You Can’t Separate Latin Dancing From Its Black Roots

People dance salsa in Havana Cuba
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If you dance salsa, bachata, and other Latin dancers, you’re dancing to music that has its origins not just in Latin America and New York but also in black African culture and the Atlantic slave trade. Chances are, some of the songs you dance to sing about the impact of global inequality, structural racism, and living in a diaspora. The evolution of the dances and musical genres also played a role in the presentation of racial identities among Afro-Latinos and those who wanted to appear more European.

Most of the people we know who dance salsa and bachata are white, and not of all them agree with Black Lives Matter. But when we love Latin dancing but don’t support anti-racism movements, we’re actively damaging the cultures and traditions we enjoy. 

We’re not the right people to talk about race in dancing, but fortunately, many others have done it from far more informed positions than we could. Here’s an incomplete list of resources that you can use to learn more about the black roots of salsa and bachata, support your arguments, or share to inform other people. 

We don’t always agree completely with these resources, but we find each one thought-provoking. In the meantime, if you know of valuable resources that should be on this list, please let me know. We will continue to add to this over time.

The resources are listed in no particular order. Similarly, the brief description of each resource is simplistic and at times only mentions a tiny aspect of the reasons why it is worth reading or watching.

The Black Roots of Latin Music and Dance

Fascinating History and Origins of Latin Music by Peter Petrov is a quick look at the roots of many Latin musical genres, including salsa, bachata, merengue, rumba, samba, and reggaeton. It doesn’t always give a lot of detail but is a good starting place for further research.

Black in Latin America (video/book) by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores attitudes towards black and African identities in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, as well as Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Haiti. Among other dances, it looks at Cuban son and merengue.

The Cuban Son on explains how African rhythms became part of Cuban son. Salsa music has its roots in Cuban son, while bachata music was also influenced by it.

The Transformation of Black Music: The rhythms, the songs, and the ships of the African Diaspora by Samuel A. Floyd looks at how Afro rhythms influenced Latin music, touching on son, merengue, and more. Bear in mind that this is only part of the wide scope of this book.

  • Salsa

This YouTube series from The Valbunnys is an accessible introduction to the history of salsa music, starting from the Atlantic slave trade. There’s also a part two and three.

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Tracing the Yorùbá influence in Cuban music by Collyn Stephens explores salsa’s Yoruba roots through a series of interviews in Cuba and Boston. The Yoruba people live in West Africa, primarily Nigeria.

While the information here from Cuba’s Yoruba Cultural Association doesn’t touch on dance, it gives more information on the Yoruba people in Cuba and their cultural influence. 

Dancing with the Gods by John Joseph Wong looks at the Orishas in salsa and what they mean. An Introduction To The Orishas by Takeshi Young for Social Dance Community is another resource on this. And this SalsaForums thread discusses “Should white people use Orishas in social dancing?”

Salsa Music: The Latent Function of Slavery and Racialism by Vernon W. Boggs is behind a paywall but details the role of black African rhythms and slavery in the development of salsa music. The writer has also authored Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City, and while we cannot find it for less than £65 online, it is available in certain libraries.

“Salsa” is More African Than All Black-American Musical Forms… by mauludSADIQ explores why African Americans don’t identify salsa as black music, despite its roots, and details part of the history of salsa music’s development.

Clave: The African Roots of Salsa by Dr Christopher Washburne for also explores the relationships between salsa rhythms and African rhythms. 

Race, Gender, and Class Embodied in Cuban Dance by Yvonne Payne Daniel looks at how dancing different Cuban dances can be linked to racial identity, including casino, rumba, son, and guaguancó.

In Cali Salsa; a history of slaves, Cuban bands, and Mexican cinema, journalist Juan Pablo Acevedo interviews researchers about why Cali is famed for salsa and links it, in part, to the history of slavery and the large percentage of black people in the city.

Music and The Formation of Black Identity in Colombia by Peter Wade explores how salsa formed part of a black identity in Colombia.

To the Beat of Their Own Drum: Women in Salsa by Delia Poey looks at how early salsa singers framed their race and gender in their lyrics and performance.

  • Bachata and Merengue

While bachata and merengue are distinct dances, bachata evolved out of a combination of merengue, bolero, and other influences. Merengue’s African roots are therefore also relevant to bachata, while many bachata texts also discuss merengue at least in passing.

Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music by Deborah Pacini Hernandez explores, among many other things, the role of racial identity and anti-black racism in attitudes towards merengue and bachata as well as the attempts to obscure merengue’s African roots.

Bachata and Dominican Identity by Julie Sellers also explores how the downplaying of African heritage and black identity in the Dominican Republic interacted with social class and attitudes towards merengue and bachata.

Merengue: Dominican Music and Identity by Paul Austerlitz looks at the Afro roots of merengue and how attitudes towards race shaped attitudes towards both merengue and bachata.

The Origins of Merengue Dance by Jennell Lewis for Flo Dance is a brief look at the myths and facts surrounding the creation of merengue by African slaves.

To put some of these into context, you could look at Introduction to Dominican Blackness by Silvio Torres-Saillant, My Struggles as a Black American in the Dominican Republic by Morgan Miller, or Systematic Racism and Anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic by Andrea C. Restrepo Rocha.

Race in the Latin Dance Scene

This panel discussion via Facebook Live from Salsa Everybody discusses racism in general, the difference between being anti-racist and not racist, and racism on the dance floor.

In season 4, episode 13 of The Grapevine, The Relationship Between The Black and Latinx Community, Ayesha K. Faines shares her experiences of racism in the salsa scene. The salsa-focused conversation starts at 9:37, while the whole episode focuses on black and Latinx relationships primarily in the US.

Spinning Mambo into Salsa: Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce by Juliet McMains explores the changing nature of salsa dancing. As part of the book, she looks at how salsa was “elevated” by the removal of its working-class and black roots. If you can’t access the book or just want more information, you can read an interview with the author here.

Salsa and Its Transnational Moves by Sheenagh Pietrobruno explores the relationship between salsa and race, immigration, and sexuality, among other things.

In At Pura Vida Sanctuary, the Afro roots in Latin dance comes alive, Hanaa’Tameez interviews the owners of the dance school Pura Vida Sanctuary about how people view Latin dancing and the Afro-Latinx identity.

Urban Bachata and Dominican Racial Identity in New York by Deborah Pacini Hernandez looks at bachata’s modern-day relationship with race, particularly in the context of the Dominican Republic and the US.

Salsa Dancing Is Black History by Dr Dip narrates how a black Latin dancer’s friends felt he was neglecting black culture for salsa culture, but he feels that he’s connected to his African and American roots when he dances it.

In Life on the Salsa Dance Floor, W Bill Smith sums up his salsa experience in a short article. It’s only five paragraphs long, but one of those is devoted to being rejected by “women who ASSumed because I am a brother that I didn’t know how to salsa”.

Judging a Book by its Cover: Stereotypes & Superficiality on the Latin Dance Floor by Melissa West-Koistilla for Social Dance Community touches briefly on racial stereotypes

Whiteness in Latin Dancing

Brownface: Representations of Latin-ness in Dancesport by Juliet McMains focuses on how Latin dancing is seen as more primitive, sexualised, and emotional in the ballroom scene along with the tendency to do brownface, but also dives into the African roots of Latin music and Latin dance styles. This article is available to read for anyone who creates a free (until the end of 2020) JSTOR account.

Whiteness and the Performance of Race in the American Ballroom Dance by Joanna Bosse also explores how the Latin ballroom dances are viewed in comparison with the modern ballroom dances. Again, it is currently available to read for anyone who creates a free JSTOR account.

Salsa cosmopolitanism? Consuming racialised difference in the European social dance industry by Stefanie Claudine Boulila is behind a paywall but argues that salsa is sold in the UK through “racialised scripts” presenting it as exotic.

General Resources on Cultural Appropriation, Racism, and Dance

At What Point Does Appreciation Become Appropriation? by Brian Schaefer discusses what it can mean to dance a style that isn’t from your culture. He quotes Michelle Heffner Hayes as saying that cultural appropriation is “taking the external trappings of cultural traditions and using them as decorations on your own history without developing mutually supporting relationships in the community that you’re taking from” and provides suggestions on how to create those relationships.

Sensual Bachata: Appreciation or Appropriation by Laura Riva of The Dancing Grapevine explores whether sensual bachata is appropriating Brazilian zouk. It also provides a framework for considering whether a style of dance or other dance-based activity can be considered appropriation.

While not linked to dancing, Anti-racism resources for white people is a compilation of all tools and articles you can use to learn about racism. Looking for something less US-centric? This list from Survivors’ Network is more UK-orientated.

If you’re overwhelmed by the long list of materials, Justice in June contains 30-day plans for people who have 10, 25, and 45 minutes a day to learn more and support anti-racism initiatives (primarily in the US, but they can be adapted). 

Responses to Questions and Criticisms

Isn’t this article just jumping on a trending movement? When we looked for dance-specific resources to share, we struggled to find them. We felt gathering the resources in one place would be beneficial.

This is ignoring all the European, Spanish, and indigenous American influences on these genres. You’re right. Yet not only are we more likely to hear “salsa doesn’t have African roots” than “salsa doesn’t have Latin/Spanish roots”, but right now there is a wave of anti-black attitudes and arguments over whether we should honour slave traders.

It’s not just white people who are racist. That’s correct. However, white people living in majority-white countries are the least likely to have experienced systematic racism, which is why some of these resources have been written specifically for or about white people.

It’s not just black people who experience racism. You’re right, and it’s not our intention to imply otherwise. Even though this article is focused on anti-black racism, we hope that it’s also thought-provoking with regards to other elements of racism. As and when we find more resources, we will also add those.

This is just value-signalling. It’s not actually achieving any thing. Sharing information is important because it helps open minds. Other things that you can do include:

  • Promoting and financially supporting black artists and dancers
  • Donating to anti-racism organisations as well as organisations support black communities
  • Attending protests
  • Voting for politicians and politics that are actively anti-racist
  • Listening to black people’s experiences, especially when related to things that you couldn’t have experienced
  • Questioning your initial responses, especially when it relates to people who are black or of a different race to you
  • Speaking up when you hear racist comments or jokes
  • Refusing to support racist institutions

Feature photo by Maria Oswalt via Unsplash.

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