There has been a storm recently about the ‘legitimacy’ of Sensual Bachata as a type of Bachata dance.
It started with a video, which called out Daniel and Desiree and other notable Sensual Bachata dancers for their use of ‘LambaZouk’ (though I’d personally say they take more from Traditional style). It then escalated to a defense of ‘Sensual Bachata’ by its creators Korke and Judith.
I’m not the first person to offer my opinions on the Sensual Bachata debate. However, I have issues with how the concepts of appropriation and appreciation are used. I also struggle with some misinformation that is circulating within these discussions (for example, the idea that Brazilian Zouk dance is a fusion of Brazilian dance and Caribbean Zouk).
What I’d like to do is bring a little bit more structure to the discussion of appropriation vs. appreciation – as well as some clarity to some of the misinformation circulating in the debate.
I welcome further input into the discussion, so if you would like to add a though please leave it in the comments.
First Things First – My Thoughts on the Debate
I have a number of issues with the discussion to date, and some small points I want to clarify before getting into the substantive discussion of appropriation.
I would also advise anyone who is speaking as an ‘expert’ in the discussion to make sure they fact-check before posting opinion as fact. Even if points are valid, they can be deeply obscured by opinions or a lack of knowledge masquerading as authority – and they can really mess up less-savvy people who are truly trying to understand the situation.
There are a few false or misleading ideas circulating in this debate that I would like to briefly clarify:
LambaZouk is a fusion of Caribbean Zouk dancing and Brazilian dances: False
Caribbean Zouk is a completely separate dance. Brazilians used Zouk music from the Caribbean – not Caribbean Zouk dancing – to create LambaZouk and other Brazilian Zouk streams.
If you want to know more about the history, the Brazilian Zouk Dance Council has some information.
LambaZouk is Brazilian Zouk: Partially True
LambaZouk is a type of Brazilian Zouk. Brazilian Zouk also includes Traditional (which arguably, Sensual Bachata draws far more from than Lamba) and Stylized Zouk (including Neo and other offshoots).
No other dances (besides Tango) have these internal problems: False
Actually, every dance does. If you don’t think they do, it’s just because no one’s made a viral Facebook video of their issues. Yes, this includes Swing dances, Salsa, and other super-popular styles.
Sensual Bachata is all Repackaged Brazilian Zouk: Inaccurate
There’s certainly a prevalence of Brazilian Zouk-like movements, but a Brazilian Zouk dancer would not look at a full video of Sensual Bachata and call it Brazilian Zouk. The original critique video cherry-picked the most Zouk-like clips to prove a point – but it’s not a balanced representation.
Sensual Bachata: Full Video
Now, on to the major discussion…
Appropriation vs. Appreciation
One of the central parts of the Bachata debate is about whether it is an appropriation of a cultural art form, or appreciation. There’s two veins to this discussion:
- Is Sensual Bachata appropriating the name Bachata?
- Is Sensual Bachata appropriating Brazilian Zouk dancing?
These are two separate issues. They should not be conflated with each other. Sensual Bachata may be appropriating one or the other, both, or neither.
Simply put, ‘to appropriate’ in this context means ‘to steal’. Stealing, of course, means ‘to use/take without permission’.
There are several definitions of ‘appropriation’, but the one we are concerned about in the context of cultural appropriation is, essentially, cultural theft.
As a result, there are a few hallmarks of cultural appropriation:
- Use of this practice, term, or art form without permission of the group
- Use of a cultural practice, term, or art form without crediting the originating group – even if used with permission
Frequently (but not always), cultural appropriation also features:
- Using an important cultural element for personal or professional gain
- Using an important cultural element to further personal expression by claiming it as one’s own or right
- Using an important cultural element without an understanding of the significance, importance, or history of that element
- Misusing or bastardizing a culturally-significant element
While these are not ‘necessary’ to meet the definition of cultural appropriation, they frequently are centerpieces to discussion.
This is because ‘for profit’ use of cultural terms, art forms, or practices can be seen as ‘more offensive’ than simply ‘practicing’ for personal pleasure. It can also be because the misuse or incorrect application of an art form or cultural practice is offensive to people who developed the technique, art form, or style.
While most cases of cultural appropriation have to do with race-related uses of traditional costumes, customs, or art forms, the idea of cultural appropriation is not only tied to race. It can also be tied to a specific culture within a race.
Additionally, cultural appropriation is not limited to the misuse of cultural stereotypes. It can include anything that is the custom, tradition, or other expression of a specific culture.
Appropriation of Bachata
In order to determine if Sensual Bachata is appropriating the name ‘Bachata’, we must ask a seemingly simple question:
- Is Sensual Bachata using the name ‘Bachata’ without the permission of the term’s ‘owners’?
In the conversation about appropriation, whether the term is being used to ‘make money’ or to ‘ride on popularity’ is irrelevant. The only relevant point to the determination of appropriation is whether the name is ‘stolen’. Any outrage that comes from how the name is ‘misused’ is a result of the appropriation – but it is not the test for appropriation itself.
This is where the conversation gets tricky. First, we need to determine who owns the concept of ‘Bachata’. Is it Dominicans? Or, is it anyone who dances Dominican Bachata? Is there some other group who is a stakeholder in the term?
The problem is, the question of ‘ownership’ is almost impossible to answer. Without an answer to that question, there is no way to determine if Sensual Bachata is actually appropriation.
My gut instinct would be to say that the idea of Bachata is owned by the Dominicans. My reason for believing this is the most ‘suitable’ owner is because the dance style and music is an intrinsic cultural practice of the Dominican people. Therefore, whether Sensual Bachata is appropriating the name Bachata rests with the general outrage or good wishes of the Dominican people.
Even though I (personally) feel that it is appropriation, I’m not an owner of the term ‘Bachata’. Therefore, my opinion on whether the dance is appropriation is solely founded on my belief that the majority of the Dominican people with a stake in the name ‘Bachata’ feel that the dance is misusing the name.
Appropriation of Brazilian Zouk
First, I believe it is necessary to clarify that there are several veins of Brazilian Zouk. Although the original video referred exclusively to LambaZouk, I believe the intent was a comparison with Brazilian Zouk. For this article, I will replace the term ‘LambaZouk’ with the broader term ‘Brazilian Zouk’ to accurately encompass all elements of Brazilian Zouk that are used in Sensual Bachata.
When we are assessing the appropriation of Brazilian Zouk in Bachata, there can be a two-part test:
- Is Sensual Bachata using Brazilian Zouk without permission?
- If used with permission, is Sensual Bachata using Brazilian Zouk without giving credit to the originating group?
I’d argue that Sensual Bachata fails both these tests.
Most Brazilian Zouk artists that I know are not particularly pleased with the use of Brazilian Zouk within Sensual Bachata. If the majority of Brazilian Zouk’s ‘owners’ are not pleased with the use of Brazilian Zouk within Sensual Bachata, it is reasonable to assume that Sensual Bachata is using Brazilian Zouk without permission. Therefore, Sensual Bachata fails part 1 of the test.
For the second part of the test, I’ve regularly heard of Sensual Bachata artists stating that ‘they do not dance Brazilian Zouk, and are not using Brazilian Zouk in their Bachata’. If we assume that Sensual Bachata artists are using Brazilian Zouk elements, this is cause to fail the second test.
The possibility of similar – but completely unrelated – elements
Some Sensual Bachata artists claim that they are not using Brazilian Zouk movements. Rather, they claim they ‘found’ those elements on their own, and added them to the dance. Is it possible that this is the truth? Sure, anything’s possible. Is it likely? No.
I say it is not likely because of the sheer volume of Brazilian Zouk-like movements that I see in many (not all) Sensual Bachata videos. In particular, lateral, elastico, boneca, and other ‘signature’ movements appear with astonishing regularity for a dance that claims it developed those movements on its own.
While there is still a lot in clips of Sensual Bachata that is not similar to Brazilian Zouk, there is enough to reasonably infer the influence of Brazilian Zouk on Sensual Bachata dancing.
Ex: Daniel and Desiree
Most Brazilian Zouk dancers and artists are also upset by the fact that the Zouk movements we see are often done in a very ‘sloppy’ way in Sensual Bachata. To many of us, the movements sometimes look downright unsafe.
But, these bad executions are not definitive of cultural appropriation. They may be an issue that is so sensitive because of cultural appropriation, but they are not the test for cultural appropriation itself.
Of course, if these artists got training in how to execute the moves and then added those movements to their Sensual Bachata, there is a high likelihood that the use of those movements would then be ‘sanctioned’ by Brazilian Zouk owners. Therefore, proper execution may have an impact on whether or not the dance does pass the actual cultural appropriation test.
“But other dances don’t have that problem!”
Yes, they do.
Brazilian Zouk has been used by just about everyone at this point. We have an issue with some (like Sensual Bachata), and not others (West Coast Swing). Salsa dancers have added elements.
We also have our own problems with the fact that there’s another Zouk dance. While Brazilian Zouk dancers did their best to mitigate the fact that they stepped on Caribbean Zouk’s name, we still struggle with the fact that our dance is called Zouk. Even though the two dances aren’t related at all, we still took their name. Therefore, it’s our job to reduce the damage as best we can.
Lindy Hoppers still fight about whether West Coast Swing gets to call itself a ‘Swing’ dance. The fact that West Coast Swing still calls itself swing irks some Lindy Hoppers who feel that the music isn’t ‘swing’ enough, and that the steps aren’t ‘swing’ enough.
All swing dance styles also have an internal struggle about recognizing the Black roots of their dance. What was born out of Black culture is now very dominantly a White (and sometimes other culture) passtime. There’s definitely some appropriation in there that needs to be carefully handled, especially given the history of Black-White relations in North America.
Samba de Gafieira dancers don’t view Ballroom Samba as ‘real’ Samba, and are generally quite unhappy that Ballroom dancers call that dance Samba. Cuban-style Salsa dancers fight over the ‘legitimacy’ of cross-body styles. Then, you also have the entire Kizomba vs. Neo-Kiz movement!
Point is, every dance has problems with appropriation. It’s growing pains. It still needs to be dealt with – and damage needs to be mitigated wherever possible.
“But they appreciate and love the style!”
You can appreciate and love something – and still appropriate it. If I appreciate and really like a song but download it illegally, it’s still stealing. I’m also infringing copyright if I remix the same song without permissions and sell it. If I go and get cornrows because I ‘really love the style’, I’m still appropriating Black culture.
Sensual Bachata artists can really ‘appreciate and admire’ Brazilian Zouk and even ‘dedicate their lives’ to Bachata – and still appropriate it.
It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. There can be all the good intentions in the world, and it can still be appropriation. You can truly love Sensual Bachata (or even teach it!), and still recognize that there’s a problem with how it is relating to Dominican Bachata or Brazilian Zouk.
“But their dance IS founded on the basics of Bachata!”
Well, they may certainly feel that way. It may even be a fact – but it’s up to the owners of ‘Bachata’ to determine whether or not it is similar enough (and respectful enough) of original Bachata to use the term Bachata in good faith.
The Owners and Potential Appropriators: Decision Time
There is also an onus on the ‘owners’ of Bachata. They need to decide if their dance is so sacred that offshoots based on their dance can still use the name Bachata. Whether they’re comfortable with that is their call – but, generally speaking, inclusion is a more powerful tool for promotion and growth than exclusion.
Personally, I don’t feel there is a problem with Sensual Bachata using the name ‘Sensual Bachata’. Do I think that it’s such a big deal that they use the name Bachata? No, I don’t. But, I also think that the promoters of Sensual Bachata can be more clear about how their dance is different from Dominican Bachata – and also about the strong influence of Brazilian Zouk.
But, it’s not my decision. I may have a stake in Brazilian Zouk because I am a teacher, but, at most, my share in the dance is relatively quite small. I certainly don’t have a stake in Bachata. It’s the owners of the dances that should determine whether or not it is appropriate, and whether they are comfortable with the current situation.
It is also up to the people using the dance to be respectful of the owners. It is up to them to recognize when they are hurting people in the community. It is up to them to recognize when the opinion of the people they ‘respect and admire’ are worth modifying their approach for.
If the creators of Sensual Bachata and the traditionalists want to resolve this issue, they need to work together to come to a common solution. They need to recognize no one is trying to hurt the other – but also need to recognize when their positions are hurting or hindering the growth of Bachata.
To me, if I respect and admire something, I’ll do my darndest to make sure that I’m not unnecessarily causing a rift. If I own something, I try to give room for interpretation and fair use – if the user is also giving due credit back.
Have thoughts? Leave them in the comments below, and share the article!
Photo Credit: Brian De Rivera Simon, Tarsipix Studios