Creativity & Cultural Labour, Cultures of Creativity, Representation

A PhD Overview in Three Acts: Cauldrons, Super Bowls and Export-grade Joy

Dr Camilo Solinti Soler Caicedo

On January 11th, 2020, on a final wrap-up fieldwork visit, I was approached by a hip-hop dancer, who had seemingly heard of my research on salsa:

Brayan: They told me you are doing a research to find out why the best dancers always come from the ghetto
Camilo: You could say… that’s exactly what I do
Brayan: Why is it then?”

In a few words, Brayan “Dancer LP” sent me back to the initial motivation of my doctoral research: why is that the most skilled and popular dancers of popular rhythms come from the most deprived or marginal environments and, furthermore, how can their embodied knowledge and skills be used to overcome such marginality?

The first part of the question, as explained to Brayan, could be presented by three factors: precarity, cross-fertilisation, and simmered learning. By examining my two case studies, namely the south of Bogota and the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth in London, I was able to identify that by the time salsa dancing became an established practice in the decades of the 70s and 80s, these areas were largely inhabited by populations of immigrants: African-descendants in the case of Bogota and Latin-Americans in the case of London.  These populations often counted on a very limited economic or social capital; hence their only option of investment was on forms of embodied capital, of which salsa dancing was one of them. However, in addition to their disposition to embodied practice, there was also the possibility of sharing and transmitting knowledge within these marginal, yet extremely diverse, communities of immigrants in both Bogota and London. Sharing knowledge, and an overall sense of community, in social events involving dance was crucial for the cross-fertilisation of salsa dance as capital in these areas, which I denominated cauldrons. Finally, the shared, collective and informal conditions that fostered this transmission of embodied knowledge allowed many people, who could not afford large investments of money or time, to develop their skill in a slow and community based mannered, to which I refer to as simmered learning.  Ultimately, this modality of diversified and simmered learning in precarious environments is what allowed the creation of an embodied capital that would become increasingly valuable with the expansion of the global market of salsa.

Precisely, the second part of the question that motivated my doctoral research explores the possibility of integrating that local knowledge to global markets to foster economic and social development. Less than a month after my chat with Brayan, on the 2nd of February, I celebrated my birthday by writing the conclusions of my thesis. Simultaneously, the Latin-pop singer Shakira celebrated her own birthday by performing – next to the other big Latina, Jennifer Lopez – at the Super Bowl half-time show in Miami, which reportedly reached 103 million live viewers on TV and has over 175 million views on Youtube. Interestingly enough, these two singers had commissioned dancers that I personally know from both the salsa scene in Colombia and the commercial dance scene in London, in both cases coming from the marginal cauldrons of these cities. The reasons for dancers of popular rhythms from marginal areas performing next to Shakira and JLo can be many, particularly considering that the performance makes strong statements on Latin identity, immigration, and women empowerment vis-à-vis the political climate in the US. However, from my research, I am able to propose that beyond the mesmerizingly fast footwork and impressive acrobatics of Colombian salsa, there are common elements between the local/embodied knowledge and the global markets that are linked to the colonial and post-colonial history of Afro-diasporic dances. First, it is not gratuitous that most of the dances used in this performance (from the extremely local champeta to the hyper-transnational commercial), as well as most popular dances around the world (from hip-hop to kizomba), are the product of the development of dances of African heritage in different parts of the world, predominantly the Americas. This particularly due to the marketisation of, but also empowerment through, human bodies and their movement that has been taking place since the slave trade and plantation systems in the Americas, which in turn has led to complex processes of transmission and identity of embodied knowledge (e.g salsa has been seen as either Afro-Antillean, the Caribbean, Nuyorican, New Yorker, Cuban or Latin at different times and places and by different communities).  To understand these complex processes of negotiation, I developed the crucial concept of alegropolitics in tandem with Professor Ananya Jahanara Kabir. This refers to the efficaciousness of these dances to communicate and transmit an affect related to joy, but specific to Latin dance, hence its Hispano/lusophone etymology. This alegria operates as a pleasant and positive affect that often attracts transnational audiences into many of the currently popular dances, thus granting them – and their original practitioners – a place in global markets. What is interesting of this specific type of joy – and which I believe contributes to the understanding of its use by Jlo and Shakira to perform immigration, gender equality and racial politics – is that it does not operate as a denial of suffering, discrimination or any other painful affect, but it is a rather powerful social instrument to reconcile pain and joy, and to process post-colonial traumas beyond barriers of intersectional class, gender and race identities.

Fast-forwarding another month to my Viva, on the 17th of March, I was delighted to see that both examiners were enthralled by this nuanced, multidirectional and intersectional approach to what I ultimately called the export of the embodied capital of Colombian salsa, and that it was decided I would receive a pass without corrections. Similarly, I am happy that my conceptual tools have helped other scholars in the development of their own analysis of social dance. Lockdown took place in many cities (including Bogota and London) within a few days, which has made the popular dance scene more precarious, yet even more resilient. This has made my analysis increasingly more relevant and, therefore, I am currently looking forward to further utilise the conceptual tools of my PhD in developing specific interventions in the dance industry to foster economic, social and emotional development.