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The Courage to Speak Into the Unknown, or: What Conflict Culture Can Learn From Queer Salsa Dance

Par Heidi Salaverría

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Conflict culture should be more like queer Salsa culture, or: Disputes should be more like queer salsa dancing (and less like war). I am saying this from a mainly Northern, Western perspective, in which in everyday public life, at least traditionally, heated fights are as unwelcomed as heated body movements.[1] In mainstream behaviour, people avoid conflicts and, therefore, are as inexperienced in good fights as the Northern nerd is inexperienced in good Salsa hip movements. You need to practice both if you want to master it (which has nothing to do with dominating others). Now, one could argue that the comparison is misleading because dancing is fun and fights are not.[2] Of course, I see the difference, but let me state some similarities: In both cases, you want to express something to your vis-à-vis (and often, to an audience watching), you want them to respond to the matters you are expressing in a way that meet your needs, and therefore you want to find a common ground with them, share something with them. You need to explore hot territory in order to establish that common ground. Therefore, there is tension, whether aggressive or sexual, although sometimes it is both, and there is joy in exploring that tension (yes, there can be joy in good fighting, in contrast to dangerous revenge-lust in war-like fighting). You want there to be an element of complexity: If your vis-à-vis always dances Salsa in the same monotonous way, or  analogously for disputes  always repeats the same argument, there is no point. You want the dance and the dispute to be rich and complex. Moreover, you want your vis-à-vis to respond to your own complexity and not to reduce it by trying to force you into the same old movements or thoughts. That would be mechanical and, what's worse, violent. But neither do you want the other to respond to your complexity exactly how you expect them to, e.g. by simply repeating your complex thought (like a parrot or voice memo) or complex movement (like a dance android). Instead, you want there to be real interaction. Put differently, you want there to be elements of improvisation and surprise. You need a human counterpart that is alive and reacts in ways that include something unexpected. That's what you need to feel alive yourself, to experience yourself in unexpected ways  to be surprised by yourself, to feel something new, in big words: to feel your freedom. I'll get back to that in a minute. Also, you want development or growth. But you also want consensual rules: no violence, a just distribution of speaking and listening, of giving and taking, and it should be a safe space free of fear of being ridiculed or humiliated.

What I am getting at, and what is crucial, is that there are seemingly self-evident and therefore invisible codes in cultural practices, and this applies to Salsa dance as much as to conflict culture, only that these practices are more visible in Salsa dance — and that in Salsa they explore hotter territory. The old-fashioned Northern nerd who prefers listening to Indie and Electro and generally doesn't dance at parties because he's shy and has a self-conscious relationship with his body probably feels slightly disturbed the moment he sees Salsa dancing for the first time: a little bit like watching other people having sex in public (not to mention what he feels like when being asked to dance Salsa himself). Only when you get to know Latin American cultures better you learn that Salsa is structured by highly differentiated codes about which forms of touches of which body parts, which closeness and which movements are accepted within the dancing culture and which are not. You can dance Salsa with a complete stranger without talking, smiling, or even maintaining eye contact, and it can be relaxing and stimulating at the same time — if you know the codes. Moreover, you know exactly when someone crosses a line. Now add the queer factor, when the role of leading and being lead in the dancing is no longer gender-coded, so you have to come to an agreement upon that, too: There is a lot of non-verbal negotiation at work. Also, all those codes change over time, they are not static, so you need to stay attentive.

Compared to my example of northern Indie-shoegazing-dance-traditions, in Salsa the range of publicly habitualized and accepted body movements is broader, more extended. Therefore, you can do things with others in public, which for my European grandparents would have been unthinkable and almost obscene (not that my grandparents were Indie fans). [3] Understanding salsa dance means broadening the cultural repertoire of intersubjective body movements. Whereas many of them would seem to a shy Northern person private, sexual, and "natural," within Salsa culture they reflect an art form. In other words, you can, and you should, culturalize, and thereby widen habits and behaviours previously considered not apt to it. [4]

Applied to conflict culture: If you don't widen and culturalize your conflict repertoire when things get heated in disputes, you will act with what seems most natural to you. This is bad advice because then you simply reproduce what mainstream culture has taught us conflict-wise, that is, the war logic of defence and retaliation. And the more stormy it gets, the more it results in some sort of reptilian brain state regression.

Let's imagine you could measure disputes with a traffic light: As long as everybody rides with the green light, discussions might go smoothly, however a bit boring and tedious for reasons of distinction-fuss, inauthenticity, etc. When you get to the yellow light, people will start to get personal, to intimidate one another with their authority, making arguments look ridiculous, etc. Once you get to the red-light zone, communication rules of civilization are over board. 

Because people are so afraid of the yellow and the red, most times conflicts are being avoided or, because of lacking skills, directly end up in reptile-land. So, either people don't say anything or not what they really want to say, hence beat about the bush, say things in an indirect passive-aggressive way, etc., or they go into verbal war. Put differently, they try to remain within the green light zone without being able to stay there. And the problem is, that doesn't make disagreements go away, but makes them worse, because then you don't get to express what you think, won't get genuine responses, don't reflect the real tensions, can't build common ground, don't respect the complexity, the wish for real interaction, surprise, growth, etc. Think of a panel discussion on a new film. It doesn't help when you join the chorus of the enthusiasts if you don't really share that judgement (or the chorus of the critics). What everybody wishes for is genuine (however non-humiliating) feedback. How do we get to widen our conflict habits repertoire?

I propose that, instead of continuing the avoidance-policy, we should culturalize the yellow zone of conflict culture and learn to mark out the red zone

One key prerequisite to dance Salsa well is a sense of rhythm. And to do that (to develop a sense for the complex, syncopated rhythms of this music), you need to be in touch with yourself, particularly with your body. Syncopated rhythms become alive through a play between minor but significant pauses. In difference to shoegaze-Indie or Techno where there is a very dominant and easily identifiable "one" on the downbeat, in Salsa you depend on the offbeat, in between the one and the three (put somewhat simplified). To get that, it is essential to be in the moment and to respect the spaces of silence. Respecting these spaces in the dance means knowing when not to move. Generally, it means to move your body a tiny bit later than the shoegazer would expect. Taking seriously those small, but fundamental spaces, you create tension, suspense, and groove. That would be the yellow-light zone (someone crossing a line, not respecting the codes, would be a red light). And as every dancer has a slightly different understanding of those micro-rhythms (which is part of the fun), pausing and getting back into movement varies individually. Therefore, to a certain extent, you dance into the unknown (however controlling your body). At the same time, this unknown is met with a rich palette of movement codes. This allows the bodies of the dancers to get very close, without being sexual, as if cheating when doing it with someone who is not your monogamous lover (if you are in a monogamous relationship). 

Let's apply this to conflict culture: Getting into the groove of the yellow zone means taking seriously the tensions in your body, and to express them. If you are upset, show that you are upset! But, culturalize your aggression. Culturalizing means taking responsibility for the heat. As long as you follow unconsciously the rules of: better don't say, don't show, hide, play along — until at some point you explode when your emotional bank overdraft is used up, to then, finally, almost triumphantly, blaming the other for causing the accumulation of the minus you have been silently enduring for far too long, now presenting the bill as payback — as long as you do that, you are not leading the steps yourself, but are being led by societal structures (with a very limited repertoire) in your proceeding. You don't really own your feelings but remain submitted to an authority, namely the etiquette of the Northern-Western don't-trespass-into-the-yellow. You're acting out rules others made, or put differently, you act thoughtlessly, which is a dangerous thing, as Hannah Arendt has shown in the extreme case of Eichmann's thoughtlessness. Instead, cultivating the yellow in an anti-authoritarian way means displaying oneself, making one's appearance in the world, and exposing oneself, which takes courage and practice. Moreover, as it turns out, we don't really know ourselves, but speaking with others gradually gives shape to our position. It hasn't been there all along, which not only would have been boring but, even more so, alienated. Speaking into the unknown requires courage because in exposing ourselves, we get to know ourselves, and in doing so, we exercise our freedom. And that we need others for.

Because you don't possess some god-eye's-view-certainty (nobody does), it is important to respect the spaces (as in Salsa). In conflict, those spaces are where new feelings and thoughts, where improvisation and change take place. Hold still for a moment or, as Kae Tempest puts it: Hold your own. Listen to your body, generally: really listen! To what the other says, to the nuances. Maybe someone is making a small step towards you. Follow that movement for a moment, make a sideward step — which doesn't mean: now I have given in and am defeated. That's war logic. It is also war logic to think in an all-or-nothing way. Oh, she said that! And then surmising she is one of "those" from the wrong opinion club. Don't totalize.  

In salsa dance, to maintain some control within the constantly moving hot territory, beginners are always advised and reminded to make their steps smaller (but to make a lot of them). It is easier to move, respond, and change direction with light little steps, yet maintaining floor contact, following the center of your body (the hip region), while the upper torso and the head remain fairly still. The fast legs and the curving hips can only move with ease when the upper part maintains the tension by stillness. The gut feeling in your center is where the stability and power of your movements — or arguments — come from. Not that the gut feeling is always right (things change), but if you move everything at once, you'll get out of step and lose control. However, even if you get out of step, nobody will punish or humiliate you for your imperfect dancing. [5] That we can definitely learn from Salsa. Applied to disputes: That's the red no-go-area. Let's stop humiliating and punishing and be aware that cruelty comes in many shapes and sometimes in almost undetectable homeopathic doses. They are poisonous nonetheless. Maintain some part of yourself still and in tension (some part of your thinking, your breathing), while the words might move fast like little steps. But to keep the tension, always make stops and pauses to hold up the groove and to notice what your body is telling you.

Another thing about Salsa dance is that you are very close and always in touch with your vis-à-vis: holding hands, lightly touching the shoulder or hip of someone else you might not even know. Maybe that would be a good idea for conflict culture: Imagine you would have to hold the hand of your opponent in dispute. People wouldn't dare to say most of the hateful things they say (less, those things they write online) if they were one-on-one holding the hand or shoulder of their vis-à-vis, looking them into their face. As Emmanuel Levinas puts it," the face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus, the face says to me: You shall not kill. In relation to the face, I am exposed as a usurper of the place of the other." [6]

And let's not forget: the given cultural codes are unjust. In traditional, heterosexual salsa dance (as in most other dances), the man is leading. Of course, this reflects a still patriarchal and queer-phobic society, and this applies to conflict culture as well, in which males are used to dominate disputes. Therefore, women and queer people sometimes have to take different steps. Don't allow others to interrupt or ridicule you (red zone), interrupt the interrupter, listen to your body, take space. Hopefully, those in privileged positions will continue to learn to listen. They won't in reptile land.

And finally, good conflict culture, and that goes for all, means that the codes of conflict-culture remain at stake themselves and need to be part of the dispute itself. Dissent, problematizing the form of the dissent is, as Jacques Rancière puts it, one base for solidarity. For that to happen, dissent has to remain even more within the yellow zone without trespassing into the red zone of punishment and humiliation. Please don't go there. But dive into the yellow!


[1] Heated disputes in a constructive way are precisely the opposite of social media shitstorms, which seem to be rather the devastating compensation for the lacking capacity to work through conflicts. Shaming others is no dispute.

[2] Thanks to Nicole Hartmann for a fruitful discussion.

[3] Don't get me wrong, I don't intend to idealize or romanticize Salsa culture, there is a lot of sexism in Latin American culture, too. Even less I intend to do "othering" and invest Latinxs with some magical exotic knowledge. It simply is a different culture which, in this specific regard and from my point of view, has some advantages to Western-Northern cultures. Also, I like a lot of Indie music.

[4] Of course, sexual practices are highly culturalized as well, but they still come along more as, if not natural, at least more physical and instinct-driven, which is just another problem (and the mainstream porn industry doesn't help much either).

[5] However, I have observed that, at least sometimes in German salsa dance class culture, there is some perfectionism going on, where people are afraid not to perform correctly and where the focus is more on the virtuosity and acrobatics of turns and twists, instead of focusing on the core movements. For my taste, Salsa dancing then runs the danger of becoming too bureaucratic, almost authoritarian in following the "rules," thereby losing the juiciness of really getting into the moves (it doesn't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing). 

[6] Emmanuel Levinas, in: Judith Butler, Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Verso: London/New York 2004, 131f. in: Emmanuel Levinas and Richard Kearney, "Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas." In Face to Face with Levinas, Albany: Suny Press, 1986, 23f.






Heidi Salaverría is a philosopher and professor of artistic theory and practice at the Hamburg Medical School. She works on the political aesthetics of doubt, and currently on paranoid/reparative aesthetics, questions of recognition and humiliation while planning a publication on the culture of debate. She is also addicted to salsa.


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Article publié le 20 mai 2024.


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