Bachata – The Original Dirty Dancing
Thoughts from a student of bachata in Edinburgh with ifYOUwalkYOUcanDANCE by R.C.R.
Barely a week passes without a new dance fitness programme or DVD sweeping the nation. The past five years have seen an explosion in workouts and franchises which cater to the growing popular interest in dance-themed entertainment (Sky 1’s Got To Dance, the Beeb’s flirtation with the American format of So You Think You Can Dance, and the ubiquitous, riotously successful Strictly). We’ve had everything: from the crowd-pleasing energy of Zumba to the seductive sinuousness of burlesque, from the dancehall-based swagger of booiaka to the bootcamp in strength-training that is pole-fitness, from the butt-obsession of twerking to the languid elegance of ballet-fit. And now comes bachata: the original dirty dancing dating back to the Dominican Republic of the 1960s, a genre so notorious for its association with lust, vice and the poor that it was – until the past couple of decades – pariah in its country of origin.
Britain’s taste for Latin dancing is nothing new, but until recently there has been a bias towards the speed and flashy choreography of salsa, samba and the cha-cha. Bachata is usually danced more gently. Emphasis is placed on the connection and chemistry between partners, responding to musical accents and interpreting the rhythmic sequences of the music. Make no mistake, however: experienced bachata dancers flavour steps with swing and attitude, responding to musical phrasing with rapid footwork. This advanced bachata, though less ostentatious than other genres, is equally complex and probably more difficult to dance with grace and confidence. There is debate over the origins of the word, but apocryphally, it was first coined by Dominicans as a generic term for a bawdy backyard party in less affluent districts of the Republic, borrowing some styles, ideas, and rhythms from the romantic Cuban bolero as well as various other genres. Yet by the 1970s and 80s, its lyrical themes both reflected and helped shape more negative social attitudes to the dance. Instead of heartbreak and passion (bachata de amargue) songs dealt with sex, adultery and heavy drinking. Furthermore, the physical closeness and sensual movements characteristic of the dance made it an easy target for those who wished to scapegoat bachata as a source and a symptom of working-class debauchery. In the aftermath of Rafael Trujillo’s bloody dictatorship, the nation found itself plunged into a socioeconomic crisis. With few other outlets for their frustration and pain, the country’s most deprived citizens turned to the escapist, often self-destructive concepts of the new wave of bachata music, and for a number of years, bachata – both music and dance – was shunned by ‘respectable’ Dominican society.
Bachata’s revival has been a long time coming. Leonardo Paniagua is a prolific Dominican bachata musician idolised in his country, whose career (starting in 1973) has already produced a back catalogue numbering nearly one thousand songs. Possessing an unrelenting work ethic even to this day, Paniagua is largely credited with developing bachata romantica, bittersweet love songs of loss and suffering – a movement which re-energised and reimagined bachata music as expressive of high emotion rather than base impulses. He recalls the post-dictatorship years of Dominican culture as being both a blessing and a curse for the genre. ‘Certain classes didn’t want to accept bachata. They didn’t think it was ever going to amount to much, and to them it was practically criminal. On the other hand, more and more people were drawn to it, they kept coming to listen. Maybe it was the danger or maybe the music. Either way, I said to myself, this music is good and I will continue.’
As the rural poor migrated to Dominican cities in search of work, they took with them the music of Paniagua and his compatriots. Despite the fact that radio stations refused to play bachata music on account of its supposed immorality, urban centres – and later, major US cities where thousands of Dominican nationals had settled in pursuit of the American dream – were becoming mesmerised by its distinct musical signature and dance style. Juan Luis Guerra’s pivotal 1992 album paved the way for the rise of the hugely popular bachata group Aventura in the early 2000s, followed closely by founding member Romeo Santos’ solo efforts and the pop-crossover bachata of New Yorker, Prince Royce. If any of these names sound even remotely familiar, you’ve probably got the Fast and Furious film franchise to thank; collaborations with artists like Drake, Usher and Nicki Minaj in the past couple of years have also nudged bachata closer to a mainstream audience. For most of us, however, the billion-dollar Latin music industry – let alone this relatively niche sub-genre – isn’t even on the extreme edges of our cultural radars. Yet this globalisation of bachata music has, since the late 2000s, spawned a proliferation of dedicated classes, workshops and festivals across continental Europe, a popularity that has brought with it the urge to modernise and reinterpret the dance style by borrowing from ballroom genres. By all accounts, these relatively recent splinter styles (including, but not limited to, bachatas moderna and sensual as well as the rather splendid portmanteau of bachatango) are divisive. Proponents praise the evolution of bachata as a desirable process that keeps the dance fresh and relevant, whilst devotees of the original Dominican style perceive a fundamental disconnect between the historical culture of the dance, its soulful music and the flamboyant choreography of such fusion approaches. Whatever your stance, the genre has gathered huge momentum in Scotland since 2011 with followings in every major urban centre. As across the unlikely grey sweep of Scottish cities bachata schools of all allegiances are popping up in abundance, is our genetic national aversion to public displays of dancing about to become a thing of the past?
Bachata’s history as a real-life melding of Footloose and that sweaty bit in Dirty Dancing where Baby stumbles upon what looks like a mass orgy of gorgeous people doing the mashed potato (amongst other things) gives it instant appeal as the kind of dancing your parents would recoil from. As I climb the stairs of Edinburgh’s Caledonian Backpackers’ Hostel in preparation for my first taste of a Dominican bachata class, however, I’m beginning to get slightly anxious. What if you’re not naturally snake-hipped? What if the thought of being that close to a virtual stranger gives you the heebie-jeebies? I’m suddenly assailed by flashbacks of the stilted Scottish country dancing every high-school student was forced to endure under blinding fluorescent gym-hall strip lights, and am tempted to turn round and flee before I’m right back there holding hands with a boy who I’ve seen picking his nose in maths.
In spite of this, as I step over the threshold my fears are brushed away. The room is a dimly lit, sparsely furnished upper-storey hall with floor-length windows opening out onto the West-End of Princes Street. Battered leather sofas are clustered around low coffee tables pushed against the wall, with a lone pool table in the back corner and a colourful, fairy-light adorned bar dominating the lower half of the room. A low stage hunkers in the back, and there’s a general air of grungy authenticity to the place. If it wasn’t for the horrendously low temperature and the constant drizzle, it’s easy to believe you might have stumbled upon a bar in one of the downtown barrios of the Dominican Republic. The class is populated by a much more diverse clutch of people than might have been expected, with everyone from couples in their fifties to teenagers fresh from a day of high school exam prep clustering around the teachers as they walk us through the basic steps.
Those teachers themselves are something to behold. A professional dance partnership dating back several years, they are statuesque bronzed and blonde Laura Tiguerona, a native Edinburgher who speaks flawless Spanish and is a trained instructor in various genres of Latin dance; and Dominican bachata champion Alex el Gato, tattooed, wearing trainers and sporting a fantastic blonde afro, who brought his dance company teaching bachata, salsa and merengue to Edinburgh directly from the streets of Santo Domingo almost two decades ago.
Without a scrap of sequins, spandex or fake tan in sight, they look like the kind of dancers for whom you would clear space to applaud in a club as they spontaneously perform to a song which happens to take their fancy; the kind of real, feeling dancers to whom substance is inherently more important than superficiality. Tonight they are joined by Karel Kalaf, a professional musician and singer also from the Dominican Republic who has played with Latin Grammy award winners in front of sixty-thousand strong crowds. He’s here in preparation for Calentura Dominicana, a weekend of workshops and fiestas scheduled for the end of May, in which the hostel will be transformed into a riot of blue, red, and white as the public flock in for day-long bachata styling bootcamps, performances, live-music and a late-night party.
‘Most new styles of music come from “low” places – places with prostitution, drugs, drinking,’ Kalaf points out. ‘If you look at tango, it’s the same thing – it came from the bordellos in Buenos Aires and now it’s being danced in ballrooms. Bachata was seen as low for decades firstly, because of the lyrics, and secondly, because of the people who danced it. They were poor, they didn’t have access to foreign, imported music. After Juan Luis Guerra released Bachata Rosa – with good lyrics, presented by a highly respected musician, professionally recorded – all of a sudden it was a question of “I won’t dance to that bachata, but Juan Luis? I’ll dance to him.” He changed its image, but kept the essence – that’s the important thing. I’ve been on tour with him and played in front of thirty-thousand people, all with their hearts melting for this music. It’s powerful.’
Bachata music itself is unmistakeable, often written in a minor key with a tranche of distinguishing instruments. Kalaf gestures at the equipment he has brought along for Calentura Dominicana, explaining that there are ‘five basic instruments in bachata; first and second guitar, bass guitar, bongos and guirra’ (the guirra looks disconcertingly like a glorified cheese grater). These instruments are what lend the bachata its instantly recognisable, heart-melting sound. Along with vocals, new instruments are added as different musicians adapt the style, but, Kalaf stresses, ‘these five instruments are core.’
It’s all very well peaceably absorbing this dreamily seductive bachata music from the safety of a bar-stool, but what of the actual dancing?
‘The basic steps of bachata are easy to pick up,’ Tiguerona assures the class. ‘The beauty is that you can learn the fundamentals in less than one hour and hit the dance floor ready to practise your style. After that, you’re always improving as a dancer. You’re learning in class and on the dancefloor for years, developing and inventing with every new partner. What I love about Dominicans is that each and every one of them has developed their own individual style of bachata, they infuse their character, their heart and their soul into each and every song. This is what we like to encourage in our students, and learning with us is exactly the same as learning in Santo Domingo.’
Indeed, the first ten minutes are pleasingly manageable. Tiguerona and El Gato demonstrate a series of simple eight-count steps that we copy individually at first, before moving into leader/follower partnerships. It all seems very sweet and innocent. I’m finding it inexplicable that a dance style like this could cause a country such moral tumult – and then a voice in the back row chuckles something barely audible about crotch-rubbing, and I’m halfway to the door.
Unfortunately, the mutterer has been overheard. El Gato laughingly interjects, pausing the class momentarily to clear the air. ‘When I started teaching in Dancebase here as a fresh-faced young Latino with only basic English in 1999, most people had never even heard of my nation’s music, or my national dance. I felt like I was the only Dominican in the country – I was definitely the only Dominican dance teacher. Over the years, the scene has diversified and that’s great, but as soon as something is popular it can be exploited, usually because there’s money to be made. And what you’re talking about,’ he gestures at the mutterer, now sheepishly silent, ‘is not bachata. All these offshoots of bachata – sensual, moderna, acrobatica – are taking the music of bachata, the popularity of bachata, and using it to teach something that often bears no resemblance to true bachata. It’s rewriting decades of history and ignoring a whole culture.’
Tiguerona agrees. ‘Inevitably, with the explosion of tourism in the Dominican Republic, the dance has developed within the Dominican and has changed as it has travelled across the world. Alex and I place emphasis on learning how to move and how to engage with bachata in partner, as opposed to prescribing a lengthy set of technically complicated turn-patterns and choreography. That was never what the dance was about. It’s not what the music suggests, either.’
As we rotate partners, without further mention of crotch-rubbing, it becomes clear that love of bachata spans sex, age and nationality. Tiguerona tells of two of her longest-term students who are actually approaching their seventies (‘although you would never guess to look at them, dancing together like love-struck teenagers.’) Joaquin, my first partner, is an IT consultant hailing from Kirkcaldy (via Venezuela). He confides: ‘In Latin countries, dancing is an essential social skill to have, but I developed my passion, especially for bachata, here in my beloved Scotland almost accidentally: I rented a room in Kirkcaldy and a few weeks after I moved in, my landlady (and now dear friend) invited me to join her and her friends to a trip to Edinburgh for a salsa night. That was almost four years ago, and in these years I have met the most amazing people. I have experienced the joy of dancing to a level I never thought I could. Bachata is my passion and bachata people are my people!’
Next to us, a group of women overhear our discussion and begin sharing their own stories of what attracted them to learning bachata. Lorna, a pharmacist from Edinburgh, says she was inspired after several holidays to Miami. ‘I came home determined to involve myself in a brand new genre of dance. I wanted my next trip to Miami to be different, I wanted to be on the dance floor not watching from the side lines.’ Ioanna, an archaeologist from Sparta who organises an annual tango festival in the capital, adds that, ‘here is the only place in Edinburgh where I can dance bachata like I did in Santo Domingo and Las Terrenas, at those colmados where older and younger Dominicans dance with respect and care for the follower, where feeling the music and the dance is more important than exaggerated styling.’ Jan, a volunteer from Fife, recalls that she started salsa with her female friends but was soon attending classes with her husband Dave, vice-president of an engineering company: ‘We loved the classes and were amazed to find such authentic Latin dancing so close to home. It was great that we were able to follow Alex and Laura into Edinburgh. Thanks to them, we added a new dimension to our life and made some lovely friends whom we now consider more like family.’
My next two partners offer yet more insights into the love of bachata. Harold is a young Dominican graphic design student who moved to Edinburgh last year. He was brought up dancing bachata in the house with his mother, and feels drawn to the classes here because the music and the style reminds him of his heritage. ‘I don’t really like bachata sensual, or bachata moderna. For me, that’s not the meaning of bachata. Maybe it’s because I’m Dominican, but I feel if people are going to learn, they have to know the real dance, the real history and where it comes from, otherwise it’s disrespectful to our culture, and it’s not true.’
Similarly for Meshari, a masters student from Saudi Arabia, it’s about how evocative this style of dance can be: ‘It makes so much sense of the music. It doesn’t have to be about physical movements. Feelings and emotions are where this kind of dancing begins, from the inside.’
The class wraps up for the evening, with students peeling off into couples to practise what they’ve learned while in-house DJ Tigre gears up for an evening of social dancing. The playlist is vast, and many of the students react enthusiastically to bachatas they have already identified as personal favourites. For Tiguerona, however, there’s something inimitable about bringing the national music of the Dominican Republic to life here in Scotland:
‘That’s what we’re looking forward to with Calentura Dominicana. Bringing live bachata music to Scotland has been my dream since I attended my first of many bachata concerts in Boca Chica in 2006. We welcomed Karel and [bachata singer] Julay July to our inaugural Dominican Independence Day event in 2014, and we’re so excited to be celebrating bachata again in such a vibrant way, at the end of this month.’
On the dancefloor, as the couples wordlessly, playfully engage with one another for three minutes of completely unmediated connection, it is clear that the rise of bachata in Scotland – as with its original incarnation as a dance of the working classes in the Dominican Republic of the 1960s – is about much more than simply ‘dirty dancing’. Across our cities, there is a growing underground of sexy, skilful, rhythmic dancers bonding over something raw, elemental and based in feeling. It is bringing a hugely diverse swathe of people (native Scots and those who have made Edinburgh their adopted home, teenagers and retired couples) together in a soulful, honest way that I certainly hadn’t experienced before. Growing up in Scotland, hugging friends on their birthdays could be interpreted as over-familiarity and you weren’t normal unless you harboured a ferocious hatred of at least three parts of your body. In the bachata world, kisses on each cheek constitute a casual greeting, people aren’t afraid to hold one another, and bodies are revered for how they can move, their strength and stamina, rather than for their aesthetics. Bachata in Edinburgh is providing a little oasis of interaction, closeness, and emotionality in a society that is increasingly forcing people to quash those most human of impulses. It is perhaps, exactly because of how it makes people feel that bachata can exercise such a claim on those who dance it. This, coupled with the fact that socioeconomic conditions in Britain are set to deteriorate under policies of austerity and privation over the next five years, goes some way towards explaining its resurgent popularity in such an unexpected time and place. In times of want, hardship and lack of human empathy, there’s much to be said for an art form capable of bringing people together. As my new friend Joaquin so aptly phrases it, ‘I did not choose bachata, bachata chose me.’
*Calentura Dominicana takes place on Saturday May 30th at the Edinburgh Caledonian Backpackers Hostel, 3 Queensferry Street, Edinburgh. For tickets and more information, visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/1569994186606888/ or contact Laura Tiguerona via facebook or email@example.com