A few years ago, I "studied" the NYC salsa scene for an anthropology and human society course I was taking at NYU. For me this didn't mean a change in behavior -- I continued going to the same socials I had been attending, with the same people, on the same days -- but rather a change in perspective, which was illuminating. I wrote up the following as a summary of the study for the class, so it's a bit outdated, but I think there's some useful insights about the social and gender dynamics at play in the city's salsa scene.
Much love to Hector, Lawrence, and Achiko for lending your voices to the conversation.
Missed Connections in New York Salsa
“Anything looks good until you touch it.”
-Lawrence “Happy Feet” Walden
With this diversely applicable epithet, Lawrence, better known in the salsa scene as “Happy Feet,” captured the paradoxical nature of salsa dance. He told me over coffee of how he came to this realization, describing a terrible dance he had years ago at a New York salsa social that has since shut down:
“You know that hill in San Francisco? That super steep death trap? Yeah, picture that. Now picture going down that hill at a hundred miles an hour. That’s what this dance was like. Arms everywhere, no following, completely doing her own thing. I mean, she looked good, yeah, but, like I said: anything can look good. What matters is how it feels.”
What I love about Happy Feet’s summary of the salsa scene is that it seamlessly translates the collective misrecognition so emphasized by Pierre Bourdieu in Outline of a Theory of Practice into the physical realm. The leaders and followers of salsa are traditionally male and female, respectively, a formulation that follows directly from Puerto Rican and Cuban familial structures wherein men are afforded social dominance.
This dynamic of female submission in the face of male control is itself a reproduced manifestation of the arbitrarily formed habitus of Puerto Rican and Cuban cultures, of the “durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations,” improvisations which function only in the very personal experience of conjuncture, that is, “by relating the objective structure [e.g. tradition of male lead, female follow] defining the social conditions of the production of the habitus which engendered them to the conditions in which this habitus is operating [e.g. the club], that is, to the conjuncture” (78). By applying Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as a result of consistently reproduced and ideologically informed practice to the salsa scene, I saw how the physical connection established between two people (almost exclusively male and female) in 2014 in a club echoed and was a direct result of the habitus established long ago in both Puerto Rico and Cuban family structures.
Meneley’s Tournaments of Value also serves as a useful pathway into examining the gender dynamics at play in the salsa scene. In her examination of Yemeni women of Zabid, Meneley upends the previously established perception of the Middle Eastern woman’s social role as private in contrast to the male’s public existence. By examining the underlying values attached to the conspicuous consumption of the affluent class of women in Zabid, Meneley showed how the material possessions and socializing practices of the women that male anthropologists of her time had dismissed as petty and idle were in fact symbolically valuable tools that allowed the women to achieve social and political capital. I learned that salsa dancing, which could be commonly perceived as a frivolous social experience intended simply to entertain each individual agent, actually performs productive functions that help to generate the very structures that allow the scene to persist.
Salsa in New York is a constantly shifting and recurring phenomenon. Socials, gatherings with the primary goal of dancing, happen in a haphazard cycle. Jimmy’s, the “oldest” established social in NYC (a title widely agreed upon, regardless of its base in historical fact), has dibs on every first and third Sunday of each month, while the second and fourth Sundays belong to La Vieja Guardia. Despite the common shared reality of a Monday morning workday, Sunday is a popular day for Salsa; Dansport Studios in Midtown also hosts a social called Las Chicas Locas (“the crazy girls”) every other Sunday, which attracts a mix of the LVG and Jimmy’s crowd.
And then there are the bars which host socials on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays: Iguana’s, primarily a restaurant, is a Friday night destination for—as my friend Hector calls them—“wanna-be salsa dancers”: that is, people looking for a date. Hector swears by Caché, another bar that edges on the verge of being a club, with even lower lighting. Another bar, Taj II,hosts socials every Tuesday. Despite its odd middle-of-the-week timing, Taj is consistently crowded, with a variety of dancers who also frequent Jimmys and LCL. Taj makes no accommodations for the following workday; the social begins at 9pm, and continues until 2 am.
Spending time at Caché and Taj, I came to recognize the sensuous knowledge that Bourdieu refers to in Outline of a Theory of Practice, particularly in terms of spatial awareness: dancers who were well-accquainted with their preferred club knew which spots in the room were reliable watering holes for people of a similar skill set. Because of the sheer amount of space at Taj, a true luxury and rare find in New York’s salsa scene, the club tends to split into four quarters: skilled dancers take over the biggest hunk of the open floor, while those less skilled but still driven to impress occupy the open floor space closest to the bar. The third quarter is taken up by customers hugging the bar, trying to avoid being “clobbered” by dancers’ limbs, an occupational hazard that drives my friend Lawrence “up the damn wall.” And finally, the aloof crowd occupies the small balcony overlooking the dance floor. This group tends to be either professional dancers who consider themselves better than anyone there, or people who wish they could dance and are content to sit and watch all night long.
I spent most of my time observing the salsa scene at Jimmy’s, the most historically respected and well-loved location among my friends. I noticed a common litany occurring when skillful dancers found themselves bored or uncomfortable, which involves speculating over a) the quality of the DJ and the dancers present, b) where the good dancers have gone, b) what has changed in the scene to cause such shifts. The conclusions reached in these exchanges were routinely abandoned and recreated at each social. This narrative of evaluating the dancers and the scene could be perceived as essentially nervous chatter among acquaintances, but to see it as such and nothing more would be to willfully ignore the generative properties of the language used. As Nancy Ries concludes in Russian Talk, the culmination of her research of Soviet Russian society in the 1990s, “it is in day-to-day language that we can observe (or hear) the operations of the most diffuse—and, arguably, most powerful—mode of cultural reproduction” (22).
Ries and Meneley described their points of arrival in Russia and Yemen, respectively, as isolated events that informed upon their initial interactions with their cultures. I appreciated the singularity they afford these moments when reviewing my experiences arriving at salsa clubs; my arrival at each social was distinct, each and every time. Significant or not, the moment of engaging with the scene was always a liminal moment for me. But after attending all of these socials, each at least three times—with the exception of Iguana’s, where I went only once in the past two months—I can say I established a roughly or relatively consistent pattern of arrival:
If I came with Hector, I would frequently be brought to the front of the line with him. Every time Hector entered a social, with or without me, he would embrace the bouncer I would also be comped in, and acknowledged as if I was also a regular. None of the organizers know my name, despite this greeting having occurred three times or more. If there was a mandatory coat-check—a recent development in the scene, in an attempt to soften the edge of rising rent costs—and I was with Hector, I would be allowed to go directly into the club without needing to pay. Twice, I was also introduced to the DJ (once at Caché, and once at LVG). Often it was assumed that I was in a romantic relationship with Hector, though never articulated directly to us—allusions would be made to it throughout the night in passing comments. Hector is an established regular, and a recognizable one at that; at 6’3” he towers over most of the crowd in these socials. His height also makes him a desired dancer. Tall leaders are a rare commodity, and he seldom has a moment to breathe when out at a club.
I found that if I arrived at a social alone, the most “special treatment” I could expect to receive was an escort to the front of the line. I was given free entrance only once out of the many times I entered these socials alone, and was never able to avoid paying for the coat check. This experience was the same for the few times I arrived with a female friend of mine, Jessica.
Once I had entered the club, everything depended on my immediate company.[i] As Bourdieu articulates it, these conventional and conditional “symbolic stimulations, which act only on condition they encounter agents conditioned to perceive them” (76) determined my symbolic value to the scene in that moment of arrival. This is not to say that a dancer arriving alone, who does not necessarily get asked to dance immediately, will be doomed to loneliness for the rest of the evening—though this is more common with female dancers, considering the general reticence among women in New York to ask men to dance. If I arrived with any of my friends, or knew they would be there, it was an unspoken rule that I would give my first two or three dances to each of them. This friendly connection was crucial to my integration into the fabric of the scene. Within five minutes of my arrival to a social, I was automatically established as a skillful dancer and could expect to be asked to dance for the rest of the evening.
If I entered with my friend Lawrence, I received no recognition or differential treatment whatsoever. Though Lawrence is an established regular at these socials, known on the scene as “Happy Feet,” he keeps to himself entirely. He has earned this nickname from wearing smiley-face buttons on the tops of his shoes, along with a yellow handkerchief tied around his head.
Only two or three people know anything about Lawrence outside of the salsa community. My connection with him was sparked entirely from our engagement on the dance floor, but he does not lead other men, so his friendships with other men have arisen from solidarity and regularity in the scene. Lawrence and Hector are close, in terms of the salsa community; they have traveled to congresses together, have shared hotel rooms, will pass off partners between each other and suggest skillful dancers on the floor to each other. This is a rare connection in the salsa world, particularly in New York.
He talks to very few people, and rarely engages verbally with his dance partners—yet just in the two months I observed his interactions at Jimmys and Taj, he was frequently called a “salsa whore,” due to the sheer number of people he will dance with in an evening. This is yet another version of the misrecognition that is so prevalent in salsa; the assumption that someone’s physical engagement in a social dance is inherently tied to their sexual conduct follows no rational logic.
After talking with both Hector and Lawrence extensively about the difficulty in distinguishing between these two interpretations—a difficulty which both men also face in their day-to-day lives—I believe the confusion arises from the coupling of a constantly renewed experience of arrival at the start of each new dance, and the reality of risk present in physical contact with another person. For a man, the risk lies more in one’s reputation as a dancer[ii] while for the woman, there is a risk not only to their reputation as a dancer, but also their moral value on a basic human level. Just as Meneley observed how gold held significant symbolic capitol in Yemeni society beyond just economic value, a woman’s reputation in the salsa world is valuable and will benefit her—meaning, she will be respected and will be asked to dance more—when she is modest and withholding rather than easy, accessible, “someone who will dance with anyone” (Cruz).
The line between romantic physical contact and frivolous dancing, free of intentions, is so effectively blurred (or abolished) in salsa due to the inherently liminal nature of the practice. The examination of such confusions and missed connections in the sphere of salsa dancing in New York City is perhaps most valuable because of its reflection of similar confusions that we encounter in everyday life, though I would caution the reader to not assume an exact correlation of salsa’s value system to that of New York City’s as a whole. Perhaps this study can serve as a tool to extend our awareness of such liminal spaces in our everyday interactions.
[i] I focus mostly on Lawrence, Hector and Achiko in this paper for the sake of space, though I also met up with an organizer and teacher named Marlon, as well as Juan, Jeremy, and others. Rarely would I be going to a club to meet a girl; this happened only once, at Caché, when I was going to meet Jessica. That night neither one of us had a great dance or connection with anyone in particular, and at the end of the night she expressed her dissatisfaction to me with a groan, saying, “Why are there no good men? I’m never coming here again.” She returned to Caché the following week without me.
[ii] Through conversation with my friends, it became clear how much a man’s pride and perceived symbolic value lay in their ability to keep their reputation in tact: “I’ve only had a woman leave me on the floor mid-dance one time, only once. Other guys, it happens all the time, but, you know, people like to dance with me, I’m a strong lead” (Cruz)