Paso Sensual: Dancing with Brandon Contreras
Scholar and artist Leticia Alvarado’s concept of slippages in Latino/x art opens a new perspective on creative practices in the diaspora by reimagining traditional forms of Latino/x cultural production. Providence based Bachata instructor Brandon Contreras’s work reveals that there are indeed slippages between the Latin dance practices and struggles found in demanding societal expectations and oversexualizing misconceptions. During our interview and dance class, Contreras shared experiences he has faced as a Latino performer and instructor, providing us with insight on these slippages or failures within the US system.
When did you start dancing?
In college, I ended up making a life-altering decision, and I chose to give up school to start training. I realized that there was something there that I was not getting in a professional career like working at a corporate job or even sitting down in a classroom. For me, that spoke to me more at that time in my life. So, I went with it. I trained with Mambo Pa Ti Dance Company for a while. I came to realize that salsa is great, but there was still something missing. So then, I took part in a bachata workshop. At that time, bachata wasn't popular. It was either salsa or salsa. I came to love bachata when nobody really paid much attention to it. At one point, I was the only bachata instructor in Rhode Island. I was the only one that focused only on bachata and was formally trained in bachata. What I mean by training is learning instruments and the fundamentals properly. I took the time to learn the history, the development, and evolution of the music itself. That's when I started to say ‘This is what I want to do.’ I started my own little dance team called Latin Fever Dance Group with my partner at the time. We said , ‘Hey, let's get a group of our friends together.’ But, then we wanted to do something a little bit bigger. We wanted to train a little bit harder. We wanted to really share with the community and be a part of the dance committee. That's when LFDC (Latin fever Dance Company) became Paso Sensual.
What has been your favorite memory of your bachata experience thus far?
The highlight of my career has been going to the Dominican Republic and performing. The beautiful thing for us was that we really closed the performance of the festival. For any dance team, to be the closing act, that is not something that you take lightly. It was beautiful because I didn't get to perform, but the students that have been with me the longest were the ones that performed. It was a beautiful thing because I was not only able to represent my hometown and my community, but I was also able to show my instructors and my mentors that all the time and energy you invested in me was worth it. This is where I am now.
How do you use dance as a connection to your culture?
I was born here. So obviously, my upbringing is different. But, I learned Spanish before I learned English. My parents wanted to make sure there was no gap between my heritage and where I was born. Unfortunately, there's a huge gap in herencia (heritage). Whether it's speaking the language or being able to socially interact, there are a lot of kids who are first and second generation that don't know how to dance. Some people think ‘Who cares.’ But, if you really look at what dancing represents, it's just as important as the food that you eat. It’s a part of who you are. After Paso Sensual, I decided to take a break from performing outside of the states and traveling. We decided we wanted to grow the community here. I want to give back to our community and really focus on it. I miss it. I miss traveling. I really do. It was definitely an adventurous part of my life because I have met so many beautiful people, and I've learned so much. But that's when Bachata Jam Session was born. This is who we are now. This is what I want to represent and what I think represents me the best. Music and dance are so important because that's how I identify with my culture. We teach to share and unite. That's what dance music means to me.
What does dancing and teaching make you feel at the moment? Is there anything that you get attached to?
For me teaching, it's effortless. It doesn't feel like work. It doesn't feel like my energy is being taken out of me. It's more like I have all this knowledge and all this enthusiasm behind what I do that I want to share it with others. I want them to feel even just a glimmer of what I feel when I'm teaching even if it's just a private lesson. I've told my students there were times where my classes only had three people in it. But no matter how many, whether it's three people or 110 people at a time, the same energy is there all the time because I don't do it for the numbers. I don't do it for the exposure. I do it because I want to teach because I want to share my knowledge with whoever is willing to take the time.
What are some of the barriers that you faced when starting teaching?
In Rhode Island, as far as Latin dance is concerned, I'm the youngest known instructor in the known dance community. I wasn't really taken as seriously. I wasn't always given the opportunities. I had to really prove myself. I’ve been showing the people I’ve taken under my wing how to build events, how to market yourself, how to network properly, how to build solid relationships within your community because those are things that I wish the instructors back then would have been more gracious about doing. That's a dance generational curse that had to be broken. Those barriers were life lessons, but they also did build who and where I am today.
Do you ever feel pressure to perform your Latinidad in a certain way?
I don't think I've ever felt pressured to teach a certain way or perform a certain way only because I feel that at the end of the day, it's art. Whether it's painting, photography, singing, poetry, rapping, art is a way of expressing whatever you do. It has a foundation of where it comes from that needs to be respected. But, everything after that, it should be an expression of yourself. That's why I say ‘I don't think I've ever felt pressured.’ I definitely feel like there should be a certain standard of knowledge if you want to teach or perform. If you're going to be an artist, the number one rule is be true to yourself. Go forward with your art and express how you feel it, how you hear it, and how you see it. If an artist feels pressure to perform or to act a certain way. It's a disservice to the artist.
What are some of the common misconceptions about Latin dance?
For those those of us who dance Bachata, it is sensual by nature, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's sexual. Sensuality and sexuality are two different concepts. Bachata has been oversexualized because of what you see on social media. It has definitely created a certain expectation that isn't really there. That's the biggest part of the misconception. That’s why when I teach my students, I talk about where to place your hands, how to approach someone to ask them to dance, and the do's and don'ts. Because at the end of the day, when you join a dance team, we immerse ourselves into the music, the history, and the social dance aspect of it. In order for misconceptions to be properly addressed, the instructors need to feel comfortable in talking about it and proactively bringing it up in the classroom. Dance is a beautiful thing. If you have access to it, do it because you will meet some amazing people. I've met lifelong friends from across the country. That’s what I want Rhode Island to realize is that no matter who you dance for, no matter what style of dance, you should be able to step into any party and just enjoy it and feel at home.