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There is a nice (albeit brief) article about Juan Luis Guerra in the NYT today that addresses the problem of world music (“music whose lyrics we can’t understand”). The music sounds great and perhaps hints at something exotic, different; but without understanding the lyrics we may be missing out on something huge.

Guerra–one of the musicians whose music I most enjoy both listening and dancing to– is an excellent case in point. His music is eminently pleasing to listen to, but did you realize that that infectious dance beat obscures a biting criticism of the state of healthcare? That the deliciously romantic melody and smooth singing belie a striking use of language and poetry? Upon every listening I gain a new insight into the Spanish language, Dominican culture, musicality, and meaning.

When I became fluent in Italian, Italian music was no more “world music” to me, but a whole new world of pop, rock, rap, R&B, folk, and more. When I learned to dance salsa, merengue, cha cha cha, and bachata, and to comprehend the Spanish words, tropical music was no longer “world”– or even “Latin” music to me, but four new distinct genres of music with their own musical and rhythmical structure, and tradition of political expression.

To be honest, the term “world music” rather grates on me, and I avoid its use whenever possible. The same thing has happened to dances not originating in the European or American traditions in the U.S. Anything that does not fit neatly into the categories of ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, or ballroom dance are “world dances,” discounting the rich tradition and meaning behind each one of them.

I’m leaving town for a week and internet access will be iffy at best. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite older posts you may not have seen.

  • You all know about ballet, modern dance, tango, salsa, waltz, foxtrot, samba, and so forth. But unless you’re involved in latin club dancing you may not know much about Bachata. Bachata is both a style of music and a very fun and romantic style of dance. Read my post about Bachata here.
  • While we’re on the topic of social dancing, sometimes accidents are inevitable on the dance floor. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict how people will react. I addressed this issue in Dancefloor collisions: no one is to blame.
  • All About the Dress: one of my all time favorite dance videos on the internet, and one of my more popular posts.
  • As winter comes to a close, take advantage of those last week of ice skating, and read about some insights I had on a recent trip to the skating rink: Taking my dance skills to the ice skating rink.

If that’s not enough to tide you over, check out Going back in the ATTD Time Machine #1 

Tonight we had our second rehearsal of my new piece. It’s actually coming along really nicely and I’m satisfied with what we’ve done so far. The musicality I want is there, and I feel pretty good about my choreography’s authenticity. My partner is very patient and helpful, and thank god. Tonight I came less prepared that I wanted (instead of composing like I was supposed to be during my free time this weekend, I had my nose in the new Harry Potter book), and I spent half the rehearsal trying to figure out where I was going with the new material I’d come up with. It was way too avant garde (euphemism for “totally wrong” or “too many ideas taken from modern class”) for what is supposed to be a fairly conventional salsa piece and I wish I had spent more time making sure it fit the music but I forgot my ipod at home today, blah, blah, blah. So rehearsal was good, but also not good, and the not good parts were all my fault. On a positive note, we showed what we have so far to my husband, and he liked it. It’s always good to be validated by an outside pair of eyes.

Then I went to CG. Since I don’t go out that often anymore, I always pray that I will not show up on an off night. Unfortunately, this was an off night. The best dances I had were right at the beginning and I would have been better off quitting while I was ahead. I could not find a partner for the lone bachata of the night (too many dancers in DC are bachata snobs), and while I did get to dance with one of my favorite partners for the only cha cha of the evening, I didn’t like the song, and something was off with our connection. I think my follow is changing– for the better, mind you– but it is messing with the connections I used to have with some of my favorite dancers.

Anyway, I’m feeling kind of funky right now, and not in a hip hop sort of way. I’m almost frightened that I’m somehow growing away from salsa. It’s probably just “growing pains” in my personal dance development. I think I’ve come up against a wall and once I break through it everything will be better.

Mostly I need to stop whining in my blog and go to bed.

I love dancing bachata. From time to time in a salsa club they will play a bachata and it is a good way to slow down for a minute. To be honest, it is generally more fun to dance bachata than to watch it. It is slow, the steps are simple, and most dancers don’t incorporate many variations or turn patterns. The basic step is three parallel steps to the side and then a tap, and then you go back the other way (right, left, right, tap left; left, right, left, tap right). It is the slow dance of the latin club dancing world. While some folks lead in either the open (holding both hands) or closed holds (one arm around the follower’s back, the other holding her hand), I love it when bachata is lead with the knees.

Notice in this example how he is leading her with his right knee, and she keeps her upper body quite fluid, which actually allows him to guide even her upper body from the knee.

Bachata originates from the Dominican Republic. It was once considered “low class” by the upper classes in the DR kind of like country music has been viewed by many folks in the US. Many times the lyrics were fairly crass and mysogynistic, or dealt with issues specific to poor, rural Dominicans. It was thanks in part to Juan Luis Guerra, a Berklee-educated musician from the DR that bachata went into the mainstream. He incorporated pop elements into bachata, creating many beautiful romantic ballads that appealed to a broader audience. If you want to learn more about the history of bachata, I highly recommend reading Bachata: A Social History of Dominican Popular Music by Deborah Pacini Hernandez.

Bachata Fusion

Today, groups like Aventura have taken bachata even further, incorporating R&B and Reggaeton into it. It is not uncommon to hear bachata in a salsa club from time to time, and I personally enjoy listening to the music. Being a romantic myself, I am a sucker for the “new wave” style, favoring artists such as Juan Luis Guerra, Aventura, and Monchy y Alexandra.

I found a nice little bachata documentary on YouTube by Troy and Jorjet (of Latin Motions, and salsa dancers that I admire quite a bit) where they went to a Dominican barbershop in New Orleans. The female dancer in the video is Jorjet, who dances with some of the men in the barbershop. The first dance (with the guy in red) actually incorporates a lot of salsa footwork, and some hip hop. Notice how he does a little moonwalk thing and then drops down, b-boy style. The second man has a more traditional style, and he incorporates a little leg lift that some people do. I love it when people dance in everyday spaces, such as the rueda video I put up and Boris Willis’ site.

I am going to leave you with one of my favorite songs of all time, Como Abeja al Panal (Like a Bee to Honey) by Juan Luis Guerra. It is a beautiful song with lovely vocals and touching lyrics, and the best part of it all is that it starts out as a bachata and then becomes a cha cha, thereby fusing two of my very favorite dance and musical styles.


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