Date of Degree

6-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Sociology

Advisor

Erica Chito-Childs

Committee Members

Philip Kasinitz

Sydney Hutchinson

Anahí Viladrich

Subject Categories

American Popular Culture | Community-Based Research | Latina/o Studies | Place and Environment | Politics and Social Change | Sociology

Keywords

New York City, Latinx communities, salsa, dance, community, resistance

Abstract

In recent decades salsa dancing has become a global phenomenon, spawning a variety of styles and levels. Although formerly passed from person to person through Latinx family and community networks, salsa dance has long been practiced in a more codified way. Today, salsa is largely reproduced in dance studio classes, congresses, and competitions collectively referred to as “the salsa scene”. In New York City, the salsa scene retains vestiges of Nuyorican and Afro-Caribbean identity, though it is practiced by people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and marketed to a global base. Building on long term participation observation and nearly 40 interviews, this dissertation explores the salsa scene as a site of great social importance to its participants and a space in which both community building and cultural commodification take place.

Weaving together sociological literature on immigration and the arts, as well as interdisciplinary writings on Latinx social dance practices and cultural consumption in cities, this work traces recent New York City history, covering major waves of migration in the twentieth century and social change pertaining to Latinx New York. Interwoven with this history, is the story of the mambo dance craze and the evolution of the style of salsa referred to as “on2”. These initial chapters serve to establish the social world of the salsa dance scene and to outline five social locations where salsa is practiced, providing a broad framework for future sociological studies of dance as a communal activity with varied social and economic roles.

A variety of cultural meanings and racial ideologies are enacted through popular culture portrayals of salsa, competition events, and local social dance practices. In New York, many community members retain a collective set of understandings around the cultural practices and myths that constitute real or “authentic” salsa. These changing practices and on-going narratives of authenticity shed light on the reshaping of Latinx social dance practices. Despite salsa dance’s ongoing commercialization though, this project argues that the salsa scene retains its social, cultural, and political role as a space for community self-expression, Latinx and Nuyorican pride, and as a potential site of status and power for its participants who are sometimes marginalized by wider hegemonic cultural discourses and social practices. The salsa scene contains active participants who leverage their agency strategically in shaping their cultural and creative world. In doing so, they enact alternative ways of being in community and contribute to one terrain in the broader landscape of resistance to racism and displacement. Latinx dancers in New York claim a particular stake in salsa as cultural practice and product by asserting themselves as rightful cultural guardians of salsa, reinforcing salsa’s connection with grassroots communities (invoking “the street”), and affirming the Afro-Caribbean roots of salsa music and dance.

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