by Leah Simon
A Latino rhythm speaks as it bounces in the air, layered with the high-pitched voice of the mandarina, overtop of the raspyness of the guayo and the soft tone of the accordion. Before the smooth-flowing words of Raulin Rodriguez glide through the air, my mind processes the genre of music (there are a few types: bembo, merengue, bachata, regeton to name a few) and my body reacts, legs bouncing and hips swaying right in with the beat. “Esta Noche” is playing, a famous classic bachata song, and the romantic, serenading lyrics speak to me as my body converses back. The movement of my body beckons a male counterpart and within moments, there is one in front of me following my steps and providing me with a conversation partner. It is only through my experience of immersion here in this unique language that I now have this familiarity and ease of conversation, quite similarly now with my Spanish.
Encountering dance in the Dominican Republic as a form of connecting/conversing is nearly as common as the official DR language of Spanish itself; it’s basically inevitable because it is everywhere, and it can swoop in on you when you least expect it, so you always have to be ready to embrace it like my good friend, Juliana, who dances at nearly every possible moment. Her daughter, Asley, takes on the same conversation habit, talking whenever she has the opportunity.
Being the one of only two Americans living here in Tenares, I have had plenty of practice in immersion in many aspects including dance. Dance has a much different role in this culture than my surrounding culture in Chapel Hill, NC where this form of language is hard to find and when found, has little relevance to culture. Dancing is generally found at parties, in night clubs, or amongst female friends and consists of half-thought-out spasms and with dirty tones and is very one-sided (males rarely dance). How would you like to have these characteristics in the form of conversation? It wouldn’t be very pleasant would it? Here in La Republica Dominicana everyone is simply a part of the culture of the language of dance and there is little escaping it. I’m pretty sure babies come out of the womb moving their hips to the tones of bachata and meringue before a cry releases from their lips.
Why is this the case? Dance is a huge source for a lot of the culture here which is very frequently honored through this form of communication. Culture is honored a lot here (almost every other day it feels like at times), and dance is the primary form of doing so as it is a language everyone speaks and understands. Perhaps it ties back to the roots of their culture and the mix of Haitian, Indigenous, and Spaniard influences. American culture rooted from a people with little value for dance as a form of expression and communication as the language tends to be less imminent in the northern countries, especially of England, where Americans migrated from. It seems that in warmer and more tropical climates such as the DR, that there is a greater enthusiasm for this form of conversation.
Fortunately having some natural ability to dance to Latino music due to the half Puerto Rican in me (I wish it worked that way with the ability to speak Spanish as well), dance served as a default form of communication here when I first arrived. Even when I could not understand my host mom clearly or vice versa in Dominican Spanish, seeing me dance to a bachata/merengue song always put a smile of understanding to her face. When I started visiting the high school I have been assisting for the first time, I knew I would encounter difficulties connecting to members of the community. As I walked in the first day, all eyes turned to me. From some I could sense a spirit of intimidation, some awe, and others curiosity. I felt like an absolute stranger, and I really was. For those few days, I felt like I had started high school all over again with not a single group to fit in with.
As I walked into the comedor the first day, I panicked inside as I contemplated where to sit and whom to sit with. I was in an awkward position, not being considered a teacher nor a student, so I found myself interacting with both groups meandering from table to table and talking to anyone who approached me first. After lunch, I was introduced to the dance group (now, my current friends). At first, I sensed a similar reaction from them, and again, bringing me a slight feeling of isolation. All they really knew about me was that I was not from here and I knew some Spanish. But the mood lightened as we began to learn the dance, and they opened up, once laughing at me for a missed step in a friendly way, bringing a smile to our faces. As the bells rang and the steps proceeded, we familiarized ourselves more and more, to the point that I felt I had found my niche. As our movements physically united us sometimes, they have metaphorically connected us as well.
After two weeks of practicing and perfecting the indigenous-style dance, Dia de la raza (International Race Day) was upon us. We bowed our heads in to the downbeat of the traditional drums as the dance commenced, fluent in the conversation of the dance, I sensed a connection to this group and this was communicated to me through our movements. At the conclusion of our performance on the sticky Tuesday afternoon, we leapt out of the comedor in glee and pride high on adrenaline from the performance and embraced like we were family. As I took a step back from the group embrace with a large grin of pride and excitement with red paint starting to flow down my face (from the indigenous-themed outfit worn by the natives of the island which later mixed with Spaniards and African slaves to form modern day Dominicans), I couldn’t help but realize the power that dance has to help us communicate and connect.
I feel grateful that here I have had bountiful opportunity to practice two languages.