Aleysia Whitmore

Brown University

December 2008

 

Finding a Place to Dance: Contextualizing Salsa in Two Providence Night Clubs

 

A genre with Afro-diasporic roots, salsa was developed by Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in New York in the 1960s. These communities were marginalized socially and economically as they were often viewed as racially colored and unemployment was common, especially following the economic collapse of the 1970s (Flores 146). As a result, salsa became a genre that expressed these communities’ experiences with violence and poverty in the barrios in which they lived, as well as their cultural identities. Salsa also represented and expressed resistance to the hegemonic American culture and assimilation into this culture. Soon spreading to Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela, salsa became an expression of the marginalized barrio experience in all of these countries. The genre thus became transnational, but also specifically translocal, as a person living in a barrio in Puerto Rico could easily identify with the experiences described in a song about barrio life in New York. Willie Colon’s song “Calle Luna, Calle Sol,” for example, is about a violent experience in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, but it is written such that the event it describes could be identified as having taken place in any barrio (Santos Febres 183-184). The barrio became a deterritorialized meta-barrio shared through the common experiences of immigration, discrimination, violence, language, and cultural clashes (Washburne 7). Salsa thus cut “across national boundaries to create a community of urban locations" (Santos Febres 180).

Thus, at first salsa was the music of a translocal “community ... of entendidos” who could understand and relate to its exclusively Spanish lyrics (Santos Febres 184). As salsa spread throughout the Americas and more Latinos from different parts of Latin America migrated to New York, salsa developed into an expression of pan-Latin identity and its performance became a way for diverse communities to show pan-Latin solidarity. Salsa music and dance became “performative constructions of Latinidad” (Washburne 7). Salsa has since been taken up all over the world by both Latinos and non-Latinos. The Japanese salsa band Orquesta de la Luz, consisting exclusively of Japanese musicians, has gained worldwide recognition for its excellent imitation of the American tradition, while taking on more universal topics such as peace, love, and ecology (Hosokawa 293).

 In Senegal, musicians have taken up salsa, adopting it to their culture by incorporating Senegalese musical elements into the music and singing in Wolof (Shain). Here is a clip of the Senegalese group Orquesta Baobab:

Salsa has also been taken up in places like New York and London by non-Latinos who have popularized salsa dance lessons and assimilated salsa into a dance culture that values virtuosity (Urquia 110; Roman-Velazquez). Wherever people take up salsa they practice the music and dance in different ways that reflect the genre’s new context.

This paper explores how salsa has been adopted and recontextualized to create a unique scene in Providence, Rhode Island. Examining the salsa dance scene at popular salsa nights in two Providence clubs, the paper looks at continuities that exist between the clubs as they celebrate the same music and dance, but also at how their different locations, venues, music, and missions affect the crowds that they attract and the way participants interact and enjoy salsa within the two clubs. Although they are both dedicated to salsa, Latin Jazz and Salsa Night at the Black Rep, and Salsa on Sundays at Platforms exemplify the different ways in which salsa has become a genre that incorporates diverse practices depending on where, for whom, and by whom it is practiced. A “cultural institution dedicated to making an artistic, social, and political impact,” the Providence Black Repertory Company “produces and presents artistic performances inspired by the cultural traditions of the African Diaspora that bring people together, provoke thought, inspire hope, and create understanding” (Providence Black Repertory Company).  The Black Rep thus caters to an educated and socially conscious audience. Using a multi-functional space in the upscale Providence downtown, the Black Rep distinguishes its salsa night with live music, a dress code, and a venue whose layout was not meant to accommodate dance as the central activity. In contrast, Platforms, with no mission statement, is a more traditional dance club that is simply trying to make a profit. Situated in an industrial area empty at night save for Cheater’s strip club, it provides a layout emphasizing the centrality of dance, has a cheaper cover, laid back attitudes towards dress, and uses recorded music. This study will look at how salsa’s transnational musical culture is distinct to these places while providing continuity across contexts with standard dance practices and common expressions of Latinidad.  After discussing my fieldwork, I will discuss the two venues, and then the music, dance, and people in the clubs. Lastly, I will look at how these clubs are significantly different, and what commonalities exist across these contexts.

 

Fieldwork in Providence

A salsa dancer with modest dancing skills, I have become a regular at both of these clubs. I go out every Wednesday and Sunday night to dance and socialize with dancers of different backgrounds. Because I am not Latin American, at first only Anglo-American men would ask me to dance. After a few months I have integrated myself into the scene to the point that now I am able to dance with almost anyone at the clubs. Thus, although my status as a marked outsider has affected my research and the people who will talk to and dance with me, I have been able to make significant steps into the scene to the point that, although I am still a marked outsider, I have gained some degree of insider status through my dancing competence and by being a friendly regular.

In the 2000 United States Census, 30% of Providence’s population of 173,618 identified themselves as being of Hispanic or Latino origin (U.S. Census Bureau). Thus, in 2000 there were over 52,000 people of Hispanic or Latino origin in Providence, a population that grew by 27,000 in the 1990s (The Providence Plan). There is a Spanish-language newspaper, a radio station, Hispanic business organizations, and various festivals celebrating pan-Latino culture as well as traditions from specific countries (Rimix.com). There are also several clubs playing salsa, bachata, merengue, and reggaeton in Providence and the surrounding area, providing at least one venue every night of the week. Although I have not found a club that is devoted to music of Latin American origin every night of the week, it is not uncommon for a club to have one ‘salsa’ or ‘Latin’ night a week featuring salsa, merengue, bachata, cha cha cha, bolero, and reggaeton.[1]  The two clubs I focused on in my research were both clubs that played ‘Latin’ music one night a week.

 

The Venues

Platforms

Making the trip to each club is a starkly different experience. The ride to Platforms transports the traveler to the middle of a practically deserted industrial area of Providence, filled with huge dark buildings and parking lots. The only lights come from the local strip clubs like the infamous ‘Cheater’s’ club, a bright pink building whose parking lot is always busy. Platforms is removed from the main street by a huge dark parking lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence. I have been told many times not to walk alone at night in the area. Women do not even like walking from the parking lot to the club, often asking a friend to accompany them. The club itself occupies a smaller building designated by a small sign, a few lights, and a curious red siren light. The first time I saw the club, I couldn’t believe that there was life inside.

Here is a clip from the salsa night at Platforms:

Once inside, Platforms is obviously a dance club and bar. The cover is always $5 at the door, IDs are rarely, if ever, checked, and there is a $1 coat check available. The wooden dance floor is in the center of club, accented by a disco ball and moving spotlight of all different colors and shapes. Speakers accentuate the four corners of the floor. Surrounding the floor are various tables and stools. Along the length of one wall is the bar, lined with chairs. Lining the other wall is a raised platform housing a couch and a booth for the DJ looking out onto the dance floor. As long as it is not a slow night, the dance floor is crowded during the club’s peak hours of 9:30pm to midnight. The chairs around the bar are usually filled with men and a few women drinking, socializing and observing the dance floor. The tables closer to the dance floor are rarely very populated, as they are often claimed by people who dance the most, spending their time on the dance floor instead of drinking with friends. Often the people sitting or standing around these tables are waiting to be asked to dance, or are looking for a partner.  It is common to see the same groups of people converging upon the same spaces around the floor every week.

 

The Black Rep

In contrast to Platforms, the Black Rep is situated in the middle of downtown Providence, in a nice-looking business neighborhood where, although parking can be hard to come by, it is not unsafe to walk to one’s car a block away, and I even biked there and back to my house several times. A flag and a sign indicate its presence outside while floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the street provide an inviting spectacle that draws people into the club.

Upon entering, IDs are often checked, and hands stamped. The cover has gone from $7 to $10 to $5 as the owners have debated what the most competitive fee would be, eventually deciding that, considering other clubs usually charge at most $5 in Providence, they would not survive with a $10 cover. There is also a clearly posted dress code that the club just recently instituted, makings collared shirts and dress shoes obligatory for men. The club itself is a chic multi-functional venue with nice furniture and subtle lighting. Latin Jazz and Salsa night is only one of the several regular programs the Black Rep offers, as it not only accommodates dancing, drinking and socializing, but also concerts and theater performances. Thus there is not a dance floor central to the layout of the club. There are two dance floors separated by the bar as well as a couch and chairs. The larger dance floor is in the back of the club in front of the stage from which the salsa band performs. Facing the stage on the other side of the dance floor are chairs and tables. Much smaller than the first, the second dance floor is in the front of the club, looking out onto the street. On one side of the floor is the DJ, on the other the bar. The other two walls are lined with lounge chairs and a grand piano. Spectators and those looking for a dance partner place themselves between the two dance floors, around the bar, and at the tables facing the stage.

 

The Music, the Dance, and the People

The Black Rep

The music at the Black Rep is at first attractive, as Carlos de Leon and his band Clave Logic provide live music every Wednesday. Here is a clip:

After a few weeks, however, it becomes evident that the band plays the same songs every week. The majority of their songs are not salsa, merengue, and bachata, the most popular dance forms, but are instead often cha cha cha and bolero. Regular dancers complain about the lack of innovation and the lack of good salsa songs at the club. One dancer decried “these old men don’t know how to learn new songs..they just take their breaks to practice the same ones.” Another exclaimed in frustration during a cha cha cha, “give me a good salsa.” Most dancers will not dance cha cha cha as it is a genre considered to be for older people. I was once told “that is what my mother would dance.” Bolero is an intimate dance that I’ve been told is really “only for boyfriend and girlfriend” where the dancers have to comfortable with each other, and move slowly without strict rules to the steps or rhythmic back-up from the music. No matter how few people dance these songs, the band insists on playing the same ones every night. They seem to have a lot of job security as the club is always full, and only the more seasoned salsa dancers complain. The DJ, playing during the band’s breaks and after their last set is a welcome reprieve, moving smoothly between salsa, merengue, and bachata, and incorporating the popular and more recent hits into the mix.

Because it is so accessible, the Black Rep attracts diverse patrons. The club is conveniently located downtown, safe to get to and easy to find, it is well known, respected for the many programs it provides, and there are organized lessons for beginners at the start of the night. The venue thus attracts both those who are avid dancers and go to clubs just to dance, as well as those who are just looking to go clubbing, get a drink, or check out what salsa is. College students and young urban professionals looking for a fun night out often make up a sizable proportion of patrons. As the Black Rep offers live music, there are a number of these people that go just to see the band, listen to the music, and watch the dancers. A large contingent goes to the salsa lessons prior to the start of the dance and live music. The dance instructor is friendly and attentive, catering to the beginners to the more advanced by teaching a variety of moves, and helping the couples practice by moving easily from female to male dancing roles depending on what and to whom she is trying to teach. The Black Rep also attracts regular patrons who hang out and socialize at the club on any night regardless of the act. Thus at the Black Rep there are three categories of patrons: those dancers who go specifically because it is a salsa club, college students and professionals simply experimenting with something new or looking for a fun clubbing experience, and Black Rep regulars for whom the venue acts as a social club.

Most people who go to the lessons leave early in the night, leaving the dance floor to the more experienced dancers as they arrive later. Those who are casual clubbers or who are just experimenting with salsa sometimes dance in whatever style they feel like dancing, unconcerned with the rules of the dance. Often Black Rep regulars, for whom the Black Rep is a social club, do not dance at all.

Because it attracts such a diverse crowd, the level of dancing often varies significantly from one dancer to the next. People who go to the Black Rep every Wednesday to dance salsa form a core group of dancers who separate themselves from the casual dancers or clubbers. The members of this core ‘salsa’ group can be found at Platforms and the Black Rep. They often know each other and only dance with one other. In order to break into this group and get asked to dance, I needed to prove that I was not a casual college student by becoming a regular at the club and by dancing with good dancers, thus showing that I was not a simple tourist in for a quick look. Within this group, however, there are separations, as there are several virtuosic dancers, social dancers, and those who fall in the grey area between these categories. The virtuosic dancers, many of whom are salsa instructors, often only dance with each other. There are social dancers who are almost exclusively of Latin American origin who dance to talk to and meet people, and enjoy themselves. The vast majority of dancers simultaneously dance in order to socialize and enjoy each other’s company while performing, and getting better at dancing.

 

Platforms

As it attracts such diverse patrons, there are normally fewer accomplished salsa dancers at the Black Rep as compared to Plaforms. An intermediate dancer, I am always in high demand at the Black Rep, being asked to dance practically every song. In contrast, I am often left a lone for a few dances at Platforms, as the crowd is filled with competent dancers. Platforms attracts many of the dance crowd from the Black Rep, but also draws dancers who do not frequent the Black Rep. There are many reasons for this discrepancy. Because it is difficult to get to and out of the way, Platforms does not attract casual patrons who are simply looking for a club for a good night out. People go to Platforms because they are specifically looking for a salsa club. A reason an informant gave me for dancers’ preference from Platforms was that the dance scene at the Black Rep was inferior, attracting too many people who do not know how to dance salsa. At Platforms, the vast majority of people go to the club to dance salsa. Even though the venue is shabbier, and there is no enforced dress code, and as long as it isn’t a slow night, the dance floor is full for every song with decent dancers. The dancers seem to appreciate the music more at Platforms, as Platforms employs DJs who play mostly salsa, along with a number of meregnues and bachatas, forgoing the older and less popular cha cha chas and boleros.

Platforms is less exclusive as the cover is cheaper and the dress is not as important. The club does, however, attract a seemingly more exclusive dance crowd. Although most people at Platforms are decent dancers, there is still separation among the dancers. At Platforms there are also virtuosic dancers who only dance with a select few as well as some who recognize that they are only good at dancing with one or a couple partners. Groups of less accomplished or avid dancers go to Platforms, but they are less numerous and visible. There is a contingent of dancers who are learning and who go to the lessons preceding the official start of the dancing, but these lessons draw many fewer people than the Black Rep’s lessons. They are not as formal, the teacher varies his time of arrival, and he only helps the men, using the women as partners with whom men can try out new moves. There are also people who go to Platforms in order to socialize, but they often spend their night at the bar. I’ve met a few men from Mexico who never learned to dance salsa, but like going to the salsa club with friends who do dance, having a drink, and watching the dancers. These people often remain unremarkable to dancers, as they never claim space on the floor.

 

A Synthesis: Differences and Commonalities

Differences

Although both the Latin Jazz and Salsa Night at Black Rep and Salsa on Sundays at Platforms advertise themselves as salsa nights celebrating the same musical genre and dance, the way in which the music and dance is practiced differs as a result of the venue, music, and patrons who frequent the clubs. Platforms attracts a primarily Latin American crowd, who are not only intent on dancing with good dancers but also enjoy hanging out in a club where they are the cultural hosts and Spanish is the dominant language. It also attracts dancers who are not of Latin American origin but who are looking for a good place to dance salsa with decent music, a dance floor, and a good selection of partners. Although Latin Americans are still cultural hosts at the Black Rep, the club makes itself much more accessible to the general population in Providence attracting both regulars to the cultural institution as well as who might stumble upon the salsa night in their wanderings around downtown, or might have gone to the Black Rep for other arts-related activities and heard of the salsa night in passing or from friends. As a result of its accessibility and attachment to a well-known cultural institution, salsa night at the Black Rep attracts a more diverse clientele that goes there not only to dance, but also to enjoy the club in a more general sense.

 

Commonalities

Despite their differences, there is a degree of continuity of practice between the two clubs. Both create a space to dance salsa that is “cued and set apart in a formalized fashion from the participants’ daily lives” (Washburne 64). Creating personas unique to the club, some patrons use the space and dance as a way to “experience a frisson of "illicit" sexuality in a safe, socially protected and proscribed way...The dance then becomes a socially sanctioned way of expressing or experiencing sexuality” (Desmond 48). Although some of my informants have denounced the sexuality expressed on the dance floor as ruining the nature of the dance, it is clear that many dancers do assume an identity in which they emphasize their sexuality. Some women feel comfortable dressing in sexually suggestive ways that they would not otherwise adopt, and married men adopt bachelor personae for a night. One woman told be that at times she likes dressing in a manner that makes her feel “hot” because the salsa club is one of the few places she can express herself in this way. Dance also allows for a release mentally, as the “intense use of the body, dancing in accordance with patterned rhythms, and at times induces an altered state of consciousness” (Fonarow 171). Many dancers seem to experience a merging of the mind and body, as they do not think but instead just move, creating a ‘flow’ experience in which they lose their ego while maintaining control over their bodies (Higgins 100).

Through their practice of the same music and dance genre, both salsa nights also celebrate a common Latin American culture and identity. Most people in the clubs, both non-Latin Americans and Latin Americans, recognize salsa as a pan-Latin cultural expression belonging to Latin Americans. Several Latin American informants have told me that having an understanding of the music that allows the dancer to express and perform the music’s meaning is extremely important, and marks a good dancer. Thus, as the music is sung almost exclusively in Spanish, dancing salsa well is clearly tied to an understanding of Spanish. The dancers who understand the music on this deeper level differentiate themselves from the many beginners or non-Latin Americans who dance the same way to diverse songs, treating the music as “a background metronome” (Hosokawa 291).

For many dancers it is clear that dancing salsa is an intimate part of their culture and life experiences. One dancer of Puerto Rican descent was mildly surprised when I asked how she learned to dance, as she had never formally learned, but had grown up dancing as parties and at home. While some dancers of Latin American background have grown up with salsa, others have learned salsa more recently, as salsa dancing is not popular in many countries and regions in Latin America. Although the dance may not be practiced in all of Latin America, salsa music is widespread. Thus, Latin Americans not familiar with the dance form are often familiar with the music. As a result, these people often take up salsa dancing and claim it as their own, as “dancing salsa [is]…tied to knowledge of Spanish and experience of the Latin American culture in the broadest sense” (Urquia 110).

The lyrics and music address specifically Latin American life experiences and cultural sensibilities. The clubs play both salsa dura songs, expressing themes of marginalization and barrio life, and salsa romantica songs, a genre that melds American pop, hip hop, and other genres with salsa, expressing experiences of second and third generation (im)migrants (Washburne 25). Salsa in Providence maintains its status in Providence clubs as “an ‘international’ or ‘foreign’ genre within the U.S. market” that resists the American cultural hegemony as it continues to express a the cultural identities and life experiences of a group of people that is still discriminated against and whose members take up many of the low-paying jobs in the United States (Waxer 9).  However, many non-Latin Americans and middle-class Latin American professionals also go to dance, have fun, explore an exotic culture, or simply express their cultural identity. Diverse participants go to the clubs for different reasons and participate in a variety of ways.   

As diverse views and voices dance side by side in new contexts, they interact, allowing for different identities and meanings to forms around salsa dancing. Dancers judge each other in different ways, exemplifying the various ways that people define what ‘good dancing’ entails. Some disdain the way dancers concentrate on complex moves instead of the social aspect of the dance, others complain about the exclusivity some dancers exhibit in their dancing with a few dancers, and some view certain dance styles as less authentic or correct. People of different styles and backgrounds dance with each other, sometimes finding an unlikely partnership, and at times encountering an incompatible one. Although dancers interact in two clubs that express contrasting missions and attract different crowds, both clubs provide a space in which Latin Americans are the hosts of the club and claim ownership to salsa while graciously inviting others in. Each club creates a context that interacts with the music and diverse crowds, affecting the meaning that salsa has and the identities that dancers and musicians negotiate and perform.

 

Conclusion

Providing a familiar context, lessons, and live music that might draw anyone interested in seeing a concert, the Black Rep tries to make salsa accessible to a wide population of dancers and non-dancers, Latin Americans and non-Latin Americans. Because salsa night at the Black Rep is so popular, always drawing new crowds to check out the scene, the club sticks with its presentation of salsa for those interested in a casual ‘tourist’ experience. The club has no need change their formula from week to week, paying the same band to play the same exact music every Wednesday. Because it caters to outsiders and lacks innovation, the Black Rep is thus seen by some` patrons of Platforms as less authentic. It fails to create a space that allows for the counter hegemonic and anti-assimilationist nature of salsa to exist in full and be the dominant for it to be a strong part of the Latinidad expressed in the club. Platforms, with its lower cover, lax attitude towards dress and admittance, and out-of-the-way location allows for this expression to exist and for Latin American culture to be the uncontested host and dominant culture. Most dancers are of Latin American origin and few outsiders or ‘tourists’ visit the venue. Most non-Latin Americans at Platforms have a respect for salsa and its Latin American origins, as many have become good dancers and spent a long time learning the dance. Thus, Latin Americans define the dance and the culture at Platforms. Although one finds common expressions of Latinidad in both clubs, the way in which Latinidad is presented and viewed varies depending on the context that the club provides.

 

Works Cited

Desmond, Jane C. "Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies." Cultural Critique Winter, 1993-1994.No. 26 (1993): 33-63.

 

Flores, Juan. From Bomba to Hip Hop. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

 

Fonarow, Wendy. Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Ritual of British Indie Music. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2006.

 

Higgins, Kathleen Marie. "Musical Idiosyncracy and Perspectival Listening."  Music and Meaning. Ed. Jenefer Robinson. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997. 83-105.

 

Hosokawa, Shuhei. "Salsa No Tiene Fronteras: Orquesta De La Luz and the Globalization of Popular Music."  Situating Salsa. Ed. Lise Waxer. vols. New York: Routledge, 2002. 289-311.

 

"Rimix.Com Electronic Latin Yellow Pages".  2008. 11/20/2008. <http://www.rimix.com/index2.php>.

 

Roman-Velazquez, Patria. The Making of Latin London: Salsa Music, Place and Identity. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999.

 

Santos Febres, Mayra. "Salsa as Translocation."  Everynight Life. Ed. Celeste and Jose Esteban Munoz Fraser Delgado. London: Duke University Press, 1997. 175-88.

 

Shain, Richard M. "Roots in Reverse: Cubanismo in Twentieth-Century Senegalese Music." The International Journal of African Historical Studies 35.1 (2002): 83-101.

 

The Providence Black Repertory Company. "About the Black Rep".  2008. 11/20/2008. <www.blackrep.org>.

 

The Providence Plan. "People and Demographics".  2008. 11/20/2008. <http://provplan.org/Matriarch/MultiPiecePage.asp?PageID=54&PageName=InfoDataPeopleDemographics>.

 

Urquia, Norman. "“Doin’ It Right”: Contested Authenticity in London’s Salsa Scene."  Music Scenes: Local, Translocal, and Virtual. Ed. Andy Bennett and Richard A. Peterson. 96-112.

 

U.S. Census Bureau. "Providence, Rhode Island".  2000. 11/20/2008. <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/44/4459000.html>.

 

Washburne, Christopher. Sounding Salsa: Performing Latin Music in New York City. . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

 

Waxer, Lise. "Situating Salsa."  Situating Salsa. Ed. Lise Waxer. New York: Routledge, 2002. 3-22.

 



[1] Cha cha cha is a Cuban dance form that emerged in the 1950s. It is now not as popular as newer forms such as salsa, merengue, and bachata. Bolero developed in Cuba in the 19th century. It is a slow rhythmic dance that is also less popular today. Merengue emerged in the 19th century and bachata developed in the 1970s. They are both dance forms from the Dominican Republic that are commonly heard in ‘Latin’ dance clubs in any city, and are very popular. Reggaeton is a dance genre developed in the 1990s. Its influences include reggae, dancehall, salsa, merengue, bachata, pop, rap, R&B and electronica.