Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: Bolero and Bachata (Part 2)

Whilst I personally agree that Tito Rodríguez, Daniel Santos, and Vincentico Valdés sing heart-moving boleros, if one is unable to discern the lyrical content, then are bachata and bolero equals?

I feel it's necessary to ask this since they:
  • share a common ancestry, being descended from what is sometimes referred to as trova (troubadour) music in Cuba, and música de guitarra (guitar-based music) in Spanish Dominica*;
  • owe much to the work of one man - Sindo Garay;
  • rely on the martillo (hammer) rhythm of the bongó, not the conga, as their main propulsive element; and
  • are slow to mid-tempo, of broad sweeping phrases with a late attack.
The main difference, over that bolero was danced contratiempo (on2, accent4) whereas bachata is not (on1, accent4), and that the latter is slightly more up-tempo with a faster attack; is that bachata is what's happening now.

Each dance is of its time - that is the social, political, economic conditions must be right for it to thrive. For example, salsa would not likely have occurred in the courts of King Louis XIV despite the Sun King's penchant, nay, necessity for dance:
  1. Individual partner dances did not arise until later in the colonies, when plantation owners did so to express their independence from the crown. Until then, people kept step with one another in court.
  2. Military defeats in Islamic Africa and the fear of slave revolt led to suppression of influences from the 'heathen' Dark continent - including extensive syncopations and polyrhythms in music.
  3. Overt hip movements were considered lascivious and publicly indecent.
(Gawd! I'd've been thrown in the Bastille.) On the other hand, salsa arrived in Venezuela and Colombia right at a time when there was no indigenous expression for the cosmopolitanism their burgeoning cities were experiencing**. Bachata enjoys the dissemination rights of the Youtube Generation: globally reaching, and yet with its music and dance undivested of each other.

And as for the romantic musical expression, well... would people still dance to its soft soothing tones if bachatas de desparecio (thematically disparaging of women) were played? Maybe not in the Spanish-speaking countries, where women have begun to take some stand against similarly misogynistic expressions in reggaetón. But plenty of others are indifferent, and would dance anyway. They'd dance in Asia, oblivious. The attribute of being romantic would seem to owe its weight to music, with lyrical content as modifier. So how might one physically interpret this as a dancer?

The bolero does not have the same chequered past that the bachata has - its cultural history is clothed with more gentility and thematic consonance musically and lyrically. In places lived in by both, the bolero holds its own; described indicatively by Bosco as 'In America you play when the lights go down and the floor is packed with young and old alike.'

At least for now.

But are the people on that floor executing a series of movements to a rhythm; in a manner discrete enough to qualify as the ritmo of an actual genre? Or are they just shuffling about as they do in 'smoochie' sessions here? Could the latter form be the definition a social bolero - simply swaying to bolero music as opposed to dancing contratiempo? I suspect that the answer lies towards the easier end of in-between.

I got a hurry-up from him:


José María Bustos:
Hey, my man!? Check out my pics of the MWSC and when you have a minute try to reply to my question about why Asians don't dance boleros and do they in Europe? In NYC its the most romantic thing about Salsa!! Y gue Dio's te tenga en La Rumba! B.


Bro, I hope you've gotten your answer.

I myself can't say how long the grace of bolero will last in a space that bachata means to fill. With no premier bolero dancers of international repute to show us how, it can't be far away. But isn't it interesting to see how a cultural insider considers the bolero to be a part of salsa?

(On to Part Three.)

Loo Yen

*yes, a 'History of Bachata' is being planned for the salsa website.
** yes, there will be mention of this when I update the 'History of Salsa'

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Personal Journey With The Guaguancó: Basic Step

Something I bear foremost in my mind when understanding rumba is the significance of the rooster in Afro-Cuban culture. More than just a key source of protein in the Sub-Sahara, belief has it that a five-toed chicken was instrumental in raising land from water in the creation of the world. Thus much of the guaguancó as a pursuit-and-capture dance involves movements symbolising that of a gallo (rooster) circling around a gallina (hen).

I use the whole-part-whole approach as much as I can when instructing myself; one of self-education's greatest weaknesses is lack of context, so I do everything that I can to protect what little that's there; to preserve the validity of the exercises.

Eyeballing the demonstration of the basic step on the DVD, I observe that:
  1. it resembles (what I call) salsa's basic cucaracha step;
  2. the dance rhythm is complementary to that of the African drumming cycle, being what Europeans would describe as on1;
  3. the posture is a semi-inclined torso with softened knees;
  4. initiation of the basic is with a physical preparative drop of the body's centre of gravity on the verbal cue of 'y' [ Spanish for 'and'], functioning like a musical 'pick-up';
  5. foot placement is ball-flat, without rise, soft and deliberately percussive;
  6. weight distribution on the side step is 50/50, that is, weight is not fully committed onto the stepping foot;
  7. males: the head does not face the centre-line, but orients to the outward-stepping foot;
  8. males: the contra hand (opposite to the outward-stepping foot) is held on to centre-line as a loose fist, acting as counterweight;
  9. males: the hand on the same side of the outward-stepping foot is held to the hip where it impacts least on stability, and creates an angle of the arm that resembles a wing;
  10. females: the scarf opens out on the sidestep - the hand on the same side of the outward-stepping foot extends to its instep, the contra hand remaining on centre-line;
  11. females: the scarf closes when both hands are brought together at the hip above the closing foot.
I choose to learn both roles: to glean more context, and understand the nature of interaction between them.

The role of the rumbero as a percussionist dancer is clear: rhythms of the foot placement and the weight transfer combine to establish the framework in which the accents of the arms, head and isolated body-parts are housed; it is the same principal relationship that the tumbadora/seis por ocho drums have with the quinto. So I've chosen to approach learning to dance the guaguancó the same way I'd teach the drumming of it - framework first.

Practicing the foot placements and weight transfers, I noticed a sluggishness in my out-bound side-step signified by a lack of definition on that beat of the dance rhythm. It was a combination of two problems:
  1. not getting weight over the foot quickly enough; and
  2. the muscle conformation around the hips required a higher level of tone to maintain stability, so I wasn't perceiving a high enough contrast in tension-release around the joint.
Thinking on it, I solved it with one exaggerated practice: dancing the basic with a deliberate feeling of toe-in (which is quite a habit to break after a lifetime of work developing a foot turn-out). The lateral weight transfer increases load to the front of the foot, then the knee/instep, then the heel, allowing weight to be controlled/located toward the heel-side of the instep upon completion of the action. The shins become vertically parallel to each other with a decent-sized step, legs now bearing equal load properly in tempo.

But most valuable of all is the improvement in the quality of kinesthesia, making the feeling of the rhythm unmissable. It's probably the greatest boon to auditory and movement synchrony. I'm happy enough, at least for now, for this to be the making of the foundation to my guaguancó.


Friday, August 07, 2009

A Personal Journey With The Guaguancó: Prelude

Rumba Guaguancó has long been an aspiration of mine, both to the drumming and its dancing. You could say that they're one and the same thing, when you get right down to it.

Although I've been able to play the structural Havana and Matanzas variants for several years, the subtleties of the quinto drum have yet eluded me - something I've put down to not having enough depth of experience in its Cuban cultural context. What's been clear for a while is the need to strengthen my ability to dance it and make better sense physically of the accents and phrasing; to inform my hands on skin.

A couple of guaguancó dance workshops were only enough to add some dimension to my salsa, helping me keep up with a Cuban rumbera absolutely born to the art currently living in Sheffield (I have to leave out the vacunaos, which the doormen would very much misconstrue). The only regular lessons nearby are with Santiago-born Guillermo in York, at times which I'd have to clone myself to make.

But I knew that the dream of the guaguancó would only realise itself through a concerted effort to dance it. So I decided on learning from recorded sources, mainly out of necessity but also as a golden opportunity to assess currently:
  1. the range, distribution, quantity and quality of material available - this would inform the strategic direction of the website;
  2. the status of my teaching skills as applied to myself - primarily observation and interpretation;
  3. my learning abilities - speed of assimilation, adaptability, synthesis, key areas of immediate development; and
  4. my physical abilities - particularly fundamentals of movement from previous training which might be negatively prejudicial to rumba.
I've opted for the material from José Alfredo Carrión's rumba DVDs to establish my foundation because:
  • it offers a broad base of understanding of Cuban rumba by addressing both yambú and guaguancó;
  • the performers (from Ballet Folklórico Cutumba) and producers (Academy of Cuban Folklore & Dance) deliver with a credible authenticity, free from overt marketing intent;
  • the pedagogy favours qualitative learning over quantitative with deliberate pacing;
  • the structure is logical and preplanned;
  • demonstrations incorporate multiple angles where necessary;
  • explanations are pre-scripted, concise and succinct; and
  • musicians are present with the dancers throughout.
It's easy to recognise the voice of a seasoned educator.

I may not be sure how this journey will go, but one thing is for certain - it's time it was begun.

José Alfredo Carrión's rumba DVD is also available from

Loo Yeo

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: Bolero and Bachata (Part 1)

Bosco gets around a bit, not only in his day-guise as mild-mannered leading exponent of visual merchandising, but also by night as delinquent DJ extraordinaire. I find his take on the transnational Latin scene in the Far East, as a Nuyorican who'd 'been there' at salsa's genesis, illuminating. Oftentimes, it's the questions he asks that inform me the most. Here's an edit of a recent one:


José María Bustos:
Why do Asians not dance boleros? They enjoy dancing bachata and no doubt enjoy the close physical contact and the romantic nature of the songs, although many cannot understand the words. Yet nothing is more romantic to Latinos as the bolero and when you hear someone like Vincentico Valdés sing 'La Montaña' or Tito Rodríguez sing 'Un Cigarillo, La Lluvia Y Tu' there is nothing quite as romantic... when dancing bolero... Latin schools in Asia don't teach boleros either? Is it danced in Europe? In America you play when the lights go down and the floor is packed with young and old alike.


'Wow,' my mind boggled. Pana had managed to cram a whole horde of ideas into one innocent-looking paragraph. I looked around suspiciously... 'was he doing this on purpose?'

Well, Asians don't and yet they do dance boleros.

Bolero is a much older genre than bachata and salsa, and unlike in Latin America where the same word 'ritmo' refers to both the music or the dance, the coupling between them is not so tight in other cultures. When the bolero had already attained its cultural zenith, radio (and not yet television) had only just started to become commercially relevant as conduit of the mass media. Bolero music that did reach Europe and the Far East was largely consumed in the same social space as that of easy-listening crooners (note the word 'listening') - take, for example, the career dimensions of Machín when he chose to settle in Spain.

Radio allowed the sounds of bolero to stretch out and impact significantly, parts of the world where visuals of its dance could not. Compare that to the effects of talking pictures and television on the chachachá later. The dancing of the bolero, requiring the visual form of communication, was restricted to the physical human migratory patterns out of Cuba by the predominant mode of transport - shipping. Hence the strength in reach of bolero's dance was limited to around the Caribbean basin and the port of New York.

But bolero the dance DID reach Asia, albeit in a different guise.

The ballroom rhumba, developed to conform to European mores, is danced to bolero music. International ballroom's codification of the chachachá and its rhumba serve as historical snapshots of the European, mainly British, interpretations of these genres; just as its own tango relates or not to tango argentino. This very British institution spread its influence throughout the colonies and eventually the Commonwealth; my mother remembers dancing the ballroom rhumba and its chachachá socially (i.e. on1) as a young girl in the 1950s under a grand estate-house in Butterworth. And let's not forget that Bruce Lee, aged eighteen, was Crown Colony chachachá champion of Hong Kong in 1958.

A 17-year-old Bruce Lee dancing the chachachá with Leung Bo Ling in the 1957 Hong Kong movie 'Darling Girl'. The next year he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship.

The dance studios where international rhumba may be learned are legion: across an expanse including Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Italy, Lithuania, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Australia and Japan. But the practice of this dance occurs in a far different social space than the bolero referred to by Bosco.

To my partner in crime, it is the bachata which now appears to occupy the place internationally that bolero once did locally in the Americas...

(On to Part Two.)

Loo Yeo