By: Carmela Muzio Dormani
Salsa is rhythm and melody, represents history and evolution, and encourages both individual expression and interpersonal connection. In the 1960s and 70s salsa music was, “the unmistakable voice of the Puerto Rican barrio” (Duany, 1984) representing, “a powerfully vibrant and uncontainable cultural expression” (Washburne, 2008). Today, it is the dancers who advance these traditions of exchange, creativity, and counter-hegemonic cultural assertion.
Across eight years as a practicing salsa dancer, I grew from student to instructor, and amateur to professional. What struck me more than anything in this time was and is the deep significance with which salsa aficionados imbue their practice. Over the years I bore witness to every variety of sweat and tears; moments of joy, anger, passion, vindication, arguments, reconciliations, and many, many late-night conversations about what it is that salsa music and movement represent. I held my breath during the arguments or broke them up myself. I felt time slow down on stage in the seconds before the music starts and a performance begins. I went to the emergency room bleeding from the head. Sometimes I won competitions. Just as often, I lost competitions. I fought with my mom, my brother, my partner. And I noticed my own identity begin to take shape around salsa, eventually altering my research agenda to reflect on the cacophony of meanings encompassed in “the salsa scene”. Over time I came to understand that the intense physical, emotional, and communal experiences that dancers encounter should not be captured only in writing. The salsa scene is visually stunning and deeply culturally significant for its participants, many of whom are acutely aware of the historical and social meanings enacted on the floor as dancers – especially Puerto Rican, Dominican, and other Latinx New Yorkers –claim access to the city and control over their own stories.
My research agenda is formulated around the dual goal of elevating grassroots voices and interrogating unjust social conditions. In order to do the former, my methodology needed to expand beyond the written word. With the support of a Provost’s Digital Innovation Training Grant, I accelerated my training in documentary filmmaking with the aim of providing a platform for New York’s salseras/os to share their stories. To do the latter, I documented professional dancers in their own voices, as they drew connections between dancing salsa and resisting gentrification, racialized and gendered marginalization, and reactionary immigration policies. The training I obtained at Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) has allowed me to expand my methodological boundaries to include film and digital mediums and to continue documenting the stories of a community that fed the emergence of salsa dance as a global popular culture practice. A video sample of one of those stories is included here: