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July 22, 2006. On my twenty-sixth day of fieldwork, I make my way across a darkened parking lot somewhere in Northern New Jersey. (1) Traversing the smoky bar of an American Legion Clubhouse, I enter a back room, where Jesse Yip, a Chinese-Peruvian-American salsero, is hosting a salsa social. These dance events combine social dancing with a choreographed show by the sponsoring school or company. Yip has been teaching salsa in New Jersey since 2005 and has a diverse following. Indeed, at the clubhouse, Peruvians, Columbians, Dominicans, Japanese, Puerto Ricans, South Asians, and black and white Americans mingle in friendly conviviality. Most grasp bottled water rather than beers. To open the event, mistress of ceremonies Abbey Plotkin welcomes us all, praises New Jersey dancers for their commitment to keeping mambo alive, and urges the crowd to remember the purpose of this event: "After the show, just get up and dance." (2) For the next half hour, Yip's performance group, Tumi Mambo, provides an exuberant display of "shines" (fancy footwork) and the complicated turn patterns for which Yip is noted. Toward the end of this performance, I am startled to recognize two young women I had previously met as the quiet, courteous girlfriends of some male salseros I had interviewed. Taking center stage, these diminutive Latinas transform themselves into supremely confident, if scantily clad, salsa goddesses, scintillating with sexual energy. The audience roars approval, and then the social dancing begins. All around the room, guests begin to step and turn in complicated, exuberant patterns to the rhythms of underground salsa. (3)
A vibrant, energetic dance poised between social dancing and theatrical display, contemporary, studio-based salsa is a nostalgic recuperation of a Nuyorican cultural practice, an insistence on sophisticated hipness, and an unapologetically sexual form of self-expression. (4) It flowered in New York in the late 1980s and had taken root in New Jersey by the mid-1990s. Over the last decade it has spread worldwide, creating a global network of dancers and dance occasions. In addition to a changing configuration of local scenes at salsa clubs, salsa studios, and salsa socials throughout the United States and abroad, salsa Web sites and salsa congresses have proliferated. The first congress, held in 1997 in Puerto Rico, introduced dancers from New York, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, and Cuba to one another's regional styles through performances, instruction, and high-level social dancing. Over the next ten years, the number and variety of congresses proliferated. Currently, at least one congress takes place somewhere in the world each week. Contemporary dancers recognize a distinction between, on the one hand, street, freestyle, or untrained salsa, which encompasses a geographically diverse set of dancing practices, and, on the other hand, the more elaborated regional styles developed and disseminated through studio instruction worldwide.
Along with their counterparts in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and elsewhere, New Jersey dance instructors have been instrumental in transferring the practice of salsa dancing from the bars, streets, and parties of the ethnic enclave to a more cosmopolitan and diverse social space. Their success raises the question of whether salsa's global spread domesticates what cultural studies scholars have identified in the pre-1990s-era salsa scene as its alternative, oppositional character (Delgado and Munoz 1997). In this view, "domestication" carries the negative connotation of something being tamed, drained of authenticity, and placed in the service of hegemonic reproduction (Desmond 1993-4). At the same time, the term "domestication" is strongly associated with the gendering of cultural space, implying the inclusion, even dominion, of women. Indeed, the centrality of the sexy woman to the performance of studio-based salsa suggests a connection between salsa's broadening embrace and an emerging space of expressive freedom for both Latina and non-Latina dancers. Indeed, the studio-salsa community has created a safe space for women's expression by disconnecting women's bodily performances from sexual invitation even as it appears to grant choreographic control to the male leader. Women's attraction to and growing influence within the salsa scene requires a reconsideration of the dynamics of partner dancing in studies of popular culture. (5)
The New York Revival
Any consideration of women's participation in the studio-salsa scene requires a review of the development of the salsa phenomenon generally. Salsa music represents a creative blending of Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other Afro-Caribbean traditions, which was forged in the new musical and social context of the New York barrio in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (Katz 2005; Berrios-Miranda 2004; Quintero Rivera 1998; Rosow and Dratch 1997; Marre  2000). Angel Quintero Rivera describes salsa as the deterritorialized expression of an alternative identity for people who had themselves been uprooted in the massive migrations from island to mainland, country to city, and Spanish-speaking to English-dominated social spaces. Marco Katz recalls that the intent of early salseros was to challenge the racial categorization of musical styles, both in the music industry and in public-school instruction, by recognizing and celebrating the hybrid nature of music in the Americas. As the music spread to the major Latino and Latin American urban centers, it mixed with local forms of musical/dance expression (Waxer 2002b). Throughout this globalizing, commercializing process, salsa musicians drew on nostalgic images of rural life and celebrated the earlier musicians and musical forms of Latin America to express an alternative to mainstream, often English-language, popular culture. Salseros voiced the perspective of the displaced, disempowered city dweller, the least of the least, and at the same time celebrated a Latin American legacy of racial and cultural mixing in the idea of La Raza, highlighting especially the significant African element of Latinidad. A Columbian aficionado connects the arrival of salsa in the port city of Buenaventura with black sailors, who brought records and cassettes of the music to the brothels where they stayed (Arias Satizabal 2002). At the same time, salsa carried with it the mark of urban sophistication. In Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, communities of connoisseur listeners emerged who bought the records produced in the distant cultural centers of New York, Cuba, and Mexico (Waxer 2002a).
Whereas Waxer recognizes salsa music as a symbol of both Latino marginality and urban sophistication, scholars interested in the dance have tended to view it as alternately expressing one or the other of these ideas. Celeste Frazer Delgado and Jose Munoz (1997) identify the polyrhythmic sensitivity of Latin dance generally as both a Latin-encoded African retention and a form of counterconsciousness. For them, dancing constitutes a metaphor for Latino rebellion against the harsh realities of immigrant life. Heralding the Palladium Ballroom at Broadway and Fifty-third Street both as the home of New York mambo by night and as a center for Puerto Rican political organizing by day, the authors discuss the two activities as part of a single political-cultural movement. In this way, they transform the strong association between music and countercultural politics of 1970s-era salsa into a historical constant. And yet, as Sydney Hutchinson (2004) and Priscilla Renta (2004) point out, the Palladium also served as a meeting ground for middle-class dancers from a variety of ethnic groups--Jewish, Italian, black--who were not necessarily involved in Puerto Rican politics in New York. In fact, one of the most famous Palladium dance couples--Cuban Pete and Millie--consisted of Nuyorican Pedro Aguilar and his Italian-descended partner, Carmela Donay (Hutchinson 2004:119).
According to Hutchinson (2004), the 1950s-era New York mambo represents the first North American dance style created by East Coast Latinos. Palladium dancers developed a dramatic, expressively elaborated style to accompany the musical experimentation of house bandleaders Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. In the 1970s, Nuyorican Eddie Torres revived and codified this earlier style, borrowing documentation and instructional techniques from the ballroom-studio tradition. In 1987, he trained a group of sixty dancers to perform at a Tito Puente concert at the Apollo Theater. This televised performance sparked a wave of enthusiasm and, Torres asserts, launched a second mambo dance craze in New York (Hutchinson 2004:123-5; Renta 2004:150-1).
Hutchinson notes that current aficionados demonstrate an almost religious devotion to this regionally specific dance style, now also called "New York" or "on-two" salsa. They have developed their own dance theory around its practice and have recovered the music of earlier eras, particularly the mambo of the 1950s and the salsa dura (heavy salsa) of the 1960s and 1970s, as their preferred dance music. (6) As a consequence, DJs who play the older music are known as on-two DJs and certain clubs, such as Club Cache in New York, as locations for on-two dancers. (7) Web sites such as Just Salsa, Descarga, and Salsa Freak describe the history of salsa music and cater to dancers hungry for cultural knowledge. The dancers' focus on technical virtuosity to the exclusion of other aspects of clubbing, however, has resulted in the adoption of another ballroom tradition, the dance social. Moreover, choreographed dance presentations represent an important theatrical dimension of the studio-based scene.
The on-two dance revival, then, holds two apparently contradictory impulses in tension. On the one hand, technical mastery through studio instruction has unmoored the practice of salsa dancing from the ethnic enclave, making it available to anyone who can pay for the lessons. On the other, ideas about mastery of the dance, especially those in the New York-generated on-two environment, remain embedded in a discourse of local heritage and cultural recovery. Responding to charges that the intense focus on technique robs the form of its oppositional force, a former Eddie Torres dancer countered, "In addition to resisting assimilation through salsa dance performance, Latinos/as in this community are also resisting marginalization from the mainstream stages of dance in New York, setting their sights on crossing over to the realm of 'art' and performing on Broadway" (Renta 2004:152). Just as salsa musicians dreamed of artistic recognition and commercial success in the 1970s (Baron 1977), so do contemporary studio-trained salsa dancers dream of being recognized and rewarded for their artistry.
Outside New York, a renewal of interest in salsa music and dance sparked the growth of studio instruction in several styles of salsa dancing. As many of the salseros I interviewed explained, second-generation Latinos turned to dance as a means of reconnecting with their cultural heritage. At the same time, the rapid increase in immigration from Latin America led to the Latinization of many areas of North American culture. Commercially, the crossover success of such artists as Ricky Martin reintroduced Latin musical forms to a global audience, provoking an interest in learning the dance among non-Latino as well as Latino fans. (8)
New Jersey's Diverse Salsa Community
Due to their proximity to New York City, New Jersey dancers have had difficulty establishing a separate identity and dance scene; nevertheless, they view themselves as distinct from and perhaps more eclectic than the New York dancers. Jerseysalsa, a Web site created by dance enthusiast Johann Pichardo, represents a clearinghouse for the salsa communities of Northern New Jersey. It provides listings for classes, clubs, socials, and congresses, and documents the local dance scene with pictures and videos. The primary division in the New Jersey studio-based salsa scene is stylistic--between the on-one and on-two crowds. On-one dancers break or step out from a closed (feet together) position on the first and fifth counts of an eight count measure. On-two dancers break on the second and sixth counts in response to the musical accenting of those counts in the rhythm provided by the conga drums (tumbao). This rhythmic emphasis is particularly evident in Puerto Rican salsa music. (9) The on-one style is associated with the dancing techniques prevalent in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, and it approximates the untutored rhythm of many street dancers, who respond to their own manner of hearing the music, breaking roughly but not consistently on the first and fifth counts. The shift in rhythmic emphasis in the on-two style makes it virtually impossible for a person dancing on-one to partner with a person dancing on-two, though some dancers practice both styles.
Puerto Rican Juan Calderon is the leading on-one instructor in Northern New Jersey. For over a decade, he has maintained the largest dance school in the area, with upward of eighty students attending weekly classes at five venues in and around the city of Elizabeth. Because he teaches on-one, Calderon is oriented away from New York City and toward companies, studios, and venues in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and Chicago. With his Cuban-American dance partner, Christina Piedra, he directs the Cultural …