Salsa’s cultural melting mosaic: social dance expresses diversity

Salsa marries a strict structure with a warm embrace. | Photo by Michelle Lee

Salsa marries a strict structure with a warm embrace. | Photo by Michelle Lee

One day my best friend made me realize that we live in the golden era of Vancouver salsa. Social partner dance classes and Latin dance events in salsa, bachata, merengue, kizomba, tango andzouk are now so prolific in this city that we cancelled cable and ran off dancing every night of the week. In fact, we don’t see each other anymore. Dance enthusiasts from all over the city and the Lower Mainland – in my case ‘twas as far as Tsawwassen – are all drawn to the classes and to social events in a dazzling multitude. On any given night I see a true representation of our demographics and a sampling of all backgrounds, professions and ages in a vast array of dedicated dancers. Simply put, in today’s Vancouver, salsa is an artful, communal expression of diversity, pluralism and inclusiveness.

For starters, I found salsa’s universal language of music and dance to be easily accessible. Still, I wondered how a social dance that originated in New York’s expatriate Caribbean community could beat my middle-aged Northern European techno Anglo-Canadian punk rock and take over Vancouver’s hedonistic nightlife. Surprisingly, salsa’s success is rooted in its strict structure. Every dance move and pattern requires knowledge and practice. Hence, social dancing reflects a certain level of commitment in terms of time and training. The allure of civil responsibility suddenly became obvious to me: skill is sexy! Who knew? Competence and talent trump all else on the dance floor, and talent, the dancers say, is all practice and a little motivation; don’t get it twisted. In other words, within cultural convergence, salsa dancing is widely appealing because a social dance community is essentially a meritocracy.

With cable cut and my sole mate’s patience to compromise for a mortgage in our cosmopolitan Utopia overtaxed, I took more lessons. At the outset, salsa life had always appeared to me as quaintly gendered with clearly defined parts of the predominantly male “lead” and the predominantly female “follow” roles. Hence, I manly initiate a known move and my lady gracefully completes the pattern. “How traditionally out-dated and old school,” I thought. After a few more classes I realized in an ironic twist that my instructors and the performers I saw, can all reverse the roles easily and could exchange the leads and follows in endless variations. While social dance does not have to be inherently gendered, I also got the sense that there is a lingering acknowledgement of a bygone era from which to build and the recognition of difference.

To me, the hallmark of true diversity is a willingness to accept and even embrace the other. In social dancing this is to be taken quite literally. After all, there is a universally acknowledged distance of personal space we observe in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, Latin social conventions allow for closer contact. Thus, I find myself, surprisingly, in a “close hold,” which is in stark contrast to my mundanely standoffish day. The poorly calculated intimacy of (anti) social media only amplifies my need for an actual human touch. Finally, within the melting mosaic of a colourful dance concourse the length of any given song frames each encounter before partners part. It’s considered bad form to hold on once the tune changes. Isn’t that truly living collaboratively “in the moment” towards self-expression? Then let go, turn around, and welcome one another anew.