Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles, by Cindy Garcia (Duke; 208 pages; $79.95)
Reviewed by Robert Smith
It takes two to tango, but LA-style salsa demands much more: at least one well-heeled pair of dancers and an admiring audience. For in Los Angeles, salsa dancing is a real production governed by unwritten rules that are nonetheless quite visible to the salsa cognoscenti. Apparently what amateur Angelenos do while twirling each other round their living rooms after watching Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights doesn’t cut it, according to Cindy Garcia, a professor of theater and dance whose Salsa Crossings: Dancing Latinidad in Los Angeles delineates the dizzying turns salsa takes on and off the dance floor — twists that most casual spectators might not appreciate.
The world of LA-style salsa that Garcia reveals is a select meritocracy that won’t admit dancers with the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, and, especially, the wrong moves. Serious salseros and salseras must submit their bodies and movements to pedantic correction, for they must not betray markings of certain class or national origins. Particularly, the LA-salsa style that Garcia classifies as a “sequined” latinidad distinguishes itself from clothing that is easily identifiable with “la limpieza,” the cleaning industry, or other thankless, low-paying, service sector labor. Beyond the cultivation of an acceptable look, comportment on the dance floor is of utmost importance. To pass muster salsa technique should be specific to LA, for, unfortunately, among Los Angeles-salsa connoisseurs, “dancing like a Mexican” (or, more generally, “like an immigrant”) has become the most pejorative simile.
Those exceptionally adept at LA-style salsa have, even if only superficially, established the most distance between their nightclub identities and some of the most troubled history behind their choreography: the effects of racism, income disparity, gender politics, and anti-immigrant vitriol. Yet, as Garcia shows, salsa’s dance-floor revolutions aren’t just escapist fantasy—the most competitive dancers circulate upwards in a “salsa hierarchy” that rewards the paradoxical combination of conformity and innovation. In several clubs around Los Angeles, Garcia observed dancers attempting to better themselves and best each other in performing a conspicuously LA-style salsa. Salsa Crossings offers an insightful guide to reading these dancers who might look like they’re just having fun.
Photo courtesy of Gabriel Madrigal Photography.