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Dance and Belonging: Transformation of Rituals in Puerto Rican Music and Dance Forms


Alma Concepción


What role do dances and rituals play in the experience of belonging to a community? Is citizenship in colonial contexts defined only by a common territory or language? Is it earned through legal means, or is it also the result of creative adaptations of local traditions? These questions and many others are increasingly relevant in today's transnational contexts. They have been debated for a long time in the Caribbean, however, a region in which the idea of belonging is often expressed through music and dancing, shaped by a complex cross-cultural mixing of European, African, Asian, and indigenous traditions, as has been shown by Antonio Benítez-Rojo (1996) and others.

            In the ever-increasing diaspora of Hispanic and Latino cultures in the United States, the dance holds a central position in the construction and practice of complex, mixed histories and identities.1 The Puerto Rican experience, both in the island and in the diaspora, provides a case in point.

            My essay proposes that an understanding of dancing should be brought to bear in studying the tensions generated by the legacies of imperialism and slavery, as well as in the imagining of new cultural possibilities. My intent is to explore the continuation of African-derived musical and danced ritual forms within contemporary Puerto Rico. I show how they have crossed geographic, cultural, and linguistic borders and remain vibrant, not antithetical to modernity. I examine the roots of some African influences as preserved in Caribbean ceremonial music, as well as the impact of popular dance music based on neo-African rhythms, such as bomba, plena, and salsa. My research is based on published scholarship, interpretations of historical accounts, and my own fieldwork as a participant-observer for many years. From these accounts, we can see how some local, contemporary dance practices have been shaped by global historical forces and, in turn, how they offer us an image of that history.

            Taking as a point of departure a dance-based community project created by Modesto Cepeda (an Afro-Puerto Rican musician) over a quarter century ago, I address the broader questions raised above. Specifically, I will emphasize the ways in which Cepeda's project--indeed, its very existence--illuminates the significance of present-day practices, particularly for those Puerto Ricans whose lives have been transformed by the often contradictory forces of colonization and modernization. To place this example within a more meaningful context, I refer to an important link in the chain of neo-African musical and danced forms: the astonishing ferment of Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera, two of the most revered Puerto Rican musicians who composed popular dance music during the 1950s and 1960s based on African percussive rhythms.


The Persistence of Tradition: A Historical Overview

Puerto Rico is one of the Spanish-speaking islands of the Greater Antilles. It belongs to the Caribbean, a vast region including Haiti and the Dominican Republic that is marked by ethnic, linguistic, political, and economic specificities. Puerto Rico shares a colonial past determined by slavery and by the production of sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Although regional political unity remains an ideal for many islanders, the Caribbean is not a political entity that affords legal citizenship. However, Rex Nettleford (1984: chaps. 1 and 2) has remarked that the Caribbean as a whole hears the call to create for itself a coherent reality denied by history. I suggest that, throughout that search, music and dancing have provided cohesion and meaning to many indigenous imaginings of political unity.

            Conquered by the Spaniards in 1493, Puerto Rico, along with other islands, experienced a decimation of its native population. Subsequently peopled primarily by Africans and Europeans, the island slowly evolved into a creolized, mainly agricultural society (Quintero-Rivera 1989). In the late nineteenth century, when most other Spanish-American nations had consolidated their respective republics, Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under Spanish rule. In 1898, the Spanish-Cuban-American war also marked the official entrance of the United States into Caribbean politics. Cuba was transformed into a protectorate of the United States, and Puerto Rico became a colony. Over the course of a century, as scholars such as Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel (2003) have shown, the political relationship that the United States maintained with both islands resulted in two of the largest Hispanic-Caribbean migrations to the mainland. The third largest was from the Dominican Republic. Martínez-San Miguel usefully documents the effect of these displacements on culture, language, and citizenship.2

            During the twentieth century, two main cultural currents coexisted in the Hispanic Caribbean: the upper classes, whose members tended to look primarily toward Europe for models and inspiration and who frequently identified with Roman Catholicism; and the 'popular' classes, whose spirituality was informed by mixed religious values belonging to people of African and Spanish descent. In the cities, the social elite danced mostly to European melodies: waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, and the local contradanza, secularized forms not intrinsic to Catholic ritual practices (which had already been transformed by processes of creolization) (Manuel 1995: 12–16).

            Although these two currents were interconnected (Quintero-Rivera 1998: chap. 2), it is important to emphasize that popular music and dances, especially along the coast and in the sugar-growing communities, were strongly influenced by African traditions whose music and dances were integral to the religion(s) of the slaves.

Powerful and important cults kept African religions alive in the New World, either in a relatively pure state or blended with non-African faiths. The neo-African cults, impressive in their own right, are among the main preservers of neo-African music in the Western Hemisphere, principally because the major role of music in African religions persists in Afro-American cults. … Music plays an absolutely essential role in the cults, just as it does in West African faiths. The spirits are summoned by specific drum rhythms, and if the rhythms are altered too much, the spirits will stay away. The drums are the voice of the god as well. (Roberts 1972: 32–33)        

These African and neo-African musical forms, centered in syncopated rhythms and percussive instruments, have been fundamental in creating meaningful social bonds and to the maintenance of traditions (Quintero-Rivera 1998: 201–17).

            In Cuba, the Yoruba religion, along with its music and danced rituals, continues to be practiced today.3 In Puerto Rico, although the religious context is less evident, the origin of the musical and dance form bomba has been associated historically with the lives and rituals of the slaves who lived in the plantations and has been tied to the survival of a "black identity" (Ortiz 1953). This expressive form, in which dancing is central, shares traits with other Afro-Caribbean traditions.

            Vega-Drouet (1982) says that bomba's main characteristics indicate that some African percussive, melodic, and kinetic elements persist, such as a circle of performers and audience; the drum as the fundamental instrument; rhythm presiding over melody through polyrhythms and syncopation; and the basic rhythmic pattern played by the second of two drums. In addition, a singer is situated next to the drums, and the chorus stands behind the singer; songs are in call-and-response form, and an improvised dialogue between the first drummer and the dancer is often dominated by the dancer. Because of these common features, members of diverse African ethnic groups who arrived in different parts of the Caribbean contributed patterned variations using familiar configurations (ibid.: 4243). According to this author, few of the very early bombas survived.4 Despite losses and modifications, however, today's bombas retain not only the above-mentioned characteristics and an improvisatory style but also melodic peculiarities characteristic of African music: for example, "a pentatonic scale structure, extremely short phrase construction, [and] monotonous repetition" (McCoy 1968: 99).


A Process Handed Down from Generation to Generation

In the period 1996–97, I witnessed a gathering that testified to the ancestry and vitality of some contemporary communal dance practices in Puerto Rico. Rushing to and from the modern San Juan International Airport, a visitor might easily by-pass Playita (a forgotten sector of Santurce), but after the first elevated road, the marginal street bordering the Plaza de los Salseros soon leads to a small but coherent community that has miraculously survived in the midst of bustling traffic and high-rise construction. Every Saturday morning, a distinct rhythm, a powerful sound that for many Caribbean people carries quite subtle meanings, draws families into a small house at the end of the winding street. This rhythm establishes a singular atmosphere for the Escuela de Bomba y Plena, where Modesto Cepeda passes on to young children his knowledge of Afro-Puerto Rican dancing and drumming.

            Initial greetings lead the visitor into the house where the living room has been turned into the bomba school. Cepeda gathers the children into a circle and begins to instruct them in Puerto Rican bomba and the rhythm patterns known as yubá, sicá, and holandés. The children repeat his words and body movements: yubá, sicá, holandés.5 At this point, my attention is drawn to the portrait of a much-loved musician, Ismael Rivera, who seems to preside over this ritual. Turning back to Cepeda's circle of student performers, I see that the youngest of them (age two) now holds two sticks that have been passed around the circle, used to tap the floor in counterpoint. The child's gestures already seem perfectly natural, the process of learning having been handed down from generation to generation. Cepeda's attention is focused on the unceasing beat of the drum. His sister Gladys dances a simple march in place, skirts swirling from side to side. The boys keep their arms close to their bodies. Torsos are leaning forward as Rivera's did when he started to sing with the Orquesta Panamericana in the 1950s, under Rafael Cortijo's direction. In almost every Puerto Rican home (mine included), young and old alike watched the group perform on The 12 p.m. Show (El Show del Mediodía). It was one of the first programs to be seen on television in Puerto Rico.

            To experience contemporary practices of bomba such as this one is to be transported back in time to old rituals. My fieldwork at the school over a period of time, as well as my observations of public performances, helped me place into perspective cultural continuity in modern life. Cepeda's project reveals not a repetition of the past but a variation in the present of a historical tradition.

            Although the cultural and religious origins, as well as the actual transformations, of African traditions in the Caribbean remain open to research and interpretation, Vega-Drouet (1979) has persuasively argued for the possibility of Ashanti influence in the development of the Puerto Rican bomba. His research suggests that Ashanti slaves arrived very early in Puerto Rico, perhaps at the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, because many of the early colonial historical records in Puerto Rico and in many of the Antilles disappeared, we have no systematic studies concerning the survival of Ashanti musical traditions. Comparing the Ashanti mpitin with the Puerto Rican bomba rhythms, Vega-Drouet concludes that they are essentially the same in musical composition (ibid.: 55–62; 110). Bomba dances may also be traced to other ethnic groups, including those from Western Congo. In fact, Vega-Drouet mentions that, after 1838, notary registries indicate that slave ships arrived in Puerto Rico largely from the Congolese republics. He also observes that the first mention of bomba music in a Puerto Rican document appears in an 1840 letter in which Ciriaco Sabat, known as 'the king of the blacks of the Congo nation,' requests permission to perform bomba dances on the plaza of San Juan and establishes this musical tradition as one annually granted to slaves "since time immemorial" (ibid.: 37–38).

            Other historical fragments provide intriguing information but are not definitive. For example, Álvarez-Nazario (1974) identifies several different kinds of bomba dances, including the cunyá, which, he suggests, may be of Congolese origin. Kubick (1993) cites a song mentioned in an 1886 account that is associated with vodun ceremonies in New Orleans.6 He says that the song, which is of Congolese origin, employs the word bomba, and his interpretation suggests that the song was part of a secret ceremony. Quintero-Rivera (1998: 204) suggests that the etymology of the word bomba is linked to African names for tambor (drum).      

            Historical records show that slaves brought to Puerto Rico came from diverse communities along the west coast of Africa, spoke different languages, and practiced different religions. This increased the trauma of isolation from their cultures and ancestors. It seems reasonable to suppose that music and dancing came to constitute a primary means of communicating their fears and their need to make sense of an incomprehensible destiny. Music and dance may have become the symbolic means for creating coherence, allowing them both to overcome suffering and to record ritually the memory of supernatural protection. From a contemporary cultural perspective, however, the absence of detailed written historical documentation serves a different function:

The drumming … connects not only the rumba and the mambo, but all Afro-Caribbean rhythms back through the cultural resistance of the enslaved peoples in the Americas to the religious practices of Western Africa. A frequent lack of specificity in the telling only makes that history more forceful in the living memory of Latinos today; the cultures of Africa survived the institutions of slavery and colonization and continue to survive, despite the institutions of capitalism and so-called development, in the sounding of the drums. In the times of our ancestors, the drums invoked the gods and the gods dwelled within the body for the duration of the dance. And they still do. (Fraser-Delgado and Muñoz 1977: 11)7

The drum became an instrument of mourning or of celebration, a space for freedom. The slaveholders were not slow to grasp the logic of all this. In Puerto Rico, at first they encouraged the practice of bomba as a form of entertainment. Later they repressed it as "a camouflaged incitement to subversion by angry slaves who hoped to follow [in] the footsteps of the Haitian revolutionaries" (Barton 1995: 11).


Bomba Styles: A Complex Cultural Phenomenon

After the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century, Afro-Puerto Rican cultural traditions continued to develop, retaining African elements, which had been greatly transformed through processes of creolization and syncretism.8 European forms were also creolized. For example, Roberts (1972: 43) has noted: "By no means was it always a master-servant relationship… . Many slave-owners actively encouraged music-making (except for the dreaded music of the drums), especially the playing of white or white-oriented music."

            Despite having suffered acute marginalization, perhaps in part because of it, several enclaves of slaves and freedmen were able to maintain the practice of bomba. Two important sites are Loíza Aldea in the north and the Barrio de San Antón in the southern town of Ponce. The yearly Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol (St. James the Apostle) in Loíza illustrates both creolization and syncretism. For example, creolization is apparent from the ways in which popular culture is important; the feast is a carnival, with masks, costumes, and characters. Syncretism appears through the use of Saint James the Apostle-Changó, an icon in which Christian and African beliefs come together and the sacred and the secular are interwoven.

            The strong emphasis upon African elements distinguishes the festivities in Loíza from other towns' celebrations in honor of their own patron saints. In Loíza, a town peopled mainly by Afro-Puerto Rican descendants of slave cane cutters, bomba dances are performed primarily in July during the month-long festivities honoring Santiago (St. James the Apostle). According to cultural critic Lydia Milagros González, they occur more intensely during the weeks prior to the festivities. She adds:

There are still some recognizable elements in the practice of bomba in Loíza: (1) although there have been many sites where bomba dances have taken place, there is one site that has never vanished: the space around the tree where the saint was said to have appeared; (2) a performance of bomba always begins with the performers saluting the drum; (3) he dance is performed by individuals, not by couples; the dancer mounts [sic] his dance until his entire body is shaking, very much in the way dancers tremble when possessed by a spirit in ritual ceremonies; (4) nobody interrupts the dancer: his or her time is respected, and each person is allowed a space for freedom (personal communication, 1995).9         

            The following description of bomba dancing illustrates cultural values that are passed on from generation to generation through movement. It is based, first, on my own observations of the yearly Loíza festivities over the years, as well as of other bomba events in the Santurce neighborhoods. This includes talking to dancers, musicians, and audience members. It is also based on my research as a participant-observer since 1995.10

            Bomba dances are usually held outdoors in a community setting and are characterized by a joyful spirit. Everyone is encouraged to participate, elders and children included. The dancers face the drums in a semicircle, while the singer and the chorus stand behind the drummers. The dance is structured as an improvised complex dialogue between the beats of the drum and the movements of the body. Music and dancing are inseparable and influence each other, the rhythm inviting the participants to join in. There are two main drums: the buleador keeps a steady beat, and the primo (or requinto) follows the footwork patterns, or piquetes, improvised by the dancer. Dancers and spectators participate in call-and-response songs with repetitive lyrics and rhythmic patterns that create a ritual atmosphere.

            Inspired by the repetitive songs and the contagious rhythm, one of the dancers abandons the circle, approaches the center, and salutes the drums, traditionally waving a handkerchief in greeting. The rest of the participants keep the basic step in place in the semicircle, and the spectators clap to the rhythm. The dance begins with a simple two-step march (right, left; left, right), while the body is held inclined forward. Although the dancer moves inside the circle, the steps are almost stationary. The most important element of the dance is the segmentation or isolation of the movement of different body parts, with the movements stemming from a controlled articulation of the muscles of the feet. The dancer becomes a sort of lead musician, spinning off rhythmic variations while improvising according to her or his own impulses and challenging the drummer to match the piquetes. Álvarez and Quintero-Rivera (2008: 2) observe that "the dancers … follow the basic rhythm played by the buleador, while at the individual level they develop beautiful, creative movements in controversy with the subidor. It is very significant culturally that in the type of society where bomba emerged, the symbolic ritual is that the collective dictates and the individual elaborates." Barton (2002: 184–85) points out that there is not always synchronicity between the dancer and the drummer and suggests that a study of the role of agonism in performance (agon in Greek means 'contest') may shed light on the role of improvisational humor.

            As the dance progresses, the primo (or subidor) drum mirrors the dancer's footwork: tight and restrained, yet fast and polyrhythmic. The female dancer may continue this playful contest by moving her hips or shoulders, or both, in counterpoint with other parts of the body, or she may make patterns with her feet while the upper body rests still. The entire body engages as she moves her full length skirt, sometimes opening its folds, revealing her petticoat, and closing it with two hands, sometimes doing this in opposition to her feet, sometimes shaking it with one hand, challenging the drums to answer back. When the dancer is not using a skirt, she may place her hands on her hips while the body shakes or rock her hips while her arms move freely.

            Men dance with the body inclined, and the arms held akimbo. Their movement patterns, performed against the rhythm, are sometimes with the feet raised on half toe, sometimes legs crossing over and the feet making floor patterns, sometimes staying immobile and then surprising the drummer with intricate footwork, or shaking the head. They may shake their shoulders while bending backward very low, facing the drums upside down.

            The performer engages more and more fully until the dancing reaches a peak of fast movements, often creating a circular floor pattern. If the dancer outwits the drummer, she or he is sometimes called bruja/o (witch). Then the dancing subsides, and the dancer reverts to the basic marching step and returns to his or her place in the semicircle as a new participant approaches the drums for her or his time of dialogue with the drums.

            The dancer who follows may be a child who, showing courage and determination, decides to enter the middle of the circle. Children learn from watching and can perform many variations of basic patterns or isolate body parts. I have seen children use small jumps with alternate lifting of the feet; movement of one shoulder toward the drum, then the other, lift them up, down, or shake them front and back; hop on one leg while moving the other up and down. Children can also alternate steps with turns, which usually involve pelvic movements.

Figure 1
    Figure 1. Loíza Aldea, Baile de Bomba, 2003. Photo by Alfonso Díaz, with permission.

            The participation of elders is a source of inspiration and deep emotion. Their demeanor embodies the mastery and pride of cultural survival. Their range of expression goes from slow movements to combinations of small jumps to a teasing upper body. Some draw their repertoire from old traditions, while others incorporate modern variations. Elders are often able to dance for an extended period of time. We may see X-shaped or waving arms, complex foot patterns against the rhythm, for example, alternating leg circles with the bending and raising of the feet in triangular positions, while simultaneously swinging ribcage and shoulders from side to side.

            Dancers are never interrupted. Their movements flow freely from their own choices, and they are allowed as much time as they need. A novice spectator may think that the dance is completely spontaneous, but each bomba rhythm has a specific movement repertoire that the dancer chooses from for her or his performance. Each rhythm is danced differently; for example, cuembé is a dance of joy and humor, while yubá may express more feelings of anger, and seis corrido, sad emotions. Each dancer adds a different personal touch and reveals a different aspect of the genre. In addition, there are regional variations:

What is clear is that bomba in one region of the island can be quite different from another region. In terms of basic rhythm patterns … the Santurce region is known for its sicá, holandé, and yubá; Loíza, for its sies corrido and corvé rhythms; Ponce and the south, for guembé, belén, and cunyá … and Mayagüez, for holandé. … The style of dance and the overall presentation and protocol associated with the dance … also exhibit significant regional variations. (Cartagena 2004: 18)

            Bomba events usually last an entire day, often continuing late into the night, somewhat similar to jazz jam sessions or the dances of Eastern European and Spanish gypsies. Because these dances are passed on from one generation to another, their body language refers to very old traditions. The dancers must be intimately familiar with them in order to perform well.11

            Barton has pointed out that bomba is a complex cultural phenomenon: "a multi-layered set of practices … whose overall appearance can vary a great deal according to [its] social context" (1995: 10). We see this at work in the San Juan working-class neighborhoods of Santurce that, in addition to Loíza, Mayagüez, and Ponce, constitute an important enclave that retains the practice of bomba. In the early decades of the twentieth century the barrios of Santurce were populated by many dockworkers and artisans of African descent. Although this group shared a history of enslavement with the people of Loíza Aldea and San Antón, its relationship to the cultural elites was quite different from that of cane-cutting communities. The Afro-Puerto Rican neighborhoods of Santurce, located in an urban setting, were, by and large, more open to European influences than were their rural cousins.

            Evidence for this can be found in the work of Álvarez-Nazario who has studied the Afro-French influence on bomba names, such as leró, which he traces to the French le rond (the round). These French names are a legacy from the influx of Haitians in the early 1800s. In addition, Puerto Rico was historically a center for smuggling, and many slaves were brought clandestinely from neighboring islands controlled by the Spanish, French, and English, although it is difficult to determine how many. This is how a cross-fertilization of dance styles could have occurred at an early date.

            It was one of these neighborhoods in Santurce that I visited in order to observe Cepeda teach his young students to dance bomba. The Cepeda family, including Modesto's late father, don Rafael, has spanned three generations in defiance of prejudice and of competing 'world-beat' music in order to preserve the baile de bomba as an 'initiation rite' into Afro-Puerto Rican culture.

            As I watch how Cepeda's baile de bomba progresses, I see the initial circle turning into a couples' dance, in many respects very reminiscent of European court dances but with the torso inclined forward and the arms held akimbo. With a proud elegance, women raised their swirling skirts and couples drew patterns in space reminiscent of nineteenth-century French or Spanish dances, creating floor patterns that were very different from those I saw in Loíza or Ponce. This is because, as Barton notes, "bomba performers working closer to the commercialized urban epicenter could more readily appropriate and convey symbols of the white-identified elite (e.g. giving bomba dance the pomp and flair of European court dance) in order to gain greater access to performance venues and institutional legitimacy" (1995: 10). These fundamental differences in social behavior and overall view of life have been very important issues in terms of claiming accuracy in the performance of the art form.


Modernization and Diaspora: Bomba and Its Transformations

With the establishment of the Estado Libre Asociado (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) in 1952, the island underwent intense industrialization, which was accompanied by massive migrations to the United States. During the 1950s, half a million Puerto Rican citizens, mostly from rural areas, came to settle in New York and in other urban centers on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Today about 40 percent of the total island population have experienced the trials of migration.12

            The beginnings of this migration date back to the end of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century, especially after 1917, when Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship.13 From the start, and for reasons of historical, cultural, linguistic, and even ethnic specificity, music and dancing occupied a central position in the daily life of the migrants (Glasser 1995). Within unfamiliar industrial cities in the United States, Puerto Ricans passionately preserved their language, food, music, and dancing in an effort to maintain links to their past and their spirituality.

            Much, but by no means all, of Puerto Rican migrants' resistance to frequently hostile environments was centered on dancing and music. Hometown groups and clubs were founded as meeting places where networks were carefully nurtured. Whenever possible, births, weddings, holidays, and other social and political gatherings included dancing to live music. It is important to emphasize that Hispanic dance clubs and Puerto Rican popular musicians also came into vogue in New York during the 1930s, preserving, transforming, and creating a variety of new musical forms.14

            Twentieth-century technologies for mass-communication radically expanded the diffusion of popular dance music in many areas of the world, and the Caribbean was no exception. By the 1950s, Cuba had become the undisputed leader in the development of the recording and broadcasting industries that established Cuban popular dance music in Latin America and the United States.15 However, despite the sweeping Cuban influence of those years, one powerful Puerto Rican group succeeded in imposing a distinctly different sonority: the Combo de Rafael Cortijo, with the voice of Ismael Rivera, the 'Sonero Mayor.'16 The term sonero alludes to the improvisational ability of the lead singer to create in a call-and-response structure, rhythmic, melodic, and verbal phrases against the refrain of the chorus. Rivera was a master of soneo. Rubén Blades, one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Latin popular culture concurs:

For me, there is something unquestionable when it comes to the manner of singing. Even now when I listen to old records of Ismael, the complete comfort he had in terms of phrasing, in terms of melody, when it came to soneo, and how the chorus was put together … truly there was no one like Ismael. (Trigo-Tió 1988 [film])

            Cortijo and Rivera imparted new resonance to the Puerto Rican bomba and plena rhythms in the 1950s and 1960s. Their music was widely disseminated through television, radio, records, and live presentations both in Puerto Rico and in New York. Whereas much of the music produced in New York during the 1950s was characterized by a mediated Cuban sound featuring spectacular mambo and cha-cha shows, the music of Cortijo and Rivera focused on reinterpreting the sounds of humble quarters, sounds that retained an original barrio culture (Rondón 1980).

            As singer Cheo Feliciano says, "Ismael is a pioneer because he brought out of the barrio what was [until then] marginalized … and along with Rafael Cortijo … introduced our bomba, our plena … to television."17 The two musicians attained the status of true popular heroes.18 They performed in an increasingly secularized world, yet their music had a strong spiritual dimension. Rivera and Cortijo deeply marked Puerto Rican contemporary culture, allowing us to reflect further on fundamental continuities. Their lives and musical influence embody the significant persistence and transformation of African forms in contemporary Puerto Rican dance practices. This persistence in retrieving the roots, however transformed they may have become over time, coincides with the powerful and uneven social and political forces of modernization.

            In the 1950s, the figure of Ismael Rivera formed a bridge between the musical and danced forms of the Puerto Rican barrio and their transformation in the diaspora. As García-Canclini proposes, today one might say that Rivera's contribution allows us to deconstruct the opposition between the traditional and the modern (1995: 2).

            Rivera and Cortijo introduced bomba and plena to complex, urban, mass audiences. In their new compositions for the small band (combo) or for the orchestra, they were successful in retaining (1) the rhythmic patterns, played in the barrio on drums, cajones (wooden boxes), latitas (cans), spoons, and other makeshift percussive instruments, now incorporated to other instruments like the piano and the horns; (2) the forms of music and dances performed in dialogue with the drums; and (3) the 'African' improvisatory style. They not only popularized a 'folk' expression but also paved the way for further cross-fertilization of Puerto Rican rhythms within Caribbean music in the realm of urban popular culture (Quintero-Rivera 1998: chap. 2; Trigo-Tió 1988 [film]).


Salsa: A Uniquely New York/Caribbean Phenomenon

This long transformation of musical and danced practices culminated roughly forty years later with the Puerto Rican contribution to the uniquely New York/Caribbean music and dance phenomenon known as salsa.19 The musical and dance elements in salsa events belong to a cultural cycle. As Quintero-Rivera has argued, both innovation and tradition are part of its creative evolution (1998: 201). The clave (key), a three-plus-two rhythmical pattern over two bars, over which melodic variations are created, is a salient and unifying feature of Caribbean musical structure and stems from traditional African musical forms. The free combination of diverse Afro-American rhythms includes the Puerto Rican bomba and plena. The participatory spirit that characterizes bomba continues to reside at the core of salsa. Although the drums constitute only a small part of the orchestra, rhythms take precedence over melody through polyrhythms, and syncopation and songs often remain structured in their original call-and- response form.20 There is also a lot of interaction between musicians, dancers, and observers. The dancing, with its syncopated fusion of elements, breaks away from the regularity of many European traditional dance forms and is, in that sense, somewhat closer to music and dance forms like flamenco.

            In salsa, the excitement and joy expressed in pelvic movements and fast, intricate foot patterns reveal another component. Dancers are concerned with sensuality and the partnering relationship as well as audience recognition of their elaborate performance. Based upon a basic step in four counts, the woman generally mirrors the man's movements. At first sight, one might mistake the basic step for a simple one, but to be able to dance in rhythm with the music a complex combination of musicality and virtuosity is required. There are many variations of increasing difficulty and diverse ways of accenting the beats. As in the bomba, dance gestures are centered on the freedom of the body: a good salsa dancer is an accomplished technician whose personal impulses manifest themselves freely in a remarkable display of creativity. The dancer improvises within the context of the genre's repertoire, as he or she goes in and out of the basic steps, playing with movement and rhythm. Turns, lateral walks, and movements of the waist and shoulders flow in an indeterminate free venture with the music. It is a true spectacle of skill and sometimes flamboyant inventiveness. In contrast, bomba steps are more contained: they are not geared to entertain an audience but rather performed "for the intrinsic enjoyment of the art form" (Barton 2004: 80). Bomba dancers are not focused on their virtuosity but rather on the dialogue of the dancing body with the drums and on communal participation.21

            Salsa dance in the barrio is different from salsa learned at a dance school. In the barrio, variations are usually improvised based upon a vocabulary acquired within the community. In contrast, methods taught at schools are usually stylized, sometimes incorporating dance patterns influenced by jazz, ballet, or popular dances such as the swing. The most important element in partner dancing in this context is for the couples to synchronize their steps to the way they feel the tempo of the music.

            To the casual observer, salsa music and dancing may seem to be a secular pastime associated with entertainment, far from any spiritual or ritualistic activity. But the two need not be contradictory. In his essay "The Spirit of Celebration," anthropologist Victor Turner asks about the meaning of popular festive modes: "What of the coincidence in [popular-festive modes] of such opposites as orgy and organization, script and improvisation … costuming and nudity, masking and barefacedness?" (1983: 188). Most of this ambiguity is present in salsa events, and, like jazz, the blues and the jook, salsa is a secular institution rooted in West African traditions where the spiritual and the secular were interwoven. 22

            It is relevant here to note Benítez-Rojo‚s argument in discussing aesthetic experience in Caribbean musical and danced genres: "it is established within a complex harmonic relationship between the inner rhythms of the performer and an inspired call from an exterior rhythm." Benítez-Rojo quotes approvingly the characterization offered by anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham: "when body and being were more united, when form and flow and personal ecstasy became an exaltation of a superior state of things, not necessarily a ritual to any superior being" (Benítez-Rojo 1998: 409).

            The urban setting of the dance hall does not obscure the intensity of salsa dancing as it reaches a climax reminiscent of African and Afro-Caribbean cleansing and renewal rituals (which I have observed in Cuba and Puerto Rico) in which dancers produce a trance-like state to call upon the ancestors to cleanse them and the community from any negative energy. The following testimonies, which describe eloquently the deep involvement and personal emotions experienced while dancing salsa, suggest some similarities with these rituals:

I've seen people looking idiotic, almost ashamed of themselves, as they struggled to hear and 'see' what they were supposed to, without daring to take their eyes off the salsa fan in his or her agitated trance. Take this salsa fanatic from Cali [Colombia]: "When I am dancing salsa, I let it take me over and penetrate every inch of my body. Sometimes it drives me to tears: it's just so electric when the band starts playing."(Calvo-Ospina 1995: 112)

When I am dancing salsa, I feel as though in a trance, in which nothing else matters. All your senses, your body, your soul are in a sort of spiritual communion with the music. After it's over, you are in a state of catharsis and excitement, and wanting and willing to experience it all over again.23


I remember … when my family and I were dancing … I felt a burst of flame go through the room and the feeling of this energy of fire going up as if right through the roof. This is something I experience time and time again when in the midst of a room of salsa dancers… . There are moments of individual release … letting go … a rejuvenation. And always that moment of group release where the energy of fire goes up and out of the room, purifying the moment, our lives, and a small healing takes place.24



I have tried to show that the evolution of music and dance forms in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean is intimately tied to the history of slavery, colonialism, and contemporary migrations. As Fraser-Delgado and Muñoz (1997: 17) have said, "The diasporic dancing body becomes the vehicle for the articulation of culture under siege. Dance literally re-members cultural practices repressed over centuries of conflict."

            Recalling Modesto Cepeda's revived ritual with child performers in his neighborhood school, we can see a persuasive example of how bomba dances may offer a glimpse of history as they 're-member' an old and complex cultural practice. Cepeda's words confirm the persistence of tradition: "We must preserve the bomba. This is what we are" (personal communication, 1995). Today music and dancing are shared not only by Puerto Ricans who remain on the island and those in the diaspora, they also belong to other Hispanic Latinos who find in the dances a source of identity and hope.

            The persistence and transformation of African rhythms in Puerto Rico and the diaspora, resulting in new or revived dance forms, points to the creative appropriation of dances by successive generations as highly significant signs and symbols. It is in the participatory arena essential to Caribbean music and dancing where many Puerto Ricans have discovered a "sanctuary" and a "bridge over troubled water" (Hazzard-Gordon 1990: 173).25 Indeed, Puerto Ricans have found in music and dancing a sense of belonging that allows them to connect modern situations with old rituals. Afro-Puerto Rican musical and danced traditions with their interplay of form and freedom thus remain a current practice linked to a meaningful past but also a promise.


Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Frances R. Aparicio for inviting me to participate in the Rhythms of Culture conference and for her many useful suggestions and comments. I am grateful to Evelyn Vélez-Aguayo, Michelle Freeman, and to the staff at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Hunter College) for their continued encouragement and support, and to José Buscaglia for his comments on an earlier version. I especially want to remember the late Karl D. Uitti for his generosity and editorial assistance.




Portions of this essay appear in "Dance in Puerto Rico: Embodied Meanings," in Caribbean Dance from Abakuá to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity, ed. Susanna Sloat, 165–75 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002).

            1 There is an ongoing debate concerning the implications of the use of the terms 'Hispanic' and 'Latino' as they refer to communities of Latin American or Hispanic Caribbean descent residing in the United States. See Flores (1997) and Oboler (1995).

            2 For a historical account of patterns of immigration in the Caribbean, see Conway (2003).

            3 See Daniel 2005, Lachatañeré 1992, and Chao-Carbonero 1980.

            4 Some of the names given to rhythmic patterns whose generic label became bomba are candunga, cuculambe (cocobalé--onomatopeic name in Spanish in Puerto Rico), cumbe (cuembé in Puerto Rico), guasimá (grasimá in Puerto Rico), leró and holandés.

            5 Yubá, sicá, and holandés are rhythm patterns of the generic Puerto Rican bomba. In his book El elemento afronegroide en el español de Puerto Rico (1974) Manuel Álvarez-Nazario traces yubá to the French Antilles. He notes it was probably derived from the African juba, jumba, mjumba, or onjamba (relative to the movement characteristic of a certain dance) (ibid.: 318–19); the term sicá was adapted from the French pronunciation chica (ibid.: 318); and holandés came to denote a bomba style of Dutch descent that can be either holandés secó, danced by individual couples, or holandés cuarteado, danced by several couples as a quadrille (ibid,: 307).

            6 Vodun (voodoo, vaudon, voudou, vudú, vodú) refers to a Haitian cult that has preserved ancient African religious and musical elements.

            7 The violence of enslavement in the Americas is well documented. See Binder's edited collection (1993). For an account of slavery in Puerto Rico, see Scarano (1984). Katrina Hazzard-Gordon's Jookin' (1990) describes the dance in the context of slavery in the U.S. as it moved from a sacred context into the secular sphere.

            8 For the purposes of this essay, I use the term 'creolization' as it refers to the blending of cultures or races and 'syncretism' to refer to the fusion of religious beliefs. García-Canclini (1995) and other cultural historians employ the terms 'hybridization' or 'hybridity' to describe more fully the complexity of interactions that occur in the processes of acculturation. García-Canclini remarks: "Occasional mention will be made of the terms syncretism, mestizaje, and others used to designate processes of hybridization. I prefer this last term because it includes … intercultural mixtures … and … permits the inclusion of the modern forms of hybridization better than does 'syncretism,' a term that almost always refers to religious fusions or traditional symbolic movements" (ibid.: 11n1).

            9 Lydia Milagros González, interviewed by the author in San Juan, August 27, 1995. For discussion of other cultural changes due to aggressive capitalist investment, see Ungerlieder-Kepler (1993: 76–80).

            10 For an account of bomba dancing in Loíza, see González and Vissepó's documentary film (1984).

            11 For further discussion of bomba dancing, see the richly documented studies by Barton (1995, 2002, 2004).

            12 For a critical examination of the impact of modernization on Puerto Rican society, see Lewis (1974), López (1980), Díaz- Quiñones (1993), González (1980), Navas-Dávila (1983) and Quintero-Rivera, with González, Campos and Flores (1978).

            13 The publication of Andreu-Iglesias (1977) in conjunction with its translation by Juan Flores (1984) was a breakthrough study of the Puerto Rican community in New York. Also see Virginia E. Sánchez-Korrol (1983).

            14 The new technologies of sound recordings were essential for the Puerto Rican community. For a detailed analysis, see Glasser (1995).

            15 As Pacini-Hernández (1993: 7273) has noted, in the Caribbean--a region marked by European colonization--it was language rather than geography that determined in those years the extent of musical exchange. In contrast, the musical influence of the United States and Europe broke through the language barrier thanks to the vast financial and technological resources at their disposal. During the 1950s, Cuba was a center of Caribbean music mainly because of its dynamic recording and film industries.

            16 Benny Moré, considered the best Cuban popular singer of his time, admired and befriended Ismael Rivera. It was he who baptized Rivera El Sonero Mayor, a testimony that he praised Rivera as the undisputed master of this form.

            17 See Enrique Trigo-Tió's documentary film (1988) and A. Flores (2004). For an account of plena within the complex questions of origins, race, cultural resistance, identity, and political autonomy, see Miller (2004).

            18 See Rodríguez-Juliá (1985) and Figueroa-Hernández (1993).

            19 For an overview of the meaning and historical place of salsa, see Acosta (2004).

            20 Since the 1980s, new salsa singers have been reinterpreting this fundamental structure, an interesting process that merits further study (see McLane 1996). For the most comprehensive study of salsa, see Quintero-Rivera (1998).

            21 For a discussion of cultural ritualization, see García-Canclini (1995) and Aparicio (1998). For the resurgence of bomba music and dance, see Cartagena (2004).

            22 Turner has also suggested, "Perhaps we are only now, we anthropologists and investigators of the human condition, beginning to learn the ambiguous, ludic language of what Bakhtin calls 'the people's second world,' a language as much of nonverbal as of verbal signs and symbols" (1983: 190). For an analysis of salsa in the context of gender, class, and the construction of identities, see Aparicio (1998). See also Renta (2004) for a study of salsa dance and Latino history. For a useful description of the jook (an African-American dance arena, where many dance forms originated), see Hazzard-Gordon (1990).

            23 Jennifer Roesslin, interview by the author, San Juan, April 2, 2002.

            24 Sandra Rivera, personal communication, New York City, March 14, 2005.

            25 I speak here in general terms, but there are, of course, religious beliefs that frown upon dancing, an area that remains to be studied.


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Documentary Films:

González, Lydia and Mario Vissepó

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Trigo-Tió, Enrique

1988. Ismael Rivera: retrato en boricua. San Juan: Maga Films.

















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