A look at the Transmission of Culture through Dance in First- and Second-Generation Latinos in Buncombe County



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¡Vamos A Bailar!

A Look at the Transmission of Culture through Dance in First- and Second-Generation Latinos in Buncombe County
Kendra Cole

April 9, 2010

Sociology 410

Sociology/Anthropology Directed Research



Numerous scholarly studies focus on music—the sounds, the beats the words—yet only since the 1990s has significant research been done on the dances that accompany the music. Literature on the subject of dance is fairly new, emerging only within the past twenty years. Literature on Latin-style dance focuses on the hegemonic boundaries both created and upheld with dance and racial differences in the United States. This study looks at the transmission of culture through Latin-style dances, such as Salsa, Cumbia, Merengue, Bachata and other cultural dances, in first- and second-generation Latinos in Buncombe County, North Carolina. Data from participatory observation, as well as formal and informal interviews, indicate that dance contributes to many aspects of Latino culture, and that many Latinos in Buncombe County dance to demonstrate who they are and where they come from. Data also indicate that dance is used as a social tool to meet and interact with people. This research only looks at those Latinos living in Buncombe County, and more research is needed to look at the significance of different dances in Latino cultures everywhere.

What is Dance? A Brief introduction:

We see dancing everyday, from a little girl dancing to a beat known only to her on the sidewalk to professionals competing, in colorful, dazzling costumes on TV. Dancing is a large aspect of almost every culture. According to Gonzalez, the body in motion expresses our most intimate needs and desires; joy, concern, fear, serenity, anger and sexual yearning. For him, the way a body lives, if it is vibrant and energetic, it will express itself through dance —“a desiring body creates new desires” (2008). For Latinos, this connection with dance tends to start at a young age. In her piece Salsa Music as Expressive Liberation, Berrídos-Miranda talks about her experience as a child growing up with dance:

I started dancing when I was two years old. My family (parents and extended family) loved to place my sister and me on top of the dining tables to see us dance . . . Our dancing, an extension of everyday human behavior and experience, is an affirmation of daily life, because the spirit of playfulness, affection, rivalry, flirtation, encouragement etc. That is experienced so exuberantly in dance also infuses our daily relations . . . When I asked my mother why dance was important, however she simply answered ‘porque el baile es la vida, es alegría, y felicidad’ (because dancing is life, its joy and happiness) (Berridos-Miranda 2004: 163)


Introduction to the Literature:

Before the 1990s, anthropologists and sociologists considered dance to be esoteric; meaning that dance is something “which it is nice to know . . . but which is not really essential compared to the more important categories of ethnographic research” (Royce 1977:38). In the past twenty years, while scholarly attention has shifted to dance, the research pertaining to dance remains scarce when compared with the literary research on music (Hutchinson 2004, Renta 2004). Renta explains that there is an “overarching issue concerning the marginalization of dance scholarship across disciplines such as cultural studies and anthropology. Although essays on Salsa successfully engage musica and lyrics, gesture takes a back seat to language and writing” (2004). “Cultural studies remain largely text based or object based, with literary texts still predominating, followed by studies of film and art historical objects” (Delgado 1997: 33). Davis explains that “dance as a corporeal routine has largely been ignored until recently when, in search of alternative ways of knowing, interest in embodiment, non-representational theory, and performativity has challenged geographers [and anthropologists] to examine dance practices more closely” (Johnson 2009).

The lack of study on dance until fairly recently is partly due to the stereotypes and labels associated with the movement of the body. Dance, especially Latin-style dance, has inherited the bias that it is profane, and as such is often reduced to the exotic and erotic “other” upheld in U.S. mainstream media and culture. Margaret Drewel explains “the mind/body split fuels the tendency to associate the intellect with those who are male and that which is objective, while the body and dance are typically associated with sexuality and sensuality, and those who are female, black, and/or queer. Along with this, embodied knowledge is considered subjective, not worthy of scholarly concern . . .” (Renta 2004:141).

One aspect of any style of dance is the cultural identity associated with it. In Latin-style dances there are just as many stereotypes connected with dance, as there are for Latinos themselves, especially within the United States. Yet to understand the stereotypes and labels associated with Latino dance, we must first try to understand the term ‘Latino’. “The umbrella term Latino/a, encompass so many different cultures from Latin America, the Caribbean and the U.S.” (Renta 2004). In the United States in particular, we tend to identify anyone with dark skin and hair, who speaks Spanish as Latino, or more commonly, Mexican. It doesn’t matter that they come from different countries, or cultures, in the eyes of most people in the United States, they are all the same. When referring to Latinos and their identity here in the United States, we tend to categorize them mostly by color. Desmond states that “so many of our most explosive and most tenacious categories of identity are mapped onto bodily difference” (2006). “They can be considered white in their country; light Mestizo in California, Creole in Louisiana, and Hispanic is New York City” (Laó-Montes 2001:10).

“Latinos share language, folklore, food, and many patterns of expressive and social behavior—singing and dancing being among the most obvious (Berrídos-Miranda 1999:22). Although Latinos throughout Latin America share some characteristics, each country, and the people within have their own identity that they identify with. “The most general assumption made is that Latino/a identity is an ethnic marker of a mosaic of nationalities with a common ancestry and history from South of the Rio Grande and a shared condition and experience in the United States” (Laó-Montes 2001:8). “It is crucial to conceive Latinidad not as a state of unified formation but as a flexible category that relates to a plurality of ideologies of identification, cultural expressions and political and social agendas “(Laó-Montes 2001:8). Yet neither Latino/a identity nor Latin dance can be reduced to fixed, homogeneous characteristics. “Latino/a identity is based on an ‘imagined community’ rather than biological [difference]” (Renta 2004).

Movements, such as dance, are often used to portray gender, race, class and national identities (Delgado 1997, Renta 2004). As indicated by Renta, many Latino/as combine dance performance with language and music to construct and affirm individual and collective sense of cultural identity. Manuel states that “salsa’s significance as a vehicle for Latino identity has been expressed explicitly in song texts, statements by musicians and listeners and less explicitly in the very fact of its popularity among urban Hispanics in a period of heightened sense of ethnic identity” (1994:271). Renta asserts that “dancing (el Baile) is another act of acquiring knowledge and self knowledge . . . for the masses and for working class [Latino] communities, it is something they can truly call their own . . . composing, performing and dancing salsa differentiates the Latino from the rest of U.S. Society” (2004:212).

One move can be carefully calculated to express meaning. “We are our bodies, and our bodies function as loudspeakers for desires” (Gonzalez 2008). Salsa, one of the most prominent Latin style dances in the United States, is known widely as a social or “night club” dance (Hutchinson 2004), and both the music and the dance are considered to be ‘unifiers’ (Johnson 2009:2). According to Johnson, a dance that is considered a unifier is “a global phenomenon that brings people from diverse socioeconomic, generational, and cultural backgrounds together in the same space for mutual enjoyment” (2009). Renta notes that salsa is considered to be Polycentristic—in that movement comes from multiple parts of the body. Polycentrism—including orisha/santo (saint dances) rumba, son, mambo, cha chá, bomba, and plena—place a high value on improvisation and on dance as an integral part of community life (2004).

The most common place to see salsa dancing throughout Latin American and the United States is “Latin Night” at nightclubs. These culturally specific night clubs represent a space in which people can show off moves previously learned in dance classes, drink and relax with friends, browse for sexual partners, connect with individuals or groups, and interact with people from back home (Johnson 2009). According to Renta, the kinesthetic and visual pleasures of the movements with the music are the most significant of motivators, second only to cultural affirmation, for Latinos. (2004). During an interview done by Berrídos-Miranda, one man said “in salsa we heard our rumba, our plena, our bomba, our seis, our son, our guaracha, our cumbia, our gaita, our daily problems and challenges of love and social life as well as the joy and fun of living” (2004:165). “It is in the experience of listening and dancing together collectively that the sense of belonging . . . is strengthened and the knowledge of who we are [as Latinos] . . . is displayed publicly (Berrídos-Miranda 1999:4-5).

Recently, scholars have argued that dance, specifically salsa, is a form of cultural expression born out of opposition to U.S. cultural domination and has served as an identity symbol, particularly for working-class Latinos living on the borders of mainstream U.S. society (Johnson 2009).

Whether forced into slave labor in the sugarcane fields, migrant labor in the apple groves and vineyards or undocumented labor in sweatshops and restaurant dish rooms; whether lynched in the newly annexed territory or Texas, sterilized without consent in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, or detained in immigration camps in Haiti and South Florida: Latin/o bodies serve as the site of a long history of racial, cultural, and economic conflict (Delgado 1997:9)


According to Manual, salsa emerged as a product primarily out of the Latino communities in New York barrios, affirming their growing sense of ethnic and class identity in the face of social, economic and political marginalization and exploitation (1994).

Salsa’s lyrics spoke to the struggles of the poor and the stuff of life itself, and it went beyond popular entertainment to become a movement for social change and national recognition . . . Salsa’s effectiveness in representing and speaking to barrio people’s social problems, challenges, personal relationships, deceptions, values and the stuff of life itself made it the voice of poor Latinos in New York and subsequently in other urban centers in Latin America as well. (Berrídos-Miranda 2004)


Dance has the ability to challenge and resist oppressive power structures (Berrídos-Miranda 1999, 2004, Delgado 2003). Berrídos-Miranda explicates, “for groups of people under the bondage of colonialism, this feeling of freedom is particularly intense, and often becomes a matter of survival” (2004:163). The birth of salsa was an opportunity to confront the harshness of the lives of the Latinos with a newfound optimism and strength. The music provided liberation for the urban, working class Latinos in the United States. Salsa provided a refuge for Latinos after work, and on weekends, at home and in dance halls.

The identity between salsa style and barrio life amplified the thrilling communion of music and movement and helped people to transcend the insecurity of their circumstances for at least a while, dancing with their own people, their own musicians, in a moment of liberation . . . Instead of succumbing to the pressure of their lives, they danced it off and no one could take that away from them. (Berrídos-Miranda 2004:165)


Renta claims that the cultural assertion that dancing provide, possesses a counter hegemonic potential: “For Latino/as, the need to affirm their cultural identity grows in part out of their Diaspora experience, which brings with it the pressure of assimilating and of being subsumed and homogenized by the Euro-American culture that dominates U.S. mainstream society. . . . The technical demands of salsa dancing serves to illuminate how Latino/as negotiate their identity through movement, while balancing the strain of resistance and acceptance (Rent. 2004).

Fredrik Barth studies the on-going negotiations of ‘boundaries’ between two or more groups of people. “Fredrik Barth . . . describes [establishing boundaries] as a strategy of ethnic survival in situations where one group lives in intimate contact with another” (Berrídos-Miranda 1999:16). Barth insists that within a larger cultural sphere, there are smaller ethnic groups, and that "categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of mobility, contact and information, but do entail social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing participation and membership in the course of individual life histories " (1969:9). Barth also mentions that one ethnic group, spread over a large territory with varying terrain and characteristics, will exhibit regional differences that do not reflect differences in cultural orientation, and that the basic nature of an ethnic group depends on the maintenance of a boundary. The cultural features and characteristics may change as long as they don’t interfere with the boundary.


Métodos/Methods: a look at Latino-style dance:

The current qualitative study uses a variety of research methods including participatory fieldwork, and formal and informal interviews. The participatory fieldwork occurred in two locations in Buncombe County that are important to and/or are frequented by Latinos in the area. To select my field sites, I used purposive sampling. Using my knowledge of sites in Buncombe County, I selected sites that I knew were used for Latino dance, including dance clubs during “Latin night” where the majority of the people there are Latino. I also thought it would be beneficial to talk to the people who work at various Latino style restaurants. After determining field sites in which to conduct research, I sent Gatekeeper letters (appendix A) on January 19th 2010. The locations I initially sent Gatekeeper letters include Club Eleven, Scandals, La Kama, Oriental Pavilion, Coculas, Cancun, and Salvamex. Club Eleven and Scandals are both Clubs in the Grove House in Downtown Asheville. La Kama is the name of the “Latin Night” at Oriental Pavilion in West Asheville. Coculas, Cancun, and Salvamex are three Mexican restaurants that have had dancing in the past as well as recently. By January 27, 2010, I received the first gatekeeper letter back with written permission from the owners of Grove House. Within Grove House are both Club Eleven and Scandals. Yet, I was informed that Scandals, which hosted “Latin Night” every Wednesday, had stopped “Latin Night” for the winter and it was unclear when it would resume.

To conduct my interviews, I used purposive sampling, as well as snowball sampling.

From my previous experiences in the field sites, I was able to connect with various people with strong connections with dance such as DJ’s and Dance Instructors. At the end of every interview, I asked each interviewee if he or she knew someone whom he or she thought would be willing to be interviewed. On January 24, 2010, I contacted a few sources to see if they were interested in being interviewed. The following day I received four confirmations, but one interviewee preferred to be interviewed through email, and I then scheduled an interview time for one of the informants. The others took longer to schedule the interview time due to conflicting schedules. On February 1, 2010 I was contacted by the instructor of the Salsa group in Asheville Salseros 828 – she hosts the “Salsa and Mambo Night” at Club Eleven on Friday evenings. Although I had already received permission from the couple that owns the whole building, I also wanted permission from this woman. She wanted to know more about my research and whether or not I wanted to attend her Salsa classes. After a few exchanges I finally received the gatekeeper letter with written permission from her as well. By February 5, 2010, I heard back from the owner of La Kama, the Latin Night at the Oriental Pavilion Restaurant. He asked that I come to La Kama on Saturday the 6th to receive the paperwork and to start my fieldwork, but to be careful as the night went on because the men can sometimes get rowdy. I never heard back from any of the restaurants.

At the beginning of field research I had a few difficulties and times when I was unable to go to my field sites. On three different occasions the weather was too bad at night for us to leave the school safely, and on one instance, the Saturday night before Valentines Day, the owner of La Kama called me to warn me that the men at the club were being extra rowdy and to go at my own risk but he advised against it.

To get to the field sites, I went with my boyfriend, and a very good friend, both of whom are Hispanic males. In the field sites, I took notes in a small notebook of the information I observed pertaining to dance, and characteristics of dancers, the meanings of dance, and the cultural importance of dance. I also recorded sensory impressions such as sights, sounds, textures, smells etc. as well as specific facts—number of people, and other basic details such as jargon. In addition, I made a few notes of questions for future interviews as well as a sketch of each of the field sites. While in the field sites I was able to talk to a few people informally about why they were at that specific club and why they dance. To talk to people informally I first had to explain who I was and what I was doing and then get verbal permission (Appendix B) to take notes and use those notes in my research. As soon as I was home from the club—or if I was out really late, early the next morning—I would look at my notes from the field site and type up extended field notes; a description of everything I could remember from the field site. I used my jottings to help organize my writing, and to remind myself of words, actions, as well as to look at the questions I had in the field and draw a more complete map of the field site.

From February to March, I conducted a total of 21 interviews, thirteen of which were formal interviews; two of those were done via email. Oddly, only three out of my 13 interviews were women. The number of Latinas at the clubs was limited, so I knew I would have more male interviewees, but every time I asked a woman if I could interview her, both formally and informally, she would either just walk away, or say yes and then walk away. Of the three women I was able to interview, one was done via email, one was a friend of mine of Cuban descent, and the last was her sister. I had a little trouble getting a few men to agree to do interviews, as a lot of them were really busy. One man, had me drive out to Silva to meet him, but he never showed up and did not answer his phone. Other then that, I had no real difficulties obtaining informants. I also conducted eight informal interviews of varying lengths, six of which were held at Club Eleven. For my interviews, I had my informants read over the formal written consent form (Appendix C), and then asked if it was ok for me to record the interviews (Appendix D). All of my informants, except the two interviews that were via email, gave me permission to record them. The second question in my interview is whether they had an alias they would like me to use. I explained to all of them that an alias would be used to protect their identity. Five of my interviewees chose their own alias, and the rest let me choose for them. The interviews on average lasted about 45minutes. The longest one was an hour and a half, and the shortest was 25 minutes. When I finished an interview and went home I started transcriptions, listening to the recordings and typing them out verbatim.

When I had gathered all my data, transcriptions as well as my extended field notes, I used a variety of methods to conceptualize and operationalize them. I first coded data, by printing out all qualitative data, and cutting them in strips sentence by sentence. I then took my sentences and separated them into like piles: atmosphere/description; dress (which I further dived into men, women and both); music, (which was divided into sound, dance, and other); population, (which was further separated into sections, gender, age and race); location and movement; approach; interactions; and other. This was slightly tedious and messy so I started separating categories out on my computer. I chose the sections that had emerged in my previous attempt; color coded each set of extended field notes, and again, sentence by sentence separated all of my field notes into categories. When I finished, I repeated these steps with my transcripts, on a different word document, again color coding each interview, and going sentence by sentence. In both instances, there were a lot of sentences that were placed in two or three different categories.

From looking at my documents, I was able to pick out a few common themes, such as authenticity of dance, Us versus them, and, the importance of dance.

For my research, I conducted participatory observation, from February to March in two very different Latin Dance clubs in the Asheville area: Club Eleven on Friday nights, which is located in the upstairs Grove House, and La Kama which is located at Oriental Pavilion on Saturday nights in the Westgate Shopping Center. Both of these clubs play Latino music such as Salsa, Cumbia, Bachata etc., yet these clubs couldn’t be more different.

Eleven, is a club located in the Grove House in Asheville. Every Friday night is “Salsa and Mambo night”, hosted by the instructor and founder of Salseros 828. To enter this section of the club, after you’ve paid two dollars for parking, you have to go up one set of stairs and into the club. Once inside there is a small line area, separated from the dance floor by a bench facing the inside. The music is usually loud, but not so loud that you can’t hear someone next to you and the lighting is dim, creating a dusky atmosphere. Walking about ten feet to the right, you have to present your ID to the door-lady, who writes your name down on a list and stamps the back of your hand. If you are under 21 you get a large black X on both of your hands and you pay $10. If you are 21 or older you get an “Eleven” stamp, usually on the back of your right hand and you get two dollars off, paying $8. After you’ve entered the club there is a seating area directly to your right, behind the door-lady, a bar to your two o’clock with some more seating to the left of the bar, and the dance floor to your front and left. Directly to the left, across the dance floor is a side room. In here there are sometimes tables and chairs, but they are usually pushed to the side for extra dancing space. Between the bench and the side room is a small nook where the male DJ is set up with his turntables and headphones. Along the left wall is a blocked-off doorway that leads upstairs, and right next to that is a small hallway with a large coat rack to hang your coat on as well as the Women’s bathroom. Farther along the left side, just as it is about to connect with the far wall, there is a small space where the men’s bathroom is, as well as the emergency exit door with an alarm. Along the far wall and to your right are two large screens with videos of professional dancers in competitions. On all of the walls there are paintings covered by cut tree branches and unlit Christmas lights. A spinning disco ball hangs from the ceiling and directs lights all over the room.

The dance floor is a beautiful light brown wooden floor, which is mostly smooth although every now and then some unlucky lady gets her heel caught for a brief second in one of the cracks. The side room also has a hardwood floor. The sitting area and around the bar is covered by carpet. Women can be seen sitting on the bench waiting to dance, and women and men sit in the sitting areas. Around the bar men mostly congregate. There are always dancers on the dance floor. The DJ plays a lot of Salsa and Cha Cha with some Bachata and Merengue and very little Cumbia or reggeaton. I saw mostly white American women, and Latino men. There is a wide age range between patrons, ranging from seemingly late twenties to early sixties.

At Eleven the men wear pants and button-up, long-sleeve shirts, while women tend to wear either pants or skirts that falls just above their knees or lower, and a pretty top. Sometime during the night (she doesn’t seem to have a set time) the founder of Salseros 828 will make an announcement thanking everyone for coming and asking her students to come to the dance floor to show off their new moves. Below is the map of Club Eleven:

La Kama, which means “bed” in Spanish but spelled is with a “k” instead of a “c” is located in the Westgate shopping center in West Asheville. As you walk up to the door of the restaurant there are usually up to six men and women outside, taking a break from the heat or smoking. As you enter the glass door you enter a small greeting room and are welcomed by a door person (either man or woman) who requests that you sign a piece of paper and pay $10 dollars if you’re a woman, and $15 if you’re a man. I believe this is to try and attract more women to the club. A male bouncer then pats men down before they enter through one more glass door into the “club” area in the restaurant. Here the lighting is very dim, and the music and noise of people talking and laughing is so loud it’s hard to hear someone right next to you. There are two disco lights going constantly, one is green and the other is multi colored. There is also fake fog sporadically throughout the night. To your far left is a sitting area that is even darker in lighting, where couples are sitting, leaning into each other, and where almost everyone is texting. Directly in front of you are some more sitting areas that are separated from the other area by a half wall and glass window with frosted flowers. All along the walls are Chinese decorations of flowers, people, and dragons. Farther forward is the dance floor and the bar. The bar is located along the right side of the wall toward the back. Past the bar is a small area surrounded by some sort of plexi-glass where the DJ stands. Beyond that is another room full of tables and chairs, but normally the room is empty of people. Along the left wall in the back is a large “Dos Equis” banner, hanging off the wall leading to the bathrooms. Above the hall to the bathrooms is a screen usually playing reggeaton music videos with women dancing short skirts and halter-tops. The sticky tiled dance floor is covered with bodies moving to the music.

The DJ will often call things out in Spanish over the mic such as, “levanten las manos todos los mexicanos” (all the Mexicans raise your hands!) “¿Dónde están todas las chicas sexy?!” (Where are all the sexy ladies?!).

The music here is often Reggaeton, Cumbia, Norteña, Pasito Duranguense, some bachata and merengue, with virtually no salsa.

The bar and the dance floor are crowded with Latino men and some women, standing around drinking and talking. Throughout the night there are various skirmishes and arguments and at least one fistfight. When the fights are bad, the DJ will announce over the mic that there is a fight and that the bouncers are needed to interfere.

Most of the people at the club seem to be Latino, and there are usually more men. The age range here is also fairly wide, ranging from teenagers to people in their late fifties or early sixties. The few women at the club tend to dress in very short skirts and high heels, although they do not all wear them all night. They also are usually done up in make up and have a lot of jewelry. The men tend to dress one of two ways. Either in pants, with a button up shirt, cowboy hat and boots and large belt buckle, or in baggy clothes, with large heavy jackets and zip up sweatshirts, called Cholos. Below is a map of La Kama:


Autenticidad:

While doing my interviews and field research, I noticed a difference in the way different dances are viewed, how they are viewed in society, and how they play a role in the culture. Some dances, such as Cumbia, Rumba and in xochitl in cuicatl (El canto dela flor) tend to be viewed as “authentic” whereas dances such as Salsa are often viewed as “pretentious “or inauthentic.

Each of my informants had his or her own ideas about which dances were authentic or not, and some had different views on exactly what makes a dance authentic. For some, they said it had to do with specific dance steps, that if a dance has specific steps it’s considered authentic. One man talked about authenticity of dance in relation to the animal world: “Like birds and their mating dance is specific to each dance” (Julío 2010). Others said authenticity of a dance comes from the people. “Dance is about the culture, it needs to come from the people” (José 2010). When I asked him to give me some examples he replied, “Everything except salsa. Salsa and Country music is bullshit” (José 2010). When questioned, all he said on the subject was that salsa and country music do not come from the people, and that they come from the media.

Although my informants had their own ideas about what makes a dance authentic, a lot of the reasons seemed to stem from traditions; whether it’s a personal tradition (something important to oneself), family or cultural traditions—important traditions not just regulated to a specific family, but to a town, or community. Those who spoke about personal and family oriented traditions spoke about personal experiences about growing up back home while defining authenticity of dance. For example on informant said:

You know like, cumbia, yeah, a lot of cumbia. That was part of growing up in México City. And I, my parents used to have like uh, parties at home, and my uncles used to do competitions in between the little kids. To make money. Ha-ha to like, to, I mean for money, whatever. And so we used to like compete with each other. I always won. It’s part of our, you know, get together as a family and dance, share, have fun. It is what it is. We never have a party without music. There’s always dancing, when we have parties. Always people, dancing, and drinking. It was fun. It was part of what we did together. It was important. (Iago 2010)
Five of my interviewees spoke about authenticity in cultural tradition and they spoke about the historical aspects of it: “since (cumbia) is a mix of African and native am, well, native whatever, you know this continent, it wasn’t America but anyway like yeah, the Indians of, I mean they weren’t Indians they were indigenous people from Colombia, and it’s a mix of that music” (José 2010). One informant talked about Havana Cuba as being the heart of Latin dance:

Well, I defiantly have a sense of pride because; Havana at one time was sort of the heart of, of Latin dance. And it’s kind of funny cause my dad would always say like Mambo’s not even Italian! That started in the Caribbean! Arg! It’s just funny, and I, just a lot of personal history, like my cousin has done a lot of dance, and my grandfather, I think he was in a lot of local competitions back in Cuba. And just a long line of dancing in my family. (Tolla 2010)


When asked what makes a dance authentic, one informant replied:
“That’s a good one. Roots, tradition, its an expression of how the culture lives, believes, something like that. Cuban Rumba, they have several dances to worship different gods . . . and actually there is one that is used to flirt. But yeah the Cuban is one of the most cultural[ly] expressive. Some names of this dances, Shango, Yemaya, Bembe, Obatala. Pretty much are the names of their gods. Find it in youtube. That’s why I love Cuban, cause it’s so cool to add those moves and mixed with Mambo. I’m giving you the key to total sexiness!” (Costa 2010)

Out of all of my interviews, only one of my informants actually talked about inauthenticity. The inauthentic or ‘pretentious’ dances are often viewed as the dances learned in the United States, where the media has portrayed the dance as a sexy and exotic new style to attract young new dancers. The following quote explores how a dance can be considered ‘Pretentious’:

It’s [Cumbia] not really pretentious like, like ah, “I can give you an example, salsa is not traditional. Its just pretentious like, people learn it because they wanna make the stereotype of the TV and the ah, and the media and the movies and they[‘re] doing it just because they saw it and say ‘well I wanna be sexy’ or ‘I wanna be like this artist that is dancing’ . . . . Like in this country everyone like tried to be someone and ah, follow by the fake stuff like, that kinda stuff that the clubs has, and the new, new way to dances . . . like people say “I wanna dance salsa because its fun and I wanna get some fun”. It’s not important where ever it comes from but it’s important because not many dances or music named salsa. Salsa is one thing that is a word that the companies like ah Sony and I don’t remember what other, they say, well you know like ah some guys from Cuba and Venezuela been recording some songs and that’s so hot so and so we’re gunna put salsa on them. That’s were the word salsa comes from. But [there’s] not any rhythm named salsa. Yea the companies put salsa, and then the TV put those kind of rumba dancers, just hot girls with small clothes and doing show…that’s the idea, people has about salsa. But its not. . . . That’s the only things that I want to say about it (José 2010)
Although the majority of people I interviewed feel the same way about whether dances can be “authentic” or not, one woman feels that dance shouldn’t be categorized as “authentic” or “inauthentic”. “All dance is authentic. It comes from within” (Tolla 2010).

One of the men I interviewed went against the cultural norms for his adolescent age and his peers and learned how to dance salsa while his friends were learning and dancing the “popular” dances. “My friends, they said that I used to be weird. That’s why I like [Salsa]. Ha-ha I was weird, because everybody likes to be listening to, rock-n-roll and cumbia, So. I guess I like to be different” (Iago 2010).


Us and Them: Establishing Boundaries:

Another theme that emerged was an idea of “Us and Them”. Us and them can be divided into the internal us and them, different ethnic groups within a shared culture that separates them individually, as well as a shared culture against another shared culture.

To explain the idea of us and them internally, I want to refer back to Barth’s ideas of different ethnic groups within a shared culture. This idea can be seen throughout all of Latin America in terms of dance. My informants explained that every state throughout Latin America has a “folklorico”—a folkloric dance associated with it. These dances, often also called “traditional dances” are taught to children at school from a young age, and these dances are used as a type of identification. One informant explains the “folklorico” from Hidalgo Mexico:

There's like, a very old kind of dance. It[‘s] called huapangos. That’s like a tradition from, from Hidalgo México. . . . Sometimes at school they just, every year you know they just made the kids dance kinda different music you know, from different states of, of the whole México. You were representing your place where you were from, you know. They was seeing you like, dancing, they like know that you were from somewhere you know? Like if somebody knows the music from Hidalgo, you know they know you [are] from there. (Aurelio 2010)


Another informant talks about the “traditional” dance in xochitl in cuicatl (Canto de la flor/ Song of the flower), and growing up with it as part of his family:

I have seen that (in xochitl in cuicatl) for my whole life. I didn’t practice when I was young but yeah my family’s part of the tradition. [There] are like people, the oldest ones . . . that they teach but. Yeah the elders, they just, they do it and you, watching and you do it. They ah, [the elders], the special dances that they do, you know festivals, parties in México and they dance and . . . they invite you to dance and you do it . . .. It’s my heritage. Yeah, and its cultural you know its, its not just a dance it’s ah, it involves a lot of stuff like um, mathematics, like astrology, astronomy, that’s why I love it. (José 2010)

In his piece Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference, Barth explains, “Some cultural features are used by the actors as signals and emblems of difference, others are ignored and in some relationships radical differences are played down and denied” (1969: 14). This can be explained in terms of Latinos in the United States. Although different Latino ethnic groups are differentiated through their traditional dances, the different groups can get together and ignore these differences when needed. In the United States, every Latino comes from a different place and has their own identity that differentiates them from other Latinos, yet they can ignore these differences and unite within a common boundary against U.S. society. One of my informants talks about the connection of different ethnic groups in the United States to create a “Latino community” and to share a commonality that separates them as a whole against the Euro-American culture:

It (dance) gives us a certain identity, in what we do . . . . I think its important for us, that we keep that, that dancing keeps like an evolution, changing, you know, with the newer generation, they keep adding their own stuff . . . . I think it’s important for us, [it] is a way to keep the [Latino] community together. To be able to share something . . . . We have a saying that, that dancing is a way of communicating the earth with the sky. Like a channel, keeps the energy going up, to the sky. I guess that’s why it makes people feel good. Cause its just, whole, connection, and so for us, that are why we take pride in what we do. It’s important for us as a community to keep dancing and keep doing that. (Iago 2010)



La importancia de la danza:

When conducting a research project like this, we can’t just look at something and immediately make assumptions. From my interviews I was able to determine that dance was a large cultural aspect, yet to fully understand, I had to ask my informants why. Most replied with how dance was important to them and how it made an impact, and only a few of them said how dance played a part in a cultural aspect. Those that spoke about the importance of dance for themselves, they all commented on the enjoyment and the fun they got from dancing. When questioned, one informant replied, “Well dance to me can be enjoyable, but it’s like sex you just can’t do it with anybody”. (Julio 2010). When questioned two informants commented on the fun and liberation they feel when dancing, but they also told stories of their family to illustrate their meanings:

Just how, liberating it is, um, I think as I, already mentioned Latin just like holds a special place in my heart because of my culture, um. Probably just, with Latin, all the times I’ve spent with my grandfather. Just, a little frustrated just him, kind of yelling at me in Spanish like no, look up, don’t look at your feet, don’t look at the floor, Impacts, I think it just brings a lot of personal joy and a sense of pride in who I am and where I come from. (Tolla 2010)
Cause its fun. When I feel like it, its fun. And I li, I’m not that good at it but I like to move, myself, at the rhythm of the music. Just like finding the beat and then like, doing that, I remember when my sister, we do it all the time. Just like, start playing a song, not, not just Hispanic or, Spanish music. But just a song that has a beat, and like listening to it again and again, and again and again, and notice when a little bit of it changes, changes like, if we were doing like this (dances) and just like, when it changes we change too. Its just, I don’t know. Stuff like that. Its fun. Basically just fun. (Sr. Rodríguez 2010)
As I mentioned above there were a few people who talked about dance in terms of their culture. The first quote compares dancing in Guatemala with dancing here in the United States, and how young people are often expected to go out and dance but its not a necessary thing.

That dancing is what young adults do on the weekends at night. And that you look forward to go out to like a disco and dance . . . . I mean just like I think in here. Like, because you’re a young adult and in the college here yeah you’re suppose to go out and party, you’re suppose to stay up late, you’re suppose to, socialize. So I mean that’s culture. But then people choose, to do it or not. And the folks, some of them are like ‘you shouldn’t go out’, or ‘its up to you if you go out or not’. So, at least I think that doesn’t change too much from the US to there. The dancing, partying environment. (Sr. Rodríguez 2010)


The following quote is from a man from Panama and he explains why dance plays such an important role for young men and women in terms of “courting”. “Well it means a lot. Latino culture in itself especially, in the young population puts a large emphasis on dance as a courting tool. The better a Latino male dances the more chances he has in meeting females. Mainly because Latino females like to dance with the best dancers regardless of their motives” (Julio 2010). Many of my informants spoke about community that they get from dancing and the sharing of cultures. “Dance bring[s] you closer to your friends and also gives the opportunity to meet new people, dance help you to build bridges between cultures . . . sharing time with friends” (Sofi 2010). “You know can, I just go and see if I can meet somebody, or whatever, make some friends, see actually if maybe they can teach me or, somebody can teach me . . .Cause I like to meet people dancing, making some friends just, make friends that’s all (Aurelio 2010).

One thing that can be concluded from this research is that it doesn’t matter where you are from, your personal experiences, what your background is, especially for Latinos, dance is important.

“As Latinos in America we have continued our everyday practices and special celebrations that mark the values and beliefs we share. Our Quinceaneras, our bailes, our bodas, our pastorelas, our fiestas patrias, our foods, our music, and our arts are all part of the cultural contributions we have made to the vibrant life of the United States. The scholar Renato Rosaldo, describes those contributions as a cultural citizenship through which we have claimed our identities, our space, and our rights.” (107)

-Amalia Mesa- Bains


Despues/ After:

Saturday, April 3rd, the weekend after I had finished my participatory observations, ICE raided a few locations throughout Hendersonville and Asheville, including La Kama. In the Citizen Times, on April 6th, an ICE spokeswoman said only known criminals who were a danger to the community were targeted, and that ICE prioritizes those dangerous criminal aliens, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately. Yet patrons of the dance club La Kama said federal agents detained people with no gang connections. One patron, Sherry Martin, said, “they just randomly started grabbing people with no rhyme or reason”. She also said the agents were inspecting patrons for tattoos and made her Honduran fiancé take off his clothes in the bathroom to look for gang markings. Finding nothing, the Honduran man, who had been here since he was two, was taken into custody and is in the process of being deported.

The newspaper, La Voz Independiente, published on April, 2010, said “Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents late Friday for a second time revised downward the number of people it said were charged in what the federal agency characterized as a four-day strike against gangs that culminated in a raid early Sunday morning on a club frequented by Hispanics”. Out of the number of people arrested, there were nine people whom state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents instead gave summons to appear in court for unspecified reasons. La Kama still operations as a Latin-style dance club every Saturday, sending out text messages to patrons. On april 10th I recived this text message from the owner of La Kama: “T esperamos esta noche en la kama! Si estamos abiertos y la fiesta deve continuar! Todos con ID no excepciones! Solo hombres mayors de 21, entrada $10 apoyanos” (See you tonight in the kama! Yes, we are open and the party will continue! All with ID no exceptions! Only men over the age of 21, admission $ 10. Support us).
Delimitations- the need for more:

This research only takes place with a limited number of people and in the rural area of Buncombe County. I am also a twenty two year old White female from Vermont, and my involvement with the field sites prior to the research could have and did shape the way I saw the field sites. While conducting this research, I encountered a low response rate, as well as a huge gender difference. Because of these aspects my research is limited, and cannot be accountable for every Latino everywhere. More research is needed to look at the significance of different dances in Latino Cultures in other, larger locations.

References Cited:

Antonio. 2010. Interview by Author. February 20, 2010.


Aurelio. 2010 Interview by Author. February 16, 2010.
Barth, Fredrik. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
Berrídos-Miranda, Marisol. 1999. The Significance of Salsa Music to National and Pan-Latino Identity. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
Berrídos-Miranda, Marisol. 2004. Salsa Music as Expressive Liberation. Centro Journal, New York.

Browning, Barbara. 1995. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.


Delgado, Celeste Fraser and José Esteban Muñoz. 1997. Everynight Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Eduardo. 2010 Interview by Author. March 3, 2010.
Gutmann. Matthew C. 1996. The Meanings in Macho: Being a man in Mexico City. University of California Press.
Hutchinson, Sydney. 2004. Mambo on 2: The Birth of a New Form of Dance in New York City. Centro Journal.
Iago. 2010 Interview by Author. January 30, 2010.
Johnson, Tamara. 2009. Transgressing the Territories of Dance: Spatiality and Salsa in North Carolina. Chapel Hill.
Jesus. 2010 Interview by Author. March 23,2010.
José. 2010 Interview by Author. February 19, 2010.
Julio. 2010 Interview by Author. February 20, 2010.
Juju. 2010 Interview by Author. March 22, 2010.
Lao-Montes, Agustin. Arelene Davila. 2001 Mambo Montage: the Latinization of New York. New York: Columbia University Press
Mac. 2010 Interview by Author. March 24, 2010.
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