"Good" vs. "bad": cultural baggage about posture and learning to dance

Recently, I have had many discussions with students about how hard it is to move in a new way. They feel embarrassed, awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes even dizzy as they try to adjust posturally to salsa and tango. Although a new movement may not feel natural, why do some people have such a strong reaction to new ways of standing, walking and dancing?

We are taught by our culture and our families that there are "good" ways to move and "bad" ways to move. "Good" movement fits with our ideals of how men, women and children should be. "Bad" movements are those that are done by "other" people, or people who don't fit into that particular cultural ideal.

In the United States, there are many different cultural groups.  Many of my students are white adults who grew up in the United States. In this case, I am mostly discussing their struggles against learned "good" cultural behavior, in order to learn salsa and tango, and to find a more aligned body along the way. If the new movement resembles movement that the dancer learned was inappropriate, then not only does the body fight to learn, but the mind must move past old judgments about what movement is "good" or "bad".

What have we been taught?

  • "Good": "Stand up straight!" This means pull our shoulders back, our stomachs in, our hips under and raise our chin; the military look.
  • "Bad": Relaxing the spine so that the natural curves work, the shoulders release, the hips relax back, and the chin lowers. 

Why is this bad? Because it looks suspiciously like "lazy"; the Puritans would turn in their graves! North Americans have a cultural ideal of looking busy, trying hard, and putting effort into what is done. Relaxing feels and looks too easy to be right ;-)

Another example:

  • "Good": "Be a lady!" This means tuck the hips under to hide the buttocks, release the shoulders forward to make sure you aren't flaunting your breasts, and hold your hips in a straight position so you don't call attention to your sexual/sensual body; walking like a "loose" woman. I find this is true more for the 45+ women than the younger women, but many young women from conservative families still have this issue.
  • "Bad": Using your hips the way they were created, with side-to-side swing, makes you look like a "bad" girl, encouraging male attention. Letting your hips move back into a more relaxed position gives your body sway and your butt sticks out a bit. Almost all of my female students tell me that they feel as if their butt is REALLY too far out behind them, while I see their hips still tucked forward! Lifting at the solar plexus makes it impossible to hunch over and hide your chest: if you are well-endowed, then so be it! That really makes some women quake.  An entire sector of N. America has learned to hide their bodies, rather than to enjoy their bodies, and I am pushing all of their unconscious buttons while trying to remedy poor alignment issues.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I think it illustrates how hard a person has to fight to learn new movement that they have been taught is culturally inappropriate. Is it culturally inappropriate to dance salsa and tango? Is it wrong to go against cultural information you learned as a child or young adult? Why do we have certain actions that are culturally accepted or condemned?

I would like to hear your comments about what you find difficult/awkward/uncomfortable about learning tango and salsa and other couple dances. I'll write more as I receive your comments.