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Brownface: Representations of Latin-Ness in Dancesport

Author(s): Juliet McMains


Source: Dance Research Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, Social and Popular Dance (Winter, 2001), pp. 54
-71
Published by: University of Illinois Press on behalf of Congress on Research in Dance
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Brownface: Representations of Latin-ness in Dancesport
Juliet McMains

The overwhelmingstenchof alcoholhoversin the hotelbathroomas my dancepartnerlath-


ers a fourthlayerof brownbodypaintontomy belly."Youhaveto learnhow to applyyour
tan properly,"he admonishessternlyas I squirmunderthe sting of chemicalsburningmy skin.
After rejecting twelve self-tanningproducts,I have finally found one that stains my fair skin
darkenough for me to "pass"as a professionalLatin dancesportcompetitor.Dancesportrefers
to a highly stylized version of ballroom dancing performedin competitioncircuits across the
United States, Europe, and Asia. InternationalStyle Dancesportencompasses both the stan-
dardcategory,comprisedof dances most readily associated with aristocraticballrooms (e.g.,
waltzes and foxtrots), and the Latin division. Among the many ritualsI scoff at in this sport I
love to hate is the mandatethat any competitorwho wishes to be taken seriously must cover
his or her body with brown paint.At twenty-seven dollars a bottle, the Germanmade PROFI-
TAN-Intensive-Latin-Coloris my productof choice. After three generous coats of the bronze
elixir have absorbedinto my skin, my "brownface"is complete, and I am ready to withstand
an entire evening of competitioncha-chas.
While competitive ballroom dancersare not the only consumersof self-tanningproducts,
the prevalence of artificially darkenedwhite skin in dancesportLatin competitions invites
examinationinto the relationshipbetween these ballroom "Latin"dances and their racial/eth-
nic referents.I introducethe term "brownface,"not a word other ballroom dancersare likely
to embrace,in orderto call attentionto the racial (and potentiallyracist) consequences of this
practice. Many of my friends and colleagues in the dance business deny that the use of tan-
ning creamhas anythingto do with race. It is stage makeup,they insist, designed to give pale
skin a healthy glow underharshbrightlights. The fact that bodybuildersand beauty contest-
ants also use tanningcreams when they display their body for formal evaluationbolsters this
position. Others point out that tanned white skin has become associated with wealth and
leisure in late industrialWestern culture, where most people work indoors out of the sun.1
Whetherfrom tanning booths or bottles, the dark skin of dancesportcelebrities aligns them
with other sites of upper-classrecreation.

Juliet McMains is a Ph.D. candidate in dance history and theory at the University of
California, Riverside. She has been competing in dancesport for ten years, currentlyin the
professional Latin division.An earlier version of this paper, "Brownface:A New Performance
of Minstrelsyin LatinAmericanDance," was presentedat the 2000 Dancing in the Millennium
Conference,where it received the Congress on Researchin Dance GraduateResearchAward.
She is the co-author,with Danielle Robinson,of "SwingingOut: SouthernCalifornia'sLindy
Revival," in I See America Dancing: Selected Readings, 1685-2000 (forthcoming). Most
recentlyshe presentedher paper, "'Latin'AmericanDance: Salseros and BallroomDancers"
at the 2001 CORD Conferencein New YorkCity.

54 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


Thereis no denyingthatthe ballroomobsessionwithartificiallydarkenedskinis closely
linkedto the imageof glamourand athleticismit projects.Admittedly,dancesportstandard
dancersuse someformof darkmakeupfor competition,butit is in theLatincategory,where
women'slegs, stomachs,andbacksandmen'schestsarefully exposed,thatthe use of such
products is most pronouncedand widespread.I personally did not use tanning cream when
competingin standard, butfor considerationas a seriousLatincompetitor,it becamemanda-
tory.Whether this practiceevolved because costumingin the Latincategoryhas gradually
exposed more flesh or through a consciousattemptby competitorsto look more"Latin,"its
effects areraciallycharged.Whileraceis neverjust aboutskin color,in America'sracially
fraughtsociopoliticalclimatethereis no way to readthe practiceof brownface,particularly
that of the "Latin"dancesportcompetitors,that does not in some way have to do with race.
DancesportLatinis a stylizationof social ballroomdancesthat,althoughinspiredby
Afro-Caribbean andLatinsocialdancepractices,werepopularized anddefinedby theEnglish
ImperialSociety of Teachers of Dancingthroughout the mid-twentiethcentury.Thefive inter-
nationaldancesportcompetitiondancesarerumba,cha-cha,samba,paso doble,andjive. In
Americandancesportcompetitionan additionalcategoryof AmericanStyle Latindances
(calledAmericanRhythm)includesbolero,mambo,andswing.Afterfive to sevendecadesof
revisionat thehandsof English,European,andAmericandancers,the dancesportversionsof
the Latindancesbearlittle in commonwith contemporary or historicalpracticesin Latin
America.And yet the rhetoricof danceteachersandmediarepresentatives continuesto rely
on a close associationbetweendancesport'sLatindivisionanddancingpracticedby ethnic
Latinos.I will not exploreat lengthspecificstylisticdifferencesbetweenthesetwo versions
of Latindance,3butwill focus on the racialimplicationsof the representations of Latin-ness
in dancesport. Aftera close readingof how dancesportchoreography "performs" racialposi-
tions,comparison of dancesport Latinto blackfaceminstrelsyleadsme to unravelhowbrown-
face functionsfor dancesportcompetitorsandspectatorsas a meansof negotiatingtheirown
racial and class positions. I also explore how brownfaceobscuresAfrican historical
antecedentsto dancesport; andhow dancesport of Latin-nessmightaffectthe
representations
lives of ethnicLatinos,on as well as off the dancefloor.

Dancesport's Racial Logic


Onone level, dancesportseemsto representa utopiancommunityin whichpeoplesof differ-
entraces,classes,andnationalitiesarebroughttogetherby theircommonlove of dance.From
this romanticpointof view, the participationof dancersfromformerSoviet-bloccountries,
WesternEurope,Asia,Australia,andthe UnitedStatesdemonstrates the powerof dancesport
to unify people acrossnationalandracialboundaries.4 The celebrationof Latinculture,as
exemplifiedin theLatindances,alongsidereferencesto aristocraticEuropeanculture,as por-
trayedin thestandard dances,appearsto providefurtherevidencethatdancesportequallyval-
idatesthe culturesof variedethnicgroups.In fact,dancesport"Latin"mightevendeconstruct
biological racial categories when observed throughthe lens of performativitytheories.5 If the
racialposition"Latin"can be establishedthroughdancesportperformance,it follows that
codes of move-
racialidentitycan be assumedby any individualwho learnsthoseparticular
ment,irrespectiveof perceivedbiologicalrace.However,such an imageof a multinational,
multiethnicmeltingpot servesto obscurethe Eurocentrism andwhite-dominatedsystemsof
logic by which the is
industry structured. is
Dancesport'shistory inseparablefromthe legacy

33/2 (Winter2001/02) Dance ResearchJournal 55


of Westernimperialismandcolonialismoutof whichit evolved.Therepresentation of "Latin"
in dancesportperformancesrelies on and reproducesstereotypesderivedfrom a racially
fraughthistoryof Euro-American relationswithLatinAmerica.Theveryexistenceof a cate-
gory called "Latin dance," in which dancesfromdifferentcountrieswith radicallydifferent
historiesandphysicalpracticesare lumpedtogether,revealsthe Eurocentricperspectiveof
this discourse.I am not suggestingconsciousracistintentor actionson the partof particular
individuals,butrepresentations of raceproducedby dancesportdo interactwithlargerracial
discoursescirculatingin Americansociety.
Thenamingof the two divisionsof dancesportalreadysets up a binaryin whichLatinis
a deviationfromtheWesternstandard. Broadlyspeaking,the standarddancesareof Western
descentandthe Latindancesof LatinAmerican.6 While such a sweepingstatementglosses
overthe complicatedhistoricaltrajectories of the dances,the categoricaldistinctionis main-
tainedin performance. The imageportrayedby the standardcouplebearsmuchin common
withrepresentations of whitenessas discussedin literaturefromthenascentfieldof whiteness
studies.In his book White,culturalcriticRichardDyer examinesvisualrepresentations of
whitepeoplein andby Westernculture.His analysisrevealsthatthewhiteraceis constructed
as powerful,heterosexual,good,clean,godly,wealthy,light,universal,andinvisible.Central
to his theoryis thenotionthatwhitenessis ableto transcendparticular bodiesandstandin for
all humanity(Dyer1997).Dancesportstandard portraysmanyof thesevalues,exemplifiedin
thelavishcostumes,his chivalry,herextolledbeauty,theirunisonmovement-all these"old-
fashioned"markersthatappearto transcendspecific,perhapsevenracial,individualidentity.
But uponeven cursoryexaminationit becomesclearthatthis notionof romance,alongwith
the costumesandthe gracefulrestraintof movement,is derivedfroma European,aristocratic
modelof socialdance.Aestheticvaluesareverysimilarto thoseof classicaldance,including
verticalmovement,lightuse of bodyweight,concealmentof effort,flowingmovement,and
poses foregrounding extensionandlengthof musclesandbodylines.
Thisrepresentation of whitenessis partiallyenabledby the corollaryracialpositionthat
is represented in the Latindivisionof competition.Thetwo categoriesarealwaysjuxtaposed
at competitions,neitherone ever appearingwithoutthe other.7If the standardperformance
representswhiteness,the Latinperformance mustsignala racialidentitywhichis "Other" to
this white standard.Consistentwith representations of Othernessexaminedby postcolonial
theorists,dancesport's versionof LatinrevealsmuchmoreaboutWesterndesiresthanactual
experiences of individualswhoconsiderthemselvesethnicallyorraciallyLatin.8Performance
artistandculturalcriticCocoFuscohaspointedoutthattheracialcategory"Latino" collapses
sucha broadrangeof ethnic,racial,andculturalgroupsthatits usefulnessas a categorycan
be verylimited(Fusco1995).It mostoftencomesto havemeaningthroughthe way in which
peoplesfromdifferentLatinAmericannationsexperiencesimilardiscrimination in theUnited
States.However,to speakof Latinoas a racialcategoryis confusing,to say the least, since
Latinosare white,black,brown,and dozensof mestizoshadesin between.Skin color and
classpositionplay significantrolesin the determination of socialposition,andyet the fiction
of a generic"Latin"identityis fosteredthroughdancesport.
A readingof the movementsperformedin Latindancesportrevealshow this Other,non-
whiteracialidentityconstructedby Latindancesportperformancecontrastswith the white
Westernracialpositionpreviouslyidentifiedin standard ballroompractices.It is moresexual,
as signaledby costuming,predominance of hip movements,andvisualnarrative(the story

56 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


suggestedby the performance)cnstructed in movesthatareoftenmimickingsexualseduc-
tion.As opposedto thestandarddances,whichrequirethecoupleto be in a closeddanceposi-
tion (pressedagainsteachotherin a perpetualembrace),Latindancescan be performedin a
widerangeof relativebodypositions,allowingfor morevariationsin choreography andper-
sonalexpression.TheLatindanceperformance also suggestsa non-whiteracialpositionthat
appearsto be morephysicallyandemotionallyexpressiveowingto the greaterrangeof body
shapes and movement choices However Latin also appears re "pimitive because its
techqe and choreographyare less forlly structuredthan standard'sFor example almost
everyst variationhasbeennamedandits techniqe writtendownfor decades,whereas
advancedLatin choreographyis being reinventedeach year by its practitioners.This choreo-
graphicfreedomin theLatincategoryopenspossibilitiesfornonwhiteness to be morecreative
andinnovative,butatthe sametimeleavesLatinopento accusationsof beingless disciplined
and controlledthanthe "refined"standarddances While the standarddancesrepresenta
romanticfairytale of civized Westernculture,the Latindancesrepresenta primitivemode
of huma express thatis by contrastoverlysexual,emotional,andphysical.Theseidenti-
ties arenot contextualizedin timeor placebutby theirrelationship to each other.Therefore,
if the Latindanceris constructedin contrastto the Western,civilized,arisocatic, andwhite
standarddancer,the Latindancermst be non-Weste, uncivilized,savage,andnonwhite
(plate1).
However,the representation of race in the ballroomis not quite as simple as such a
white/nonwhite9 dichotomysuggests.The brownfaceof the Latindans markstheird
ence not only fromthe standarddancersimthe ballroom,but lso fromthe Latno dancers
salseros,tangueros,sambistasoutside the ballrooms.Beyond ski color, dancesportathletes
also performtheirdifferencefromethnicLatinosthrougha movementtechniquethatis rec-
ognizablydiffrent fromLatino cial dancepractices.So, whilebothballroomLatindancers
andclub salsadancers,for example,may dance Latin"dancingto the samemusic,the two
performances will look very differentThe ballroomLatindancermightbe characterized as
appearing clean, controlled,and balanced(or from a different stiff,
perspective sterile,and
predictable)in contrastto the salsa dancers rhythmical,playful,spontaneous,and free (or
wild messy,violent,andoff-balance)style RichardDyerpoints ut thattannedwhte skinis
still recognizable as white (Dyer 1997, 49). He reminds his readersthat someone who uses
tanningproductscan borrowparticularcharacteristicsassociatedwith a nonwhiteethnic group
without forfeiting white racial privilege. Likewise, "Latin ballroomdancing is still ballroom
dancing. The ballroom Latin dancer borrows some of the passion and s ality assciated
with Latin dancing without forfeiting the class and racial privilege by which ballroom danc-
ing is defined. Neier the white dancers in bronze paint nor the English dances with Latin
names become the racialOthersthey refer to. They maintaintheirwhite privilege even as they
tradein the exoticcharacteristics
associatedwithLatinculture.

Brownface's MinstrelLegacy
Whilethecurrentvisibilityof dancesportin theUnitedStatesdoes not approachthe popular-
ity attained
by Americanblackface minstrelsy (1830s-1930s),theparallelsbetweenthesetwo
entertainmentformsarestriking.Inbothpractices,lighter-skinnedperforms painttheirbody
darkerin orderto takeon behavioralstereotypesascribedto an ethnicgroupwithdarkerskin
and less social, political, and economic power.In the case of minstrelsy performerswere pri-

332 (Winter2001/02) Dance Researh Journal 57


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* .ai

? .... . . . .. . ... ....

'::::
:=??=~s~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~:??
#~~~.
::'::
=?:??
..:...'.:....:
}:}:
'?/!i??::???
'???
....j~i::i!?!i: .=
..=..-
.
: :.:.::... :::'.'' ?Xq.S..:. :.4.: :}:.
*: :..: ?::: :... ;u:'. o91
:

.=

Plate 1. YouthInternationalStyle Latincompetitorsat the UnitedStates DancesportChampionshipsin


the FountainbleuHiltonHotel, MiamiBeach. This photographcaptures the commonjuxtapositionof
(here in the costuming)in dancesport Latin.
long body lines and references to "primitiveness"
September, 1999. Photo by David Mark.

58 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


marily Irish immigrants,not yet American enough to be considered white in the mid-nine-
teenth century, who blackened their skin in order to perform gross caricaturesof African
Americans.Americandancesport,which is a fringe activity comparedwith minstrelsyin ante-
bellum America, is predominantlypracticed by Eastern-Europeanimmigrants who bronze
their skin in orderto performwhat to many appearsto be a gross caricatureof Latinos.In both
blackface and brownface, light-skinned, newly arrived immigrant performersborrow and
redefine culturalproducts-music and dance-of a minorityethnic groupfor theirown profit.
While the power imbalancebetween blacks and whites in antebellumAmerica was much
more acute than that between Latinos and whites in America today, theories that have been
developed about how blackface functioned in its time can be useful for understandinghow
brownface is operative in contemporaryAmerican dancesport. Cultural historian David
Roediger (1991) has arguedthatIrishminstrelactorsand audienceswere able to establishtheir
own position as "white"by ensuring their distance from blackness in minstrel performance.
The imperfectmimicry of a racial Otherby blackface entertainersinvited comparisonthatrei-
fied their racial difference.Although not a direct parallel,Eastern-Europeandancesportcom-
petitorsmay be solidifying their own white statusthroughperforminga distance from Latinos
in brownface performance.Linda Mizejewski theorizes that Jewish and Eastern-European
Ziegfeld Girls performingin "caf6 au lait" makeup(lightskinnedblackface) in the 1920s like-
wise solidified their own white assimilation by invoking comparisonwith those whose skin
color was too dark to become "white"(Mizejewski1997, 10-11). While Eastern-European
dancesportcompetitors(many of whom are Jews who have been grantedreligious asylum in
the United States) are not facing the same prejudices, currentcultural and political anxiety
about Latino immigration specifically, and the loss of white American cultural dominance
more generally,may necessitate similarperformancesof racial distance.10
Moreover,the popularityof both minstrelsyand dancesportforestalledthe ability of mem-
bers of the minorityethnic groupsto representand commodify their own arts.It was not until
well into the twentieth centurythatAfrican-Americanentertainerscould easily performany-
thing other than the happy-go-luckyJim Crow and Zip Coon minstrel characters.Likewise,
Latino artistshave only recently begun to successfully performand sell their own versions of
Latin dancingin America.These emerging "authentic"1' Latin dance markets,such as the rap-
idly growing global salsa community,rely heavily on a hypersexualizedstereotype of Latin
dance. So, while on the one hand salsa offers an alternativeto the dancesportversion of Latin
dancing, it is still largely determinedby expectationsthe ballroom dance industryhas created
about what defines "Latin"on the dance floor.
CulturalhistorianEric Lott has suggested that minstrelsyencompassedboth a fascination
with black culture and a simultaneousderision of it, a "dialecticalflickering of racial insult
and racialenvy" (Lott 1993, 6). RichardDyer underscoresthis point in his work on visual rep-
resentationsof whiteness when he points out that cosmetically darkenedwhite skin can signal
a desire to take on some of the characteristicsascribedto the darkerracial group (Dyer 1997,
49). This ambivalencetowardOthers,a desire to try on but not get too close to the racialOther,
is also reflectedin Latin dancing.Like the minstrelshow, which reveals more aboutwhite fan-
tasies of black culturethan about black cultureitself, accordingto Lott, dancesportperform-
ances expose Westernfantasies of what it means to be Latin.

33/2 (Winter2001/02) Dance ResearchJournal 59


Brownface Uncovered
The almosttotalabsenceof dancesportin LatinAmericancountriesis perhapsthe mostcon-
vincingevidencethatit is aboutWestern,not Latin,culture.Mostvisuallyprominentin the
dancesportversionof Latinis the hypersexualizationof the performingbodies,underscored
by the costuming,the visualnarrativeconstructedin movesthatareoftenmimickingsexual
seduction,andthediscoursethatsurrounds boththeteachingandtheperformance of thisstyle
of dance. Even a brief glanceat the attirewornon the competitionfloor-little morethan
rhinestone-covered bathingsuitsfor womenandskintightpantswithshirtsopento the navel
for men-reveals a visualdiscoursethatis not aboutwhatLatinosactuallywear,butrathera
theatricalizedprojectionof whatan exoticOthermightlook like.
the
Beyond clothes,it is thevisualnarrative enactedin dancesport
Latinthatproducesthis
Latin stereotypeso embracedby the West. While each of the five InternationalStyle compe-
tition dances has its own character-the rumba is passionate, the cha-cha is flirtatious,the
samba is playful, the jive is exuberant,and the paso doble alternatelyportraystwo flamenco
gypsy dancers and a bullfighter with his cape-all tell a story of heterosexual courtship
throughsocial dance. But dancesportis not social dance. While it developed out of Western
socialdancepracticesandis deeplyintertwinedwiththe socialdanceindustry,dancesportis
highlystylizedtheatricalart/sport. In contrastto manypartneredLatinAmericansocialdance
formsin whichimprovisation andplayfulnessare central,dancesportfavorswell-rehearsed
routinescarefullychoreographedfor maximumdisplay of skill and spectaculareffect.
Seductionis practicedon the audiencesandjudges,not withinthe partnership. As in the bal-
let pas de deux,preferencefor long bodylines oftensupplantsany tendencytowardrealism
in thesepassionateembraces.Butunlikeballetdancers,whosehipsareshowcasedonlyas the
pointfromwhichthelegs andtorsoextend,ballroomLatindancersisolate,gyrate,thrust,and
roll theirpelvis.It is this strikingbreakwiththeprominenttraditionof partneringin Western
balletthathelpsto concretizetheLatinstereotypeas excessivelysexual,passionate,andemo-
tional.While social dancein LatinAmericamay be moresexuallyexpressivethanWestern
forms,thesequalitiesareso exaggeratedin thedancesport versionsthattheyarenotevenrec-
ognizableto mostLatinosas Latindance.12Subtlety,playfulness,musicality,13andimprovisa-
tion have been virtuallyexpelled from dancesportLatin, leaving only exaggeratedsexual pos-
tures and gestures to markthese dances as "Latin."
The marking of sexuality in these dances as Other was probably crucial to their initial
acceptanceinto Westernballroomsfrom the 1930s throughthe 1950s. Westernsocial dancers
could embracethe sensuality and sexuality of the Latin dances without owning them as part
of their own culture.The contemporarymedia glut of explicit sexual imagery might suggest
this argumentis difficult to sustain when applied to dancesportpracticedin the twenty-first
century.However, the overwhelmingpresenceof sexual imageryin Americansociety does not
mean thatAmericananxiety about sexuality is resolved; many observersand participantsmay
find comfortin projectingtheir sexuality onto the space of Latin Other. Furthermore,displays
of explicit sexuality are still not considered "classy,"the coveted label by which dancesport
aspires to be categorized. While the class status of dancesportand its participantsis much
more complex and beyond the scope of this essay, the Americanballroomdance industryhas
always been invested in appealing to audiences who are, if not already upper-class,at least
upwardlymobile.14

60 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


Perhapscovering the nearly naked dancing bodies with something, even if it is only tan-
ning cream, is enough to protect the industryfrom a looming downward spiral toward strip
clubs and escort services. Brownfaceprovides enough cover for dancesport'sversion of Latin
sexy to remainclassy (plate 2). Classy and sexy can be unitedunderthe safety of a brownface
mask, where the professional dancer and conspiring audience can enjoy this erotic sexuality
without forfeiting class status.
Anotherreason that sexuality in dancesportcan be expressed only undercover of brown-
face is that such unproblematizeddisplays of heterosexualityand unabashederotic celebration
of Westerncorporeal beauty are not generally accepted in "high art."Nudity as a political
statementmay be controversial,but at least it is considered art. Ballroom costumes and aes-
thetics look more like those that appearin Las Vegas strip clubs than those of "artdancers."
Withoutthe historical momentumof ballet, the self-reflexive political probes of many mod-
em dance choreographies,or the popularsupportof jazz dance, dancesportstrugglesto secure
its terpsichoreanstatus.While the tension between dancesport'sdual identity as sport and art
has been heightened since its 1997 recognitionas an official Olympic Sport,'5many ballroom

Plate 2. Juliet McMainsand formerpartnerSonny Perryin competi-


tion "brownface," which has startedto rundown Sonny's face and
neck. Embassy Ball, Irvine,California.September, 1999. Photo by
Dave Head.

33/2 (Winter2001/02) Dance ResearchJournal 61


dancers strive to be recognized as "artists."16 By maintaininga fiction of "authentic"Latin
dancing, they can justify the gaudy costumes and vulgar gestures. Under a guise of ethno-
graphicrepresentationof third-worlddance forms, movement that might otherwisebe read as
low-class in the American context can be transformedinto high-class art. When many of the
same dancersappearin front of the same judges to performthe standarddances, the sugges-
tion of sexuality is much more subtle. Women'slegs are hidden underseven layers of chiffon,
and althoughmale and female bodies are pressed close together in full frontal contact, there
is no grinding or pulsing of the pelvic region. At least this particularkind of sexuality is
reserved only for brownface.
But the performanceof brownfaceis more complicatedthan merely a Westernprojection
of sexuality onto an exotic Other.In American scholarshipand popular discourse alike, the
less discussed discourse of class differenceis far too often mappedonto ethnic and racial dif-
ference. A similar transpositionfrom class to race is reproducedin dancesportperformance.
While the American ballroom dance industryhas long been one that sells upper-classstatus
and class mobility,17the extreme class differences among its participantsare rarelydiscussed.
The economic foundationof the American dancesportindustryis pro-am competition-ama-
teur dancerswho pay their professionalteachersto compete with them in the same circuit of
competitionsas the top level amateurand professionalathletes.Most professionaldancesport
competitorsin America finance their expensive coaching and travel schedules by selling their
services in pro-amcompetitions.For these pro-amstudents,dancesportis a hobby-their pro-
fessional reputationand economic stability lie elsewhere. Dancesport professionals, on the
other hand, usually have little college education or significant earning potential outside the
industry.Most come from working-classbackgrounds,many of them recentimmigrants,striv-
ing to live out the Americandreamthroughsuccess as dancesportathletes.To pursueballroom
dancingas a hobby is consideredclassy, but to rely on it for one's economic securityis another
class entirely.No one wants to admit that Latin dancesportprofessionalshail from the lower
classes if they are also mastersof its classy movement technique.Instead,they are markedby
brownface as exotic (racial) Others.Not black, not white, different,but not too differentfrom
its consumers, properly tanned dancesportprofessionals with superiormovement technique
are covered by a racial markerthat standsin for the less visible signifier of class."

African Roots
If Latin dance is racializedin orderto hide the functionof class difference,there are also ways
in which class is used to disguise its racial history. The ballroom Latin dances, while
Westernized,are derivativeof African-basedmovement forms. Rumba, mambo, and cha-cha
are descendantsof Afro-Cubandance and music; samba is an Afro-Braziliandance; andjive
is the English version of African-Americanswing dancing. All these dance forms were syn-
cretizationsof African and Europeandance traditionsin their Cuban,Brazilian,andAmerican
settings. No doubtthese dances were successful in EuropeanandAmericanballroomsin part
because practitionerscould imagine that they were engaging in "primitive"Latin behavior.
For example, in his 1942 dance manual,ArthurMurraystates that La Conga as practicedin
ballrooms was adaptedfrom dances practicedby "colorednatives" in Cuba. "Remember-it
originatedwith, and for generationshas been danced by, simple natives. And if they learn it,
you certainlycan!" (Murray1942, 175) Not only does such a statementinsult the intelligence
and culturalcomplexity of Cubans,it also ignores the culturalcontext and physical complex-

62 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


ity of theCubandanceformfromwhichLaCongawaspoached.Murray'sversionreducesthe
danceto footplacements.My own experiencewithCubandancesuggeststhatfootplacement
is relativelyunimportant comparedwiththerhythmsarticulated by thehips,pelvis,torso,and
shoulders.So the namesandoriginstoriesfor thesedancesweremaintainedby the Western
social dance industryschools and organizationsthat codifiedLatin dance forms,but the
dancesandtheirsocialandculturalmeaningsweredramatically altered.
Whilebothballroomand"authentic" Latindanceformshavecontinuedto developsince
ballroomdanceteachersfirstimportedthemfromLatinAmerica,comparisonof the contem-
poraryballroomformto currentpracticesof "authentic" Latindances(suchas salsa,Argentine
tango, and Brazilian samba) is useful for highlightingthese differences.19Theballroomforms
tend to be characterized by a straightspine,movementthatis producedthroughbalanced
transferof weightfromfoot to foot, foot positionsthatareclearlyarticulated, poses andbody
shapes in which the entire is
body extended, extreme tone throughout body,andpredom-
the
inanceof predetermined steps.While"authentic" formsarecomprisedof specifictechniques
thatareparticular to eachform,thereareseveralcommonalitieswithdancesport Latin.They
arecharacterized by a more dynamic and flexiblespine;weight thatis suspended between the
feet duringmovement;foot placementthatis approximate andrelativelyunimportant; cen-
of
trality polyrhythms articulated in the body; relaxationin a majority of musclegroups; and
improvisation closely linked to musical structures.20
"Cleaningup" of the Latindances for
inclusionin the ballroomrequiredthatthey cross both class and race boundaries.Tango,
mambo,rumba,andsambawereoriginallypracticedby the darkestandpoorestmembersof
Latin communities.21 This whiteningand classingup requiredintellectualmasteryof the
movement,eliminatingits unpredictable elements,anddiscipliningthe body andthe dance
intoorganizedfootstepsandpatternsof motion.
A briefcomparisonof dancesportLatinmovementtechniqueandthatemployedin con-
temporarysalsa dancingillustratesthis point.BallroomLatindancersmaintaina consistent
connectionthroughout the courseof dancing,so thateveryshiftof weightis clearlycommu-
nicatedfromone bodyto the other.Theyaccomplishthis tightconnectionby maintaininga
stableframein the armsandmovingtheribcage andbackwithinthisframeto communicate
movementchoices.Salsadancersmaintaina looserconnectionthroughthe hands.Leadsare
initiatedby movingthearmsortheentirebodyweight,ratherthanmovingtheribcagewithin
a stable dance frame. Strongbody to body connection throughthe hands is used only to initi-
ate turns,not to coordinateeach step. While ballroom Latin dancers shun this loose connec-
tion because more dynamic and faster changes of energy are not possible, more spontaneous
improvisationsare. Since perfect coordinationof movementis not expected between partners,
missteps become new steps, ratherthan mistakes.
Asidefromthepossibilitiesit offersin individualimprovisationfor eithermemberof the
this differencein lead/followtechniquealso requiresa contrastingrelationship
partnership,
amongvariousmusclesin the body.In ballroomLatin,the majormusclegroupsin the stom-
ach,back,pelvis,legs, andfeet arealwaysconnected.Whilethey do not alwaysmovein the
same directionat the sametime, movementin any one areaalwaysaffectsthe others.For
example,a weightshift throughthe feet andbendingof one knee enablesa rotationof the
pelvis andsubsequentmovementacrossthe ribsandback,whichthenproducesa tiny pres-
surechangein the man'shandson his partner'sback,indicatingto herthe precisemomentat
which she shouldshift her weight.This strictinterconnectedness of majormuscle groups

33/2 (Winter2001/02) Dance ResearchJournal 63


allows for the kind of speed in partneringdynamics that gives ballroom Latin its unique
appeal. However, what it does not encourage is the kind of polyrhythmicmovement that is
popularin salsa dancing.Because salsa music is based on many differentrhythmsinteracting
to produceits complex structure,dancersoften mimic the differentinstrumentswith different
partsof their bodies. For example, salsa dancersmay move their feet in rhythmwith the con-
gas, thrusttheirrib cage forwardin time to the clave, and shimmy their shouldersbetween the
hits of the cowbell. It is the disconnection of the muscle groups and their ability to initiate
independentmovements that gives salsa its particularmovement style. It is this techniqueof
polyrhythmicbody articulationthat links salsa dancing most closely to West African dance
practicesfrom which both the music and the movement draw inspiration.23 Thus, the defining
characteristicsof these two movement forms are clearly linked to racializedmovement prac-
tices-the black West African dance practices that foregroundmultiple points of articulation
and the white Westernconcert dance traditions,particularlyballet, thatprivilege bodily cohe-
sion and control.
The earliest practitionersof nearly every Latin dance form were African slaves or their
descendantsliving in Latin America, and yet all explicit referenceto Africa has fallen out of
these African-inspireddance forms as they are practicedin ballrooms.24 Certainlymany of the
qualities that have been dubbed "Africanist Aesthetics" have remained in the dances.25
Polyrhythms,high-affectjuxtaposition,and ephebism dominatein Latin dancesportperform-
ance. But strikinglyabsent from this version of Latin dancing is the buttocks. Culturalcritic
RichardGreenhas theorizedthatfocus on the black "booty"and its reputedlysubstantialpro-
portionshas been centralto representationsof blackness in Westernculture(Green2000). The
techniquefor ballroomLatin dancing follows Westerndance traditions,which insist on tuck-
ing the butt under the body in order to enable more balanced and aerodynamicmovement
throughspace. There are moments in the dancing when the butt is thrustbackwardin poses
designed to showcase it. However, movement throughspace relies on a backside that is not
posteriorto the rest of the body. The bottom must be in a straightline with the rib cage, shoul-
ders, feet, and head.26The hips are allowed to rotateon this vertical axis, but the butt must not
protrudebackwardwhile the body is in locomotion. Technically, this development enables
sudden stops aftervery fast movements because the body weight is always balancedover one
foot. On the other hand, a relaxation (and thrusting outward) of the butt enables more
polyrhythmswithin the body, an aestheticthathas been overshadowedby the drive to produce
faster and more dynamic horizontalmovement.
Contemporarypractices of Latin dances outside the ballroom community celebrate the
beauty of the buttocks. In the Argentine version of tango, torsos are inclined inward toward
each other and butts lag behind, while both the English and American dancesport styles
requirethat the hips are pressed underand the torsos are stretchedoutward.In describingthis
distinction, cultural critic Marta Savigliano points out that the more "refined"(i.e., higher-
class and whiter) styles in which the torsos are balanced away from each other were coveted
by elite Argentineansin the 1920s (Savigliano 1995, 149-153). Hiding the buttocks appears
to have been one of the central strategiesfor shifting the categorizationof this dance in both
class and racial hierarchies.While swing is not considered a Latin dance by most, it is per-
formed in the Latin category in dancesportcompetitions and shares antecedentsin African
rhythms.The currentcraze for 1940s-style swing dancingin nightclubsacrossAmericais ripe
with backsides hanging gleefully behind torsos as dancerswhirl aroundin a near sitting posi-

64 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


tion. Footage of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the Savoy Ballroom originals, reveals that this
crouchedposition was the style in which the African-Americanoriginatorsof swing dancing
moved.27The butt was ever-present.However, the posture was straightenedup by the social
dance industryfor white ballrooms.A 1950s ArthurMurraydance manualspecifically warns,
"Don't dance with your hips way back...Dancing with hips way back is out of date."(Murray
1959, 219). The illustrationof what not to do bears a strikingsimilarityto the posture of the
black Lindy hoppers,suggesting that,like the case of tango, making swing acceptableto white
patronsrequiredhiding the racially markedbackside. Was the disappearanceof the butt as a
site of movement in Europeanand American Latin dancing merely a technical development
in pursuitof maximumspeed in this ever more virtuosic dance form?Or did it have something
also to do with the erasureof blackness from the history of Latin dancing?If the buttis indeed
markedas black, as RichardGreen suggests, I suspect thatthe absentbutt in Westernversions
of Latin dances has as much to do with rewritingtheir racial history as their technical devel-
opment. It appearsthat Latin exoticism was marketable,but African exoticism was not.

Bodily Presence
More poignantthanthe absence of the black butt in the discourse and techniqueis the absence
of the black body in the contemporarypractice. There are very few black dancesportcom-
petitors.Asians and a growing numberof Latinos are beginning to participatein dancesport
competitions,but black bodies are almost entirely absent.Those representingthis sportto the
public are acutely aware of this absence, at times distorting the demographics so that the
American public will not call it racism. For example, creators of the 1998 dancesportfilm
Dance WithMe, starringAfrican American Vanessa Williams, invented a "South African"
competitionpartnershipby teamingup Rick Robinsonand MariaTorres,two of the only black
competitors in the professional American dancesportscene. Dancers in the film's climactic
"international"competition scene were drawn from the ranks of American and Canadian
dancesportprofessionals,appearingundertheir own names with their own partnersrepresent-
ing the country of origin of at least one member of the partnership,with the exception of
Robinson and Torres(plate 3).
During a personal interview,Torresexpressed her own mixed feelings about this casting
decision. On the one hand, she recognizes that positively representingan ethnic minorityin a
Hollywood film is in itself a victory to be celebrated.However, she laments that neither she
nor Robinson was representingtheir own competitioncareeror ethnic background.The film's
producersmay have felt compelled to reinventthe racial demographicsof dancesportcompe-
tition in order to justify their casting of Vanessa Williams in the starringrole as dancesport
champion,but the irony of choosing SouthAfrica as a symbolic representationof racial toler-
ance and diversity could not have failed to register with many viewers. Throughoutthe pub-
licity surroundingthe film, no dancesportexpert broachedthe sensitive topic of black disin-
terest in the sport. In an essay for Dance Beat (an American dancesportnewspaper),two of
the dancersappearingin this scene stressedhow authenticthe directorhad tried to make this
scene by seeking out the most highly rankedcompetitors."They were looking for the top six
and if somebody couldn't do it they went down the list" ("Dance WithMe" 1988, 22). There
was no mention in the interview of why this pursuitto representdancesportaccuratelyled to
the fabricationof a SouthAfrican couple. While dancesportLatin is all about imagined racial
difference of the Latin Other, explicit discussion of bodies of particularrace is apparently

33/2 (Winter2001/02) Dance ResearchJournal 65


taboo for dancesport ambassa-
dors.
WVhile black interest in
dancesport remains minimal,
there are increasing numbers of
Latino dancersentering the Latin
divisions of dancesportcompeti- , )
tions in the United States. Latino ..
ballroom dancers with whom I ? i :
have discussed issues of cultural ,
appropriation believe that they
are workingto change the system
from within by introducing .
movements from "authentic"
Latindances into theirdancesport
routines. They believe that they
can take the best from both move-
ment techniques and unite them
on the ballroomfloor. But the fact
that these routines are being per-
formed in the ballroom,and eval-
uated by the dancesport indus-
try's rules and aesthetics, already
stacks the power differential on
one side. Latinos who try to per-
form their own Latin-ness
throughautoexoticismare often Plate3. VanessaWilliams
andRickValenzuela
at the Mathews
accused of exceeding the expec-
Arenain an exhibition
danceforan invitational filmed
competition
tations of their own identity. fortelevision.Boston,November5, 1998. Photoby DavidMark.
Latina dancesport competitor
MariaTorres,whose trainingalso includedAfro-Cubandance, recalls that she was chastised
by judges as being "too authentic,too street,too Latin"(Torres,2001). So, while one reading
of Latinobodies perfonrming Latin dances suggests thatnonwhites are breakinginto white sys-
tems of power, the racial politics in this system are changing very slowly.
While I have suggested that dancesportis deeply entrenchedin its racist history,I am not
convinced it is more or less pernicious than otherAmerican culturalpractices that developed
out of Westernexpansionism.Despite personalexperiences of racism, MariaTorresherself is
remarkablyupbeat about the changes she and others have inspiredthroughtheir own partici-
pation in dancesport.She notes greaterracial diversity in competition and a greaterrange of
movement choices. Many dancesport competitors have begun to study and appreciate a
broaderrange of "Latin"dance outside the ballroomindustry,some even changing their rhet-
oric to indicate that dancesportis but one version of Latin dance. The dancesportestablish-
ment has even begun to celebrateMariaTorres'scontributionto dancesport,albeit only after
she has received critical acclaim in other dance industries.Perhapsthe greatestchange will be
enacted from pressuresoutside the dancesportcommunity.AlternativeLatin dance communi-

66 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


ties and industries,particularlythose of salsa and Argentinetango, are gaining greaterpopu-
larity and recognition worldwide, forcing the ballroomindustryto reexamine and redefine its
own interpretationof Latin dancing.
My intent in drawingout these racial issues is not to condemn the practiceof dancesport,
but to broadenthe perspectives from which both its practitionersand its viewers understand
its representationsof Latin-ness.Brownface masks far more than the biological white skin of
its dancers.It obscuresthe racisthistory out of which this practiceemergedas well as the ways
in which race and class are often conflated in American discourse. Brownface provides
enough cover for dancesport'sversion of Latin sexy to remainclassy. The brownfaceritualis
also one that negotiates the complex relations of class and nationalitythrougha recognizable
bodily discourse of race. It offers a model for assimilation into white Westernculture.And
brownface recolors the history of Latin dancing, repaintingthe dark skin of its African roots
and the racial politics in which it is implicatedto a lighter,more palatabletone.

Acknowledgements
I wouldlike to thankthemembersof the 1999RaceandRepresentation in Danceseminargroupat the
all
Universityof California,Riverside, of whomhelpedto developmentof thiswork.I would
stimulate
like to extend particulargratitudeto my friend and colleague Danielle Robinson. Withouther similar
engagementwith issues of race and representationin Americansocial dance forms, I might never have
passionsfor
been ableto workmyselfbeyonda perceivedstateof paralysiscausedby simultaneous
dancesportandcriticalracetheory.

Notes
1. Beforethe IndustrialRevolution,palewhiteskinwas a sign of upper-classleisure,represent-
ing anindividual'sexemptionfromthe toils of outdoorlabor.
2. Originally,this divisionof competitionwas called"LatinandAmerican"to accountfor the
inclusionof the Americanjive. Eventuallythis namewas shortenedto "LatinAmerican"or
evenmorecommonly"Latin." Thanksto dancehistorianTerryMonaghanforpointingoutthis
historicaldevelopmentto me.
Latin,see McMains(2001).
3. Fora moredetailedcomparisonof salsaanddancesport
DancesportFederationWorld
4. Countriesthat enteredcontestantsin the 2000 International
LatinAmericanDancesportChampionships heldin Miami,Florida,on September10, 2000,
includedEngland,Italy,SouthAfrica,Japan,China,Germany,Australia,Slovenia,Russia,
Ireland,Denmark,Canada,United States, Yugoslavia,Latvia, Norway,Bosnia, France,
Taiwan,Luxembourg, Ukraine,Poland,CzechRepublic,Switzerland,Romania,Finland,New
Zealand,Hungary,Slovakia,Israel,Belarus,The Netherlands,Scotland,Sweden,Armenia,
Belgium,Austria,Norway,Spain,Estonia,andBulgaria.
see Butler(1990).
5. Forthe cardinalworkon performativity,
are the tango,a danceof Argentineandescentthatis
6. The exceptionsto this generalization
dancedin the standardsection, and the jive, a derivationof the Americanswing, whichis
dancedin the Latin division.These categorizations emergedfromthe historicalmomentat
whichtheserespectivedancesgainedpopularity Europe.The tangowas alreadya popular
in
dancein Englandwhenthe standarddivisionwas definedin the 1920s.TheLatindivisionof
dancesportwas addedseveraldecadeslater.

33/2 (Winter2001/02) Dance ResearchJournal 67


7. However, new Americantelevision programsfeaturingdancesporthave startedto separatethe
two categories, producingone programthat is just Latin and anotherfor the standardcompe-
tition.
8. For theories of the "Other,"see Said (1978) and Bhabha(1990).
9. I chose the imperfect term "nonwhite"over alternativessuch as "people of color" because I
wish to emphasize that white is a color (racial position) and that it is one's relationshipto
whiteness that is most importantfor access to power. See Dyer (1997) for a discussion of ter-
minology choices.
10. Dancesportis a popularsport for childrenin EasternEurope.One readingof the participation
of so many Eastern-Europeanimmigrantsin Americandancesportsuggests that it reconnects
them to their ethnic and culturalheritage. However, their success in the Americandancesport
industryhas been so phenomenalthat anyone with a Russian name or accent is almost auto-
maticallyreveredby the white Americandancesportindustry.For entirecommunitiesof immi-
grants who have seen their children represent the United States at world championships,
dancesportbecomes not only a symbol of assimilationbut a vehicle throughwhich they gain
acceptanceinto Americansociety.
11. I use the term "authentic"to refer to a wide variety of contemporarysocial dance practices
alive in the Latino diaspora.I recognize that "authenticity"is always a constructedconcept.
12. This reactionis dramatizedin the 1998 film Dance with Me, when Cheyenne's character,hav-
ing just arrivedfrom Cuba to an Americanballroom dance studio says, "That'scha-cha-cha?
I never seen a Latin dance that looked like that."
13. I suggest that dancesport Latin is less musical than Latino social dance practices because
dancesportcompetitors perform the same prechoreographedroutines no matter the musical
selection of the disc jockey or orchestra.Spontaneoustiming adjustmentsto match the music
are usually not practiced and often not possible given the complexity of the choreography.
Improvisationalsocial dancers, on the other hand, are more likely to invent steps that fit the
mood and accents of the particularpiece of music they are dancing to.
14. Some of my analysis on this subject was presentedin McMains (1999).
15. Recognition in 1997 has not yet resultedin the sport'sactual inclusion on the Olympic sched-
ule.
16. Evidence of this longing to be understoodas artists,not just athletes and entertainers,appears
in tradepublicationsand books aboutballroom dancing. See Vermey (1994).
17. See Malnig (2001).
18. This class analysis is relevantonly in the Americancontext. Pro-amcompetitionis a uniquely
Americanphenomenonand dancesportin many Europeancountriesis a working-class activ-
ity.
19. For a more historicaldiscussion of this whiteningprocess in the Americansocial dance indus-
try, see Robinson (2001).
20. I have made these generalizationsbased on several years of observationand practice of ball-
room Latin, salsa, Argentinetango, Brazilian samba, Lindy Hop, Cubanrumba,and cha-cha.
Conversations (and physical demonstrations)with Jesus Morales, Cheryl Bush, Christian

68 Dance ResearchJournal 33/2 (Winter2001/02)


Perry,AlexandraGisher,Anna Scott, and Gloria Otero were particularlyuseful in clarifying
these distinctions.
21. There are several histories written about the "origins"of each of these dances and their tra-
jectories out of the barrios and into mainstreamand upper-class culture. For example, see
Savigliano (1994), Daniel (1995), Vianna (1999), and Boggs (1992).
22. Susan Foster's work on the historyof ballet suggests thatthe impetus to organizethe body into
straightlines in the Latin dances also may have been an attemptto neutralizeits disruptive
potential. She arguesthat developmentsin ballet technique duringthe nineteenthcenturydis-
ciplined the body into geometricalshapes and mathematicalstructures.She writes of this new
Pythagoreanizedballet body that, "the body largely did what it was told. It did not initiate or
carry on a discourse, and ballet did not cultivate impulses. Sporadicrambunctiousinitiatives
on the body's partsuch as those manifest in the can-can or the tango could only be interpreted
as licentious and lacking in all aestheticvalues" (Foster 1996, 258). This shift allowed for bal-
let to move to a higherposition in the rationalworld of Europeanculture.Such a similargeom-
etry of the body in the ballroom Latin dances helped them to move from their position in
lower-class and nonwhite popular culture in Latin America to prominence in higher-class
white EuropeanandAmericansociety.
23. For discussions of characteristicsof WestAfricandance, which include body segmentationand
polyrhythmicmovement, see Malone (1996), and Scott (1997).
24. Several other authorshave writtenabout the refusal to recognize African-basedcontributions
to Americanculture.See Gottschild (1997), and Wallace (1990).
25. See Gottschild (1996) for a discussion of AfricanistAesthetic.
26. This alignmentis consistent with other Westerndance techniques, such as ballet and modern
dance. This aesthetic was used throughoutmuch of the twentieth century as justification for
excluding black dancers-whose anatomy supposedly did not adhere to the aesthetics of
straightbody lines-from ballet companies.A 1995 dance piece, BattyMoves, choreographed
by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for UrbanBush Women,capitalizeson this tension between require-
ments in Westerndance forms to hide the butt and celebrationof the butt in African dance and
African diasporicdance and movement practices.According to their Web site, "Zollarchore-
ographed Batty Moves because she felt strongly that in Euro-Americanmodes of training,
specifically ballet and moder idioms, dancers'buttocks were drainedof movement, poetry,
and passion.... The piece is inspiredby movements of the butt: several of the movements are
initiated with or end with the butt, whereas others transformtraditionalmovements from the
moder dance vocabularyby substitutingthe erect spine and aligned pelvis for more curved
lines of the back" (UrbanBush Women 2000).
27. See, for example, their first appearancein Hollywood films in the 1937 Marx Brothersfilm A
Day at the Races.
28. Particularthanks to dancesportcompetitors Daniel Vasco, Dedelle Barbanti,Maria Torres,
Jorge Geronimo,and CharletonAlicia for sharingtheir ideas on this subject with me.
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