Introductory caveat 1: People often complain about the appropriation of sensual bachata and the like. I am referring to the whole “sensual bachata isn’t bachata” debate. 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.
Introductory caveat 2: I love bachata. This article is not a critique of the dance as a whole. 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.
This is for a lot of reasons, but perhaps most of all that the community has grown rapidly and in specific ways that I find unpleasant.
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.
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:
First, there are the movements. Plain and simple – they are often sexual. Of course sensual moves do not have to be executed in a sexual way, or one does not have to choose to do the more sexual variants offered up on YouTube – 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. It’s not appropriate 100% of the time. During Pablo Alboran’s Perdoname (this is arguably one of the sweetest and most romantic bachata songs), for example, 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. This bothers me so much. 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, lambazouk and kizomba [though not swing] – but I would argue that bachata has accelerated its demand for sexiness in recent years).
Promoters in the scene are not necessarily to blame for this. They’re trying to make it. 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. You’re “sexy.” I know.
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.
Objectification is super real in this dance.
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.
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 vast majority of bachata leaders who focus on performance but aren’t famous yet are even worse. The thing is, with all the focus on looking and being cool, often the literal best parts of a dance (connection, communication, togetherness) are left in the dust.
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 and full of people eager to show off or be sexy, it’s simply multiplied. I wish to be clear that we find egregious drunkenness and after parties in all the scenes. But bachata dancers often 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.
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. That is, in bachata today, people don’t seem to care much about connection and communication. They seem to care more about sexiness and looking cool.
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 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 in bachata find ways to actively invite this kind of communication. But the number who do compared to other dances is vanishingly small. Because of the focus on executing cool sensual moves, bachata is nowadays a dance in which you have certain moves you lead and follow, without much space for play and creativity.
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.
There are some incredibly talented leaders, instructors, promoters, performers, men, women, genders of all varieties in bachata, with extraordinary respect, care, integrity, and dignity in their dancing. They will continue to exist. I hope their representation grows in number.
I have also written a post about sexism in dance communities. This applies to all dance communities, 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.