I went to the Dominican with pretty low dance-pectations. I was travelling with my mother (a non-dancer), and I didn’t know anyone in the area. I tried in advance to connect with dance groups, but to no avail. Several friends had warned me that the island was ‘dangerous’, and I probably would not be OK venturing out into the night to find some dancing.
Additionally, I hadn’t really been feeling the Bachata/Merengue as of late. The new wave of “Dominican Style” Bachata doesn’t have the feeling and the music I so loved about the Bachata Urbana – which had been my first exposure seven years ago. Naturally, I assumed that Dominican Bachata in the actual Dominican would be more in line with that new wave. Merengue – the Dominican’s national dance – had long lost its appeal, so I was less than enthused. There was no hope for Zouk, WCS, or Salsa as I knew it.
I was so, so thrilled when most of these expectations turned out wrong.
I stayed at an all-inclusive resort. It was gorgeous. Everywhere I turned, there was music. Not just music, but dance music that was fantastic enough to make me wish that DJ’s back home played this stuff more often. Bachata music began to capture me once again – especially since they seemed to favour the softer, smoother Bachata sounds over the (in my opinion only) highly twangy, speedy, and cardio-style music now favoured where I usually dance. Even the Merengue was smoother, mixed with more than just a strong backbeat. They played some Zouk and Salsa too – but fewer people danced. Of course, there was American stuff thrown in (during which I craved my Westie friends back home).
Had I a group of dance friends on that resort, it would have turned into an amazing on-resort dance vacation.
Luckily, I soon got taken under the wing of the Animation resort staff. I went to the Merengue lesson at the pool, and after a brief moment of surprise, the Instructor realized I could actually dance. We danced a couple songs. I assumed that would be the end of my Dominican dance experience. But, in parting, he mentioned that there would be a dance party later that night at one of the hotel lobbies.
I went. I was disappointed. It was disco night – no Latin music to speak of. The Animation staff did line dances. It was enjoyable, but after having gotten up my hopes for some Latin dancing, this kind of… disappointed me. It was akin to arriving at a restaurant and finding out they’re out of your favourite dish. Even if the other food is good, it’s just not what you were expecting and looking forward to.
Again, one of the animation staff came over and asked me to dance. I inquired whether there would be any Bachata or Salsa. He looked at me funny.
“You dance Bachata?” he asked.
I said yes.
“You sure?” he responded, with very raised eyebrows.
I said yes.
Folding his arms, he asked “If I ask DJ to play, you dance with me at end of night?”
I said yes, again.
True to his word, he pestered the DJ until he caved and played a Salsa song at the end of the “Disco Nights” set. We danced. It was magical. This man could really dance – but not in the classical sense of how we think in North America. He had probably less than half the patterns of the standard social dancer in my area. Most were based on Cuban Salsa (I think). But, there was a connection that is not always highlighted in social dance culture where I am from. That’s not to trash the people here; most dancers up here probably have a better Academic understanding of Salsa or Bachata – but my experience with that dancer is the first time I really understood what many people lament is missing up north.
I must stress: his level of dancing was an anomaly. He was by far the strongest dancer I encountered. But, in my entire time in the Dominican, I never found myself bored by a dance – however simple. It was as if all my partners were keenly aware of my existence. I discovered a level of care and connection that existed beyond my following abilities or their leading abilities. In those moments, they sought a connection with me as a person on the dance floor. Not ‘partner dance connection’ as taught in class, but the intangible recognition of your partner as part of your world.
The MC watched that dance. He came over and talked to me afterwards. He asked where I was from, and where I learned to dance. He asked me if I was a teacher. I told him I teach mostly Zouk (He had no idea what it was – but he had heard of Kizomba). He asked if I knew New York style Salsa, and if I would teach him the basics the next day.
I happily obliged. The next day, we danced poolside. One of the other girls from the Animation staff also joined in. I taught them how On-2 timing worked, and how NY Style is danced in a line. I showed them Cross-Body Lead, and Underarm Turn. They loved it. The MC told me he loved NY Style because it was so smooth, and that he liked the sounds of Latin Jazz. His co-worker didn’t really speak English, but she also seemed to enjoy the new style. He told me it was her dream to become a professional dancer.
I think many sunbathers were confused why the Tourist was teaching the Animation staff steps.
Dirty Dancing: Punta Cana Nights
Post-Lesson, the MC invited me out dancing in the city with the Animation staff. There was a club in Punta Cana with a live band and dancers they thought I would enjoy. So, two nights later, I found myself headed to downtown Punta Cana at midnight in a car where I was the only passenger wearing a seatbelt. Bachata and Salsa music played on the radio. It was a song I had heard many times at home. “This is a Christmas song” the driver told me.
I had never, in my life, heard of a Christmas Bachata song. I suddenly became keenly aware of how little I really knew about Bachata or Salsa music – especially since I didn’t speak Spanish. I asked if some of the songs at the resort were Christmas songs. He told me yes, they played a lot of Christmas Bachata, Salsa and Merengue (Later during my stay, he gave me a USB key with the resort’s playlist – more than 500 songs).
I brought a pair of heels to dance in. When I changed shoes in the car, my host looked at me with a bemused, confused expression. He asked what I was doing. I told him, “Changing into shoes for dancing.” He couldn’t understand why someone would need special shoes to dance.
We walked to the venue. It was open air, with tables all around, a live band, and several TV screens showing sports and a Marc Anthony music video. The music is some of the best I have ever heard. The dance floor was small, with cracked tiles worn down by many feet and the weather. Bartenders walked between the tables, taking orders.
It was mostly Bachata/Merengue. When Salsa played, the dance floor almost cleared. My host, Charlis, told me that most people shy from Salsa because it requires training. Bachata and Merengue, he explained, are cultural. Everyone dances it.
And boy, do they ever dance it. The small floor was packed with dancers – many in flip flops, none in dance shoes. Two guys and a girl at the front of the floor danced solo, smiling and laughing along with the band. No one was dancing “Dominican Bachata” – they were dancing their Bachata: the Soul of the Dominican.
I think, in the entire night, I did two spins. There were close holds, there were open holds. There were no weird arm circles. There was the occasional footwork syncopation, but not like what is sold as Dominican Bachata up north. The lack of what I’ve seen explained as ‘Dominican Bachata’ was perhaps the most shocking difference. This dance – the Dominican’s Bachata, was smooth, connected, and simple. Trancelike.
I forgot all about technique that night. I forgot all about training, and doing things right. I went back to my roots in dance; that place of simple, simple dance love and seeking to connect with a partner. I fell back in love with Bachata for the rest of my trip. I am still a lover of technique, but I rediscovered the value of simple dances with a person keenly aware of both the music and their partner.
I realized that these were not dancers who hide behind a facade of being a social dancer to justify not getting trained and being rough or selfish on the floor. There were no excuses; they simply had other priorities. Here were people hungry for movement and connection – not self-gratification in a display of machismo. There was no high risk of injury from a deep dip done wrong, or bruises on the hands from a lead who held on too hard. There was no judgement from a dancer who missed a lead or a follow; it was a nonissue. Here were people who lived and breathed the dance so heavily that the movement was just how it was done. I have never seen anything like it.
I made one more venture into town for dancing the night before I left. It was magical. This time, I left my heels at home, and brought my sandals instead.
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