Work/Leisure Balances and the Creation of a Carnival Cosmopolitanism amongst Salsa Dancers

Jonathan Skinner

Jonathan Skinner

Lecturer in Social Anthropology, Queen’s University Belfast

This article presents a Carnival cosmopolitanism borne from salsa social dance leisure practice.  This indirectly fostered cosmopolitanism is facilitated by significant changes in work practice allowing for new work/leisure balances.  The means by which this change is brought about is through a Carnival cosmopolitanism.

Without work all life goes rotten.  But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies.
Albert Camus

But now the mills work all day long,
There is no time for quiet pleasure;
The noise it drowns her simple song,
And she cannot dance to the measure.
M. E. (1900)

Introduction: leisure/work imbalances

In my research on and around the dance floor, I have come across many different articulations and understandings of the nature and use of the term ‘work’.  These range from the ‘workshops’ that dancers attend, to the challenge of learning new moves (‘a workout in the mind’), dance as ‘hardwork’, dance practice concentrating on ‘footwork’, dance partners not ‘working out’ and, naturally, to dancing leisure practice as the opposite of ‘work’ professional practice.  This ‘work’ category term has disputed and contentious origins and relations as well as this diversity of meanings and uses.  This article explores the shifting relationship between work and leisure in salsa dancers, and how this leisure practice relates to personal identity and life satisfaction and can foster a cosmopolitan sensibility in dancers.

Work is often viewed as the structural opposite of leisure (Kohn 2007: 181) or, rather, leisure as ‘anti-work’ (see Turner 2001).  In this, historian Peter Burke (1995: 137) suggests that:

The modern distinction between the ideas of work and leisure, like the regular alternation of work and leisure, was a product of industrial capitalism. Pre-industrial societies had festivals (together with informal and irregular breaks from work), while industrial societies have leisure, weekends and vacations. The emergence of leisure is therefore part of the process of modernization.

This distinction between work and leisure might not have been so clear-cut or ‘invented’ in Early Modern Europe, as Joan-Lluís Marfany (1997: 174) counters: fencing, to give a counter-example or riposte, has been both art, science and sport.  Similarly, in his analysis of ballroom dancing, Jonathan Silvion (2008: 30) refers to the dance trade of the courtly dancing masters of the Renaissance, a trade activity now typically a leisure practice.  The saying, then, ‘one man’s work is another man’s leisure’ aptly draws attention to this relative and interchangeable nature of work and leisure.  Leisure might be a state of ‘non-work’ (Clark 1992: 255), but both leisure and work can also be considered a ‘state of mind’ (Rapport 2009: 105; see also Grint 1991).  Both are socially constructed symbols with cultural – and sometimes religious (cf. Weber 2001) – meaning.

In coining the term ‘conspicuous leisure’, Thorstein Veblen (2008 [1899]: 46), writing in the Victorian era, reified our understanding of an aristocracy as the leisured class, one of comfort, consumption and ‘the cultivation of aesthetic faculty’ to be refined by the upper classes and coveted by the middle classes.  They were defined by their non-work, their in-activity, contra the labouring ‘working’ class.  Hugh Cunningham (1982) also notes that in nineteenth century Britain, leisure activities were commonly used to bring the classes together, often bringing the working class into line by adopting, organizing and institutionalising their leisure activities such as football, or harnessing them as symbols of Englishness (cricket), Protestantism and masculinity (rugby).1  This is less evident in social dancing which, for all its scandals, remained divided between assembly room fashionable dances (waltz, polka, set dances), and the jigs and reels of the folk dances and country dances.2

Leisure was ‘massified’ through the twentieth century as an institutionalised form of time and as ‘expressive’ as opposed to ‘instrumental’ activities (Csikszentmihalyi 1981), inward as opposed to outward (Sutherland 1957).  Leisure is considered to have opened up to all of the classes with the rise of a leisure culture of vacations and time-off.  To some degree, this was a replacement of the increasingly redundant pre-industrial ‘festival culture’ of religious and agrarian Carnival times.  As such, for social historian E. P. Thompson (1967: 57), this leisure-for-all transition wrought structural changes in society that affected even ‘the inward notation of time’.  Leisure, as opposed to work, has become the caretaker of identity in our postindustrial era, or, as Giddens (1991: 81) writes, we now have ‘the primacy of lifestyle’ in the trajectory of the self in our Late Modern Age.  With the democratization of leisure, we now define ourselves through our spare time activities rather than our employment activities: sometimes we have to, as Andy Dawson (2002) found from former mine workers in NE England who found succor and retained some sense of identity and community in their surviving men’s clubs, ‘“working–out” [postindustrial] change through leisure’ (Dawson 2002).  Restlessly, we consume through this new expanded genre of ‘industrial leisure’ (Coleman and Kohn 2007: 10), liberated hedonists living it up/large in Lloyd’s (1922: 167) prophetic ‘third age of leisure’ – well, for the affluent.  The following two case note biographies are examples of modern identity formation through social practice rather than work.


Veronique is a French-American architect and designer living, working and dance-commuting from Cambridge.  Veronique found salsa in her sixties when her son took her out one evening when she was visiting him in Philadelphia.  Ever since then, she has been hooked.  Now she takes her laptop with her and spends one week dancing in Cambridge and one week dancing in Paris where she prefers the dance style and “conversation happening between the leader and the follower.”  Each week, she dances her evenings, preferring the Cuban style, and dancing despite her hip and foot injuries (a broken hip making walking painful, compounded by broken toes from being ‘stilettoed’ on the dance floor).  Veronique’s living and dancing is an example of dance-inspired mobility and migration.  She admits that she is fortunate to have her working life and day-to-day living follow and tail her dancing needs and desires, and she is living partly in Cambridge, a place known to attract migrants and visitors.

In Cambridge, Veronique learned from a visiting German engineer, Karl.  When he left for work in Italy, she found a teacher in London who agreed to visit weekly and to eventually help set up a Cuban style salsa-rueda performance troupe.  This was all whilst moving weekly between Paris and Cambridge with her laptop and her dance shoes.

RES: Every other week I am there and I am sending out emails and – every odd week I am on Cambridge.

INT: Okay, for a couple of days or something.

RES: Yeah, Monday to Thursday or Tuesday to Friday depending how it is.

Veronique continued this cosmopolitan dance commuting for several years before finally settling back in her own home in Cambridge where she also let rooms out to salsa dancer girlfriends.  She was very aware of the migrants from Bolivia, Cuba and Brazil learning French and establishing themselves as dance teachers in Paris in particular, either picking up evening side-salaries with classes and dance nights, or teaching themselves the dance and marketing themselves as instructors.  They make sense of the “changing clientele” of dance classes in university towns and large cosmopolitan centres.  Adrianna, for example, learned the salsa and combined it with her samba background, set up a syllabus and now has a full dance studio with classes of 60+ students working their way through six levels of instruction.  She has a system of taxi dancers to cater for the beginners and any sex imbalances, and carefully progresses the same classes through their levels together to create a learning group of friends with a structured dance night in the week.

Veronique dances daily wherever she is.  When she visited Belfast with her performance team she was not interested in the new city.  It was just another cosmopolitan centre.  We went straight to the dance studio to have a salsa class and to practice.  For Veronique, dancing is central to her life.  All revolves around it whether places, people or partners.  But it is decidedly not antisocial or individual.  It is a group activity, or a dancing done in a pairing or partnership – though Veronique will generally be in charge whether she is leading or following in the dance.  And it complements her social and her professional life.  Here, she shows how the dancing balances out aspects to her life:

I still – I just – I love it. I love communication - that through to somebody else as well, and making them feel how good you can feel from dancing.

Work does vary considerably, like right now, I’m probably under employed, as my income – I am not so quite happy about it. But I have a lot of time at the moment to do other things.

The flexible nature of the dancing – in the evenings at the end of a day working alone at the computer, and timetabled to take place when it suits – allows Veronique to control and regulate her hours, devoting more time to work or dancing when she feels the need or needs the hours.  It is not the case that Veronique fits in her dancing around her work, or that her work fits around her dancing.  Here, there is a meshing of the two.  Veronique dances more when she is under employed; and she dances less when she is more employed.  Both work and leisure feature as the two axes in Veronique’s life, providing her with the salary and identity that are her means to fulfilment.

Sondra too has an interesting modern work/leisure balance with her personal identity, and through this, has always danced.  She is in Belfast working as a church evangelist.  Each year she relocates to new missions around the world.  Sondra is from the United States, in her late twenties, and a pretty and popular face in the salsa scene in Belfast and Dublin.  She does not dance a great deal, the occasional weekend Friday or Saturday night, coming out with her non-mission friends.  Sondra grew up dancing in Kentucky, learning formal ballet, flamenco and modern dance at school.  It was, for her and her parents, a social and finishing activity to be done for affluent wealthy families.  She grew up in the Swing dancing scene, dancing four nights a week before turning to the ballroom and the more street salsa.  In her town in Kentucky, the ballroom was for the middle aged, Swing for the university and educated, and salsa was more for the migrants and Latino – street - scene.

Sondra felt different from her fellow dancers, and felt that she spent more time with them than with her close non-dancing friends.  She danced Cuban style salsa with a number of Columbians and migrants from Ecuador, Venezuala and El Salvador: a dance community of migrants led by their instructor, a university lecturer from Nigeria.  This group of first and second generation migrants led intense nights together.

RES: A lot of them were second generation.

INT: Okay, retracing their roots or…

RES: Yeah, the people that were second generation were still very much Latin American.  They still spoke Spanish in their homes and they were part Latin American – many of them knew each other from the time they were younger.

These young dancers had grown up in Canadian communities but either felt detached and different from their environs, or they sought to retrace or recreate their roots in their nightly practice.  This is a performing of identity – everynight life.

RES: The truth is, the Latin Americans, most of them were working class.  And less like high skill-sets - secondary division.

Sondra explained that their circumstances and competition with Americans for the menial jobs made them resented or disliked.    They reacted to that by sticking to themselves socially, and critiquing the white girls and men who did not have the salsa dancing in their blood.  Sondra, however, was different in that she was a white American, but also part Greek.  This split identity – her second generation Greek-American – gave her an entrée into the ethnic dance group:

INT: You had a migrant background yourself.

RES: Oh definitely.  And I’m embraced more easily too because of it.  They would even make remarks to me about the white girls.  Yeah.  So I’d be counted more with them. 

INT: And did you feel that your experience of being the second generation was similar to theirs?

RES: Yeah, just in general, I could connect with second generationers and regardless of where they’re from, it’s like you’re a third culture.  I find that often even since I’ve been here I think I’ve met a lot of immigrants in general.  It’s fair to say that – correct me if I’m wrong – I respect their cultures – its even kind of in me: I have this mix of these two cultures.

INT: Your mix, you mean Greek and American?

RES: Yeah, having the same part as, two cultures being part of my culture and yeah, and so I do, get to know and to like the immigrants, generally have.  Yeah, and often a better understanding of difference and you can cope with a different set of circumstances.

INT: So it’s almost like it means that you’re able to fit in to new places, that doesn’t faze you so much as other people. 

RES: I think so, yeah.

Sondra identified with her dance friends and felt that she belonged in this physical community that they created for themselves.  The salsa second generationers fashioned themselves a second home on and around the dance floor.  They even took their physical skills with them, using ‘a salsa second skin’ to relocate in their travels and fit into the local dancing community.  Before coming to Belfast, Sondra explored the salsa scene on the internet, so that she had something familiar to arrive to, though she still had to calibrate herself to the local styles of salsa, and to become a familiar face on the salsa scene so that people knew to ask her to dance.  At first she was refused dances and when she did get a dance, she found it difficult following salsa in a line rather than rotating Cuban style, or dancing cha cha cha on the first Veroniquet of a bar when typically it is on the second.  Slowly, she physically integrated herself into the Belfast salsa scene.  She had to accommodate her dance partners to find her feet here.  Dancing is a part of her, a tangible expression of herself that she carries with her.  Even though her experiences of salsa in Belfast were disappointing in terms of the standard, and the lack of ‘freeness’ in people’s dancing which she explained away as a part of an ‘insecurity about Irish culture’, Sondra recognizes that she has to keep dancing wherever she lives and works.

RES: I’ve always loved dancing, I feel like it is just a part of who I am.  So that way it’s probably quite healthy for me to dance - magical, like given to me.  Yeah. … I am so looking forward to it always.  [laughs]

Not only is it “a great way to start, get out there and becoming social”, but it is a constructive form of escapism for Sondra.  It gives her variety in her life, shifting between “a close knit Christian community” where she works, and the open, diverse “crowds” of dancers where one “can escape from your life”.  It allows her to compartmentalize her life, to drift and follow and not have to talk or think in the same way that she has to during the day.  Sondra was able to dance when she was on mission work in Venezuela, and now that she has returned back to America, she is dancing again and has readjusted back to the salsa scene there.  In her missionary travels and work placements, then, her God and her salsa are her constants.

Cosmopolitan/ism, dance and the carnival

Whether Modern or Post-Modern, we are living in an era of new and profoundly different ways of connecting and interacting with each other.  As such, some have referred to this as a cosmopolitan phase with large measure of liberal tendency and leisure time.  Sceptics point out that there are so many competing and different understandings of cosmopolitan/ism – from the personal to the political - that there is a danger that cosmopolitanism becomes a vehicle for articulating the individualities of the critics who profess to its espousal (Knowles 2007: 2).  This term refers to more than the elite, well-heeled, well-travelled anthropologist picked up by Colson (39), a member of society often keen ‘to transcend the parochialism or ethnicism of the nation-state’.  So too is it larger than a discipline such as anthropology which shares the desire to transcend the particular (Werbner 2008, Abu-Lughod 1991).  Rapport (2007: 258) writes that ‘[a] cosmopolitan study posits the individual actor as occupying a position against the universe, capable of substantiating a unique relationship with self, other, and world’.  Even this apt summary of a cosmopolitan perspective does not harness the incredible range of new social technologies, networks and interdependencies that also inform and impact upon the individual actor.  Equally, but from the opposite extreme, Beck and Sznaider’s (2006) ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ misses the involvement of the individual agent with personalised narrative and life-project.  Theirs is a paradigmatic deconstruction of the social sciences from national and cosmopolitan outlook, a reflexive cosmopolitanism akin to their reflexive modernity but one which adamantly stands against ‘cosmopolitanism as attitude or biographical situation’ (2006: 6).  They add to the development of the ‘directly interpersonal social relations’ which constitute Calhoun’s cosmopolitanism (2002: 97) – a multiplicity of connections and interdependencies – Castells’ (1996) network society built by social networking.  It is Utopian and idealistic in Beck’s (2002) ‘second age of modernity’, still Lloyd’s (1922: 167) ‘third age of leisure’. 

Beck and Sznaider (2006) also distinguish between cosmopolitan state and cosmopolitanization process, the latter relating to the interdependence of relations, cosmopolitanization ‘as globalization from within, as internalized cosmopolitanism’ (9, authors’ emphasis) rather than political world system or polity.  Their perspective is at the state and nation level, and how that impacts upon the group and sometimes the individual.  This is sometimes seen to have terrible consequences: witness the ‘toxic kosmopolitizm’ endured by Soviet citizens at the hands of the state (Humphreys 2004: 151).  These are different ways of reclaiming the human than the introspective method proffered by Rapport.  For Rapport, this can be found articulated in narratives of introspection, in the inner voices found in poetry and literature.  The deep reading of such texts allows us to elicit human understanding and intersubjectivity.  Perhaps this is akin to Delanty’s ‘cosmopolitan imagination’, a route which caters for both the individual agent imposed upon by structural forces?  Salsa dancers fit into this cosmopolitan debate as both cosmopolitans and practitioners of the cosmopolitan as I shall go on and show.

For Delanty, ‘Cosmopolitan imagination occurs when and wherever new relations between self, other and world develop in moments of openness.’ (Delanty 2006: 27)  This takes place within the social world and is multiple and diverse rather than singular and universal.  For Delanty (27), ‘Cosmopolitanism refers to the multiplicity of ways in which the social world is constructed in different modernities’.  This, then, is an explanation for global publics in transformation.  In reviewing the nature of cosmopolitanism, Delanty (28) divides between strong and the weak forms of cosmopolitanism: moral cosmopolitanism (universal morality and universal human community) versus cultural cosmopolitanism (liberal, communitarian, multicultural).  In so doing, Delanty (36) clarifies his understanding of cosmopolitanism: ‘Cosmopolitanism […] concerns the multiple ways the local and the national is redefined as a result of interaction with the global’, a ‘world openness’ about people.3  Cosmopolitanism is an expression of Modernity, as Delanty (38) suggests in the following extensive quotation:

Modernity takes different societal and civilizational forms, but fundamental to it is the movement towards self-transformation, the belief that human agency can radically transform the present in the image of an imagined future.  It is this impetus that constitutes the cosmopolitanism of modernity since through it different modernities interact.  It lies in the basic self-understanding of modernity there are no secure foundations for identity, meaning and memory. The term cosmopolitanism signals a condition of self-confrontation, incompleteness; modernity concerns the loss of certainty and the realization that certainty can never be established once and for all.  Globalization – as a process that intensifies connections, enhances possibilities for cultural translations and deepens the consciousness of globality – is the principal motor of modernity.  Modernity is not a global condition as such, but a transformative condition which can be called cosmopolitan due to its plural nature and interactive logics.  Cosmopolitanism is the key expression of the tendency within modernity to self-problematization.

Delanty goes on to consider the micro dimension of cosmopolitanism with respect to individual agency and social identities.  This should have a reflexive self-understanding to it, but is left theorized rather than evinced.  For Delanty (42), this micro dimension is on the level of individual identity and the emergence of new identities. Certainly, even for Rapport, Delanty’s (41) comment stands: namely, ‘[t]he central animus within modernity […] – the self-transformative drive to re-make the world in the image of the self in the absence of absolute certainty – provides the basic direction for cosmopolitanism’.  Dance is just one such self-transformative activity.

Delanty’s take on the cosmopolitan project has a twofold openness to it.  It is open both in the way in which it views the cosmopolitan as a citizen of the world – open to the world, and it is open in that its cosmopolitan theorisations retain a space for uncertainty – one of the hallmarks of this new era of interdependence.  This aspect to his approach, more than any other allows us to engage fully with this portmanteau concept ‘cosmopolitian/ism’ which came then from the rise of new micro and macro interdependencies – ‘ethos of macro-interdependencies’ as Rabinow stresses (1986: 258, my emphasis) - and the subsequent rise of new kinds of human sociability.  This is very different from the work of Skrbis and co-authors Kendall and Woodward (2004) who want to ground the cosmopolitan disposition, unhappy with its definition as an ‘openness to the world as a whole’ (117): there is too much indeterminacy surrounding cosmopolitanism, Skrbis et al opine.  So too, they disengage with Ulf Hannerz’s ‘state of mind’ approach to cosmopolitanism (‘a willingness to engage with the Other’ [Hannerz 1996: 103], see below), and presumably also Mignolo’s (2000: 721) cosmopolitanism goal of ‘planetary conviviality’.

Hannerz (1990, 1996) is an anthropologist pioneer of cosmopolitanism.  His work has been useful in rebutting ‘disembedded’ sociological and political science approaches to globalisation and cosmopolitanism which are devoid of local cultural meaning (see Featherstone 1990, Giddens 1990).  In his chapter ‘Cosmopolitans and Locals in World Culture’, Hannerz (1996: 102-103) assesses the organisation of diversity in our new world culture, suggesting that cosmpolitanism is variously, to paraphrase: a perspective, a state of mind, a mode of managing meaning, an orientation, a willingness to engage with the Other, an ability to make one’s way into other cultures, a competence with regard to alien cultures.  It is, in sum, a ‘footloose’ mobility and motility, both physical and cognitive as the cosmopolitan travels widely and arrives locally, fitting themselves into the new scene.  Salsa instructors are, so I have argued, excellent international exemplars of this cosmopolitan (Skinner 2007, undated), comparable with the writers and painters of Paris cited by Hannerz (1996: 106) for their ability ‘to take along their work more or less where it pleases them’.  They stimulate the local if not become local, using their extensive social networks and their decontexualised knowledge and skill sets to their advantage.  Salsa dancers also have this cosmopolitanness about them.

Hannerz has been criticised for his alleged elitism and dismissal of the migrant worker as cosmopolitan, writing more about expatriates, entrepreneurs and foreign correspondents than the labour migrant who remains on the fringes of another culture living reluctantly in a surrogate home (Hannerz 1996: 106). ‘[W]orld class’ global business elite (Kanter 1995), über-cosmopolitan frequent flyer class (Rabinow 1986: 258), ‘liberals on safari’ (Knowles 2007: 7), the cosmopolitan can be all these - to the minds of Werbner (1999) and Clifford (1997) – as well as the ‘discrepant’ or ‘working class’ cosmopolitan.  The separation of professional-occupational transnational cultures from migrant transnational cultures creates a divided transnational subjectivity built upon class and Eurocentric elitism, they cry.  Unlike Hannerz, they, and others, tend to approach cosmopolitanism as a practice or repertoire of universalisms by which people understand human similarities (Skrbis 2004: 123 after Lamont and Akartova 2002: 2-3).  These diverse qualities are to be celebrated, to my mind, rather than criticized as too amorphous as is Skrbis’s want.  For them, cosmopolitanism is a disposition, a habitus.  For all its emotional and empathetic engagement with other cultures, it is writ into – or onto - the modern subject and its body.

In his critique of the class basis of cosmopolitan elites - a snobbish, WASPish culture - Calhoun cautions: ‘food, tourism, music, literature and clothes are all easy faces of cosmopolitanism, but they are not hard tests for the relationship between local solidarity and international civil society’ (Calhoun, 2002: 105).  ‘Consumerist cosmopolitanism’ does not equate to a tolerant cosmopolis.  It is an ‘easy’ cosmopolitanism then, of items rather than identifications.  And, yet, I would suggest that food, tourism, music, literature and clothes – to which I would add dancing, are in fact leaders and pointers in the direction of a cosmopolitan democracy.  They are the ways of styling the self, of how people ‘transform themselves into singular beings, to make their lives into an oeuvre’ (Nuttall 2004: 432).  This lifestyle accessorisation, whether ‘Afro-Chic’ designer clothing worn in the townships of South Africa, holiday experiences ‘souvenired’, salsa groove record recordings taken in Cali (Waxer 2002), Columbia, or dance trends in Dublin and Belfast, are all self-ascribing ways of creating and maintaining associations, groupings and interrelations.  Dancing salsa is also, so we shall see, a way of self-making and cosmopolitan creating as the body self and its movements becomes a textual interface in the space-time of the city and of the modern. Gilroy (2000: 255) writes: ‘it is not what the body is or carries inside it but rather what the body does in relation to other bodies’.  I would suggest, taking a cue from Hannerz, that it is all three: body and accessorisation, internal meaning, and physical relations with others which are important.  A cosmopolitan mode of being–in-the-world need not be just an examination of ‘physical, bodily travel’ as Szerzynski and Urry (2006: 116) suggest, nor ‘imaginative travel’ or ‘virtual travel’ as they develop.  It can also be that of the social dancer moving their body in tune with the music and in turn with their dance partner.


Silvio, Marcus and Colm are examples of what salsa can do to and for a young person, changing them, their key outlooks and behaviours late on in their lives, cultivating a cosmopolitanism in them.  All physical men, into sport and women, they became hooked on the dancing, quite unexpectedly.  It took over their lives and deeply affected them – literally, ‘life changing events’ which impact upon their work lives and their home and social lives, as well as their sex lives.  Here, then, is a carnival cosmopolitanism cultivated by and through salsa, one of tolerance, acceptance and openness, or Hannerz’s ‘willingness to engage with the other’.

Marcus is a New Zealander who visited Ireland and decided to stay and work.  He has been here since 1999, working as an occupational therapist.  His work, to some extent, gives him some mobility and flexibility, as his client list can be built up anywhere that he is recognized and licensed to practice.  As with so many accounts, his introduction to the dance is as a friend of a girl he was trying to impress.  Marcus was travelling in Austria and was “bitten” from the very first sight and experience of the dance.  The relationship with the girl did not go anywhere, but he has not stopped dancing salsa since then – that was three years ago.

In Dublin, Marcus harnessed his sports background for his dancing, much to the surprise of his non-dancing friends:

My whole background has been sports and jock stuff and stuff like that. To do this there’s a bit of ripping going on from all the mates and the rest of it but, I knew I had it in me and it was something I wanted to do [yeah] and, I don’t know!

It was with much resolve that Marcus developed his new hobby and passion.  He relied upon his sense of coordination from football and other sports, and tapped into his own rhythms and those from the music he was hearing:

For me, it takes about three songs to let myself go. The first couple of songs are warming up then it’s that... something comes over you all of a sudden where your body... you’re not even thinking about how your body moves and then it just ... your musicality I think they call it, your body movements become one with the music. And when you don’t feel like your dancing at all, [Right] that’s when I’ll have the best night. You know, you’re in this whole trance state.

The dancing has given him a new form of confidence (on the dance floor) and consciousness (a happy state of flow, and “positive mentality”).  More than this, the dancing has integrated Marcus into a community in Dublin, made him feel more at home than working and living as an expatriate in a work environment.  Wherever he travels, Marcus taps into the local salsa scene, following it up with Facebooking his new dance friends.  In the past, Marcus’s Christmas’s have been special times, with his return to New Zealand to meet up with his family and friends.  Now, it is the Irish salsa environment and dance troupe he is a member of that he feels has become his home.

INT: Can I ask, with you being a New Zealander do you think the dancing has helped with getting in with the local community or...?

RES: Absolutely. [Great] Prior to me taking up Salsa... I’ve been living here ten years now, prior to taking up Salsa I was a little bit...I wasn’t tapped into the community over here, and because of that there was nothing really keeping me here. [Right] But I went home at Christmas and to be honest I couldn’t wait to come back and start rehearsing with the guys and dancing again with these guys and the band and all the rest of it. So for me now, it’s a massive part of my life.

In other words, Marcus had travelled for his leisure and work but his work life had not provided him with a sense of home or of community.  Outside of his working day, Marcus found this communitas and home in his salsa friends and on the salsa dance floor.

Marcus’s work life might not intrude upon his social salsa dancing and relations, but the physical nature of it, and associated working experiences and manners have spilled out of his clinic.  He admits that he is well used to being around half naked people all day long.  Similarly, body space and contact with his dance partner – the dancing Other - does not present itself as a difficulty or barrier.

INT: Did you think that the physical nature of your job and the interest of your sport background helped you along or getting over the body space.

RES: Exactly. For me the body space is not an issue as I’m dealing with semi-naked people all day long, so coming onto a closed space dancing is certainly not an issue. But funnily enough ... to dance in public it is a totally different mindset. I lack confidence in one arena but not in another. [Sure] But now I think yeah my work and my background with dealing with people probably helps me get through it a lot quicker than maybe say some other people.

Ironically, though Marcus started the salsa to get into a relationship, he is now wary of a dance relationship, one that might prove to be too intense and change his relations with his friends on and off the dance floor.  So, Marcus has met a lot of beautiful women he finds himself attracted to during his leisure practice, his ‘serious leisure’ (Stebbins 1982, 2006), but he has not committed to any.  His passion and love, for the moment, are with the salsa.

I love it. It’s a passion of mine now. [Yeah] To be honest I’ve tried a lot of things but I’ve never committed to something like this. The only negative thing it could mean now is let’s say there’s 1% of women in the world that I’m attracted too, now I’ve created an extra hoop for them to jump through in that they have to be a dancer as well.

Silvio, on the other hand, has met a lot of girls through the salsa, dated some, and had one-night stands with others.  Silvio’s parents left Sicily when he was young, a family struggling against the mafia.  He grew up in Belfast and, like Marcus, started the salsa, impelled by a pretty salsera.  He had been dumped by his girlfriend, went to The Empire dance night, and fell in love with the demo partner teaching there.  Two years later, now in his mid-twenties and “a spark” (electrician), Silvio has moved to Dublin to improve his dancing, and a year on in Dublin he has established himself as a part-time salsa teacher.  He makes more money from teaching dance classes, and has more fun at them than his electrician work during the day.  This was after a period of refusing work because it would take him out into the countryside and away from his precious salsa nights.

When Marcus danced, he described it as like going into a trance state, communing with the music.  Silvio’s romantic focus is on the dance partner, attending to them, dancing to their ability, flirting with them and flowing with them.  The dance is his communication with his dance partner. And it is a powerful basic exchange.

INT: How do you feel when you’re dancing, when you’re flowing?

RES2:   It’s amazing. Amazing. [Yeah] You really... it’s like a different world. It’s like two different worlds.

INT: So your dancing is escapism.

RES2:   Escape! I don’t know about escape but it’s just... it gives you a different feeling from everyday life, it really is, and normally and sometimes you can have a dance and won’t enjoy it with somebody and sometimes you will enjoy it. It’s like the people you’re going to meet, you’re going to meet someone you like, you’re going to meet someone you don’t like [yeah] same as when you dance, you’re going to meet some you love to dance with and then you meet that one special person, which was last night. She got me... I said to her, I wouldn’t mind even dying right now.

The salsa dancing has not just changed Silvio’s working life and social life, it has changed the way that he is – it has reached down into his identity and re-jigged him.

“Before salsa”, Silvio describes himself as being a homophobic male and an outsider, wary of difference, craving sex and alcohol every night.  Now he dances, and the dancing satisfies him so that he does not want to drink – it spoils the dancing - and he parties with everyone regardless of their looks and sexuality, and he believes that he does not need the sex. 

I dance now... Now it’s not anymore about women to be honest with you. I used to get more women when I didn’t dance, than actually when I started dancing, because now when I go on the dance floor I connect and there’s a lot of sex on the dance floor but then after that it’s just then thank you and goodbye and that’s just basically it and being able to express yourself without having to speak ... we are speaking through our hands through our emotions.
Actually when I didn’t dance I would go out by myself, get drunk and really like, just trying to get sex, and now I go ... it’s true, now I go out and I dance and have fun and at the end of the night I really feel like I don’t need ... to get drunk, I don’t need to ... sex!

Dancing salsa in Dublin has changed Silvio’s perception of the city and of himself.  He has become an insider and a Dubliner.  This echoes Marcus’s feeling of rootedness, grounding through to the dance floor.  Furthermore, the salsa has taken away his aggression.  It has become his outlet and created a cosmopolitan.  He is tolerant with many gay and migrant friends, and a Facebook listing in the thousands.

The way I approach people, the way I talk to people, I’m more confident and more open and more... like I used to be very insecure but now I don’t mind even communicating with a person. That has changed completely I used to be very homophobic, really homophobic and all these things have now changed, [yeah] and if you do salsa you can go anywhere in the world and you speak one language. It’s like sex; you don’t have to learn another language.

You know them physically. I mean some of the people I dance with, when I’ve danced with them I feel closer or more connected to them than people I’ve known for months or years or something like that.  You become one, speaking through dance.

I used to hate Dublin, it’s one of the things I used to hate, I didn’t fit in and then when I found Salsa in Belfast and then came to Dublin and then really met these great people in Salsa I found that people can actually get along. I really started loving Dublin [Yeah?] and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Honestly.

Both Marcus and Silvio started salsa for the same reasons.  They also continue with the dancing for the pleasure it brings them.  And, for them, the salsa has affected them deeply, bringing them more confidence, giving them a sense of community and social inclusion, and a way of channelling their physical energies.  More than others, for Silvio, the dancing has turned him away from his drinking, sexing, and hard-line views.  It has rounded him and softened his edges.  He now fronts large classes and appeals and engages with a large cross-section of the Dublin salsa scene.  Both remain working in Dublin because of the salsa scene, though Silvio now has a stronger commitment to the city with his new dance promotions.  The two case studies also show how the work life and social life interact with each other, how they are integrated together in a person’s life, and how the working life and environment is accommodated for the social.

The third case study interview also illustrates how salsa social dancing can influence and foster cosmopolitanism.  Like Marcus and Silvio, Colm started dancing salsa approximately three years ago.  He too was encouraged along by the girls and was “hooked by week two”.  He is also a physical man, a dancer in his thirties with a past in triathlon, swimming, football, hiking and judo.  Like Silvio, he had never danced before he started with the social salsa dancing; he kept his dancing inside his head.  But when he started and committed to the dancing, he danced four or five times a week, ending up helping the instructors as a demonstrator within the year.  He is now a celebrated salsa dancer hoping to become an All Ireland Salsa Champion, restless and intent upon pushing and bettering himself on the dance floor.  He has thus started to commute back and forth between Dublin and London for advanced lessons.  This fits in with his work, or, rather, he is able to pretend that he is working from home when in fact he is working online from a friend’s apartment in London.  Here are his own words on this work/leisure time balance:

INT: Would you say you were addicted to it?

RES: Oh yeah, big time. 

INT: So how did it relate to you in your working world?  Is it something that you live for, the Salsa or was it...?

RES: What it was ... I’ve worked in the same company for 16 years now.  The last 10 years ... working is important to me [brilliant].  I just work...

INT: What do you do?

RES: I work in XXXX XXXX.  I drink nothing but let’s be honest here it’s a cushy number. I’d ask my boss could I work from home for a week and he’d say yeah but I was working from home from London so I was out dancing with everybody in London in the night time but working in my friend’s place during the day.  It was online so ... [yeah, great].  But it was just the experience you get me.

The only difficulty is managing the commuting hours, getting up very early, travelling weekend evenings to be back home or back on the London dance floor.

Colm treats people as individuals, not as salsa teachers to revere and continually get tips and pointers from.  With this friendly and egalitarian attitude, David has “got friends all over the world”.  For him, there is a tight social and dance scene of dance friends who support and look after each other, people to play with on and off the dance floor, but more friends for fun and emotional support than potential partners or for sex.  Colm’s main relationship is a dance relationship with his married dance partner.  For him, this is ideal: “that’s a relationship which is great because we dance, we fight, go home and so I don’t need any other relationship.”

Colm makes the point that the salsa has made him more confident, though he was not particularly lacking in confidence before he started dancing.  He feels that he knows a large number of people from all over the world and that his outlook and attitude has changed in the past three years.  He corrected me when I asked about whether or not “migrants” were attracted to the salsa dancing (“What … what … okay migrants … that’s a word to use but yeah.  There’s a lot of people from a lot of cultures [Right] here.  It’s great!”).  He treats the foreign born salsa dancers as Irish because they have either been in Ireland for a long time, or he has danced with or alongside them a lot.  He does not see them as different.  They dance salsa just like he does.  He is perhaps more conscious of their dance skills and abilities than their national or ethnic background.  This is one of the changes which salsa has brought to him.  This is an indistinction of salsa dancers that constitutes a community of salsa cosmopolitans.  Similar to Silvio, pre-salsa, Colm was suspicious of difference and foreignness whether people, places or foods.  Now he embraces difference and enjoys the diversity and richness of people and interests he comes across through his salsa dancing.  In sum:

The dancing brings people together.  I wouldn’t want to lie but I love meeting people from different cultures.  I love it.  I don’t know when it started … I think it’s the people.  [Really].  Oh yeah.  If the people admit that they’re open and available to a range of things - just interests what they do and just who people are in general … you have to do this, you have to reach out.

From freefall and social dance to carnival cosmopolitans

In his ethnography of skydivers, Stephen Lyng proposes that the ‘edgework’ these – and other – thrill seekers enjoy is a form of skilled performance, in this case associated very closely with human survival.  During the experience, participants in jumps experienced ‘oneness’ (focused perception), ‘hyperreality’ (more real than the day-to-day [861]) and ‘flow’ (‘a feeling of personal transcendence, and merging of the individual with the objects at hand’ [863]’) in their risk-taking behaviour.  The ‘experiential anarchy’ (864) of the jumpers lies at one extreme of the spontaneity/constraint pole enjoyed – or endured – by the individual, and, as Lyng suggests, is a Marxian/Meadian sociological tension running through modern postindustrial society.  Such ‘free’ behaviour is a response arising from oppressive social structural conditions and a possible accompanying loss of ego and sense of alienation.  Trivialised and degraded by work, Lyng suggests that leisure activities come to fulfil the individual’s needs:

[S]ince work offers none of the phenomenological experiences that define spontaneous, free activity, workers look to leisure time for experience that is self-determining and self-actualizing.  People find in some leisure pursuits a requirement for the types of skills that have been systematically purged from the labour process under capitalist ownership and experience what they cannot in work – an opportunity for action that is conscious, purposive, concentrated, physically and mentally flexible, and skilful. (Lyng 1990: 871)

Such extreme leisure practice is, then, ‘a way of fulfilling unmet needs’ (871).  Furthermore, for the skydivers, a specific skill set is developed for flying bodies in freefall.  Thus, Lyng (871) suggests that edgework constitutes a specific skilled performance.  There is skill and calculated illusion of control over life itself involved in complex, competent and critical air manoeuvres of the body.  Prior to this token absolution from the safety and security of life on the ground around them, there is a ritual preparation for the jump, a time to expand the ‘acting self’, to self-actualise in readiness for the experience which is so ‘in the moment’ that the ‘Me’ is obliterated and the self is reacting to circumstances with innateness, from within, ‘untouched by socializing influences’ (Lyng 1990: 879).  Until they land.

Although Lyng is writing about skydivers, his thesis is equally applicable to others who play and negotiate their boundaries and explore their ‘edges’ by risk, or even play.  Whether BASE jumping (Lyng 2005), skateboarding or graffitiing (Milovanovic 2005), working in mountain rescue (Lois 2001), participants are all transcending the mundane of modern consumerism/capitalism, valorising their selves, re-enchanting their dis-enchanted worlds (Lyng 2005).  This need not be just through embodied skills, or the sensory immediacy of the rush of air or adrenalin.  Reading detective fiction can be a form of intellectual edgework (Milovanovic 2005: 56), so too listening to jazz - reconciling subjective feeling with the unity of the group (audience/band), shaping a sense of the authentic self according to Courtney (2005: 90); or, as one of my informants expressed herself: “integrating my self by dancing”.   No matter the act, central to edgework is ‘the idea that members of postindustrial society seek to reclaim their humanity by temporarily escaping the system, or could find a destination for such an escape’ (Lyng 2005: 32).  Dance nights are also a construction of that escape, evenings spent dancing jive or salsa for example; a release from the working day; a contrasting use of leisure time; an escape from the mundane into a world of sequins, glitter, flirting and fake tan.  In dance nights, one can also find a fostering of Hannerz’s cosmopolitan engagement with the other as the norms of body space and behaviour are altered and sometimes turned up-side-down for the transience of the dance.  The temporary nature of this interaction and its carnal bacchanal physicality make it a carnival cosmopolitanism – a cosmopolitanism with carnival features: ludic, temporary, carnal, and full of playful disorder (bacchanal) (see Miller 1994, Skinner 2001, Bakhtin 1984, Campbell 1988).

Not only is there a strong commitment and identification with dance like in skydiving, but there is a sense of community, skill and accomplishment, flow, release and reaffirmation of self during this leisure practice.  In dance one transcends the norm.  Further to this, in a partner dance in particular, there is a sense of ‘indistinction’ (Bollen 2001: 291 after Diprose 1994) between the two dancers, an experience which can – along with the repeated interaction with members in the dance communities – change the core value structure of dancers, encourage tolerance for the other through dancing and mixing with people of very different ages, faiths, backgrounds and sexualities; and promote empathy and understanding through having to communicate and signal leads and follows with the body.  The dance floor is populated with others – other people dancing either alone, together or in groups.  There are relations taking place on the dance floor from ‘faciality’, facial engagements to ‘subtle locomotional’ movements, and the imitation or ‘falling into step’ with each other.  The dance floor, then, is a place to engage with the other, an interworld of ‘dwelling with others’ much like Hannerz’s cosmopolitan engagement with the other.  Bollen (2001: 298) goes so far as to suggest that dancing from or with another is even a ‘becoming other’ as dancers incorporate others’ moves.  There is spatial accommodation, and companionship, a sense of togetherness and union in a partner dance which can be appealing and addictive: dancing with an other as affirmation of the self.  There is also an opportunity to experiment with the self, to project difference and to play with identities and relations – to flirt and court with self and other.  The dance floor thus becomes a carnival space, deliberately transient and experimental.  It is where the work day world and self can be freed or contrasted with.  Emilie, to give an example, a high powered banker, loves the social salsa world of Dublin where she can “dress up all female, and follow, be led, and not have to think or manage relations at night” like she has to earlier on in the day.  This is carnival cosmopolitanism arising from the salsa leisure practice.  The result is that ‘we become […] less like ourselves and more like each other’ (Bollen 2001: 300).

 Fashioning cosmopolitanism

Fullagar writes of a cosmopolitanism of wandering, a masculine identity, autonomous, self-sufficient (2004: 10).  She was describing the work of the travel writer Bruce Chatwin.  His cosmopolitanism comes from his detachment from a place, a ‘free floating homelessness’ (11) from place - and perhaps sexuality in Chatwin’s case.  For Silvio, Marcus, Veronique, Colm, and Sondra, there is both a detachment from place and a new attachment to practice as well as a new place.  In each case, work features in their leisure descriptions.  It relates to their dancing leisure practice.  In work they might be adrift by day, but in dance, they ground themselves in a community: Dublin, Cambridge or Paris.  Each of these highly mobile cosmopolitan navigators use their decontextualised dance skills to reterritorialise themselves.  There is mobility and fluidity in both their work and leisure practices.  For Veronique and Colm, especially, the mobile technology they use gives them a ‘located mobility’ (Goldmacher 2008: 119) wherein the technology interface moves with them where they want.  This allows them to identify and belong with more than one place at the same time (126).  The work/home boundary shifts for them – it is a roving connection with flexible home and work boundaries, but also requiring a high degree of emotional flexibility, engagement and disengagement when necessary.

Sondra, Marcus and Silvio have a different relationship with technology.  They use computers to communicate with their family, friends and, for Silvio, his large network of dance students.  In the last case, then, for Silvio, the work/leisure distinction is blurred by his successful shift from carpentry work and salsa leisure to salsa leisure and work practice.  In this case, not only is there a reorientation of leisure practice as work and leisure practice, but there is a sense of a loss of the traditional relationship with work which Silvio had with his skilled manual work though with little investment of personal identity (that was reserved for the salsa, and for the salsa tattoos along his arms).  Sondra is the only person to have the traditional juxtaposition of home and work; Marcus’s boundary maintenance between the two switches between different body relations.  Each example is of employees working in a flexible labour system.  Yet, for all the cognitive ordering of personal and professional self through these work and leisure practices, this ‘boundary work’ (Nippert-Eng 1996: 578) is not especially segmented, rather, it is fluid and shifting.  The dancers fashion their boundaries and relations.  Nippert-Eng’s thesis of sharply delineated ‘territories of the self’ at work and at leisure in a modern segmented world is not evident in these salsa cases bar Silvio’s initial employment.  Perhaps this is the case because these cases are part of the successful navigations of salsa cosmopolitans, whereas other salsa dancers are less ‘brave’ in this new world?

The salsa develops the dancers’ cosmopolitanism and through the salsa they can become more cosmopolitan.  In different ways, Colm and Silvio, and Colm and Veronique, and Sondra and Marcus are new cosmopolitans at leisure.  They are all mobile in their bodies and in their body’s movements, extending their selves outwards, choosing their identifications and associations.  Their relationship with the dance and the music is more one of exotic escape than recapturing their homeland - the everynight life of migrants on the dance floor (cf. Delgado and Munoz 1997).  And their moves are studied, practiced and fashioned from the gendered aesthetics of this dance form (Savigliano 2006).  Through this ‘productive’ (Carter 2007) - ‘serious’ (Stebbins 1982, 2006) – leisure, these dancers ‘identify themselves as unique human beings’ as Stebbins (1982: 251) would opine.  They are creating their own habitus of creative, intentional structured dispositions of the body: ‘a socially informed [salsa dancing] body, with its tastes and distastes, its [aesthetic] compulsions and repulsions’ to appropriate Bourdieu (1977: 124).  This is also a creative codifying of the body, self-disciplined but not docile (see Foucault 1995), edgework as escapism akin to the aikido practitioners who left their (home)work off the aikido hobby mat (Kohn 2007: 183).  It is also carnal, lustful, and easy on the eye as well as the body.  Herein lies the attraction and addiction to social dance. It comes in part from this feeling of indistinction, from this connection and intertwining with the other, from this therapeutic blurred perception of bodies’ boundaries, from this skilled coming together in leisure.


I should like to thank those dancers who gave me their time and friendship and agreed to be interviewed for this project; and to thank Queen’s University Belfast for encouraging this research with a University Research Award. The names and key details of dancers featured here have been changed to protect their identity.


1. See Coleman (2007) for a recent discussion of muscular Christianity.

2. The Irish Catholic Ireland’s Church inspired 1935 Public Dancehall Act is a good example of the regulation of leisure pursuits with the prohibition on unlicensed house parties and ‘dancing at the crossroads’ (Wulff 2007).

3. With a nod to Bourdieu, Szersynski and Urry (2006: 114-115) also suggest that amongst other features, ‘Cosmopolitan predispositions and practices […] involve […] an openness to other peoples and cultures and a willingness/ability to appreciate some elements of the language or culture of the ‘other’.’



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