At around nine on a Sunday morning, I arrive at The Beat, a dance non-profit organization located in a quiet, green neighborhood on Ninth Street, Berkeley. As I enter the small and cozy lobby, decorated with its studio’s history on its walls, I greet the worker at the front desk and sign up for “Afro Samba with Jacque Barnes.” Eager, I turn left into a small dance room with a smooth wooden floor, mirrors that cover the front wall, and a large window that welcomes the morning sun...
When a black, middle aged woman with short hair, patterned bell bottoms, and black jazz shoes enters the room and plays a samba song that I do not recognize, I realize that this is Jacque Barnes; her presence is bright and confident, just what she emits in this older photo as she steps to the beat of samba and connects with the drummer in the background. Jacque stands tall in front of the room and begins the warm up as students follow along: torso rolls, hip isolations, pelvic rotations. More women file in as we transition to across the floors and step combinations, and I get a sense of the racial makeup of the space: fourteen white middle-aged women, three black women, and one Mexican woman (me). As Jacque teaches samba technique, she also reminds us to acknowledge the style’s African roots and the role that oppression of black folks played in the dance form. The room falls silent with hard to read expressions, except for two black women who cheer in agreement. We immediately resume the combination, and a couple of white students ask for clarification on the steps. We finish the combination and end the class with grins and thank-yous...
(Photo Credit: from 'The Beat' website.)
Though I was in an Afro samba class, the environment and interactions I have just described are typical Westernized characteristics recognized in many dance spaces in the U.S., which repeatedly embed themselves into dance classes outside of white or European culture. Maintaining the traditional studio with mirrors and a wooden floor, the focus on technique, counts and individual growth, or appealing to the large number of white people who appear in Latinx dance classes are aspects that are naturally prioritized over the accurate history, purpose, and traditions of diverse dance styles in Latin America.
In class, Jacque reminded us that samba was about dancing “with passion and pride,with rhythm, and connecting with your community." Pioneers in samba, such as Xangô da Mangueira, often emphasize the crucial connection between samba music and dance, two art forms that are interconnected and “can never live without each other” (Bradley-Montes). The video below illustrates Jacque’s and other sambistas’ words; it is an example of the way samba is danced in some parts of Brazil: folks in the community gather together to share space, dance freely to the rhythm, and communicate all while maintaining a deep connection to the live musicians in their circle.
And yet, the samba class at the Beat continued to respect white European traditions in dance. For example, music was played from an electronic source, which marred the relationship between live samba music and dance. And though the students in class smiled and cheered for each other, the focus on technique and individual growth took away from the passion and importance of community expressed in samba. Jacque Barnes was intentful in bringing an accurate portrayal of samba by commenting on its history and crediting pioneers of the artform, but she was limited by the fact that most of the women in the space could only superficially connect to the roots or history of samba; because white women were the majority in the room, their presence and responses indicated the structure of the class. The white European influences that guided the environment and structure of samba class can be seen in the photo grid on the following slide.
(Video Credit: from Flavio Santos' 'Samba de Roda no Fuzuê de Aruanda.' Photo Credit: from the website 'Banda Feminina Batala.')
The inevitable presence of whiteness in Latinx dance classes often transforms these cultural spaces into ones that accomodate for the needs and interests of a white audience.This reality can be detrimental to the experiences of Latinx folks who seek to learn about their histories and connect with their cultures through dance, yet we find ourselves in the background, accommodating for a white space that ends up controlling our bodies and our language. Latinx folks who are in search of community or an understanding of our past can never truly experience that when the space is not created for us, and when European traditions of dance are praised at the expense of the accurate portrayals of Latin American dance styles and cultures.
The frustration I experienced in Jacque’s samba class was a familiar feeling from the majority of dance spaces I have been in. I truly appreciate Jacque’s efforts to recreate an accurate portrayal of samba, and I am grateful that the women in the space were kind; however, I also found myself trying to take as little space as possible, code switching and altering my “Mexicanness” to fit the tone of the space, reluctant to ask controversial questions to avoid making the white women in the space uncomfortable. One of my intentions in attending the class was to learn about the history, the people, and the culture of a country in Latin America, but the strong influence of whiteness in the space left me frustrated and with a superficial understanding of samba and Brazil in general.
If the presence of whiteness is so limiting and at times, harmful to the experience of Latinx folks in dance spaces, why does white, Western culture continue to overshadow Latinx dance classes? Because whiteness is a powerful, social construct that shapes and determines the culture and mentality of even the most trivial settings in America. The PBS documentary, “Race: The Power of an Illusion,” explains whiteness as a construct intertwined with racial ideologies, created with the intent to oppress people of color. The United States has operated through the ideology that white, European culture is superior to all others, and has used this to rob marginalized groups of political and social power (Adelman). Racist ideologies may not be as overt today, but the idea of a superior white culture is still very much alive and continues to operate in and beyond dance spaces in America. In his essay, “On Being White,” Richard Dyer asserts that “white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular” (Dyer 256). Whiteness has become so ingrained in the lives of people in the U.S., positioning itself at the center and overshadowing the cultures and spaces of non-white folks. The invisibility of whiteness forces us to accept it as a societal norm and live in a world in which people of color and other marginalized groups are conditioned to constantly perform in ways that reproduce whiteness and neglect their own cultural and intellectual experiences.
(Photo Credit: from the article, "Demystifying Internalized Oppression.")
In his essay, “Mythos or Mitos,” Jorge Huerta reminds readers that “a mural or painting can only tell its viewers so much about its message.. though a picture can say a thousand words, those words may be lost if that person viewing the image has no references, no connections to that image” (Huerta). Like the image in Huerta’s statement, samba loses its meaning when its complex history and cultural lineages are set aside to accommodate for a white space, an act that limits the experience and understanding of Latinx folks in the dance class. This process replicates itself beyond dance spaces in the U.S., reaching schools, homes, and other institutions that continue to reject or superficially address the culture and contributions of Latinx folks. With no references to our ancestry and our complex histories, we as Latinx folks miss out on the opportunity to appreciate the richness of our histories and to question our experience and positionality in the U.S.; instead, we continue to internalize the inaccurate, colonial portrayals of our own cultures. In this way, whiteness continues to be accepted and performed in America in order to oppress Latinx folks and other marginalized groups: when we are conditioned to praise and internalize white culture at the expense of reclaiming our own diverse histories and experiences, we are also physically, socially, and psychologically controlled by ideologies that serve to benefit white groups. This is a problem that needs to be consciously addressed throughout spaces in America.
(Photo Credit: from the article, "Samba de Roda.")