Zouk In The Bachata Controversy

Zouk In The Bachata Controversy

If you aren’t aware, the global Bachata community had a nasty internal rift in recent weeks. This resulted in passionate responses on both sides of the issue, with even Zouk dancers chiming in. Daniel y Desirée (“DyD”), possibly the most famous Bachata dancers in the world, were publicly criticized by a Dominican Bachata dancer who claimed DyD weren’t truly dancing Bachata. Soon after, a debate ensued where some said DyD are simply re-packaging Lambazouk without giving credit, while other prominent figures defended DyD, including the creators of Bachata Sensual.

A major mistake by the critics is making sweeping statements without citing reputable sources — or any sources at all. Here I address some underlying aspects of the discussion and how it relates to Zouk.

Here are the cliff notes:

  1. Claiming Ownership in Dance (It’s pointless)
  2. Appropriation vs. Appreciation (DyD are doing the latter)
  3. What’s In a Name? (Not much)
  4. Innovation Is Good (Duh)
  5. Lessons From Other Dance Communities (Salsa, good! Tango, bad!)

Full disclosure: Daniel y Desirée have showcased demos to my Bachata remixes, and they’re using one for their official show.

Claiming Ownership in Dance

It’s sometimes possible to trace origins of musical styles because much of it is transcribed. But dance isn’t. So it’s pointless to claim ownership over specific body movements because it’s impossible to prove which culture was the first to use them. For that reason, fans of belly dancing (which dates back at least hundreds of years) and breakdancing (poppers in particular) don’t criticize Zouk for using body isolations nor demand that Zouk give credit. And believe me, b-boys (breakdancers) are notorious for calling people out for “biting,” or copying someone’s moves. But even b-boys realize that ultimately everyone is a biter, copying moves that people have been doing since the dawn of civilization, and that biting has resulted in the evolution of dance. Why don’t we Zoukers realize this? Plus if you’re going to bite someone’s move, b-boys do not demand credit — they demand excellence. This places the focus on elevating the art form rather than putting one person or culture on a pedestal.

Moreover, we Zoukers dance and perform to several modern pop songs that have a “Zouk beat,” but I haven’t met one Zouker who knows why the beat is in those songs in the first place. Isn’t this what Zoukers are complaining about with DyD — not acknowledging origins of art? Music historians believe this beat emerged from a Jamaican dancehall riddim called Dem Bow, as described here. An important version of this infectious rhythm was purportedly a collaboration between Jamaican and Panamanian producers in a studio on Long Island, of all places (see page 128). While it’s universally agreed that Dem Bow was the seminal work for influential producers of dancehall, reggaeton, and today’s pop music, it’s hard to pin down where the originators got their inspiration because Jamaica is a melting pot. But they cite Mento music in the ‘50s (traditional African music brought directly to Jamaica) as the basis for Jamaican music. The video on Tropical House emphasizes the importance of understanding the lineage of cultures, especially one that has contributed so much as Jamaica. We Zouk to pop songs all the time, yet I’ve never heard Zouk dancers, some who are quick to degrade others as cheap imitators, acknowledge Jamaica, Africa, or Panama. And while we’re at it, why not Long Island? Also, should we be concerned that the first Dem Bow song had homophobic lyrics? (See page 136) If we Zoukers scold others for taking culture, shouldn’t we also understand the beginnings of the supposed original?

Appropriation vs. Appreciation

The criticisms of DyD echo a theme of cultural appropriation. Traditional Bachateros are upset that DyD are desecrating the dance, while Zoukers are upset DyD are stealing Zouk moves and not giving proper credit. In America, one of the most discussed examples of cultural appropriation is the use of African American culture by people who are not black — specifically, by white people. Click here for some history and reasons why it offends many. I certainly don’t think DyD are a case of cultural appropriation, as they clearly love, admire, and have dedicated their lives to Bachata. They’re active in the Bachata community, communicate with their countless fans, and even responded to their internet detractor (whom I think they should have ignored). So they appreciate the culture of Bachata and have a vested interest in seeing it thrive. But as evident in their early competitions, DyD are trained in numerous genres and have been combining them for years. If anything, I interpret their style as their personal ode to Bachata. I can’t read DyD’s minds so I don’t know if they intentionally borrowed Zouk movements, but that’s a moot point — see the section above on claiming ownership in dance.

Think of it this way — did the inventors of pizza intend for toppings like pineapple or even kimchi? Probably not. Does that mean pizza stores around the world shouldn’t sell slices in the way people like it, for fear of disrespecting the original? I don’t think so. Everyone who loves pizza still has different tastes, and if I want a little body roll on my pizza then I should be allowed to get one.

What’s In a Name?

A corollary argument is that the label “Bachata Sensual,” which is most associated with DyD’s style, shouldn’t include the word “Bachata” since DyD are not dancing in the traditional form. Some also think DyD should call themselves “Zoukchata” dancers in order to give credit to Zouk. These arguments are absurd. “Bachata Sensual” is an offshoot derived directly from Bachata that retains the same fundamentals, so it makes sense to link the two. And whatever style DyD (and others like Korke y Judith) are dancing, it has its own distinct feel, sensibility, rules, and music. So saying it’s simply a combination of Zouk and Bachata is a crude characterisation that ignores these obvious traits. DyD are stuck in a catch-22 because if they used an unrelated label like “Cool Partner Dancing,” both traditional Bachateros and Zoukers would still be complaining but for other reasons.

A direct parallel is Lindy Hop (aka Swing) vs. West Coast Swing. Way back in the 20th century, Lindy Hop became known as “Swing,” a name that has since stuck. People in L.A. took Swing, made it completely different, and named it “West Coast Swing.” This was because Swing was the origin, even though eventually the two dances were starkly different. To me, the real Swing will always be Lindy Hop. But does the name “West Coast Swing” offend anyone in the community? I haven’t witnessed any conflict, and both have coexisted in peace. Probably because Swing dancers have more important things to do than to publicly attack other dancers (if you diminish other people’s art as a cheap imitation of something else, then yes, you are attacking them). And remember, Swing was created by black people in America during the Great Depression; if there were ever a dance that was born of suffering and presumably would be protected by its creators, it’s Swing.

Innovation Is Good

This should be obvious — combining ideas is generally a good thing. You’ll find instances of this in medicine, business, cuisine (Korean-style Chinese food is my favorite), art, and technology. But an open forum of ideas is needed for this to happen, versus say, a hostile environment that doesn’t allow new thought. Think of how many different parts are in your phone, let alone your car. I’m pretty sure none of the engineers were offended that technologies were taken from different disciplines and combined to create something greater than the sum of their parts, that everyone wants. Perhaps traditionalists demand that we call our iPhones “Camera-Phones Enhanced with GPS, Light Sensors, Touch Capability, and about 1,000 Other Things (Trademarked)” instead? In reality, the iPhone is more than (and different from) all of those individual things when combined. This best selling author goes as far as saying that all ideas are ultimately made of other ideas. Therefore, if you are a creative person, you should see existing ideas as ingredients waiting to be re-used and re-combined.

Lessons From Other Dance Communities

It’s possible for several versions of one dance to co-exist. Just look at Salsa and its many different styles. Are Salseros publicly putting down another style simply because it’s different or new? If anything, the more styles there are, the richer the scene becomes (see the previous video on everyone being a biter) — with a variety of moves, music, and people.

By contrast, here’s a recent extreme case of a dancer clinging to tradition. This “Tango Manifesto,” which criticizes new styles of Tango, is a self-important, comically elitist, intellectually timid, masturbatory celebration of the author’s interpretation of traditional Argentine Tango. This is Tango’s version of Bachata’s recent internal dispute — happening at the same time, no less. Is it any wonder why Tango in North America is considered a snobby, old community? (See questions 1 and 10 in the survey) If Tango were allowed to innovate like this couple, maybe America’s youth would be more open to it. This should be a warning of what could happen to Bachata (or any dance) 10 years from now if the community becomes rigid: the scene will grow old and young dancers will turn elsewhere.

My hope is that Daniel y Desirée, and all artists for that matter, continue to be themselves and ignore their detractors. They are major contributors to a growing, vibrant movement that deserves to be nurtured, not torn down.

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About: Daeil Cha

Daeil Cha is a website contributor for Zoukology magazine. He has a background in Breakdancing, Salsa, Bachata, Lindy Hop, and Fusion dancing. He also produces Bachata remixes for dance champions in North America and Europe. Daeil received his BA in Psychology from Princeton University and MBA from Columbia University. He lives in Manhattan, where he works as a stock analyst at an investment firm.

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