Why salsa dancing is good for us

I’ve liked the response so far to my idea that Carnegie Hall’s top management — if they’re going to bring the benefits of classical music to minority communities (see my posts on this, here and here) — might also bring some minority music into their own lives and work. By, for instance, learning salsa dancing.

You can take my idea, if you like, as a tongue in cheek allegory, but here’s why it might be more serious than some people might think.

One of the issues involved here is white vs. non-white culture, and involved with that is the venerable European problem with mind vs, body, favoring the mind, and being suspicious of the body. Other cultures are easier with the body, and make more of dancing than European culture does.

(A vignette from John Miller Chernoff’s classic book, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: In some African cultures, music doesn’t happen without dancing. The music, mostly drumming, builds up rhythms too complex for westerners to follow. If the drummers think the dancers — aka their fellow villagers — aren’t dancing well, they’ll play exaggerated simple rhythms, to make fun of how bad the dancers are.)

I don’t want to make too much of this. It’s easy for a white guy to romanticize non-white cultures (and plenty of white guys have done this), to glorify their rhythm and dancing, and along the way, implicitly patronize them as people who dance, but maybe don’t think too much. That’s very wrong.

But that European  culture has had trouble with the body — that can’t seriously be in dispute. Or that the link between music and dancing — not dancing in theory, but actual get-up-on-your-feet and do it dancing — is stronger in other cultural worlds, including some that now are western. (In fact, the eruption of rock & roll, and all the pop music that followed it, can be interpreted as part of an eruption of non-European music into the western world, creating a new kind of western musical culture.)

(Another vignette: marching bands, one after another, in a major parade. The bands made up of black kids don’t march — they dance. Also the dancing of African fans at the World Cup, and African players when they score a goal.)

So if the senior management of Carnegie Hall goes salsa dancing…that might help to right some old cultural wrongs, just maybe.

I’d love to see AC Douglas dance.

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  1. says

    You really hit the nub of the issue here. A few days ago I left a post about how classical composers use popular musics as inspiration and material, and how they always have. But of course, that’s mostly Western European popular music — when the main sources of popular music become non-white, non-European, the process becomes more fraught, especially since the timing coincides with a bunch of Romantic ideas creating an idealized space for “great” music.

    I’m sure, if you asked him, Clive Gillinson would say that he just doesn’t have time to investigate salsa, or hip-hop, or whatever. But there’s more to it than that, as you indicated. This may be a version of you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, because we all know plenty of younger musicians and younger classical fans who do like popular musics and listen to them all the time. (Bang On a Can musicians and their regular fans, to begin with.) Maybe the classical salsa revolution is already underway?

    BTW, the SF Symphony hosts Idina Menzel next week and last April they tried to bring in Rufus Wainwright — but he cancelled so they got a lesser replacement — Duncan Sheik and his new musical. The Menzel concert is sold out, of course, and has been for weeks.

    Also in S.F., a recent poll indicates that the classical music station, KDFC, is the most popular music station in the Bay Area, and two of its hosts are the most popular radio personalities. This isn’t the first poll to show the station’s startling success with casual listeners. But of course, many hardcore classical fans hate KDFC passionately, feeling that their overtly commercial approach is something akin to treason. And so we circle back to classical vs. popular in a different way.

  2. Bill in Dallas says

    Idina Menzel appeared with the Dallas Symphony on June 17th in a sold out performance. There was a good review in the Dallas News, a video review by the theater and classical music critic of the local ABC-TV affiliate and a posting in the blog of the Orchestra Librarian of the Dallas Symphony. Below are the links to those stories.

    The DSO promoted this with a number of large billboards, bus placards, and radio ads.




  3. ken nielsen says

    OK Greg, Salsa I can accept (just) but I would not tolerate line dancing.

    What we call classical music must retain some dignity (and intelligence).

  4. says

    I love line-dancing. I occasionally go to a folk dancing group in Louisville on Thursday nights–more for the music than anything else. But there’s just a different level of appreciation of the music when you have to learn the complex steps to odd-metered Eastern European and Mediterranean tunes. Makes you realize why the music is constructed the way it is when you have to dance it.