Move Over Miami, Tokyo's Got Salsa

Japanese dancers learn the salsa.
A salsa dance workshop in Tokyo.

Story posted August 13, 2004

Say the word salsa and hips come to mind. Masculine hips rapping a tight Latin beat. Womanly hips making smooth figure-eights.

But that may be the American interpretation. Most Latin American salsa dancers don't concern themselves with hips: "It's all in the knees and feet," says ethnomusicologist Joanna Bosse, a Bowdoin music instructor.

"Latin American culture is one place that many non-Latinos turn to connect to themselves physically. There's something about it, a liberation they don't feel they can have in their everyday existence."

"People interpret salsa according to their own aesthetics and values," says Bosse," who is conducting research on worldwide interest in Latin dance music. "Latin American culture is one place that many non-Latinos turn to connect to themselves physically. There's something about it, a liberation they don't feel they can have in their everyday existence that they think Latinos have all the time. It's a misconception, but it drives a lot of things, especially love of dance and music."

Bosse has been studying the attraction of salsa among American, largely Caucasian, dancers - from ballrooms to barrooms across the Midwest. At the University of Illinois, Urbana, where Bosse recently completed her graduate studies, she often spent Saturday nights hitting Latin dance clubs from Champagne to Chicago.

"In the cities we'd go to clubs that were largely owned and run for Latin Americans, but in the small towns there weren't enough [Latinos] for a Latino district. You'd have a club that was ballroom dancing one night and salsa the next."

In the small-town clubs, says Bosse, she discovered an unexpected group of salsa lovers: Asians. "Maybe 20 percent of people in these clubs were Asians. Some were foreign professionals, some were Asian Americans. One of the best salsa dancers I knew was from China."

Fascinated by what the counter-rhythms of Latin music might have to reveal about Asian concepts of body and sexuality, Bosse traveled to Japan this summer on a Freeman Faculty Research grant.

Fascinated by what the counter-rhythms of Latin music might have to reveal about Asian concepts of body and sexuality, Bosse traveled to Japan this summer on a Freeman Faculty Research grant, which is designed to give non-Asian specialists an opportunity to incorporate Asian studies into their teaching and research. There, Bosse deepened her understanding of how Latin dance music reveals different cultural predispositions toward the body.

"White Americans often identify with [salsa] like an ethnicity," she observes. "They say, 'I may not actually have Latin blood, but I have a Latin soul.' Many also say they love it because it makes them feel beautiful, exciting, sexy. They want to be a hot-blooded white person but don't know how to make that happen within their own cultural tradition. In the Midwest, where there is a strong Lithuanian and Polish tradition, they have the polka. The polka is not a sexy dance."

Japanese salsa dancers may put greater emphasis on the athletic value of dancing, says Bosse. "It's a way to stay in shape, train the body. It's a physical activity that doesn't necessarily lead toward a sense of one's sexuality."

"Americans often mess up the feet or arms because they're really interested in the hips. I didn't notice the same kind of hip concentration with Japanese dancers. They caught onto the complexity of foot and arm movements faster."

According to Bosse's observations, that sense of athleticism makes Japanese salsa dancers better students. "I noticed in the classes that Japanese dancers 'got' things differently than American dancers. The mistakes they made, the way they learned was different. Americans often mess up the feet or arms because they're really interested in the hips. I didn't notice the same kind of hip concentration with Japanese dancers. They caught onto the complexity of foot and arm movements faster."

Bosse's anecdotal research is leading her to wider questions, notably, why people dance together at all. "Why dance? Why these dances? Why not their own dances? The Japanese element is part of these larger questions'" she says. "They don't have a history of couple dancing in Japan, which I think may be part of the attraction. Historically, it has been perceived with a significant bit of shame. I'm also wondering about the relationship of the martial arts to dancing. Japanese dancers seemed to learn from watching very quickly. I don't know if that connects to the [prevalence] of the martial arts or various religious practices there."

Bosse currently is working on a book about the relationship between Latin American and non-Latino dancers in the U.S. and hopes to include a chapter on Asian-American dancers. Although ethnomusicologists tend to concern themselves with music, not dance, Bosse says those lines are blurring as music increasingly becomes a portal for understanding a range of cultural, political, and economic issues.

"Dance is only now becoming a big deal within my field. I'm happy to be on the front end of the wave," she says. "It gives me a pocket, a place to be."

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