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story by Vladimir Shifrin for DanceUs.org

Interview with Juliet McMains - book author of "Spinning Mambo into Salsa..."

DanceUs exclusive interview with Juliet McMains, PhD, Professor, Department of Dance, University of Washington - about her book: Spinning Mambo into Salsa: Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce that chronicles histories of salsa dance in USA.

Tell us about yourself and your dancing experience (Salsa, Tango)

Juliet McMains, PhD Professor, Department of Dance University of Washington

I’m really a dance omnivore. I have been devouring a wide variety of dance traditions for many decades, but I am most drawn to partnered social dances of Latin America and the African Diaspora. I’ve been dancing since I was a kid (ballet, jazz, tap early on), but I didn’t get introduced to partner dancing until college. I was fascinated by the lead/follow dynamics, which initially seemed like magic. Once I learned that these shared codes and signals function as a nonverbal language where two people can communicate really deep and nuanced concepts completely outside of verbal language, I was hooked. I joined a ballroom dance club in college and became completely obsessed, training several hours a day. Because I found very little social partner dancing being practiced at that time (early 1990s) by anyone my own age, I became a serious DanceSport competitor, which was at the time popular at colleges in the Northeast. I eventually became a professional ballroom dance competitor/teacher, a journey you can read about in my first book Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry. So I danced and taught “Latin” dances as a ballroom dancer for many years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Southern California for graduate school in dance that I began to develop an awareness of how radically the ballroom dance industry’s versions of Latin dances were from practices in Latin America, the Caribbean and the diaspora. 

I began dancing salsa within my first few weeks of landing in Southern California in 1997 and was completely fascinated by the improvisational dynamics, which were so much more developed than those used by ballroom dancers. Very quickly I realized that the improvisation was organized around the music—it was a conversation about the music. So the more I got into salsa dancing, the more I got invested in salsa music, eventually studying percussion (which I play very badly). I think I’ve entered maybe one or two salsa dance competitions in my life because for me salsa is about the community practice, and I think the competition scene tends to draw the dance farther and farther away from the aspects that I care about—improvisation, musicality, and Africanist aesthetics. I have been teaching salsa dance for almost 20 years because unlocking the pleasure of salsa dancing for others is even more satisfying to me than my own dancing.  

For the past ten years, my social dance practice, teaching, choreography, and research have been focused more on Argentine tango than salsa. Tango has the playful improvisation and focused dialogue about the music that I love about salsa, but cultivates a different emotional state, contemplative rather than joyful, and different kinesthetic pleasures (more twisting than spinning).  The best part is that I don’t have to choose. In addition to salsa and tango, I also still practice swing dancing (lindyhop and West Coast), AfroCuban folkloric, contact improvisation, modern/contemporary, and ballet. Because I teach in a university dance department, I get to take classes alongside our students, imagining I’m still 18 years old with a whole lifetime of dancing ahead of me.

Spinning Mambo into Salsa: Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce - Juliet McMains

Tell us about your book Spinning Mambo into Salsa: Caribbean Dance in Global Commerce that chronicles histories of salsa dance in USA.

I’ve been teaching salsa at universities since 1999, and for many years I had been frustrated with the lack of literature on salsa dance history to assign in my classes. In 2005, I turned in the manuscript for my first book and found myself wondering what to do next when I realized I was in a position to actually fill in this gap in the historical record. So I booked a trip to Cuba, and then a few months later I took my first trip to Puerto Rico. I decided to focus my project on the three main hubs for salsa commercialization and export in the U.S.—New York, Miami, and Los Angeles—but referring back to what was happening in Cuba and Puerto Rico was essential for the project. My research process included 100 oral histories with people who had been involved in salsa (or mambo) dancing/music for a significant period of time, and a lot of ethnographic fieldwork in New York and South Florida. I spent a lot of time hanging out with and dancing with Palladium era mambo dancers who learned in the 1950s, so they were in their 70s, 80s and even 90s when I met them. I actually enjoyed dancing with them more than people my own age because they had such devotion to the music and such playful improvisational spirits. A comparison of Palladium era mambo to modern day salsa/mambo became a major focus of the book.  I’m not sure I would have started the book if I realized it would take ten years to complete the project, but once I started talking to people and collecting their stories, I felt a tremendous responsibility to be a caretaker of these stories and share them with the world. 

Who/What was the most significant person/factor in the creation of salsa as a musical genre in the 1970s?

Salsa music of the 1970s can be most succinctly described as an urban reconceptualization of AfroCuban music (including son and mambo) by predominantly Puerto Rican musicians living in New York City. Fania Records, founded by Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco and his Jewish-Italian lawyer Jerry Massucci, played the greatest role in development of salsa music in this decade as they signed nearly every young talented Latin musician in New York (and many from Puerto Rico) to their label and produced concerts, albums, and tours that popularized salsa music worldwide. My favorite songs to dance to are still those recorded by Fania artists. However, to focus in on one person or entity is to miss the very point of salsa at this time. It was a political movement about pan-Latinx identity, a concept which was just coming into existence after the Civil Rights Movement.  Salsa music celebrated the diversity of the ethnic and national makeup of its contributors as it encouraged fans to find solidarity in commonalities of urban working class experiences across Latin America, regardless of national or racial background.

Tell us briefly about the formation of global salsa dance industry in the 1990s and 2000s described in your book.

Salsa music was commercialized in the 1970s, but salsa dance commercialization didn’t happen until the mid-1990s. It was actually a shift in salsa music—the emergence of a softer less politically charged style of salsa music called salsa romántica—that led to demand for salsa dance classes. Salsa romántica became popular among non-Latinxs who had no tradition of learning dancing in the home from family members. These new audiences for salsa music became the market for the first wave of salsa dance classes. By 1997, the same year I began dancing salsa, Puerto Rico hosted the first salsa dance congress, a multi-day event convening salsa lovers from around the world for a marathon of dance workshops, performances, and social dancing. Salsa congresses, which are now so popular that there are several each weekend in cities around the world, are the lynchpin in a network of contemporary salsa related business. 1997 was also the same moment that the Web was becoming a platform through which commerce could be negotiated. Salsa commerce grew concurrently with internet-based business, and exploration of the way in which the Internet shaped salsa dance commerce is one of the longest chapters in my book. I argue that although the Internet facilitated hybridization and dilution of regional salsa dance styles, it only accelerated a trend that began with twentieth-century technology such as radio and television. Another major theme of my book examines both the forces within salsa dance commercialization working to eliminate Africanist aesthetics (a term referring to aesthetic values common in the African diaspora) from the dance and also competing dynamics striving to recover and foreground its Blackness. Tracing how and why African contributions to salsa are alternately lauded and erased reveals not only important insights about racism but also offers inspiring models for combating it.

What is the next direction of Salsa as a dance in your opinion?

I’m a historian, so I prefer talking about the past to speculating about the future. Recently the salsa dance industry has helped launch the global spread of a number other Afro-diasporic partner dance traditions—bachata from the Dominican Republic, zouk from the French Caribbean but reconceptualized in Brazil, and kizomba from Angola. There has been a lot of anxiety about the popularity of these dances, which are often taught in a way that is perceived of as more sensual and also easier than salsa, overtaking salsa. But there was anxiety about merengue displacing salsa in the 1980s, and about reggaeton killing salsa in the 2000s, but salsa has endured. These dance/music styles have been absorbed into the salsa dance culture and are often danced alongside salsa, but I think salsa will outlast them. Salsa incorporates elements from so many different cultures that people from around the world feel inspired to refer to salsa as “our music.” There has also been a recent surge in salsa dance competitions and performances that draw more and more heavily on ballroom and European aesthetics. Often these are adopted in an effort to prove the legitimacy and artistic value of the art, but I’d like to think that we’ll see more and more competitors and dance companies turning towards Afro-diasporic dance traditions and aesthetics for choreographic and stylistic inspiration over the coming decade. Salsa no longer has to prove its artistic or cultural legitimacy. It’s time to embrace its past as a means of moving forward.

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