I would like to begin this post with a culinary analogy.
Every now and again, I like to enjoy Taco Bell. As I bite into a crunchy taco, topped with shredded lettuce and American cheese, and ponder about the actual meat content of the meat I am eating, I never think to myself, “Boy, this is some good Mexican food.”
Sure, the taco, as a culinary concept, comes from Mexico.
But what I eat at Taco Bell is as Mexican as…well, as this blog is about bachata music and dance.
At Taco Bell, I know that I am not eating authentic Mexican food, even though what I am eating borrows heavily from Mexican cuisine. You could argue that, if people did not know any better, they would think that they are eating actual Mexican food at Taco Bell. And you’d be right. Indeed, Taco Bell has actually been voted as the best Mexican restaurant in the U.S.
Yeah. I wish I was kidding.
At any rate, what does Taco Bell have to do with Cuban music and dance, specifically with son and casino?
Well, that is what I was hoping to elucidate through the analogy with which this post began.
You see, in the Cuban dance world, there is no shortage of people who do not know any better. I do not mean this derogatorily. Pretty much any beginner dancer does not know any better. It is the nature of things.
And because these thousands of students who flock Cuban dance classes all around the world do not know any better, they are highly susceptible to teachers and places that take advantage of this ignorance to sell a product that “feels” Cuban–whatever that might mean to different people–that it can be thought of as an authentic product from the island.
In other words–and returning to my beginning culinary analogy–a person going to a Cuban dance class to learn to dance “timba”, and thinking they are learning a Cuban dance, is akin to a person going to Taco Bell and believing their taste buds are getting chummy with authentic Mexican spices.
A lot of this blog has been dedicated to exposing how market pressures and global dynamics of power transform and reshape culture abroad, namely, in the case of this blog, the dance of casino–erroneously, or perhaps very intentionally by those who do know better, called “Cuban salsa”. A lot of what I have written has come down to educating the public at large, especially those beginner students who are just finding Cuban dance for the first time, and are excited at the prospect of learning something different and novel.
It’s a great feeling, being at that stage of the learning process.
Which is why it sucks when someone comes along and pops the bubble and tells you that what you are learning is not what you think it is.
(By the way, I do sincerely hope that no one from the United States who is reading this blog just found out that Taco Bell is not actually authentic Mexican food.)
But I am not writing today to beat the same horse with the same old stick. Everything that I had wanted to say about the topic of cultural misinterpretation, (mis)appropriation, exotification, and straight-up falsification about Cuban dances, I have said. The posts are there for those who want to read them.
For those who want to skip all of that, today I just want to say:
It’s OK to like inauthentic dances. Just…be informed.
Let’s define “authentic” first. To do so, I find the analogous definition in the field of language acquisition to be really useful here. When learning languages, an authentic text or speech refers to input which is created by native speakers of the language for native speakers of the language.
If we were to translate that definition to Cuban dancing, an authentic Cuban dance would be a dance created by Cubans for Cubans.
The thing is–and this is what I have attempted to show in this blog through many a post–most of what many Cuban dance teachers teach is created for you.
Indeed, There are a plethora of dance schools and teachers out there selling you all sorts of stuff, and calling it “Cuban”. For the most part, what they are selling is not authentic. Many academies mix and match dance concepts to cater to what appeals to a non-Cuban audience. (And I don’t mean “dumbing down” the concepts to make it easier to learn.) The moment this starts happening, whatever the teacher is teaching, becomes inauthentic.
When a dance is changed, and the change did not occur because it fit a need of the people from whom the dance comes, at that moment, you have stopped having an authentic dance experience–if you were ever having one.
Of course, beginning dancers, and many other people who have moved beyond this stage, remain completely oblivious to this. And so they continue believing they are learning something authentic. After months, or maybe years, of believing this, they come across spaces like this one, and one reaction that they may have to the new information–one I have seen plenty of times–is aversion and outright arrogance. How dare I call what they dance a lie! And dare I minimize or question their experiences, their love of dance and Cuban culture!
Folks, all I did was tell you that Taco Bell was not Mexican food…but with casino.
And it is OK to like the inauthentic stuff, folks! If what your instructors have taught you is your thing, if that is what and how you love to dance, go for it. Keep doing what you are doing.
If I ever tell a friend about my Taco Bell experience, I never say that I ate Mexican food. I know it is not because I have visited more authentic places and seen–and tasted–what tacos actually are supposed to be and taste like. When I go to Taco Bell, I know what it is, and I know what I am getting (Or do I? Hello, mystery meat!).
In all seriousness, there is no reason to get all up in arms about being told that what you think of as Cuban dance is most likely inauthentic.
The fact that you might call casino–the name of the dance– “Cuban salsa”, or that you might just say “rueda” (as if “wheel” were a dance as opposed to a formation) is already a sign of the inauthentic dance experience your teachers have sold you.
There is no reason to be mad or angry about this. Especially if this is the dance experience you have come to love. If this is what has brought joy to your life.
Again, just…be informed.
If what you like is inauthentic, that is perfectly fine. Own it, and continue dancing away.
Don’t rationalize it away as “an evolution” of the dance. If casino had truly evolved, it would have happened inside Cuba first, not outside of it. Furthermore, instructors changing the parameters of a dance, or fusing it with other dances, to cater to the needs of a foreign audience is not evolution; it’s marketing.
If you have been taught inauthentically, you always have a choice of seeking more authentic venues. That is what many people do.
In the meantime, be informed: do not call what you dance “Cuban.”
Very good! Very entertaining, and funny while at the same time accurate and important!
I am glad you found it important. Thank you for reading!
This is interesting, but it seems to me that you are again overstating your case. I share the premise that we should have a criterion to differentiate between authentic and inauthentic dances, but yours dismisses as inauthentic any kind of evolution that a dance may undergo when is made by or for people who do not belong to the culture to which the dance originally belonged. You said it yourself, “an authentic Cuban dance would be a dance created by Cubans for Cubans.” This criterion doesn’t work, and this is easy to see if one uses your own language analogy: Latin American Spanish would not be authentic Spanish because it didn’t evolve by the action of Spaniards for the use of other Spaniards. This is, of course, absurd. They are the same language as they are absolutely mutually intelligible. So one should focus on finding something like “mutual intelligibility” in describing a dance as authentic or not, instead of on the people who make them or their intended audience. This criterion should leave it open in the sense that some kinds of evolution that the dance may undergo outside the culture to which it initially belonged should be regarded as compatible with the fact that they still share the identity of the dance.
Spanish from Latin America does not work as a counter example–as you think it does– because, well, it’s still Spanish. The language always evolves within NATIVE speakers of the language. No matter whether they are from Spain or Ecuador, they are the ones who evolve it. When you don’t have native speakers you get something like Spanglish, which is most certainly not Spanish and you would have a really hard time finding any linguist worth their salt telling you that Spanglish is an evolution of Spanish (aka that’s what Spanish is now).
When an evolution happens outside of a culture from which something came originally, it becomes something else. I already made the case with Spanglish. Another case in point: rumba guaguancó. That’s an evolution of West African rhythms. It does not exist anywhere else but Cuba. It became its own separate thing and in doing so, became authentic somewhere ELSE.
Like I said, be OK with the inauthentic dances that you enjoy.
But don’t come in here with these evolution arguments that are nothing more than mental gymnastics to try to assuage a feeling of discomfort that may arise–I’m guessing here–from knowing that what you dance is not the authentic thing itself.
I’ll leave aside the fact that I’m from Latin America so I am very familiar with what you call the “authentic” thing. I am not interested in defending something that has evolved mainly in the US, and I’m also not sure why you suggest that I come from a feeling of discomfort from knowing that I dance something inauthentic. My point is simply about intellectual rigor.
I agree with you that one can indeed distinguish authentic dances from inauthentic dances, and I also probably share the feeling that motivates you (US commercialization has caused a lot of damage to the authenticity of “latin dances” and many people are profiting from this in a very questionable manner).
But the point still holds. The example of language shows two things: (1) that it is not true that some cultural expression can only preserve its identity through change if it evolves to satisfy the needs only of a native public (not of a nonnative). Spanish in Latin America evolved to satisfy the needs of indigenous populations (not of the Spaniards or their descendants) and it took many words from indigenous languages — all of this without becoming a different language. In the same way, a Cuban dance may change to satisfy the needs of a different public without ceasing to be a Cuban dance. This does not mean that some changes wouldn’t indeed create something other than that Cuban dance (something inauthentic). It just means that the fact that it evolves to satisfy a different audience or by changes introduced by nonnatives won’t automatically make something inauthentic. Some other criterion is needed.
(2) It also shows that, as with the introduction of Spanish during the conquest of the Americas, it might be that some of the changes that latin dances have undergone in the US have indeed been made “by natives for natives.”
In any case, I find your column very interesting and thought-provoking, and I definitely share the feeling from which I think you’re writing. So I hope you take my comments in the best light.
You know, I had a whole thing written in response to your points, but then I thought to myself, “This is precisely why I write this blog: so that I do not have to debate people online.” I already said what I needed to say, in the way that I wanted to say it.
If your point is that changing something to satisfy a different (non-native) audience won’t make something inauthentic, I will have to wholeheartedly disagree, and leave it at that.
That’s why I started with Taco Bell. That’s literally an example of changing something to fit a different audience. (Cheddar cheese and lettuce on a taco, for God’s sake!). If you want to call Taco Bell authentic Mexican food, then there is nothing else to be said here. Cheers!
It’s all in good faith, on my part at least. I of course agree that Taco Bell is not authentic Mexican food (never said the opposite). But this is not merely because it has adapted an authentic kind of food to meet the needs of a different public. It’s because in looking to maximize profit (you know, as huge corporations do), it has changed the food to such an extent and sacrificed each one of the particular details that made it authentic Mexican food, that it is no longer possible to recognize the food they offer as Mexican food. This involves much more than just changing the original product to satisfy the needs of a different public, and this has been the point I’ve been making since my original comment (“some other criterion is needed”).
In any case, I’ll leave it here too, and thanks for your responses! Cheers!
It’s fascinating how frequently music and dance discussions end up as food analogies 😀
(Also, relatedly fascinating that a frequent marker for authentic music is that it talks about food… I guess the inauthentic versions need to be more globally marketable, and McDonald’s would spoil the exoticism)