Monday, September 28, 2009

Salsa Looming

This intrepid explorer's just barely touched down and already it's back into the fray. Five weeks have passed with just a slightest hint of Cuban rhythm and I'm faced with a full-on schedule preparing workshop materials for a weekender at Red Hat Salsa, and getting sexteto 4 de Diciembre fully lined up for a repeat Christmas concert further up north.

Sharon, the engine driving Red Hat in Reading, has yet to finalise a date - but it's going to be in about five weeks time when I make my way to deliver four workshops: two half-day ones and two 2-hour ones. It's all content that I'm consummately familiar with, but the key is in the structuring of it to minimise mental saturation. Sharon certainly doesn't lack ambition: the two half-day ones cover the entire extent of a full training-year of my teacher development programme (hence the concern over saturation). No doubt there'll be more blogging about it between now and then.

At the same time, I've got to prepare 4 de Diciembre, in sexteto format, for public performance. That's Ana (bass, vocals), Catie (flutes, vocals), Jan (violin, vocals), Jeremy (piano, vocals, clave), Wib (congas, bongó) and yours truly (lead vocals, hand percussion). The easy way would be to re-jig our set-lists slightly and gloss over the horn parts. The best way would be to lengthen each set by a song to account for shorter montuno sections; introduce the equivalent of a whole set of new material; and re-arrange the existing ones to make full use of the charanga format.

Where's the challenge in 'easy', eh?

Whatismore, we've chosen to cover some great but tough-to-interpret songs. Thankfully the guys have been plugging away at their individual parts, so we're quite some way down the road already - all this music director has to do is bring it all together. Piece of cake...


Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: The Meaning of an Accent (Part 4)

To a native Spanish speaker, it's usually possible to place the origins of a person by the accent he or she carries. Salsa is no different, but it seldom occurs to my students to think 'what does my manner of dancing speak of me?'

What accents inform the Colombian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican and Venezuelan schools for example? Which of these are geographic, to be distinguished from the personal? What does the ungrounded the heel of the North American back-step actually mean (and it's not necessarily to do, as often professed, with not wanting to step on someone)?

Everything in the earlier parts can be distilled into one point: to achieve cultural depth, salsa dancers would need to learn more than salsa. Because how someone moves tells me plenty.

  • the angle of your foot says you're quoting from urban Cuba;
  • the shimmering quiver of your hips driven upwards from the knees is the voice of Puerto Rico's bomba;
  • a certain stillness of your upper body hints at class distinction, perhaps from Caracas;
  • your movement, inspired more by shells or skins, clues me to the kind of salsa playing in you car - or if you have any playing at all.
It's easy once you know where, and how, to look.

And for many, salsa is all they know and any accents I express pass them by unnoticed. It's a shame, because the subtext of a dance adds much to the whole enjoyment of it.

So leaping several logical steps ahead, perhaps the more pertinent question is, 'what would I want my dancing to say of me?'


Thursday, September 03, 2009

A Depth of Latin Culture: Boogaloo (Part 3)

Then he hit me with another! His keyboard must've been afire that night.


José María Bustos:
Why do DJs play boogaloos when nobody can dance to them, the beat is almost impossible to follow, unless of course you abandon training and just disco down?


Now that's what I call 'a quiet-looking sentence with a big stick'. One could write reams of pages about beats being difficult, 'abandoning' training, boogaloo, and the relevance of the disco era to salsa. It IS a good question, so I owe it to the both of us to have a run at a considered response.

An impossibility of beats
Boogaloo's rhythm structure contains African American as well as Nuyorican elements. Salsa dancers are used to the latter which has much of Cuban origin, although the placement of the accents varies with region (see later post). But the heavily obvious hand claps on the back-beat and the different language rhythm of lyrics in English obscure the traditional elements with prominent ones unfamiliar to the Latin genre. In many recordings, the instrument balance of the arrangements are tilted towards the soul layers; and even the Latin rhythm mainstays of piano and bass were altered, diffusing their clave feel.

I ear-train others for boogaloo by putting on a chachachá and get participants to dance salsa clapping to the backbeats. I then introduce the concepts of 'call-backs' and 'call-and-response' using participant-led exercises. Half-an-hour is the average it takes to become consciously competent with the transitions - a rather good time investment if you ask me.

'Abandoning' training
Good training is transparent and eminently adaptable - it allows one's dancing to be configured anywhere in the spectrum from looking 'natural' to standing out. In the question's sense, the dancers are either unwilling or incapable of adapting to boogaloo.

I haven't yet found a magic charm for the unwilling, but the latter is most effectively addressed via a parametric approach to skills-based training while instilling an appreciation for the context of the boogaloo. The so-called 'Latin crossover' movement musically involved the incorporation of the then mainstream elements, and its physical expression does the same: the onlooker, being more familiar with movements in the popular vernacular, interprets this visually as being 'free-form'. Hence Bosco's reference to...

Discoing down
Here, a breadth of training goes hand-in-hand with a depth of culture. To establish the vernacular vocabulary, I typically introduce three simple modes of movement plus a sprinkling of short motifs (more accents than shines) drawn from the cakewalk family of dances, as evolutionary starting points.

Participants get exposed to jive (French and ballroom); twist, swing and lindy hop movement; and maybe a touch of the hustle if there's time. The scheme is to learn first how to characterise and compartmentalise each, and then learn how to let them 'bleed' through into salsa selectively. That's my favourite definition of 'letting go': the deliberate relaxation of boundaries surrounding a dance.

The obvious question is, 'why would you teach ballroom jive over the hustle?' I acknowledge that the hustle is closer in cultural context to the boogaloo in NYC. However within the limitations of a workshop, the practice of ballroom jive develops skill-sets more pertinent to the other boogaloo.

Boogaloo and salsa are little differentiated in Colombia, of which her Cali step is iconic. Sometimes perceived by onlookers as being danced in double time, the rhythm on the foot remains the same as 'On1' found elsewhere, but the swiveling of the hips accents the upbeats. This means that practitioners of the Cali step plough twice as much kinetic energy to a partnership system than the average dancer, so you'd better be prepared - if you've got one of these pocket dynamos on your hands, you really know about it.

A fine exemplar of Cali steppers dancing to colombian salsa/boogaloo

Ballroom jive's body position, action, and especially its toe-heel-swivel step provide the most successful starting points in getting to grips with the fleetness of foot and lateral hip motion accentuating the upbeats.

Which boogaloo are you boogalooing to?
The New York City one, or the Colombian one where Caleños played NYC boogaloo records produced for 33rpm at 45rpm? I reckon Cali's energy-burning style should come with a mandatory Surgeon General's health warning attached to every one of her dancers.

(On to Part Four.)