This is an article that has been bubbling away in the back of my mind for some time now. It’s about labels. Specifically, it’s about the dangers of becoming too invested in, or being too stringent in the application of, labels. Before I get into the negative side of labels, I want to acknowledge that labels can be useful in helping us make sense of the world, and navigating our way through it. Labels can be used to define taxonomies that allow us to have objective discussions with other people about various subjects, to share ideas and unite people with a common purpose. However, labels can also be restrictive. If taken to the extreme, labels can lead to indoctrination to a particular idea.
I want to share a little about how I have observed labels being used in the dance scene in not so positive ways.
Labelling Music Genres
This has always been a source of minor amusement for me. I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, and my journey of musical appreciation has seen me pass through different phases. I had my punk-rock phase, my heavy metal phase, my grunge phase, my classical phase, my hip-hop phase, my rap phase, my acoustic guitar ballad phase, and more sub-phases over the years. Despite my changing musical interests, I have observed a constant. That constant is people’s tendency to get very hung up on classifying music into genres. In my punk phase, I listened to people argue about whether Blink-182 or Green Day were really punk-rock. In my heavy metal phase, I listened to people argue about whether Metallica were still heavy metal or not. In my rap phase, I listened to people argue about whether Eminem was real rap. These days I’m listening to a lot of latin music, and I listen to people argue about whether Marc Anthony is salsa or not.
I love Marc Anthony. There. I said it. I think he’s a great singer. I like some of his songs. He surrounds himself with other great artists, and the production of his music is excellent. I couldn’t care less if people think that Valio La Pena is salsa or not, I’ll dance to it. I love his renditions of Hector Lavoe songs, such as Que Lio, and I’ll listen to it in my kitchen making food, even when I’m not dancing. I understand people’s fascination with learning about music and its roots, and that this necessitates some sort of classification of music. However, for me, there are more important questions than, “is (song x) really (genre y)?” I’m more concerned with questions like, “does this song move me emotionally?” If you truly believe that your enjoyment of music is dependent it’s genre label, then I suggest that you might be missing out.
Labelling Dance Styles
Many people get fixated upon labelling dance styles, and I’ve seen this one manifest itself in various ways. I’ve lost count of the number of times, I’ve heard or read recently, “that’s not salsa/bachata/kizomba”. I remember at a congress in Parma, a French lady (at least, she sounded French to me) refused a dance, because I didn’t dance “Cuban style”, even though the song was by a band from New York City, with predominantly Puerto Rican artists, playing music with Afro-Cuban roots. It’s funny how Cubans, you know, people actually from Cuba, don’t commonly refer it as “Cuban style”, they generally just call it “salsa” or maybe “casino”. It’s mainly people from outside Cuba that apply that label. From my observation, the label “Cuban style” or “Cuban salsa” doesn’t mean salsa as it’s danced in Cuba, rather, generally it translates to, “any circular salsa variant that us linear style dancers don’t do (even if it’s cumbia, which originated in Colombia).”
Anyway, this particular lady refused my invitation to dance that song with me, even though I had seen her dance linear style (very well) earlier in the evening. Perhaps it was because somebody had told her, that “one must dance ‘Cuban style’ to ‘Cuban salsa'”. Perhaps she read it on an online salsa forum somewhere. Perhaps it was really because she just didn’t like the shape of my head, and she was using a different excuse to spare my feelings. The point I’m trying to make isn’t about a lady declining an offer to dance. Also, the point is not so I can gleefully point out the different between cumbia and casino. It’s about the labels that so many of us cling to so tightly, even when it defies logic, and even if it interferes with our enjoyment of dance, or potentially limits our opportunities.
Also, dance is constantly evolving. Since I started writing this article, some artist, in a studio somewhere, has changed the dance of salsa. Since I started writing this paragraph, kizomba has already morphed into something slightly different. In dance, as in life, they only constant is change itself. From my observation, people who refuse to change, and fight against the natural evolution of anything, are setting themselves up for disappointment. There’s a saying, “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” This is what I’m reminded of whenever somebody jumps up on their soapbox about how one particular dance to one particular song is or isn’t salsa/bachata/kizomba, and so on.
Labelling Dance Ability
Many people love to apply labels to dancing and dancers in terms of ability. These labels are sometimes referred to as levels. At congresses, workshops are labelled as “beginner”, “intermediate”, “advanced”, or “open” level. We talk about dancing with “beginners”. We rave about that “master” class with artist x and artist y. I do see some value in categorising classes into levels. It clusters dancers into smaller, more manageable sized groups for teaching purposes and allows content to be pitched so that it is most relevant to the majority of dancers in the class. It can emphasise a culture of progression and development as a dancer. However, problems can arise when dancers get too emotionally invested in their level. It can cause dancers to feel that they need to rush their development in order to attain an arbitrary level, causing them to miss out on crucial fundamental concepts, which simply take time to assimilate. Similarly, it can cause some naturally talented dancers to limit their own growth, because they believe that they are “only a beginner” or have “only been dancing for x years”.
I’ve also observed the labels “teacher” and “student” sometimes applied in negative ways. I’ve noticed some teachers stop learning as soon as they label themselves as a “teacher”. I’ve seen students stifle their development, because they still view themselves as a “mere student”, even though they have progressed further than many other dancers who call themselves teachers. The roles of student and teacher do not have to be mutually exclusive. In a way, we are all both teachers and students of dance, as well as many other disciplines in life. We can be both student and teacher at the same time, and we can be student and teacher in different realms at the same time.
I had the privilege of attending a musicality class by Oliver Pineda a little while ago, and he said something to the class like, “we are all still learning. I’ll be watching you guys social dance later tonight, and one of you will do something, that I haven’t seen before, and I’ll take that idea and use it later.” One thing that I’ve noticed about the greatest dancers is that they have a real thirst for learning. If dancers like Oliver Pineda are still learning, and are open to learning from people who are far less experienced than they are, then what is our excuse for not doing so too?
I’ve chosen to write about labelling ourselves last, but this is the one I feel most passionate about. Throughout my dance journey, I’ve witnessed many people, including myself, apply labels to themselves that cripple their development as dancers. I’ve heard people say things like, “I’m too old/out-of-shape/uncoordinated to learn to dance.” I’ve heard, “I’m a such a slow learner. I’ll never get it.” I’ve heard, “I just wasn’t born with rhythm. I’ll never be able to dance like him/her.” I’ve even heard people say things like, “dancing is ‘gay’. I’ll never do that.”
I invite you to consider that these terms are just labels. They are only true, if you believe that they are true. You can either choose to let them define you, or you can throw them away. I believe that, if you really love something, you’ll probably find a way to make it happen, and that you won’t let anyone ever tell you that, “you can’t”, especially yourself. Take it from me, a nerdy, white IT guy, with two left feet (see, all those pesky labels again), whose been told a number of times he can’t dance. I started learning to dance at age 28, with zero former dancing experience. It was not easy. In fact, learning to dance is probably the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it.
In summary, I invite you to become more aware of the labels that you apply, as well as the labels are applied to you, and to identify the labels that you have invested yourself in. I also invite you to challenge these labels, and, if they don’t serve you, to let them go.