Salsa’s Sexuality: Rooted in Racism

This paper reflects my research from before grad school, but it feels relevant to my current research of power structures and stereotypes.

Salsa is raging with popularity throughout the world, from Harlem to Bangladesh, people meet, join in rhythm, and dance the night away. Yet, this energetic, enthralling form of dance is often misunderstood and mischaracterized by sweeping generalizations and stereotypes based on beliefs that are centuries old.

European immigrants projected their perceptions of salsa onto the people in countries in which they immigrated. Licentious, immoral–these are words they used to describe this dance form and to judge the character of those who enjoyed it. This judgmental, misleading stereotype was used to justify oppression of Africans in Cuba and Puerto Ricans in New York. If one partook, was he or she wrong or sinful? I think not.

Sklar, an interdisciplinary scholar and Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of California, Irvine, argues that to be culturally sensitive while analyzing movement, one must understand that movement is a form of cultural knowledge. “The way people move,” she states, “is more than biology, more than art, and more than entertainment. All movement must be considered as an embodiment of cultural knowledge” (30). By misinterpreting salsa as sexual movement, judgers overlook the crucial cultural knowledge that salsa reflects. Instead, they impart their own beliefs onto others in an insensitive way. Perhaps with knowledge and understanding, we can all view salsa movement for what it is—an embodiment of cultural knowledge.

Salsa, rich in history, emerged and evolved through immigration, poverty and prejudice. Shaped by collisions of interacting cultures and traditions, historical perspective is essential to understanding the movement, the music, and the culture.

Salsa dance and music are deeply rooted in the Cuban slave trade (Pietrobruno 33). Spain dominated Cuba and the Canary Islands from 1511-1889. During those years, great numbers of Spaniards immigrated to these islands, carrying their culture and disease with them (32). Spanish conquistadors were familiar with slavery. After all, Spain had been enslaving Africans long before Spanish conquistadors departed for the Americas. To them, it was rational to enslave the indigenous people they encountered on the islands. They needed a labor force to work in the mines and fields as they settled their new territory (Gott 24). So as they conquered, they enslaved. Decimated by enslavement and disease, the indigenous population was nearly wiped out by the seventeenth century. With a depleted labor force, the Spaniards in Cuba felt forced to find a new population of workers, so they imported Africans to be their slaves (Duany 72-73).

Prior to the nineteenth century, the people of Cuba did not receive many slaves (Gott 24). Between 1800 and 1860, however, sugar was a valuable commodity and Cuban sugar cane plantations were booming. Plantation owners needed more laborers to support the trade. So while the United States and Britain were slowing their slave trades, Cuba’s slave trade was reaching a peak. They hauled in up to 85% of their entire slave population during these years (Pietrobruno 32, Gott 24). Although slavery had been proclaimed illegal in 1862 (Shub et al. 33-34), the slave trade in Cuba continued until 1886 when it was formally abolished (Gott 25).

Cuba abolished slavery later than many other nations; yet Cuban slaves could buy their freedom more easily (Peitrobruno 32). Slave owners in Cuba, like in most parts of the world, diligently sought to eliminate their slaves’ tribal cultures in order to gain and maintain white dominance (33). In Cuba, however, African slaves more easily attained their freedom as first generation slaves with first hand experience of African traditions. These former slaves—now free—migrated to Cuba’s urban centers. In these centers, ethnic groups formed distinct societies (32) and preserved their separate traditions—holding tightly onto their dance and music. Eventually, however, secular activities merged, creating music and dance forms such as the rumba. Cuban slave owners failed to eliminate their slaves’ native cultures, but their denigration of African-rooted traditions continued. They labeled the rumba immodest and affiliated it with rowdy drinking and crime (33).

An early ancestor of contemporary salsa, rumba shares many characteristics with salsa. Comparing guanguancó, a style of rumba, with Cuban salsa illuminates their similarities. Both use syncopated rhythms over four-counts with accents on the first and third count. Dancers stand with feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent and torso tipped somewhat forward. The dancer’s core initiates free flowing, cross-lateral, movements that accentuate the large circular pathways of the hips and shoulders. Both Guanguancó and Cuban salsa have a basic step that widens and narrows as dancers place their feet on the first and third count. (Guilbiac Rodriguez, Pietrobruno 36, Afro-Cuban RUMBA lesson demo)

While dancing rumba, Male and female rumba dancers circle around each other, but rarely touch or face their body directly towards the other (Afro-Cuban RUMBA lesson demo), giving the dance a playful teasing quality. Salsa, emerging much later, also bears some similarities with European dance styles, such as the closed partner dancing position (Pietrobruno 36). Dancers face each other and hold the other’s hand and shoulder.

The closed dancing position first appeared in Afro-Cuban dance with the Danzón, Cuba’s first national dance and another one of salsa’s ancestors. By incorporating this closed position, it reflects French contredanse (Angeles 2010, Chasteen 82). Danzón was popular in Cuba from the 1880s until the 1930s. Its movement is smaller and slower than rumba, but the African influence is still present as the center of gravity is lower than European dance forms, allowing the hips to move sinuously (Pietrobruno 40).

As European movement influenced Afro-Cubans, males of European descent began to join their dances and gain sexual access to Afro-Cuban women (Pietrobruno 41). Women, on the other hand, were warned not to dance danzón because of its African associations (Chasteen 81). A Cuban magazine geared toward the “elegant” women of Havana, La Habana Elegante, printed, “We recommend the proscription of danza and danzón because they are vestiges of Africa and should be replaced by essentially European dances” (qtd. in Chasteen 80). They also warn that men “express fear and disgust… at the idea of marrying a woman who has danced a lot of danzas and danzones” (qtd. in Chasteen 81). The denigrating belief that Afro-Cuban traditions were sexually dangerous prevailed among whites, but abstinence was less expected from men.

In the 1920s son, with its lyrics reflecting barrio life (Pietrobruno 43), began to overshadow danzón (Chasteen 82) within Afro-Cuban communities. This music and dance migrated to and became popular in other Latin American countries including Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico had recently become a territory of the United States, so Puerto Ricans were able to enter the US without passports, and many did so (Pietrobruno 43). Puerto Ricans felt the effects of The Great Depression just as US citizens did, and the United States needed workers during World War II, so a massive migration of Puerto Ricans to the US ensued (Korrol 34). Even after the war ended, the US presented better job opportunities for unskilled workers, so the immigration of rural, lower class Puerto Ricans to the US continued (36). Incredibly, by 1992, 35% of all Puerto Ricans were living in the US (Duany 79). The immigrating Puerto Ricans brought their music and dance, and because the jobs available to Puerto Ricans were for unskilled workers, the barrios that Puerto Ricans inhabited tended to be pockets of poverty (80) where son’s lyric were relevant.

Many Puerto Ricans lived in New York City in close proximity to African Americans. Sharing their neighborhoods, Puerto Ricans joined African Americans in dancing to Jazz music (Pietrobruno 46). In the 1950s, however, jazz music became increasingly technical, and Latino dancers struggled to keep up. Hence, salsa evolved as a more danceable counterpart to jazz in the 1960’s (Pietrobruno 46, Fernadez 296, Taylor 10). Salsa’s history is tangled with struggle; therefore, it is not surprising that salsa, like son, has lyrics that express the economic dependence and social marginality of barrio life (Duany 84).

Salsa, like its ancestors, combined aspects of different cultures and was part of the identity of a marginalized population. Though salsa was born in New York City, the movement and culture were familiar to people in many other communities and nations. In Salsa as Translocation, Febres says, “[Salsa] mixes traditions [and] moves freely among them.” Because of an inability to assign borders, salsa quickly migrated from New York City to other countries (179). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, salsa spread to Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean and South America, taking particular holds in the lower socioeconomic communities. In Venezuela, for example, salsa quickly became the preferred music of the working class youth. The middle and upper class youth scorned salsa calling it, “music of lowlifes” or “music of apes” (Pietrobruno 52). Like its ancestral dance forms, salsa shouldered the negative stereotypes of the lower class.

In the mid 1970s, Latin America’s middle class began to adopt salsa as a method for creating a united identity among Latin Americans (Pietrobruno 52). In the 1990s, salsa music traveled across class and race lines in US cities and gained a significant radio presence (55). In order to remain relevant to its expanding audiences, salsa lyrics shifted from reflecting marginalized lifestyles to the romantic, more sexualized lyrics that are familiar today (57). The lyrics began to express unrequited love, attractive women, or “la faltida” (the tiny skirt) (Duany 82, Aparicio 96). In essence, the lyrics were not sexual in nature until salsa became popular among these oppressors.

The movement and the music have both evolved over time, but their evolutionary trajectories differ. The lyrical shift to romanticism happened universally throughout the Americas. The movement, on the other hand, differentiated in each city. Variations emerged because each city has its own cultural “movement dialect” (Bosse 49).  Bosse, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Bowdoin College, uses the term “movement dialect” to illustrate the resemblance between spoken language and movement within a cultural group.  She says that movement, like spoken language, is a “powerful, culturally conscripted bundle of signs through which [a cultural group] expressed their place in the world” (48). Whether taking a salsa class or meandering through a salsa nightclub, the varying “movement dialects” are apparent. These dialects have led to differing styles: New York, LA, Cuban, Mexican, Ballroom, etc. New York salsa bears resemblance to the mambo, a precursor to salsa that thrived in New York (Pietrobruno 46). Like the rumba, Cuban salsa steps side to side with dabbing gestures of the arms. Ballroom salsa integrated the ballroom vernacular of direct, strong, clear gestures and a more upright and held body.

Although salsa styles have differentiated and gender roles vary, salsa dance is generally an improvisational, social dance in which spirals and rotary movements amplify the circular pathways of the hips and shoulders. Many believe that the accentuated movement of the hips, spine and shoulders, make salsa sexual. Aparicio quotes Iain Chambers, the author of Popular Culture: the Metropolitan Experience. He describes salsa as “libidinal movement of bodies” (95). Aparicio agrees with Chambers. He states, “Dancing to salsa music is, needless to say, a sensual experience.” (96). These interpretations linger among non-Latinos in the US (Pietrobruno 31).

Historically, European descendants in Latin America held the same beliefs about rumba, danzón, and son. The movement, however, is not necessarily sexual. In fact, interpreting the movement as sexual is actually residue of white slave owner’s oppression of Afro-Cubans. In order to keep their dominance and justify owning slaves, white slave owners demeaned Africans by demonizing their culture. In effect, traditions that evolved from African culture still bare the burden of these outdated beliefs.

Each African tribe that entered cuba had its unique dances, but there are similarities in movement structure and their purpose for dancing. Like salsa, these African dances had accentuated, free-flowing, cross-lateral movements of the hips, spine and shoulders. They danced for healing, for communication with ancestors or spirits, for educating the youth, or for entertainment (Welsh 13). While rotary movement of the hips was common, none of these dances were intended to be sexual. In fact, like the rumba, it would have been unusual for males and females to even touch each other while dancing (Pietrobruno 39).

Incorporation of African dances into fertility rituals could have classified them as sexual. The conquistadors, however, had their own fertility rituals. As Roman Catholics, they would be familiar with asking a deity for fertility. The Bible repeatedly tells stories of God blessing the faithful and obedient with “fruitful” wombs (Exodus 23.26, Deuteronomy 7:14, Dueteronomy 28.1-11, Galatiams 3.29) and answering the prayers of the barren by allowing them to conceive (Genesis 25.21-22, 1 Samuel 1.5-20, Romans 4.18-19, Hebrews 11.11, Luke 1.7-24). Africans and Europeans shared the concept of appeasing deities to attain fertility, so in and of itself, fertility rituals were not judged as sexual to Europeans. Therefore, Europeans projected their denigrating analyses on the unfamiliar aspects of these rituals—the dancing.

Stylistic differences between African-rooted dances and European dances became a focal point for demonizing Afro-Cuban culture. Dance traditions originating in Europe, whether they are social dances such as the waltz or theatrical dances such as ballet, tend to have an upright, held torso (Desmond 44-45). In the 1800s, when even the whirling and close embrace of the waltz was considered “too sexually dangerous” to Europeans (Desmond 37), it would be easy to use the spiraling, undulating spine and free flowing movement in African inspired dances as reason to persecute Afro-Cubans. Believing Africans to be an inferior community of rowdy, licentious criminals (Desmond 33), white, upper class Cubans actually denigrated the Afro-Cuban rumba and danzón because of their association with Africans (Chasteen 80).

These negative stereotypes stuck with Afro-Cuban inspired movement as new dances emerged and crossed country borders. For example, Febres wrote about salsa in her childhood as an upper class daughter of a Puerto Rican Senator. Her home and Catholic school forbade salsa because “it could turn any decent girl into a worthless hip-swinging tramp,” she recalls (175). Aparicio explains this paradigm further. “Even for younger upper- and middle-class Puerto Rican women who did not identify with this music while growing up in Puerto Rico,” he explains, “salsa becomes a cultural symbol once they ‘migrate.’” The difference, Aparicio believes, is that once a Latina migrates to the US she becomes part of a minority (100) and salsa’s root in struggle become relevant to her identity.

Salsa’s culture is inextricable from its African influences and the struggle of lower class, minority communities, but without this cultural knowledge, the dance was misconstrued. Similar to how slave owners in Cuba sexualized salsa’s early ancestors, dominant groups throughout the Americas sexualized salsa as a method for oppressing minority groups based on underlying class and racial prejudices. In the late 1900s, as salsa’s lyrics become romantic rather than reflecting marginalization, and salsa dance gained popularity across class and race lines in the US, Latinos remained oppressed for the very characteristics for which salsa was valued. Both Latinos and salsa dance are stereotyped as “overly emotional, inefficient, unorganized and pleasure seeking.” The unstated bias is that Latinos “are how they dance, and they dance how they are” (Desmond 50). Anglos, on the other hand, gain respect for dancing salsa because they imagine they are acquiring experiential knowledge of other cultures (Garcia 13).

Middle and upper class whites get to try on movement they deem as risqué without paying a social penalty (Desmond 48). This is actually the point at which salsa changes from cultural movement to sexual movement. Morel explains that the sexuality of movement depends on the inner intent of the mover. The movement is a frame within which the dancer may choose to move sexually. By stereotyping Latino movement as sexual, Anglos try this movement on with an inner intent to be sexual. Consequently, salsa dance becomes sexual when it becomes Anglo-Latino (Desmond 48).

Desmond writes that for an upper or middle class Anglo suburban couple, Latin dance “becomes a socially sanctioned way of expressing or experiencing sexuality, especially sexuality associated with subtle, sensuous rotations of the pelvis” (48).  Bosse also writes about the experience of non-Latinos who decide to learn salsa dance (46). “Outsiders to the genre” Bosse writes, “overlooked the complex interplay of body movements and singled out only the movement of the hips as the root of salsa’s energy and perceived sexual appeal” (52).  They also requested to learn moves that they considered sexy and reminiscent of romantic physical intimacy. Without the eroticism, the dancers did not feel as if they were embodying the gestalt of salsa dance (55-56).

The greatest impact of sexualizing salsa dance seems to be on Latina women. Just as it was more acceptable for white Cuban men to dance danzón than white Cuban women, it is more culturally acceptable for Latino men to publically display their sexual desire and erotic behavior than it is for Latina women. Latina women are expected to be more controlled (Aparicio 96-97).

Garcia, a native Costa Rican who is currently an Assistant Professor in Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota, writes about women in a Los Angeles salsa nightclub in 2008. María Elena, a Mexican-American woman, complains about the hypersexuality of Anglo women in a salsa nightclub (206). Another Mexican-American woman in the nightclub, Olivia, points out an Anglo woman who “thrusts her hips back and forth [sic] then shakes them side to side with her back to her Latino dance partner, butt to pelvis.” While she observes this Anglo woman dance, she explains the two-fold impact that Anglo hypersexuality has on Latinas. First, Latino men have begun to expect all lighter-skinned Latina women to want sex or to let men grope them while they dance. Secondly, Latino men are left dissatisfied with Latinas in daily life (208).

Garcia also explains that the repercussions of an Anglo woman’s behavior in the salsa nightclub do not follow her into her everyday life. If Latina women such as María Elena or Olivia hypersexualized their dancing in the nightclub, they would develop a bad reputation among Latinos inside and outside the club (208). Because their dancing affects their reputation, sexuality is not the default intention for many Latinas, but Latina women may sometimes be sexy while dancing to salsa rhythms. They may also be “fun, creative, innovative, or artistic” (Peitrobruno 31).

In an interview, Morel, a Latina woman raised in a Dominican barrio in New Jersey by her Dominican immigrant parents, speaks to the many different intentions that salsa can embody. Morel grew up in the US but immersed herself in Dominican culture and spent many summers visiting the Dominican Republic. On Saturday afternoons or after any supper her family would gather to dance to salsa, merengue and bachata music. Denouncing the impression that salsa is innately sexual, she reflects on her experiences dancing with male family members. While she danced with a young man of interest, on the other hand, sexuality may have crept its way into her movement.

As Pietrobruno explains, salsa is a “popular” dance. It is “an art form that thrives and evolves through collective practices within the context of lived circumstances” (2). Migration, integral to the evolution of salsa and its culture, encouraged the amalgamation of the interacting traditions and cultures. Since salsa’s birth, it has continued to migrate and evolve, differentiating in each place it inhabits. Other races and classes have incorporated salsa into their lives and while the evolution continues, it is important to remember the cultural history that gave birth to this form of music and dance. Derived from African dance, undulating, rotary movements are significant aspects of salsa dance, and many believe that this kind of movement makes salsa sexual. In reality, the perception of sexuality is a remnant of oppression, which ironically led to the sexualization of salsa by the oppressors, but not necessarily among the oppressed.

Works Cited

Afro-Cuban RUMBA Lesson Demo. Perf. Yunier Zunzunegui and Albena De Assis. AfroLatino Dance Company. 25 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2016. watch?v=Jd1jJwmEmrw

Angeles, Sergio R. “Danzon: Cuba’s First National Dance.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Aparicio, Frances R. Listening to Salsa: gender, Latin popular music, and Puerto Rican Cultures. Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Bosse, Joanna. ” Salsa Dance and the Transformation of Style: an ethnographic study of movement and meaning in a cross-cultural context.” Dance Research Journal (2008): 45-64.

Chasteen, John Charles. National Rhythms, African Roots: the deep history of Latin American popular dance. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 2004.

Desmond, Jane C. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies.” Everynight Life: culture and dance in Latin/o America. Eds. Celeste Fraser Delgado, Jose Esteban Munoz. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Duany, Jorge. “Popular Music in Puerto Rico: Toward an Anthropology of Salsa.” Salsiology: Afro-cuban music and the evolution of salsa in New York City. Comp. Vernon W. Boggs. West Port: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Febres, Mayra. “Salsa as Translocation.” Everynight Life: culture and dance in Latin/o America. Eds. Celeste Fraser Delgado, Jose Esteban Munoz. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Fernandez, Ronald. “Salsa.”Puerto Rico Past and Present: an encyclopedia. 1998.

García, Cindy. “Don’t leave me, Celia!”: salsera homosociality and pan-Latina corporealities, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, (2008): 199-213.

Gott, Richard. Cuba: a new history. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.

Guilbiac Rodriguez, Wilfredo. “Afro-Cuban Rumba: Guanguancó.” Eugene Salsa Festival. Vet’s Club Building, Eugene. 28 Feb. 2015.

Korrol, Virginia Sánchez. From Colonia to Community: the history of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917-1948. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.

Morel, Ana. Telephone interview. 19 Apr 2009.

Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. Salsa and Its Transnational Moves. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2006.

Shub, Allan H., et al. “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 33.4 (1974): 347.

Sklar, Diedre. “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance.” Moving History/Dancing Cultures: a dance history reader. Comp. Ann Dils. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2001. 30-32.

Student Bible: New International Version. Place of Publication Not Identified: Zondervan, 1991.

Taylor, Claire. “Salsa.”Pop Culture Latin America! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. 2006.

Welsh, Kariamu. African Dance. 2nd ed. New York City: Chelsea House, 2010. Print.

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