Gringos can’t dance?

“Los americanos no bailan” – it was something my suegra always said, usually with arms crossed over her chest while sitting at my Anglo parents’ house on a holiday. My parents were always kind enough to invite my suegra to dinner even though she never seemed to like anything about being there. She complained about the American food, complained about the overly-friendly Golden Retrievers, complained that my family spoke English and that she couldn’t understand, complained about the lack of music, complained that no one was dancing.

Because we never danced, Suegra then assumed that it was because we couldn’t dance – that we were incapable of dancing. “Los americanos no saben bailar” – she would say.

When it was discovered at a very early age that my younger son was a natural dancer with an amazing sense of rhythm, she took all the credit. “Puro salvadoreño,” she’d say, or “Este talento viene de parte de mi familia.”

Likewise, when we discovered that my older son lacked rhythm, that no matter how hard he tried, (and that the harder he tried, the worse it was), Suegra blamed it on me. “Ay, pobrecito,” she’d say, “no puede bailar, igual a su mamá.”

The truth is that Suegra has never even seen me dance – and despite what she might think, I don’t dance like Elaine on Seinfeld. Neither will I claim to be as good as Napoleon Dynamite, but I think I do alright.

It’s a common stereotype that white people can’t dance. I guess humans like stereotypes because it gives us a false sense of security that we better understand ourselves, our world and the people in it. The problem is that stereotypes attempt to group people together based on a common trait, but humans, even those that share many things in common, are much too diverse to be categorized in that way.

That being said, in my experience, and without doing scientific research, my hypothesis is that if you walk up to your average gringo on the street and compared his dancing skills with your average Latino on the street, the average Latino would more often be the better dancer. But, why?

I don’t think that this is a result of race or skin color but rather a result of culture. Gringos, as my suegra noticed, don’t tend to dance as often as Latinos. Dance, for many Anglos, just isn’t a part of daily life, perhaps due to our Puritanical roots.

Now, if we all know that “practice makes perfect”, wouldn’t it make sense that the group who practices less, (regardless of any man-made category we could put them in), would quite simply be less skilled than the group that practices more?

Again, this is my unscientific guess as to why “gringos can’t dance” – (and to be clear, this doesn’t apply to all gringos. Some are born with natural talent and some learn to dance very well, even on a professional level.)

If you don’t like my theory, Dave Chappelle has another one.

Posted on September 18, 2012, in Anglo vs. Latino, Culture, humor, suegra. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I agree that it’s a cultural thing, but this gringa can dance with the best of them! Most times the guys say I dance better than they do. I think it’s just something you can or can’t do, like everything else. Some people are good cooks, others aren’t, some people can sing, some can’t. I give anyone credit who at least try to dance and doesn’t care what people think!!

    • I agree that some are natural born dancers and others, not so much, but I think that most people are capable of improving and learning with practice.

      I also give major props to people who know their dancing isn’t the greatest but do it anyway. I think it’s really brave and I admire that the individual isn’t willing to sit life out when they feel like celebrating and expressing themselves.

  2. I can dance in spite of my “gringa” roots . . . . not sure if it was because my dad played in a band, although the music was from the 30s and the 40s, but I seemed to always be around music and musical instruments – and I love to dance. My Latino husband does not enjoy dancing and I think that is because the music he prefers is more for listening and dancing independently then rhythms that lend themselves to partnering or getting out on the floor with a group. So we as a couple go against the stereotype and while it’s too soon to tell with our kids, hopefully we can avoid the stereotypical labeling since we can see first hand that it’s not always the case. Right now my priority is to expose them to different types of music and have them feel comfortable dancing in front of others.

    • Laura, I also love dancing more than my husband, Carlos, so stereotypes definitely generalize and don’t apply to everyone.

      I love that you want to expose your kids to all kinds of music and make sure they’re comfortable dancing in front of others – that’s such a great thing to give to your children.

  3. After living in Puerto Rico for over a year, I have some thoughts about this. Yes, it is true, dance is a much bigger part of the culture here. If you’re at a restaurant and a good song comes on, nobody blinks twice if a couple gets up and starts dancing salsa. Children are exposed to it from the time they’re born. I think people are less concerned about being embarrassed. Here, dancing isn’t something to be ashamed of, like it is in the US to a certain extent. In that light, when you go out here, it’s almost a given there will be dancing. And yes, there are some incredible incredible dancers here.

    However, just like there are gringos who are phenomenal dancers, there are many Puerto Ricans who have two left feet, and barely know the basic salsa step. I’ve had my toes stepped on plenty of times here in PR. Watching them dance to reggaetón can be even comical at times. What I think differentiates Latinos from Gringos is that even if you weren’t blessed with great rhythm and musicality, most likely Latinos will dance anyway and probably won’t be judged. I think that’s one of the hardest things for me to deal with going back home to the States is the lack of a dance culture. And I definitely agree that our Puritanical roots have a lot to do with it as well! A lot of gringos get intimidated as well and feel that they have to be perfectionists, that if they’re not at “Dancing With the Stars” level, then why even bother to dance. For me, it doesn’t have anything to do with your skin color, but rather if you grew up in a dance culture or not.

    • Ashlee, I love your example about people just jumping up and dancing while at a restaurant and nobody thinking anything of it. I actually think about that sort of thing! Weeks ago we were at a Mexican restaurant, (in the United States with all gringo customers), and a great song came on. I said to my husband, Carlos, “What do you think people would do if I just got up and started dancing right now?”

      The answer of course, is that I would get stared at and laughed at – probably even by the Latinos working there, because it’s just not normal here to spontaneously dance.

      You make another great point that there are good and bad dancers even in dancing cultures. Carlos has an uncle that does this hand rolling thing as if he’s in a conga line, but he doesn’t care, he just does his thing.

      Great comment! Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  4. I’m not REALLY a gringa but I’m basically an Asian gringa, if such a thing exists. And I can’t really dance, but I do! My husband and I call it “white people dancing,” jumping up and down and/or pumping one’s fist(s) in the air. Works well with top 40 pop music. Haha.

  5. LOL! I wanted to add to Chapplle’s as someone who is just old enough to have seen The Grateful Dead several times. It is possible to “dance” expressively in an arhythmic manner. Maybe it’s the European ballet tradition that has caused this tendency towards “interpretive” wasp dancing, but belive me once the LSD kicked in and all inhibitions were gone it was one bizarre spectacle. Personally the only time I ever danced just because I felt it and not because I was forced to by a girl was an Apache-like stomping that I used to do to bands like Rage Against the Machine, Jane’s Addiction, and Alice in Chains. Alas neither seem appropriate for your Mom’s living room.

    • LOL Fred, Thanksgiving is coming up. I say we make an effort this year. I’ll see if I can dig up a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD or something ;)

  6. You know… I never thought about it that way, but it makes sense. Less practice due to non-exposure as a culture, might just explain a bit of it.

  7. The only dancing I ever do anymore is two-stepping and old time waltzes. The occasional polka. I’m not a great dancer, but I dance the best with my husband. He’s got the moves! LOL!

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