Bachata

First things first: many people could read this post and say, HEY I SAW YOU OUT LAST WEEK.

Yes! I still like to dance bachata. But I now do it once in a while instead of every other day, so this is a pretty big change for me.

Second, I wish to be clear that bachata remains both my favorite Afro-Latin music and my favorite Afro-Latin dance (well, mambo may be tied for first these days). From the spiciest traditional to the slowest and most lyrical remix, I enjoy it all. I have a deep love for this dance that I feel, at it’s best, is romantic, is playful, is relaxing, is exciting, is intimate, and is respectful all at the same time.

Unfortunately, I find that bachata is rarely at it’s best, or near it, for me any more.

I think that this has a lot to do with rapid growth in the community, and how this growth has happened.

This rapid growth is associated with several things: the proliferation of congresses and congress culture, the sensationalization of bachata in youtube videos, a focus on performance, and the rise and proliferation of sensual bachata. I do not mean to say that sensual bachata is entirely to blame for this – nor the instructors of sensualism – as it and they are not. But there’s a lot here that’s complexly interwoven. The growth of congresses and performance parts of the culture, for example, are very much related to the rise of sensual bachata.

People often complain about the appropriation of sensual bachata and the like. I think there are merits to both sides of the argument, and I won’t go into them here. I want to be clear that I don’t disparage sensual bachata in and of itself. I enjoy the movements, when executed well. When inclusive with a range of other styles and skillsets, sensual bachata moves can be a really great way to be musical and express different emotions in a dance.

That being said, this post is about the culture of bachata, how it has changed, and why I’m starting to lose interest in it. Here’s what has happened:

Sexualization

First, there are the movements. Plain and simple – they are often sexual. Of course they do not have to be executed in a sexual way, or one does not have to choose to do the more sexual variants – but they often are. To be clear, I don’t mind sexy moves. And I certainly don’t mind mutually desired intimacy. The leaders I dance with would be happy to attest to both of those things.

Yet sexy has a time and a place. During Pablo Alboran’s Perdoname (this is arguably one of the sweetest and most romantic bachata songs) I was once led in a move that required me to squat down to the ground and then stand up ass first with my leader standing behind me. Like, what?

What’s more, popular couples must look a particularly sexy way in order to be popular. Think of all the famous couples you know of. Are any of them not sexy, or do any of them not sexualize their dancing and their videos? (You could make similar arguments of salsa zouk and kizomba [though not swing] – but I would argue that bachata has accelerated its demand for sexiness in recent years).

The leaders in the scene are not necesarily to blame. Sex sells. It’s just unfortunate that it’s such a predominant component of selling bachata these days. Watching famous sensual bachata videos online is simultaneously for me super boring and pretty off putting. Yeah, I get it, you’re going to do a body roll and do one of those dramatic hand gestures and look at your leader like you want to eat him. I know.

-Objectification

While we’re talking about sex – and I will throughout the entirety of this post – let’s talk about the way women’s bodies are used.

Consider perhaps that move that  I discussed above, in which I had to ass stand up in front of my leader, while he just stood there and watched.

Consider perhaps dipping a woman and staring at her tits while she can’t see you do it.

Consider perhaps going to a workshop by Andrea and Silvia, in which the workshop is basically objectifying sex joke after objectifying sex joke.

-Self-aggrandizement

The current bachata culture is one of self-aggrandizement if I’ve ever seen one. Obviously, of course, as an instructor or a couple trying to make it in the bachata scene, you have to promote yourself. I respect the effort this takes immensely. I really do.

Nevertheless, I find the atmosphere that competitions bring to bachata in general to be kind of toxic. It encourages people to focus on building up their image before building up the quality of their dancing. People often begin training to perform without being good social dancers, develop egos about their dancing without having social dancing skills, and walk around like male peacocks – proud of their flashy feathers but having more awkward movement because of them.

Focus on appearances over communication

Bachata looks pretty cool to a lot of people. This is certainly the case for sensual bachata, though performance teams and couples typically integrate more “traditional” music and dance into the second half of their performances. (There was a video I tried to link to to demonstrate why I put traditional in air quotes but it appears to have been taken down, perhaps in light of all of the disparaging comments it elicited in terms of how much it deviated from true traditions.)

When dancers compete as a couple or join a performance team – which a huge number of people interested in bachata do – they often focus on the way a dance looks or the moves it has as opposed to how it feels. I wrote about this problem for performance teams at great length in this blog post, so I won’t belabor the point too much here. I will say this: the majority of “famous” bachata leaders I have danced with are atrociously rough. The thing is, with all the focus on looking and being cool, often the literal best parts of a dance (connection, communication) are left in the dust.

-Party atmosphere

I readily acknowledge that  all dance scenes have parties. Lots of parties. But I would argue that there’s something particularly party-centric about bachata today.

This has to do with growth of the scene, for one.

I also think it has to do with the fact that the new bachata crowd – the sensual crowd – is by and large a fair bit younger than other dance crowds.

The youthful, kind of reckless enthusiasm of bachata parties feels a lot like a frat house to me. This was always the case, but now that the scene has grown so much, and become so young, it’s simply multiplied. I wish to be clear that we find egregious drunkenness and after parties in all the scenes. But bachata dancers like to party so much they organize enormous pre- and after- parties even months before the event. In fact, I think this is a pretty big draw of bachata. Many people enjoy it simply for the burgeoning congress culture of going to a new city and being super lit all weekend. This is fine, I guess, I’m just not into it, and too old (emotionally) to be bothered.

-Inconsiderate crowd

The other night I was at a bachata social. I stood by the wall a lot and watched. I found myself growing increasingly agitated and disappointed by what I was seeing.

Elbows were flying, leaders were leading big moves without looking behind themselves, people were walking through the dancefloor disrupting various couples’ dances without seeming to care in the slightest.

Of course – again – you can find this in any dance scene, and especially if you go to the more clubby venues or congresses.

But I will say that I think that more experienced dancers tend to develop a more considerate ethos. Sensual bachata has simply brought in an influx of people who haven’t been around that long, so they don’t know better.  I also think that people who are drawn to the more party-oriented or sex-chasing components of this developing scene have a bit less consideration than those who join dance for different reasons. There is a small difference between bachata and other dances in this regard (people are self-absorbed everywhere), but I think the difference is real.

More disrespectful men

Unfortunately, I think the image of bachata nowadays and the potential for physical intimacy, sensuality, and sexuality of it all draws more men who are interested in specifically sexual connection and hooking up  than some of the other dances.

Of course – we find this in all dance communities. And if it’s done respectfully (not altogether often, at least in my experience), I’m cool with it. I have plenty of my own experience experimenting with it. But I find that the more intimate dances, and the more sensual they become over time, the more people it attracts who are in it for the sensuality alone.

The proportion of men in the bachata scene who have obnoxiously propositioned me (out of the blue, without any understanding or seeming care for who I am as a person, with their own pleasure or conquest in mind), is a fair bit higher than in, say, salsa, or swing.

-Lack of clear understanding of  boundaries, or willingness to communicate about them

Given that sensual bachata is a more intimate and sensual dance, I think it causes many people, and particularly men, to presume that they can initiate more intimate contact without any real grounds on which to do so.

In other words, many people think that just because someone is having  a sexy dance with them, that they can take sexual liberties with this person.

I cannot remember the last time I went to a bachata event and was not kissed on the lips, entirely uninvited, by at least one leader. I cannot remember. It’s a regular occurrence, and often more than one guy a night.

-Less active communication and playfulness from leaders

In a culture in which people are a bit more moves-oriented than others, in terms of its emphasis on competitions and performance teams, it’s sort of a given that there will be less freedom and flexibility in terms of which moves are executed.

I do not mean to disparage bacahta specifically (or sensual bachata) in this regard (though I will say traditional bachata often has a playfulness that sensual bachata does not).

Instead, I would like to elevate other dances that I think do the creative-communicating bit better than bachata: lambada is pretty good at it; salsa can be extraordinary at it (if you find the right dancers); west coast swing is almost always extraordinary at it.

I have found over time that I thrive off of this sort of communication. I find it intellectually stimulating. I find it emotionally compelling. I find it fun. I find that I get to be listened to and heard, and danced with rather than danced at.  I call people who lead and follow in this style “co-creators.” A very small number of leaders find ways to actively invite this kind of communication. But the number who do compared to other dances is vanishingly small, enough so that, I find I experience much better intimacy (of the emotional, intellectual, personal, sort) in other dances.

What this all means

This doesn’t mean much. I know very well that I am just talking quietly into the void. Bachata will be what bachata will be, whether I protest certain elements of it or not. I think that over time some of these hiccups will settle themselves, others may need some work, and others will probably be the same for a long time.

I have also written a post about sexism in dance communities. This applies to bachata and to other communities as well, and I think it’s highly relevant to discussions like this one.

All of which is to say, these are the reasons I’m not really into bachata much these days. It’s a shame, because I love the dance. Fortunately, the London salseros have picked up the slack, and then some.

I would, as always, be eminently excited by and grateful for your thoughts.

 

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This is the third post in a series devoted to honing particular dance skills. As I explained in the first post on Kizomba, I have found that adding new dances to my repertoire always increases my abilities in the rest of the dances I do. This is because each dance has its own set of specific skills it specializes in more than the others. But each of these skills is still useful in every dance.

I have discussed kizomba and zouk previously. Today we cover bachata … first in general and then “traditional” and “sensual” where they diverge.

Bachata, general

Body sensitivity and isolations

Bachata is an excellent dance for working on the subtlety of your following. Leads are often extremely gentle and nuanced, which calls you to a higher level of following, particularly in your torso.

Torso flexibility and fluidity / smoothness (and body rolls)

Bachata and kizomba are both great dances for working on receptivity in your torso. Bachata is particularly good for enhancing the range of motion and fluidity of torso movement. The range of motion is simply greater than in kizomba. Because of htis, additional strength is required in bachata. The combination of enhanced range of motion, flexibility, and strength results in a much more fluid and responsive torso.

Romantic enagement

I think romance is a legit skill that can be learned and practiced. Bachata is often a very romantic dance – and while doing it you have the opportunity to explore different ways to express yourself romantically with your body.

You can play with your hand on your leaders shoulders, neck, and head, can trace your hand along the line of your leader’s back or arms, can work on different hand holds, and can experiment with the way that different ways of touching heads (on the side, titled, head on) feels. There is a lot of variety here and bachata can make you a pro at it.

Bachata, “traditional” or “Dominican”

Footwork

“Dominican bachata” is well-known as a dance for footwork. 

This is true – it’s a great dance for experimenting with your feet and the varying instruments and beats in the music. Dominican bachata has a lot of distinct musical riffs that are rich, fertile ground for play.

These songs are usually quite long… so knock yourself out.

Frame connectivity and footwork following

Dominican bachata, more so than perhaps any of the latin social dances, requires good frame connectivity.

This dance is often danced in open position. But it is still a led dance. For that reason, your frame needs to be well connected from your hands up through your lats, pecs and shoulders, and down into your torso. From there you send the signal to your feet, and you can (though you don’t necessarily have to) mirror or complement the footwork that your partner is doing. You will be pulled, pushed, and rotated in often complex patterns.

Dominican bachata is an excellent dance – perhaps the best of all the social latin dances – to work on sutbleties in the connection in your hands and frame.

(For more on frame connectivity, see TPF001: Frame Basics and TPF004: Advanced Frame Theory and Tips)

Bachata, sensual

There are a lot of kinds of movements relatively unique to sensual bachata. A lot of sensual bachata does come from zouk, as many will be quick to point out, but I also think it comes a lot from people just playing around with different body parts within the bachata rhythm (and sexually so). Bachata has traditionally been a relatively simple dance, so it is ripe for jazzing up with fancy moves.

Foot Sweeps

Sensual bachata is all about foot sweeps these days. What’s a foot sweep? It’s when the leader kicks the followers foot with their own foot to move it to a new position on the floor.

Great foot sweeps come from always being centered over a foot and having excellent balance on that single foot. A great frame and connection with your leader can always support you while the sweep is happening.

rib cage isolations; head isolations; shoulder isolations; ISOLATIONS

Sensual bachata isolates just about every body part that can be isolated.

Shoulders are grabbed and moved independently, arms are flung out to the side and expected to be handled gracefully; heads are rolled standing in place; rib movements are isolated; hips can be grabbed and moved with just one hand.

Stillness

A part of what all of these isolations mean is that the rest of the body needs to be still. Sensual bachata is great for this.

 

Unorthodox body positions

Sensual bachata has some moves in it these days that you can’t really find in any other dance. For example, a leader will often press a follower down to the floor, so that her butt touches her heels. The follower could be spun out of this, leapt out of this, or popped to standing, then body rolled out of this.

Sensual bachata is the only dance in which my torso has been bent over to be parallel with the floor, my arms pulled behind my back, and then whipped around spinning into a standing position. I was super suprised the first time I was led in this, and even more surprised that I managed to make it work.

So this makes sensual bachata really great for expanding the range of your body and kinds of leads you’ll follow.

Ladies styling

I find ladies styling in sensual bachata to be a bit narcissistic, which I find obnoxious. But if you want to learn how to flaunt your own body and moves, sensual bachata has plenty of material for you to work with.

 

So that’s it for my list of bachata specific skills. Obviously there are lots of other great things you can learn from bachata – but these are the ones least commonly found in other dances.

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