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Passion for sale

I’ve recently been wondering: Can passion be globalized? In the same way as cheeseburgers, cars, and coffee, can feeling be…

By Magally Zelaya , in Latin American encounters of a Canadian kind , on January 20, 2009 Tags: , , ,

I’ve recently been wondering: Can passion be globalized? In the same way as cheeseburgers, cars, and coffee, can feeling be packaged, transported, and sold the world over?

This is the question that I was left pondering after attending my first salsa class.

Salsa dancing has always been on my master to do list, somewhere near the bottom, after “complete Ironman, write a book, and learn photography.” Yet, salsa dancing is probably the one activity that I am most often confronted with.

More than once I’ve had to turn down a gentleman’s request to dance with the lame excuse that “I don’t know how.” At which time, disbelief invariably washes over his face and I must then convince him that despite the fact that I look the part I don’t know how to salsa, merengue, or cumbia.

His look of disbelief then gives way to a look of disappointment and I slink over to my seat beside the other wallflowers, ashamed of my dancing deficiency.

Tired of this awkward scenario I was delighted when I found the UBC campus plastered with bright pink posters telling me to “LEARN SALSA” with the UBC Latin Dance Passion Club.

I was even more delighted by my first class, which was truly a salsa success story. I not only learned the basic steps of merengue and salsa, I also expanded my cultural identity! All for the low, low price of $6.

With my “Latinaness” firmly in tact before the class was even over, I turned my attention to the curiousness of a Caucasian instructor teaching a Latin American woman and her Asian dance partner how to salsa.

From its beginnings in Cuban and Caribbean 1950’s music, to its evolution in the barrios of New York in the 1970s, to the SUB party room at UBC in 2009, and to salsa blogs online all the time, salsa has certainly come a long way.

How fantástico! People from all over the world paying to learn a style of dance not their own.

But, just because people go through the motions does that necessarily mean they appreciate them in the same way?

César Miguel Rondón, author of The Book of Salsa, argues that they don’t. Rondón says that the commercialization of salsa music (not the dance) resulted in its loss of meaning. Whereas salsa music originally served to reflect the struggles of Latin Americans living in the barrios of New York, once the music was sold to the world’s mass market its significance vanished. According to Rondón, the globalization of salsa music rendered it meaningless.

As all kinds of dance are commodified in TV shows such as Dancing with the Stars, in expensive dance classes, and cheesy dance-inspired fitness classes, does the feeling behind the dance disappear?

I don’t think so.

People learn salsa for countless reasons — to learn a new skill, to connect with their cultural roots, to make it on to So You Think You Can Dance. Though passion can’t be bought and sold, each time dancers take salsa’s quick-quick-slow steps they create some kind of feeling.

Is that feeling meaningful? I don’t think it matters.