Carmela Muzio Dormani
The Life and Death of Mambo: Culture and Consumption in New York’s Salsa Dance Scene
Carmela Muzio Dormani is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is interested in everyday culture in cities as a site for exploring racial and ethnic relations, migration, globalization, popular culture, and media discourses. Her dissertation, “The Life and Death of Mambo: Culture and Consumption in New York’s Salsa Scene,” examines the tensions between racialized commodification and community power-building amongst salsa dancers. Her research has been supported by the Inter-University Program for Latino Research Mellon Fellowship. Carmela is a three-time World Salsa Champion with Huracán Dance Company. She is from Brooklyn and now lives in the Northwest Bronx.
Salsa music and dance developed in New York City as Afro-Cuban music was popularized by Nuyorican musicians between the 1940s and the 1970s. Since then, salsa has exploded into a global phenomenon with remarkable longevity, with salsa dance emerging as its own distinct industry in the last twenty years. While scholars have charted this history and salsa’s global diffusion, my research brings necessary critical attention back to New York in the 21st century to examine what a cultural movement born out of community collaboration in poor neighborhoods of color can tell us about today’s urban landscape. A rich and ever-evolving creative entity, salsa continues to be an important part of identity formation for its aficionados and for New York itself, even as salseros struggle to claim space in the rapidly changing city. My dissertation, “The Life and Death of Mambo: Culture and Consumption in New York’s Salsa Scene” takes an interdisciplinary theoretical approach, substantiated by qualitative research methods, to understand community power-building alongside commodification in this localized creative community.
For many New Yorkers, salsa is a source of pride. Energetic and electric, salsa music and movement represent the innovations of a community whose spirit of resistance persisted amidst conditions of inequality. Salsa’s vitality seems to contradict the severity of the historical realities out of which it was birthed – slavery, colonialism, migration, and segregation. This dichotomy is mirrored in the music itself. Salsa is comprised of both rhythm and melody, represents both history and evolution, and encourages both individual expression and interpersonal connection. In the 1960s and 70s salsa music was, “the unmistakable voice of the Puerto Rican barrio” (Duany, 1984: 198), representing, “a powerfully vibrant and uncontainable cultural expression” (Washburne, 2008). Today, it is the dancers who advance these traditions of exchange, creativity, and counter-hegemonic cultural assertion.
For some, dancing salsa provides affirmation, constitutes a pillar of social identity, or serves as spiritual practice. For others, it is simply recreation. In either case, the social connections and cultural meanings enacted on the dance floor are influenced by the fact that salsa has also become a commodity that is practiced, produced, and consumed in the context of the hyper-gentrified city and amidst conflicts around race, class, gender, and power.
Salsa’s development is a uniquely New York story: the coalescence of many peoples and cultures brought together by migration, racial and ethnic mixing, and transculturation. It draws on a variety of Latin American, Caribbean, and North American music, especially Afro-Cuban styles that were reimagined and popularized by mainly Puerto Rican musicians in New York from the 1940s through the 1970s. A soundtrack for the legacy of Nuyorican resistance movements, salsa music’s sometimes political tones are exemplified in the commentaries of major artists like Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and later, Rubén Blades. The community referred to today as “the salsa scene” emerged out of this history of music, innovation, and movement. The scene is an informal and porous network of people who participate in the local studio classes, social events, and online interactions of a salsa dance industry.
The work that I conducted with the Connect New York Fellowship allowed me to complete my dissertation chapter titled, “‘Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso’: Salsa and the City,” in which I chart the historical development of New York’s salsa dance scene and draw an ethnographic sketch of the scene today. This research brings necessary critical attention to social dance forms and Latinx cultural production, which have been staples in the fabric of New York’s urban landscape for generations. I argue that semi-formal creative communities like the salsa scene are an important part of the fabric of cities today and are sites where race, class, and gender identities are reimagined and contested. The commodification of salsa as broadly and stereotypically Latin, rather than explicitly working class, Nuyorican, and politically grounded in the grassroots constitutes a method of racialization that is both subtle and pervasive. However, Latinx dancers in New York consciously claim physical and narrative space in the hyper-gentrified city and the saturated social media landscape, constituting a nuanced resistance to the racialized consumption of Latinx culture at a time when Latinx bodies are politically marginalized.
I will be moving forward with Erica Chito-Childs, Phil Kasinitz, and Anahí Viladrich to edit and complete the dissertation project and related publications, as well as working with outside readers Arlene Dávila (NYU) and Sydney Hutchinson (Syracuse).