Aging ritual–Salsa Dancers

At many salsa dance scenes, if it is someone’s birthday, the band will play a version of the “Happy Birthday Song” to the salsa rhythm. If the birthday person is a woman, her male friends will form a ring around her while stepping to the music; other people and friends may or may not form a larger ring around this as well. Then a man will step into the ring one by one to dance with the birthday person, and then passes her off to another dancer in the circle. Sometimes the next man will simply find the right timing and snatch the birthday girl—but all in good fun. If the birthday person is a man, then his female friends will ring around him and do the same thing. Occasionally, if he is an advanced dancer, he will dance with two ladies at once, leading them with one arm each. The birthday person will switch partners until the end of the song, which is usually about 4-6 minutes long.

Jorge has been active in the Los Angeles salsa scene for about 11 years now. He told me that he did not see this happening at all at first, and it was about six years ago when he started seeing this unique custom—“and it spread like nothing!” The first place he saw it happen was at a Los Angeles club called Rodolfo. When asked what he thinks it means, he said it is simply to show that “this is her [the birthday girl’s] night,” and to make sure she is, literally, at the center of attention.

That most certainly seems to be the case—as a dancer, what could be more delightful than to have an entire ring of other dancers waiting just to dance with you? At least for this one song, the birthday person is the queen or king of the dance floor, and can dance with as many people during that song as she or he wants. It is also a chance for the dancer to show off, as almost the entire crowd will be watching and cheering. Beginner or champion, they get to show what they can do, and perhaps try to outdo what they did last year.

I also think it is a way for salsa dancers to celebrate the spontaneity and leadability of salsa. This is a birthday ritual that I have not seen in other dances, such as dancesport or Argentinean tango, for example. Compared to other such dances, to be able to improvise and to lead complete strangers are important skills in salsa, and spontaneity and flexibility are highly valued. Therefore, it really does make sense that such a custom—in which one dancer must be able to quickly adapt to a number of different partners, make smooth changes, spontaneously improvise in case of bad timing—would have developed and been so popular in salsa. It is a way for them to show off to other dancers, and confirm to themselves, their mastery of improvisation.

The flexible nature of salsa which allows for improvisation, also allows for creativity and invention. New moves, new tricks, new combinations are being invented everyday right on the dance floor—salseros and salseras are always experimenting, which is why one will often see one man leading two women at once, or two couple rapidly switching around, and frequently the switch itself can become a complex, fancy move as dancers experiment with different techniques for changing partners. Again, this ritual, then, is a great time to show off these invented skills, as normally on the dance floor there are not multiple dancers to switch around at one’s convenience.

Finally, I think the flexible attitude of the salsa dancers helped spread this ritual so widely in just six years. I was surprised to hear it was so young, because I have seen people do this in New York—even in Korea. Interestingly, each place I’ve seen it does it a bit differently. The New Yorkers that I’ve seen were in a ring as well, but instead of facing the dancers in the circle, they will walk, making a bit of a dizzier scene—the dancers focus a bit more on stylish walks, but seem to care less about a flashy partner switch. In Korea, they will not form a ring, but stand in a line instead. This makes for a much more orderly ritual, because there is rarely the case where two dancers accidentally approach the birthday person at one time. Again, instead of focusing so much on slick changes, the Korean dancers like to show off very fast spins.

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