So, you have a favourite dance. You probably have a favourite style of said dance. But, what happens when certain styles are deemed ‘illegitimate’ because they’re not the ‘original’? I’ve seen this in almost every genre. Kizomba, WCS, Salsa, Zouk…The question is, why is it that certain styles of the same dance are ‘illegitimate’ vs. ‘legitimate’?

Understanding the Mindset of Dancers

A good chunk of this comes from a battle between traditionalists and the newer generation of modern dancers. Frequently, the ‘old style’ is held up as an illustration of a bygone era of fabulousness – whereas the newer, less ‘pure’ style is held up as a sub-par collection of movements that lack technique or an understanding of the original.

What I’ve noticed among a lot of traditionalists is that they want things to be done the way they were ALWAYS done – and frequently exactly the same as when they started. They want the same artists, the same songs, the same steps… they want living history.

What I’ve noticed about the ‘new generation’ dancers is they want modern music, are open to fusion or creative movement, and they get ‘bored’ by the traditional. They want new, fresh, and out-of-the-box.

Basically, both camps want to see the same thing that initially attracted them to the dance, or the things that they love most about the dance. Sadly, this ‘preservation’ of their favourite things frequently leads to attacks on the other camp: traditionalists are too stuffy and old fashioned; the new generation doesn’t know and understand the true essence of the dance.

I would submit that neither of these are actually true.

I fully identify as someone who frequently falls under the ‘new generation’ school of dancers. I love Brazilian Zouk remixes, I love acoustic music for Zouk and WCS, and I prefer Salsa and Bachata Romantica. It’s music that resonates me, and it’s a pattern of movement that stimulates my creativity and expression – but this does not mean I don’t educate myself about the technique or history of the dance.

In this battle, I think in many ways Brazilian Zouk has it mostly right. We have LambaZouk and Rio Zouk. Then, we have a whole host of derivatives from Rio Zouk: Neo, Flow, RnB, and more. The great thing is, none of these are considered any less of a legitimate dance simply because they are not an original (That being said, it took Brazilian Zouk a while to arrive at that point… and there are definitely still fights about music and various styles. But, the dances are all generally accepted as ‘legitimate’ Brazilian Zouk.)

The thing is, dances evolve. If they don’t, they stagnate. Dancers tire of the same-old, and retire. New dancers get attracted when they see things that resonate with them. Would I have fallen in love with WCS if all I heard was old-time blues? No. Do I appreciate an occasional one now and then? Yes. But, I’d rather dance to pop, acoustic, and alternative than traditional ‘swung’ music most of the time.

Is there any point in alienating me as a social dancer because of this preference? Should I have never started WCS because this ‘isn’t the dance?’ I personally don’t think so.

The Difference Between a “New Style” and Something “Illegitimate”

To me, illegitimacy does not stem from a new flow, feeling, type of music, or variation on a dance. To me, illegitimacy only exists where an individual does not understand the fundamental pillars of technique and still chooses to claim ownership of the dance.

For example, if someone altered the entire principle of upper-body movement in Zouk, I would not consider that to be a new ‘Zouk’ style. Tweaking the technique of upper body? Sure. Completely changing the dance? No. For me, the test exists in cross-compatibility: if the new style can still dance with dancers from the old style, the cross-compatibility shows that there are significant overlaps in technique that legitimize the new style as part of the same genre.

What About Tradition?

Tradition is great; so is change. I agree that it is important for teachers and promoters to understand the history and culture of where a dance comes from – but it cannot remain frozen forever. Tango no longer is confined to shady back alleys with women of ill repute dancing with men. Brazilian Zouk is the survival and re-interpretation of Lambada and other Brazilian dances. West Coast Swing now dances to everything, and incorporates elements of fusion. Kizomba has added repertoire from other dances to create more dynamics.

None of these supersede or remove the traditional, but they enhance the future of the dance. The traditions are there and important – but they’re not the entire identity of the dance. Even in non-dance life, ‘traditions’ are often lamented as dead even as they are re-imagined and incorporated into modern life. The same is true for dance: it’s not that we’re forgetting where it came from or what lies at its foundation, it’s that we are continuing its path forward to embrace the new while we simultaneously remember the old.

What Needs to Change?

Dancers need to understand that every dance is multi-faceted. Our dances cannot exist in a vacuum; outside forces, regional culture, and individual inspiration will shape the face of all variations of every dance. This is what makes our dance culture so rich! Without this, we would lose the artistry of what dancing is. The beauty of what we do is that each person brings something unique and special.

Both traditionalists and the new generation need to appreciate the other. Traditionalists can learn from the new twists and vibes that attract a new crop of dancers and add a twist on classics. They can also learn to embrace new styles not as a devaluation of the old, but an elaboration or modification that represents a new expression of an old idea.

The new generation needs to also appreciate the traditional. In order to understand the dance, they must understand the roots and initial foundations that cause their dance to be what it is. This doesn’t mean they must dance traditional – but it is important to understand and appreciate the roots.

In the end, we are one community. We are a group of people who love movement and music and connection. This, above all else, needs to be our call to action. It is easy to polarize and rally against the different – but I propose we instead try to understand why there those in our communities drawn to these styles and sounds. It certainly will create a smaller divide between the two sides, and unite us as a single, plural community – rather than two communities with different ways of expressing the same joy.