This is an article that has been bubbling away in the back of my mind for some time now.  It’s about labels.  Specifically, it’s about the dangers of becoming too invested in, or being too stringent in the application of, labels.  Before I get into the negative side of labels, I want to acknowledge that labels can be useful in helping us make sense of the world, and navigating our way through it.  Labels can be used to define taxonomies that allow us to have objective discussions with other people about various subjects, to share ideas and unite people with a common purpose.  However, labels can also be restrictive.  If taken to the extreme, labels can lead to indoctrination to a particular idea.

I want to share a little about how I have observed labels being used in the dance scene in not so positive ways.

Labeling Music Genres

This has always been a source of minor amusement for me.  I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, and my journey of musical appreciation has seen me pass through different phases.  I had my punk-rock phase, my heavy metal phase, my grunge phase, my classical phase, my hip-hop phase, my rap phase, my acoustic guitar ballad phase, and more sub-phases over the years.  Despite my changing musical interests, I have observed a constant.  That constant is people’s tendency to get very hung up on classifying music into genres.  In my punk phase, I listened to people argue about whether Blink-182 or Green Day were really punk-rock.  In my heavy metal phase, I listened to people argue about whether Metallica were still heavy metal or not.  In my rap phase, I listened to people argue about whether Eminem was real rap.  These days I’m listening to a lot of latin music, and I listen to people argue about whether Marc Anthony is salsa or not.

I love Marc Anthony.  There.  I said it.  I think he’s a great singer.  I like some of his songs.  He surrounds himself with other great artists, and the production of his music is excellent.  I couldn’t care less if people think that Valio La Pena is salsa or not, I’ll dance to it.  I love his renditions of Hector Lavoe songs, such as Que Lio, and I’ll listen to it in my kitchen making food, even when I’m not dancing.  I understand people’s fascination with learning about music and its roots, and that this necessitates some sort of classification of music.  However, for me, there are more important questions than, “is (song x) really (genre y)?”  I’m more concerned with questions like, “does this song move me emotionally?”  If you truly believe that your enjoyment of music is dependent it’s genre label, then I suggest that you might be missing out.

Labeling Dance Styles

Many people get fixated upon labeling dance styles, and I’ve seen this one manifest itself in various ways.  I’ve lost count of the number of times, I’ve heard or read recently, “that’s not salsa/bachata/kizomba”.  I remember at a congress in Parma, a French lady (at least, she sounded French to me) refused a dance, because I didn’t dance “Cuban style”, even though the song was by a band from New York City, with predominantly Puerto Rican artists, playing music with Afro-Cuban roots.  It’s funny how Cubans, you know, people actually from Cuba, don’t commonly refer it as “Cuban style”, they generally just call it “salsa” or maybe “casino”.  It’s mainly people from outside Cuba that apply that label.  From my observation, the label “Cuban style” or “Cuban salsa” doesn’t mean salsa as it’s danced in Cuba, rather, generally it translates to, “any circular salsa variant that us linear style dancers don’t do (even if it’s cumbia, which originated in Colombia).”

Anyway, this particular lady refused my invitation to dance that song with me, even though I had seen her dance linear style (very well) earlier in the evening.  Perhaps it was because somebody had told her, that “one must dance ‘Cuban style’ to ‘Cuban salsa'”.  Perhaps she read it on an online salsa forum somewhere.  Perhaps it was really because she just didn’t like the shape of my head, and she was using a different excuse to spare my feelings.  The point I’m trying to make isn’t about a lady declining an offer to dance.  Also, the point is not so I can gleefully point out the different between cumbia and casino.  It’s about the labels that so many of us cling to so tightly, even when it defies logic, and even if it interferes with our enjoyment of dance, or potentially limits our opportunities.

Also, dance is constantly evolving.  Since I started writing this article, some artist, in a studio somewhere, has changed the dance of salsa.  Since I started writing this paragraph, kizomba has already morphed into something slightly different.  In dance, as in life, they only constant is change itself.  From my observation, people who refuse to change, and fight against the natural evolution of anything, are setting themselves up for disappointment.  There’s a saying, “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”  This is what I’m reminded of whenever somebody jumps up on their soapbox about how one particular dance to one particular song is or isn’t salsa/bachata/kizomba, and so on.

Labeling Dance Ability

Many people love to apply labels to dancing and dancers in terms of ability.  These labels are sometimes referred to as levels.  At congresses, workshops are labelled as “beginner”, “intermediate”, “advanced”, or “open” level.  We talk about dancing with “beginners”.  We rave about that “master” class with artist x and artist y.  I do see some value in categorising classes into levels.  It clusters dancers into smaller, more manageable sized groups for teaching purposes and allows content to be pitched so that it is most relevant to the majority of dancers in the class.  It can emphasise a culture of progression and development as a dancer.  However, problems can arise when dancers get too emotionally invested in their level.  It can cause dancers to feel that they need to rush their development in order to attain an arbitrary level, causing them to miss out on crucial fundamental concepts, which simply take time to assimilate.  Similarly, it can cause some naturally talented dancers to limit their own growth, because  they believe that they are “only a beginner” or have “only been dancing for x years”.

I’ve also observed the labels “teacher” and “student” sometimes applied in negative ways.  I’ve noticed some teachers stop learning as soon as they label themselves as a “teacher”.  I’ve seen students stifle their development, because they still view themselves as a “mere student”, even though they have progressed further than many other dancers who call themselves teachers. The roles of student and teacher do not have to be mutually exclusive.  In a way, we are all both teachers and students of dance, as well as many other disciplines in life.  We can be both student and teacher at the same time, and we can be student and teacher in different realms at the same time.

I had the privilege of attending a musicality class by Oliver Pineda a little while ago, and he said something to the class like, “we are all still learning.  I’ll be watching you guys social dance later tonight, and one of you will do something, that I haven’t seen before, and I’ll take that idea and use it later.”  One thing that I’ve noticed about the greatest dancers is that they have a real thirst for learning.  If dancers like Oliver Pineda are still learning, and are open to learning from people who are far less experienced than they are, then what is our excuse for not doing so too?

Labeling Ourselves

I’ve chosen to write about labeling ourselves last, but this is the one I feel most passionate about.  Throughout my dance journey, I’ve witnessed many people, including myself, apply labels to themselves that cripple their development as dancers.  I’ve heard people say things like, “I’m too old/out-of-shape/uncoordinated to learn to dance.”  I’ve heard, “I’m a such a slow learner.  I’ll never get it.”  I’ve heard, “I just wasn’t born with rhythm.  I’ll never be able to dance like him/her.”  I’ve even heard people say things like, “dancing is ‘gay’.  I’ll never do that.”

I invite you to consider that these terms are just labels.  They are only true, if you believe that they are true.  You can either choose to let them define you, or you can throw them away.  I believe that, if you really love something, you’ll probably find a way to make it happen, and that you won’t let anyone ever tell you that, “you can’t”, especially yourself.  Take it from me, a nerdy, white IT guy, with two left feet (see, all those pesky labels again), whose been told a number of times he can’t dance.  I started learning to dance at age 28, with zero former dancing experience.  It was not easy.  In fact, learning to dance is probably the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it.

In summary, I invite you to become more aware of the labels that you apply, as well as the labels are applied to you, and to identify the labels that you have invested yourself in.  I also invite you to challenge these labels, and, if they don’t serve you, to let them go.

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  1. says: Marius

    Thank you! Great article 👍👍 Very important, I think. We should be very aware of labels! In most cases teachers are the creators of labels, like for simpler communication, as you said it, and for branding their products, too. So I suppose that teachers know that they are using labels all over the place.

    While learning dancing, it can be helpful for the learner to have some labels, but we need to keep being able to put the labels aside. To learn to dance is not to memorize labels, it’s to develop feeling for music and movement. A dancer does not need labels.

    Especially confused are people who develop a strong two-way binding between a label and the object they attached the label to.

    Like when you show them a certain step and they automatically think “ah, that’s Salsa!” or you say “Salsa” and they automatically think of a certain step. We all know what hell of hard time my teacher will have trying to convince me that this step is not only “Salsa”, it can be part of something else, too – and on the other hand that “Salsa” is not only this step, there are many other things that can be “Salsa”, too.

    Yes, let’s be aware of labels. Let’s become not “label memorizers”, but find the essence behind the labels and become “musical movers” 👍💪

  2. says: Fred

    So, we seem to hear about these excuses for not dancing with other people just about all the time. By now we are familiar with the marvelous variety of excuses out there, from the “I was just going to drink some water,” to the pervasive “I am taking a break right now,” or, one of my favorites, by performers, “we are going to perform.” Then, there’s the one that tempts karma, “I am injured, strained my knee etc etc, fill in the body part/’injury,'” which I don’t think is wise! Karma has ways of doing things! There’s all sorts out there. Of course, it’s often not long before the serial practitioners of these great lines miraculously manage to hop onto the dance floor to confirm and compound the misery of the unfortunate individuals at the receiving end. My point: this art seems to be so interesting and quite widely practiced by both gents and ladies, it seems deserving of an essay to explore its many fascinating aspects, if one may. Will somebody devote an essay to this phenomenon, for the benefit of the readers? It’s been touched a bit here and there while discussing other subjects, but never really been dealt with with the heft it seems to demand, if one may. Perhaps, such an examination, among others, might go some way to enlightening dancers about this question or even save some a bit of misery at the hands of some of the practitioners of this “dark” art.

  3. says: Fred

    Thanks for your essay. I think its an important and interesting question you discuss. If I may make a contribution, yes, I would agree, labels are a double-edged sword, if one may. They have positive attributes, but they can also have negative attributes when misused.
    Perhaps, the more common forms of troublesome labels for most people, are those to do with socio-political questions, tribes, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, politics etc.
    When misused, they can get us to adopt divisions which can cause harm.
    For salsa, I’d say people are free to choose what they want or don’t want to dance to, obviously. However, it can get too picky and negatively affect folks’ fun, as you point out.
    Personally, I don’t mind dancing to most stuff, but my preference, if I have a choice, is what is labeled as “mambo.” I do dance salsa, linear or a bit of “cuban” to the various stuff that’s often called salsa, from romantica etc to mambo NYC style hector lavoe etc, but I consciously really do prefer to dance my salsa to NYC mambo style, the fania stuff.
    I usually dance to Marc Anthony’s stuff and I think its ok for folks to dance to whatever they wish, but I do think salsa, especially NYC style works better with mambo style/linear salsa.
    I’ve danced the various styles over the years around the world, and I think people can and should have fun with whatever they like or what works for them, obviously.
    However, in my view, the various salsa forms work best with some specific forms of salsa music.
    Timba probably goes better with “cuban” dancing, and mambo style seems to work best with mambo style salsa music.
    It’s not right or wrong, but I’d say it’s better, if one can, in my experience. Would I refuse a dance cause the music is not ideal? No. That’s not a good enough reason I think.
    Plus, it also depends on the given song. There’s honestly poor songs in every salsa sub genre I think. There’s crappy mambo, crappy timba, bachata etc. Plus, it depends on one. Somebody might like a song and another person might dislike the same song.
    Personally, I honestly think Marc Anthony’s stuff is crappy for linear/mambo style salsa, but I can see why people might like it, I sometimes like it, too, though often I honestly feel like grrrrh!!
    To absolutely say no to it though is perhaps a bit too much. Sometimes, too, it’s an acquired taste! May be in future I might like it. Labeling the music, such as mambo, for me I think has helped me identify the genre of salsa I like better than the others, and one I think works better for me personally. I still go to places where people don’t dance to it or do other stuff, but I understand myself and my taste better I think and hope. I am more knowledgeable about my personal salsa taste, I think.
    Also, one thing I’ve seen, as alluded to earlier, is people sometimes might think they don’t like a given style of music or dance, but they may be wrong about themselves!! It may be due to another reason they don’t in fact understand yet! It may be that that given song in whatever style isn’t good for them personally, or the particular way of dancing the salsa style.
    There’s cuban salsa music I like, and there’s stuff I don’t like, there’s mambo I love and I’ve heard mambo I can’t wait to delete from my collection. And there’s mambo dancers I love and wish to emulate, and mambo dancers I hope and pray I don’t look like on the dance floor! It’s specific personal taste for that particular thing, and sometimes it can be confused with the whole genre! I like some rap music, and some I think is a waste of time, it may not mean I like all of it or dislike all of it! I like some romantica for mambo style salsa, but some of it, perhaps, may not be ideal, it doesn’t mean all romantica is unwelcome for mambo style salsa. Perhaps, it’s when we make blanket judgements that we miss-identify ourselves and start to go astray, which is perhaps a normal thing. May be, with time we understand ourselves better and re-calibrate back to more sensible positions, hopefully!!

  4. says: Fistan

    Maybe she really didn’t like the shape of your head and crafted a creative excuse to try to not hurt your feelings. A lady once told me, “I’m sorry but I can’t dance with you because I have a gardening injury”, and then not even 30 seconds later was on the dance floor with someone else. Maybe your next article can be about the dangers of gardening before going to a Salsa social 😉