Adj Marshall

Archive for the ‘Foriegn Language’ Category

Salsa and Patriarchy

In Art, Communication, Foriegn Language, Physical Pursuits on January 5, 2011 at 10:20 pm

“Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.”

-Voltaire

Last evening was the initial class for Level II Salsa. I have been taking salsa lessons for about 2 months now and find the physical and mental challenges of the art form something I look forward to each week.

Growing up in my household no one danced, so when I wanted to learn, I solicited the assistance of my friend Karin. A native Puerto Rican,  Karin had grown up dancing, it was a skill passed down from parent to child the way reading might be in most American households. Karen exposed me to a plethora of dance concepts most importantly that flexibility and freedom with your body and mind is a necessary element for making your motions flow into a dance.

Me and my salsa partner in Ecuador

As we grew older our friendship grew apart and I found other venues through which to dance. Almost a decade later I would find myself again immersed in the Latino culture this time while living in Ecuador for a summer.  While in Ecuador, I met a friend who would introduce me to the the local dancing scene, something few foreigners ever get to experience. Dancing a couple evenings each week my skills improved exponentially. I became a sought after dance partner which only served to increase my confidence in my own ability and allowed me the freedom to take liberty with my own style. Again while this was an amazing experience it only lasted a short time. Upon my return to the Sates I found few people I could dance with and went on another decade hiatus, returning to salsa only this fall as part of my LEAP.

As a strong independent minded woman I often find it difficult to not be in the leadership role. In salsa dancing as in the Latino culture as a whole there are norms that one may call gendered, sexist or even patriarchal. About  a month ago while having tea with a friend who is a native of Ecuador we got into a debate about Spanish as a gendered language and how the use of gendered words reinforces the sense of masculine as strong and powerful and feminine as demure and docile. My thoughts about this concept came to rest upon the implications of gendered thinking and practices within salsa dancing and its reinforcement of strict gender roles.

In salsa class the first thing you learn is that it is the woman’s role to follow and the man’s to lead. In class comments like this are plentiful: “Gentleman your responsibility is to lead and care for the woman on the dance floor, if you look bad it’s your fault, if she looks bad its your fault”.  While the concept of being faultless as a female may be alluring it leaves little room for recognizing ones own weaknesses and creating  space for growth. In salsa dancing the one place of fault for woman lies in her attempt to hold power ” ladies if something goes wrong it is 90 % the guys fault, if you however decide to lead it is 110 % your fault”. In her book All About Love, which I just finished last week, Bell Hooks states ” sexist socialization teaches females that self-assertiveness is a threat to femininity. Accepting this faulty logic lays the groundwork for low self esteem”.

While I have set the stage here for a diatribe on the patriarchal nature of salsa dancing I will digress. Not because I have not had these thoughts, for they have been running rampant in my own head these past couple days but because as my studies have moved forward my understanding of partnership.  I have come to recognize the give and take that is inherent in the art of salsa dancing. Comments like ” ladies men only lead you 10 % and you must follow though on the other 90%” and “Ladies don’t do the work for them they wont learn from their mistakes”,  gives a a more holistic sense of the give and take of the process required to make a salsa dance work between partners.

In any partnered activity there is a trust that is required, a trust that forces you to be vulnerable in the presence of another. In that vulnerability you must trust that your partner will take up the responsibility to care for you, whether on the rock wall, in a salsa class or in life. I dont know if it is the American understanding of rugged individualism that allows us to miss the subtleties of a give and take relationship where  equity–the giving of what one needs, in the amount that one needs it in, is at the center not equality, but I do know that we must always maintain a healthy critical awareness of the ways in which our societies gendered norms influence our everyday lives.

Eddie Torres: My salsa instructor’s instructor.




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