by Hannah Cissell
The Cultural Roots
On any given weekend in Greenwood Indiana, the Olarte family dances to loud music and celebrates the joys of life and culture.
Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and friends get together to teach one another the dances they learned growing up in a Colombian culture, with salsa being a central focus.
“My parents emigrated from Colombia, so I think there is this beauty about dance being codified and dance being originated from a cultural perspective at home,” said David Olarte, now a salsa instructor at Arizona State University.
Salsa dancing is known for it’s roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Colombia, and has found ways to influence the dancing culture in the United States.
“What’s fascinating about salsa dancing is that I can dive into all the micro-narratives that are in dance because it is so embodied and because it’s so social and cultural,” said Olarte.
Salsa can have a different meaning to different people. For some, salsa is the tasty dip you eat with chips, while others think of a sexy, Latin dance.
Olarte said salsa dancing can have a social or cultural meaning, and every now and then it may have a combination of the two.
Olarte said salsa allows him to explore layers of gender, sexuality, identity and power. What he loves most is learning more about himself through dance.
“What keeps me wanting to keep going is that I continue to see the importance of community and building community and how that affects other people who are new and maybe need a support structure from our community,” he said.
Dancing, especially salsa dancing, gives Olarte a feeling of being “at home.”
The “Sexy” Latin Dance
It’s a quiet Tuesday night in the Valley, but at the Elks Lodge in Scottsdale, things are starting to pick up.
Latin music starts to blare through speakers as the DJ finishes setting up for the night. A group of about 30 people starts to gather around the dance floor to watch a couple moving closer together, swaying to the music.
As the tempo picks up, the dancers – Larry Garcia and his wife Claudia – move their feet faster and faster. The audience begins to applaud and cheer.
Larry Garcia, an instructor at Mambo Exquisite, said Claudia inspired him to start dancing.
“When I first met my wife, she was dancing Cumbia. She’s Mexican, so I figured I would learn it too so I could dance with her, but the whole time I thought she was doing salsa,” Garcia said.
Once he started dancing salsa, he fell in love with it. Initially, he said, it was not cultural at all for him but more a way to explore the possibilities of what he could do with the music and with a partner.
“If I could triangulate what I love about it, it would be connecting with people on the dance floor,” Garcia said. “You have the music as sort of the base, and you learn the music and find ways with your partner to create the music in a sense with your dancing.”
Salsa dancing does carry a number of stereotypes. Larry Garcia said he chooses to embrace them, especially the notions of salsa being a “sexy” dance.
“I think something can be both sexy and cultural, and dance embodies human sexuality – so does salsa,” he said. “There’s human movement, passion and connecting with another human being, and then there are times where, even in salsa, things become overly sexualized. But as a dancer you can make a distinction between the two.”
Olarte and Garcia also pointed to a stereotype that salsa dancers have Latin charisma and are of Latin descent. Both agreed that you don’t have to be Latino, Hispanic or Chicano to be a great salsa dancer.
Yana Naftaliev, a salsa instructor at Arizona State University, blurs the lines of those stereotypes.
Naftaliev does not have Latin roots or background; she’s Russian and proud of it. She started dancing when she was young. Her parents got her into jazz and other Russian traditional dancing.
It wasn’t until she was in college that she got involved in salsa dancing, and she has been in love with it ever since.
Along with Olarte and Garcia, Naftaliev dances mostly for the social aspect of it.
“It introduces me to the best kind of people: competitive, artistic, fun, drama-free, athletic, creative and sweet,” she said.
Naftaliev was a little intimidated to dance with a partner when she first started salsa dancing because she had danced solo for years. Now, she said, she really enjoys dancing with a partner and being able to use someone else’s body as a guide.
She said that when you go out social dancing in the Valley, “it’s like a big family reunion.”
“It’s my circle of people I prefer to surround myself with,” Naftaliev said.
Hannah is a senior pursing her bachelor’s degree at the Cronkite School, studying broadcast journalism and business. She is currently finishing her degree and pursuing work in marketing and journalism.