me to articulate—put into words—something
that lived deeply inside me. How can
you translate a feeling, a stirring from
within that is expressed as movement?
Moreover, how can you articulate this
to a bunch of white scholarly types?
Salsa in the U.S. has allowed
me to explore being a Latina in a way that
my own country couldn’t afford me. Moreover,
it gave me an opportunity to explore
a gender role I had not considered before.
Salsa is a dance that must be shared
by two people: one leads, one follows.
As a dance teacher, I often had to lead;
but the pleasure of being led was immense,
a wonderful diversion from my carefully-planned,
strong-independent-woman existence. And
I have to admit, those moments of being
led on the dance floor, being twirled
and watching your own arms twist and
bend, flipping your hips, keeping an
ever-so-soft grip on your partner’s shoulder.
… It is an incredible pleasure. In those
moments, I return to my essence—and I
am not dancing. I am being.
Talking about salsa and politics is difficult because
… how can you not make it sound reactionary?
I could write “By the act of dancing,
I am reasserting my identity, strengthening
it.” Yet, would I do it as obviously,
as “loudly” if I didn’t feel threatened?
I want to think that dancing salsa is
a part of me that is not reactionary, that is not based on the fact that I am suffocated in layers of white-washed
cultural roles, that is not a result of my place in the world, but rather a result
of who I am regardless of my surroundings.
(Yet even as I write this I realize it
is not true; I am choosing to
highlight this aspect of who I
am, one piece of many, and in that choice is
the political act.)
What happens when I teach? Am I “bleaching” this dance?
Am I making it whiter, trying to put
into words how we move, being unable
to describe what it feels
like and having to resort to clichés
such as “sexy”, “sensual," "pleasure”
or am I “browning” those around me? I
want to think I have more effect on others
than the other way around, but I am nevertheless
very uncomfortable. (What about the fact
that I have spontaneously written this
in English? What about the fact that
I am writing this, intellectualizing
my experience, a dance that feels like
How do I feel about commercializing salsa? Well, I still
like the traditional sounds better than
the new “hip-hop salsa” wave. I feel
modern salsa is more artificial, just
like modern food … it is meant to be
“easy to digest” to an audience that
is removed from the core. I think it
is difficult for me because I feel that
the electronic sounds and hip-hop
movements create a barrier between the
dancing and the dancer; they distance
the sound and the movement from that essence that I discovered at a local club in the Dominican Republic. I want to tell
those who do hip-hop salsa: Don’t
dress it up. Take in the real thing,
or your journey won’t be deep enough
to discover something wonderful.
1. Discuss with
difficulty in translating movement into
description of the essence of her being,
what does this mean?
Her perception of salsa and the
influence of modern life on it.
Ask students to write a personal reflection:
what time, or during what activity are
you fully you?