Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America

Everynight Life: Culture and Dance in Latin/o America

by Celeste Fraser Delgado, José Esteban Muñoz

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The function of dance in Latin/o American culture is the focus of the essays collected in Everynight Life. The contributors interpret how Latin/o culture expresses itself through dance, approaching the material from the varying perspectives of literary, cultural, dance, performance, queer, and feminist studies. Viewing dance as privileged sites of identity formation and cultural resistance in Latin/o America, Everynight Life translates the motion of bodies into speech, and the gestures of dance into a provocative socio-political grammar.
This anthology looks at many modes of dance—including salsa, merengue, cumbia, rumba, mambo, tango, samba, and norteño—as models for the interplay of cultural memory and regional conflict. Barbara Browning’s essay on capoeira, for instance, demonstrates how dance has been used as a literal form of resistance, while José Piedra explores the meanings conveyed by women of color dancing the rumba. Pieces such as Gustavo Perez Fírmat’s "I Came, I Saw, I Conga’d" and Jorge Salessi’s "Medics, Crooks, and Tango Queens" illustrate the lively scope of this volume’s subject matter.

Contributors. Barbara Browning, Celeste Fraser Delgado, Jane C. Desmond, Mayra Santos Febres, Juan Carlos Quintero Herencia, Josh Kun, Ana M. López, José Esteban Muñoz, José Piedra, Gustavo Perez Fírmat, Augusto C. Puleo, David Román, Jorge Salessi, Alberto Sandoval

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396673
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/18/1997
Series: Latin America otherwise
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Celeste Fraser Delgado is Music Editor at the weekly New Times in Miami. José Esteban Muñoz is Associate Professor of Performance Studies at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

Read an Excerpt

Everynight Life

Culture and Dance in Latin/o America

By Celeste Fraser Delgado, José Esteban Muñoz

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9667-3


Rebellions of Everynight Life

Celeste Fraser Delgado and José Esteban Muñoz

Tonight, at the Palace of Happiness, Federico presents the Big Dance with Two Orchestras: Noro Morales, the famous Puerto Rican pianist, and Ricardo Rico with his Authentic Dominicans, each playing Merengues, Mambos, Boleros, and Cha cha cha.

Leaning out of the window of el Palacio de la Alegría (the Palace of Happiness) in Brooklyn, Federico Pagani—the famous promoter who created the legendary dance hall, the Palladium—exchanges a conspiratorial glance with a tuxedoed man in the street. Looking past tonight's menu of merengue, mambo, bolero, and cha cha cha, Pagani might be inviting his companion to join in the dance. Alternatively, Pagani might be calling his comrade to a meeting of the Puerto Rican Voter's Association, whose members gathered in the dance hall when the orchestras were silent. On the back of this photograph someone has written: "this is the place where the Hérnandez brothers held their dances and their political meetings." Associated with the Merchant Marines and the National Maritime Union, the Hérnandez brothers were active in the political struggles of the growing Puerto Rican community in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. The periodic transformation of the Palace of Happiness into a Puerto Rican voters' forum suggests the potential proximity of pleasure and political life. Tonight's pasos (dance steps) glide across the same surfaces as tomorrow's political debate. In the overlapping space of dance and debate, a shifting sense of community is configured and reconfigured—day after day, and night after night.

Dance sets politics in motion, bringing people together in rhythmic affinity where identification takes the form of histories written on the body through gesture. The body dancing to Latin rhythms analyzes and articulates the conflicts that have crossed Latin/o American identity and history from the conquest of the continent to California's passage of the racist Proposition 187. Whether forced into slave labor in the sugarcane fields, migrant labor in the apple groves and vineyards, or undocumented labor in sweatshops and restaurant dishrooms; whether lynched in the newly annexed territory of Texas, sterilized without consent in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic, or detained in immigration camps in Haiti and South Florida: Latin/o bodies serve as the site ot a long history of racial, cultural, and economic conflict. Dance promises the potential reinscription of those bodies with alternate interpretations of that history. Magnificent against the monotonous repetition of everyday oppressions, dance incites rebellions of everynight life.

History as Choreo-Graphy

"The word rumba means magnificence," claims César Castillo in Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Mambo king and music teacher César repeats for us a familiar History, whose "magnificence" can be heard in the drumming that connects not only the rumba and the mambo, but all Afro-Caribbean rhythms back through the cultural resistance of the enslaved peoples in the Americas to the religious practices of Western Africa. A frequent lack of specificity in the telling only makes that history more forceful in the living memory of Latinos today; the cultures of Africa survived the institutions of slavery and Colonization and continue to survive, despite the institutions of Capitalism and so-called development, in the sounding of the drums. In the times of our ancestors, the drums invoked the gods and the gods dwelled within the body for the duration of the dance. And they still do.

César's history lesson traces the contours of the history of the forced migration and enslavement of Africans in the Americas through the steps of the rumba and the mambo:

The slaves who first danced this were usually chained up at night by the ankle, so they were forced to limit their movements: when they danced their rumbas, it was with much movement of the hips and little movement of the feet. That's the authentic rumba from the nineteenth century, with drums and voices and melody lines that sound Spanish and African at the same time ...

The mambo, now that's another dance. That came along in the 1940s, before you were all born. As a dance it's like the rumba, but with much more movement of the feet, as if the chains had been removed. That's why everybody looks crazy, like a jitterbug on fire, when they dance the mambo.

Focusing on the triumph of motion over constraint, these two movements serve as compressed sites of two moments in the choreo-graphy— the bodily writing—of Latin/o American history.

The popular history contained in Latin music and dance has generated an extensive published history, whose most notable chroniclers include the musicologist Fernando Ortiz, anthropologist and author Lydia Cabrera, Brazilian scholar Muniz Sodre, and art historian Robert Farris Thompson. These historians provide valuable information about the origins and methods of retention of particular African and indigenous practices in the New World, as does the work of scholars emphasizing related African American traditions such as anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham on the dances of Haiti and historian Katrina Hazzard-Gordon on popular dance in the United States. Our object in this volume is not to trace genealogies, but to build upon the work of these scholars by analyzing at specific historical moments the work of these retentions in making possible oppositional histories. In isolating Latin/o dance from other African American dance forms we do not simply follow the legacy of colonial rule, rather we attempt to trace the ways in which these African traditions have been transformed and encoded as Latin/o through processes of migration and mass mediation. African-inspired rhythms ranging from tango to danzon to rumba and mambo have traveled across the continent, embodying static and interchangeable "Latin" or even "Spanish" identities in first-world music and film while paradoxically setting in motion processes of Pan-Latino identification.

Stasis and motion serve as emblems for the tension between hegemonic and choreo-graphic histories in the New World. British dance-master Frank Borrows articulates this tension as a problem for Anglo and Anglo-American students and instructors of Latin dance, which he claims to resolve in his classic manualTheory and Technique of Latin-American Dancing. Borrows first published the book in 1948, at the height of the international rumba craze, then laid out its mission in a revised edition: "The methods of analysis in use for English Style dancing were not applicable and new methods of dealing with technique had to be devised." The method devised aimed not at keeping pace with a changing form, but with bringing the unruliness of improvisation under control: "the technique I then offered has come to be accepted as standard, almost in its entirety, and Latin-American dancing now has a recognized standard technique, as static as may possibly be expected for a living and still developing form." Through a relentless process of Anglicization, Borrows sets out to standardize Latin dance to the point of stasis.

The static standard of Anglo-American "Latin dance" must expel what Fernando Ortiz has described as "the rapid and extremely complex movements of the African dance, in which feet, legs, hips, torsos, arms, hands, head, face, eyes, tongue, and finally all human organs take part in mimetic expressions that form steps, gestures, visages, and uncountable dance figures." While the complexity of the rhythms elude Western systems of musical notation, the inscription of these rhythms on the dancing body in Afro-Caribbean dance evades any attempt at capture by classical Western dance notation. The complex articulation of each part of the body, from the limbs to the viscera, always in motion writes history otherwise, moving within and against the constraints of Western writing.

The intricate gesticulations of New World dance forms inscribe and are inscribed by three broad historical movements: (1) the reorganization of the world produced by conquest, colonization, and the institution of slavery; (2) the consolidation of capitalism and the building of nations characteristic of modernity; and (3) the transnationalization of global culture effected by the incessant flow of capital characteristic of post-modernity. These broad movements are not discrete stages nor do they form any kind of direct linear progression from one moment to the next. Rather, we take the polyrhythm as a metonym for history that allows for an understanding of the simultaneous sounding of incommensurate historiographies.

While infinite, these historiographies—these contending modes of writing History—can be usefully conceptualized through the distinction Gayatri Spivak has designated in her article "Time and Timing: Law and History" as the conflict between "Time" and "timing." Set to the clock of dominant interests, "Time" wrenches "timing," the chronological motion of "life and ground level history," into a law whose chronology produces hegemonic history. We understand "Time" as shifting to the rhythm of changing global hegemonies, but always presenting itself over and against the lived flux of timing as fixed and final. However, "timing," like the incessant rhythm of the clave, sounds over and through "Time" as "Law." As Muniz Sodre has observed, "rhythm as a way of structuring time is also a way of seeing and experiencing reality—it is constitutive of Consciousness, not as an abstraction but as a physical force affecting all the organs of the body." The Bodily consciousness mobilized by the polymeter of Latin dance allows for the continual remembering (or rewriting) of the crossed rhythms of global history.

The process of signification in polyrhythmic music bears a striking resemblance to Stuart Hall's rendition of Derridean signification in his description of Caribbean identity: Hall "describe[s] this play of 'difference' within [Caribbean] identity" as containing the Derridean deferral of meaning in signification—a deferral or "'doubleness'... most powerfully heard ... 'playing' within the varieties of Caribbean musics." Hall likens this "doubleness" to "differential points on a sliding scale," but we prefer a different metonymy. Rather than recurring to the Western musical priority of harmony, we would listen for the shifting layers of Latin American history as sounded out in polyrhythms and danced separately-but-simultaneously by distinct body parts. The "endless repositioning" of the dancer in the pasos of the tango, samba, salsa, rumba, and mambo traces out new patterns of difference that can be taken up and recognized as new modes of identification—promising potential new avenues for the constant reformation of resistance. In our view, the dance of identity suggests neither being nor even becoming, but a body in motion that breaks into meaning to the polyrhythmic beat of history.

Rhythm as Counter-Consciousness

Opinion diverges on the oppositional role played by dance in the history of the New World. Writing of the institution of slavery in the United States, abolitionist and emancipated slave Frederick Douglass maintained that dancing allowed a respite from the grueling labor of slavery that diverted those enslaved from rebellion: "holidays were among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholders of keeping down the spirit of insurrection among slaves ... but for those [dances, frolics, holidays] the rigors of bondage would have become too severe for endurance and the slave would have been forced to a dangerous separation." In contrast to Douglass's view, Hazzard-Gordon draws from the Caribbean context to construe dance as a kind of prelude to or rehearsal for revolt: "ample evidence suggests that slave insurrections were either plotted at dances or scheduled to take place on occasions that involved dancing ... The high pitch of emotions at these dances could serve as a pre-text for touching off a previously planned revolt. The links between dance and rebellion give these occasions a striking resemblance to war dances, or dances in which preparation for battle was the central theme." Rather than view dance as necessarily either a diversion from or an incitement to uprising, Hazzard-Gordon poses dance as a powerful instrument recognized by master and slave alike: "With the ability to curtail or encourage slave dance culture, the masters sought to turn occasions to their own use. When slaves made their own dances—and they often did—they accepted a terrible risk of harsh punishment."

Enslaved people risked this punishment not only in dances of outright revolt. Dances such as the habanera, the danzón, and the rumba served as a crucible for forging a common cultural identity out of the diverse ethnic and linguistic groups yoked together in bondage. Hazzard-Gordon presents dance as a kind of lingua franca for peoples abducted from West Africa: "interethnic assimilation was more easily facilitated in dance than in other aspects of the African culture, such as language. Brought to the Americas in the motor-muscle memory of the various West African ethnic groups, the dance was characterized by segmentation and delineation of various body parts, including hips, torso, head, arms, hands and legs; the use of multiple meter as polyrhythmic sensitivity; angularity; multiple centers of movement; asymmetry as balance; percussive performance; mimetic performance; improvisation; and derision. These aesthetic and technical commonalities continued to be governing principles as dance moved from its sacred context to the numerous secular uses it acquired under slavery." Hazzard-Gordon's description touches upon many of the aspects of dance that continue to play a role in resistive practices: the invocation of counterhistories through motor-muscle memory, the incorporation of incommensurate histories through polyrhythmic sensitivity, and the retention of these practices even as the dances retained by enslaved peoples moved from a sacred to a secular context.

While sacred dance forms persist into the present in the practices of santeréa and candomblé, we are particularly interested in the retention of these practices in secular form, in what William Rowe and Vivian Schelling have called, in their landmark study Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America, "decontextualization": the process by which "native practices break from a comprehensive complex of meanings but are still retained as practices." These practices become available for the creation of new meanings; indeed these practices become the engine for re-articulating dance to changing historical conditions.

Dance vivifies the cultural memory of a common context of struggle that bolsters a cultural identity itself forged through struggle and dance. In her important article "Performing the Memory of Difference in Afro-Caribbean Dance," VeVe Clark details dance as a pedagogy of cultural memory. Cindy Patton summarizes Clark's argument as follows: "the perpetual stylization and restylization of dance by the dancer, the systematic (even if nonformal) teaching of dance forms, and the watching of dance create a structure in which participants and spectators produce cultural memory. Clark argues that interpretation and cultural meaning are embedded in the recognition of the 'memory of difference' from performance to performance. For subalterns, who lack cultural and historical capital, this 'memory of difference' (and the sense of dislocation/ relocation which underlies diasporal cultures) sustains the trace of subaltern cultural products even if only in the hermeneutic circle of marginal interpreters at the edges of 'mainstreamed' forms." The production of cultural memory as "cultural and historical capital" for subalterns obviates any facile dismissal of dance as diversion from more direct oppositional political pursuits. The diasporic dancing body becomes the vehicle for the articulation of culture under siege. Dance literally re-members cultural practices repressed over centuries of conflict.

If the cultural memory and oppositional history of Afro-Caribbean or Latin dance is only accessible to a "hermeneutic circle of marginal interpreters at the edge of 'mainstreamed' forms," the inaccessibility of those meanings to mainstream interpreters does not stem from a lack of initiation into subaltern rites of memory alone. The performance of those rites on the body eludes any understanding of history predicated on a rational, linear narrative preserved by the written word. The observation Patton makes of voguing, a contemporary U.S. subaltern dance form, we expand to Afro-Caribbean and Latin dancing as a whole: "If [Afro-Latin dance] cannot tell us from whence it came, that is because the lieux de memoire of [polyrhythmic dancing] is not in a time or place, but of the body" Patton's inclusive, uncomprehending "us" is suggestive of the constraints on interpretation of the history performed through dance. As readers and writers of critical cultural analysis, we must shift our domain of investigation from chronology and geography to choreo-graphy.

Lieux de memoire, the place of memory, has two senses here: the body as the site of production of cultural memory and the body as the object of the History re-membered. The dancing body not only writes counterhistory, but the dance resists and reconfigures the subjugating history written on the enslaved or laboring body. History as choreo-graphy then eludes academic analysis on two accounts: the dancing body speaks a language irreducible to words and the dancing body enacts an opposition unassimilable to rational understandings of resistance as productive work.


Excerpted from Everynight Life by Celeste Fraser Delgado, José Esteban Muñoz. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

About the Series ix

Preface: Politics in Motion / Celeste Fraser Delgado 3

Rebellions of Everynight Life / Celeste Fraser Delgado and José Esteban Muñoz 9

Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies / Jane C. Desmond 33

Headspin: Capoeira's Ironic Inversions / Barbara Browning 65

Hip Poetics / José Piedra 93

Medics, Crooks, and Tango Queens: The National Appropriation of a Gay Tango / Jorge Salessi (Translated by Celeste Fraser Delgado) 141

Salsa as Translocation / Mayra Santos Febres 175

Notes toward a Reading of Salsa / Juan Carlos Quintero Herencia (Translated by Celeste Fraser Delgado) 189

Una Verdadera crónica del Norte: Una noche con la India / Augusto C. Puleo (Translated by Celeste Fraser Delgado) 223

I Came, I Saw, I Conga'd: Contexts for a Cuban-American Culture / Gustavo Pérez Firmat 239

Caught in the Web: Latinidad, AIDS, and Allegory in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Musical / David Román and Alberto Sandoval 255

Against Easy Listening: Audiotopic Readings and Transnational Soundings / Josh Kun 288

Of Rhythms and Borders / Ana M. López 310

Bibliography 345

Index 359

Contributors 365

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