In the fall of my junior year, one of my recently graduated friends returned to Bowdoin to visit and brought his younger brother, Rogelio. I don’t remember everything about that night, but I distinctly remember finding Rogelio asleep in my bathtub at about two in the morning and that the floor, walls and somehow even the ceiling of my bathroom had a look reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s work, except only painted with little pieces of partly digested food and regurgitated Natural Lite. It was an appalling sight and one that filled me with guilt and remorse over how irresponsible I’d been to let it unfold. Moreso, however, I was really not looking forward to having to clean all that shit up. I rinsed him off, picked him up and laid him down on the extra bed we kept tucked behind the couch in our living room as my roommate plugged his phone into our speaker system and queued up Romeo Santos’ album, “Formula, Vol. 2.”
For those of you unfamiliar with Romeo Santos, I can only offer you my sincerest apologies and my most emphatic recommendation to check him out. Santos is the self-proclaimed King of Bachata, a style of music that, like Rogelio, was born in the Dominican Republic. Early Bachata was the fusion of Bolero and Son, two genres that originated in Cuba as the result of the marriage of Spanish and African musical influences. Nowadays, the most famous Bachateros primarily sing what is called Bachata Urbana, a wildly popular genre that fuses Bachata with hip-hop. One can clearly hear the African American influences in the incorporation of plunderphonics, 808 kicks and verses rapped in English.
Upon hearing the opening guitar lick to “Eres Mia,” Rogelio did something that left my jaw agape. In one deft motion, Rogelio lifted himself off the bed and flung himself into the middle of my living room. With the fingers of one hand placed delicately over his stomach and the other moving in small circles near his chest, Rogelio stepped side-to-side and swung his hips with the subtlety and poise of a man who had complete control of all his faculties. My roommate and I sat on the couch facing him, in shock at having just witnessed this boy (who, to be completely honest, we were starting to worry we might’ve actually killed) rise from the dead like some sort of rhythmically blessed Lazarus. Soon enough, he had the both of us on our feet and dancing with him.
The sight of an uncoordinated 6’8’’ gringo doing his damnedest to dance Bachata must’ve been hilarious to Rogelio judging by how much laughter it elicited. “No,” he told me, barely able to contain his giggling, “like this.” With his hands, he directed my hips how they should roll and turn, and, by example, showed me where and when I should step with my feet. Eventually, I was dancing a Bachata that he approved of. The three of us danced for what felt like hours, stopping only to wipe the sweat from our brows and admire each other’s moves.
This was a dancing experience unlike anything I’d ever encountered at Bowdoin. All too often, I see my peers, nervous adolescents as they are, approach each other crotch first, and, finding a match that’s either compatible or too inebriated to mind, unceremoniously rub their pelvises together with no regard for timing or rhythm. Just to be clear, this is not a criticism of grinding. I grind, too. I love grinding. One time at the Spring Gala, I was bent over popping my thing so damn hard I ripped my khakis clean open at the seat. What I’m talking about isn’t grinding, though. It more closely resembles the act of trying to pick out a wedgie with no hands, except done with far less urgency and pressed up against another person doing the same.
I often hear people praise the African-American Society (AfAm) and Latin American Student Organization (LASO) for hosting parties that foster environments wherein “people can actually dance.” I feel as though this has just as much to do with the types of music played as it does with the demographics of the students who tend to show up.
Deeper than that, though, I think the music and the overall vibe of AfAm and LASO parties reflect certain cultural attitudes towards dance. I’m no dancer, but, as I have come to understand it, dance in the African American experience aims to embody music and sound. There are emotions and ideas expressed in any given song, and dance is the physical manifestation of those feelings. And while my knowledge of Latin American dance is limited to the information I’ve already espoused in this article, I can only assume that the effect African slaves had on the dance tradition is equally as profound as the effect they had on the musical tradition. At the very least, there seems to be the sense that dancing is something be enjoyed and taken seriously.
While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that what I’ve seen in College Houses is not really dancing, I would say that it lacks inspiration and can’t even hold a candle to that time Rogelio wrecked my bathroom and taught me how to Bachata.