Consumption, connection and dance

On Saturdays, Viejo San Juan brims over with life. Viejo San Juan is the historic district of Puerto Rico’s capital city. It’s name — “Viejo,” the Spanish word for “old” — implies that this space has been preserved from an earlier time, and is a place where visitor and local alike can imbibe the charm of a bygone era. To a certain extent, this is true. The narrow cobblestone streets and brightly painted houses are frequently restored to reflect an aesthetic that cannot be found as easily in San Juan’s other districts. Yet on the other hand, Viejo San Juan plays host to cultural innovators who create healing alternatives to new problems. As Viejo San Juan borders the Atlantic, they do all this in the company of dazzling sunlight and a brilliant blue sea.

Viejo San Juan plays host to a variety of geographies at once. On the one hand, it a cultural treasure. On the other hand, it is a tourist district. Like many of San Juan’s neighborhoods, it is vulnerable to the tourism industry’s tendency to commodify culture, to repackage public creativity so that it is available for private consumption. San Juan’s natural areas face similar pressures. Donald Trump’s plans to turn the Caribbean into a golf course are, unfortunately, not pure delusion: Developers have been doing this for years.

In every instance of environmental and cultural commodification, the spiritual space that humans affirm through their artistic connections with nature is threatened too. But we would do well to remember that the Caribbean is home to long traditions of resistance which draw strength from the linkages between humans and the environment. One of these is bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican dance form which is highly communal, highly communicative, and which honors the creative power of women in particular. Many people describe bomba as a dance of freedom, which is often practiced outdoors and is inspired by the movements of nature — the flight of birds, for instance. It is through such movements that people find liberty from the abuses that the world imposes upon our bodies, minds, self-esteem, and in some cases, our basic ability to survive.

Bomba was born centuries ago, but its currents of emancipation, communication and empowerment remain relevant to this day. This is true throughout the Atlantic World, and certainly in Puerto Rico. As I have experienced it, Puerto Rico is an island that experiences both openness and constraint. On the one hand, it is home to a wide variety of creative sensibilities that allow one to feel in touch with the best of what the world has to offer. On the other hand, it is a place gripped by the challenges of consumerism, corruption, and systems which are ill-suited to serve the needs of all people. Anxieties about language, sovereignty, and sustainability take their toll. As is the case in too many places on Earth, governance is often premised on a worldview of hierarchy, exploitation, consumption and conquest that negates spirituality — a sense of interdependence with vibrant peace at its core.

Dance traditions such as bomba, however, enact such spirituality. They do so through improvisational interactions between bodies, ecologies, instruments, and song. Bomba was, and is, practiced within Afro-Puerto Rican communities who trace their origins back to fugitive settlements in centuries past. However, it is not only within these geographies that bomba is practiced. Take, for instance, the Saturday afternoon bomba class at DanzActiva, in Viejo San Juan.

People begin to arrive about a half hour before the class begins. Among the attendees are: visitors who stroll in from El Cuartel de Ballaja; some of San Juan’s favorite percussionists; curious dance students of various ages and persuasions; and, of course, the people whom this class intends to serve: men and women who have lived with Down Syndrome from the day they were born.

The class begins with a brief lesson by Paulette Beauchamp, the studio’s owner and principal teacher. Then, they assemble in a circle, and the drums begin. Skirts begin to wave.

Nobody seems nervous. At this point, perhaps this is not surprising. But within a few minutes, the students begin to take turns in the center of the room. The improvisation has begun.

When I am in San Juan, the bomba class at DanzActiva is the most awe-inspiring hour of my week. Due to their condition, these students are so often represented in popular culture as people who are utterly unable to communicate. But in this studio, they improvise with a confidence that I challenge any newcomer to this dance form to match. With humor, gumption, and grace, they have found a place of freedom which the world all too often does not offer them — or indeed, any of us. Amidst the crises and controversies of our time, bomba opens up a space, between being human and being one with the sky, that we can honor and share.

To me, this is what is most at stake when commodification of art and nature — and consequently, of people — takes hold. When we turn sun and sand and soul into property, the need to affirm our relationships to the Earth and to others disappears. In making the world a possession, that task has been completed for us. No longer can the spaces between art, nature and humanity be contemplated and celebrated. They can only be measured, eaten, regurgitated. If we wish to stop the degradation of land, water, and people in its tracks, I wager that we must reaffirm one of the most crucial functions of art: to remind us of our place in a world that is so, so much more vast than we can comprehend.

Just as we are in a global crisis of commodification, so too are we in a crisis of communication. Saturday afternoons in DanzActiva bring up the following question for me, again and again: Can dance projects such as this transform our cultural desire for consumption into a yearning for connection? Surely we will never know the answer unless we try, and try again.

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