Spanish classroom chronicles: Latin Dances, leaders, and followers.

When my current employer first hired me to work at this progressive education institution 11 years ago, I knew I had to do more than “teach Spanish.” Like many of these independent schools, the more you can do outside the academics, the better.

Interviewer: In addition to teaching, can you do dorm duty?

Me: Yes!

Interviewer: What about coaching?

Me: Absolutely! Fútbol (soccer).

Interviewer: Alright then, what else? Do you do any visual arts?

Me: Hmm. Nope, but I can dance.

Interviewer (con un tono de emoción que no le había escuchado durante toda la entrevista): Salsa Dance? Yes! We love Salsa, you know, Dirty Dancing, Hips don’t lie, kids will love this!

Suspiré profundamente. No era eso lo que tenía en mente. That was definitely not the idea of Latin Dance I had. Long sigh, again!

As some of you already know, I was born and raised in Cuernavaca Morelos México. One of my first jobs ever, at age 14th, was to be hired as a professional chambelán. You know, el bailarín de los vals. The one who would make the quinceañera look good. The backup dancer in a tuxedo.

I remember the payment for the quinceañeras to be meager, but the times were fun! I had rehearsed so many times the uno dos tres, uno dos tres of the waltzing, the posture, the frame, and the punta-talón that we all had to do in almost perfect synchrony. Many times, the quinceañera knew very well how to do this, but our job was more than just dancing; it was all about building trust and confidence.

This was, at least, the experience I remember en los años noventas, when we used to dance to Chayanne’s tiempo de vals, followed by a well-done baile moderno; with Fey’s Azucar Amargo or Kabah with La Calle de las Sirenas. Good times, con desveladas incluídas.

What I also remember was how much sexism and gender roles there were in many of our dances. A Quinceañera was often told they had to make minimal efforts while many of us had the job of leading, carrying, escorting, and making sure we all modeled what a true caballero should be like.

Una dama, like the quinceañera, was often seen as fragile, delicate, never had I ever questioned that. It was, after all, parte de la cultura. I didn’t know that back then, pero con el tiempo, me cayó el veinte.

Back to el estado de las montañas verdes, where I continue to navigate the waters of the progressive education bubble, I have learned to appreciate more and more the multiple chances to teach and learn more about my profession. The hilltop where I’ve spent a decade teaching Spanish, coaching fútbol, and teaching Latin Dance as an evening activity has also become a place of inspiration to constantly better myself not only as an educator but as an inmigrante que cuestiona y se cuestiona… and I’m starting el onceavo with the anxiety of how the pandemic will affect the upcoming year.

(addendum, this testimony is prepandemic, so please, procedan a leer estas líneas con esa información en mente)

Érase una vez una clase de Español 4 que decidió pasar la hora en el estudio de danza. I had crafted an entire hour of teaching a choreography sin hablar ni una palabra de inglés, with consistent results among the group of students I had been teaching.

It all went from asking for consent: puedo tomar tu mano, tu hombro -not hombre, not hambre-, directions: arriba, derecha, vuelta, manos extendidas, pero no como las del jazz, porfa, and recaping at the end of the session: ¿qué aprendiste hoy? ¿Qué te gustó más? ¿Qué hubieras hecho diferente? Noooo, no vamos a bailar Despacito, mejor en tu tiempo libre, ¿si?.

I was actually recreating parts of a workshop voted “best of Massachusetts” at the MaFLA conference in 2018. With that boost of confidence and knowing that I had found a new activity where every student felt like they would stay active, have fun, and be immersed entirely en español, what else could go wrong?

Then, a non-racialized adult came into the dance studio. This person was looking at us dancing Mexican cumbia by “Los Ángeles Azules,” the song was actually not salsa, but it all sounded the same to this person.

Then, the moment where I just listened to this somebody saying:

Oh yeah, shake it! You know… like… machismo.

I. Just. Could. Not. Answer. Back.

After that, and with my semblante visiblemente cambiado, one of my racialized students comforted me with a that was not right, another microaggression, this has to stop!

Fortunately, the group of kids was extremely supportive of me at that moment. That was because they knew that I had been practicing a different approach to what many still consider “Latin Dance,” away from the stereotypical Patric Swayze cliché.

Not Machismo, not gendered roles, no más de esos estereotipos.

These days, many dance academies and instructors continue to uphold the notion that some Latin Dances (like the Spanish language) must be gendered, and some roles must be followed and respected (like recomendaciones de la RAE).

Alas, the media in the US and beyond don’t make it very easy -para un servidor- to disrupt and question what Latin Dance could actually look like if we start questioning some of the norms and conventions. Inquiry where it came from social constructs, fusions, syncretisms.

To do this, I must be my most vulnerable self. I was, after all, a chambelán, so I know accurately how my concepts of male and masculinity have evolved and how important it is for me to constantly question my own biases, privileges, and advantages that el simple hecho de ser hombre have given me in a heteronormative society.

If we translate this into the Latin Dances I normally teach, it becomes constant learning, unlearning, and relearning opportunities. Accepting that I was part of that gendered playbook is a start. It took me years to understand the good, bad, and ugly of these dances. Fortunately, I can do things differently here in Vermontilandia.

Every time I start a new Latin Dance class, it starts with the definitions and creates a safe space that affirms and validates every participant. Instead of “el hombre y la mujer”, I just switch intentionally with “la persona que lidera y la persona que sigue”

Un, una, o une líder, y un, una, o une seguidor/a/e.

(if you are bothered by me using the “-e,” read this testimony below)

Since it is all an immersion Latin Dance class, it becomes a lot easier for me to speak and demonstrate using terms and definitions that, with constant practice and alternatives, are far from the regular gendered expressions and vocabulary that, otherwise, I would have used in the past.

As a Mexican cishet educator, I have the responsibility of using my privilegio heteronormativo to invite those who have been historically rejected by norms and traditions “en el nombre de la cultura.”

In my opinion, like language, dances evolve and constantly change. With this particular testimonio, I hope there will be more times when we create the conditions in our classes where two or more non-cishet individuals dancing -as if there was nobody around- is normalized through the classes around lengua y cultura.

It all starts from demonstrating other ways of dancing rhythms that don’t conform the heteronormativity. Everyone is welcomed, honored, valued, and appreciated.

Reinventa, reimagina, recrea, revaloriza. Let’s dance!

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Abelardo Almazán-Vázquez

Abelardo Almazán-Vázquez

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Spanish Teacher, Soccer coach, and Latin Dance Instructor at The Putney School.