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Dancing Goes Beyond Culture

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- It is Saturday night in Suchitoto, the disco is packed, everybody in town is here: the girl who works at a pupusaria, the guy from the language school, the faces that people the streets of this little city north of San Salvador are on the dance floor. They are wearing clothes designed to extenuate every curve, rise, and fall of their bodily silhouettes. Everybody is smiling, laughing, singing. The women are masked in make up, low cut shirts, skin tight pants or short skirts, the men where tight jeans and button up shirts with the top three buttons unhooked — of course. Everybody is rubbing themselves all over each other. They are dancing.

A complete metamorphosis has occurred. I sat drinking a beer watching a town’s character flipped inside out, upside down — this wound tight conservative city unravels quickly here at the disco each Saturday night. During the day, in the streets, Suchitoto is a conservative place, Catholic, Evangelical, as is most of Latin America. People dress conservative, act conservative — but on Saturday night, in the disco, the polar opposite manifests itself, as night from day, as the town unwinds and just dances.

And dancing, if done properly, is a mock mating ritual.

The dancing is done properly here.

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I have never been much for dancing in Latin America. Me dancing just usually ends up as an embarrassing after thought. Even though the dancing here seems simple — two steps to the left, crotch on leg rub, two steps to the right, hump motion, repeat — there seems to be something about it that I just cannot get.

Drinking $1 Pilseners leave me feeling vastly more comfortable. Though there are many girls who can be described as nothing other than beautiful who want to dance with me. I say no way. The benefits of dancing with a pretty girl is not worth the loss in self respect for dancing with a pretty girl poorly.

Luckily, I am rather neutered here anyway, most girls here just referred to me as “the man with the gorgeous daughter.”

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Timing means everything in culture. The place an setting of an action is often more of a determinant as to its appropriateness than what the action consists of. It is my impression that the girls in Suchi could not walk around in the day time streets of their town in the clothes that they wear in the disco they would quickly be branded as hussies. But inside the disco people are free to dress and act like hussies, grind their crotches up against the legs of a long line of men in rapid succession. This is normal in this place and setting for this activity — it is a disco — you are suppose to dress skant and grind yourself up against people here, it is the normal thing to do.

Sitting fully clad in old clothes, drinking a beer at a corner table, not talking much, just watching is not normal behavior for the disco. In fact, not dancing and rubbing myself all over people is an odd thing to do here.

Part of unraveling the knot of cultures is the knowing the interplay between time, place, and action. I can remember being hung up on this as a little kid learning the ways of my own culture. I could not figure out why it was alright for me to act a certain way at home but not in public, why doing something at my friend’s house was OK, but not at the house of my parent’s friends. I could not get the coding of how an action could be perfectly fine in one place and not in another. It confused me. I did not know it then but I was learning one of the biggest lessons that socialization has to offer:

“This is not the time or place for that,” the parent says to their child.
The child responds, “Why?”

“Because that is just the way it is.”

The study of culture could be summed up in this one interchange: “Why? Because that is just the way it is.”

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The act of dancing often has the ability of luring the buried psyche of a group of people up to the surface. To dance is to release some hidden spirit which counters culture. Interaction, movement, and dress that is in no way acceptable in most parts of a culture become normal while dancing. In many places, dancing momentarily usurps the bounds of one frame socialization and replaces it with another much more open, accepting frame. I sit at the disco and watch boys dance intimately with other boys, an effeminate man dances with himself in a mirror, on the walk back home I watched as two boys held hands all through the midnight streets.

It was nearly 3 AM, the disco has closed, the crowd was now making a happy return to their homes, to wake up again reformed into the creatures their socialization created. Until next Saturday night.

The disco — a place for dancing — often acts as a culture’s counter balance: on one side there is a finely tuned and conservative society, on the other there are animals flinging themselves wildly in cathartic, sexual fury.

Dancing rites are often the initial stages of courtship, a part of the selection process of finding a mate. I remember when I was staying in a little sea side village in Ecuador 10 years ago how there would be a big community dance every other week. I was there with an anthropologist, he turned to me and said, “Watch the people dancing, this is where they find the people they will marry.”

Dancing often serves as a mechanism to break down the social walls of a community to allow for the onward roll of procreation. Dancing is a safe first step, a non-commitial, inconsequential way to test out the mating pool.

Humans seemingly need constructs to blind themselves from their true animal character. We must trick ourselves with charades to get that which we really want. We mask our basic biological urges with logical cloaks to make the primal appear controlled, cultural:

Dancing has the power to make people human again.

El Salvador Travel Guide | El Salvador Photos

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Dance, El Salvador

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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