This week's post is called "Man Up or Sit Down". Hope you enjoy it. Let's get goin'!
Man Up or Sit Down:
When I think of the Mexican culture and values, several descriptive terms come to mind. For example: Family, Strength, Endurance, Loyalty, Tradition, Heritage, Respect, Faith, Ritual, Inheritance, Cultural Pride and so on. When it comes Mexican men, several other terms are often associated. For example: Machismo, Masculine, Robust, Dominating, Respect, Pride, Aggressive, Assertive, Control, Tough, Hard, Strong, Cocky, Egotistic, Authoritative, Determined and so on. Essentially Cowboys - Vaqueros - tough as nails or the Brawny paper towel man! Take your pick! Everyone defines manliness in their own special way. So how does this masculine image come across in folklorico dancing? How does a wedo, who has been told his entire life that he doesn't possess these qualities, develop and deal with that image? Let's go there and take a look.
How does that macho manly image come across in ballet folklorico? There seems to be an obvious challenge because dancing isn't necessarily considered to be masculine. Granted folklorico depicts a time in history where men were not ashamed to express themselves. It was common back then for men to dance and it didn't bring their manhood into question. These days, many men would rather take shots of Tequila and labor hard rather than to step onto a dance floor - let alone a stage. Add to the equation the concept of ballet and many men are completely turned off. However, they will still watch from a distance and dance in social settings where there is less exposure and attention drawn. I always have been fascinated by the paradox between men and entertainment. Mexican culture idolizes performers like Juan Gabriel. Yet he himself does not fit the idolized image of manhood that the men have in the culture. Hence, I would say there is an air of contradiction.
There is a population of men, secure in themselves, that dance folklorico. It's true, an important element to dance is to appropriately reflect the culture. Therefore, masculine male figures have to be portrayed. I have seen groups where the men are flamboyant and dramatically over the top resulting in heavy criticism from fellow dancers in the industry and mockery from onlookers. Another contradiction is that dancers need to portray this explosive masculine image, yet are expected to be thin and petite which appears weak and frail to some. On the other hand, I have seen some men dancers so overly aggressive and dominant that there seems to be an imbalance on the stage. The female become a mere accessory to the man and she is made to appear weak and subservient resulting in this grotesquely male domination that reeks of "I AM MAN, SEE ME DANCE" atmosphere. In my opinion, it comes across as over danced and is rather unentertaining.
I prefer balance on stage between couples. They both can be strong dancers and maintain balance. Several of the dances have a sort of friendly competition between the men and women. It's nice when the dancers can play off each other. Also, many of the dances are courtship dances which to me means that they engage both dancers equally. "It takes two to tango" so balance between a man and woman on stage is good. I realize that there is this game that is often portrayed where the woman plays hard to get and the man chases after her with the attitude that he's so manly she can't resist him. There is also a love/hate factor that I see a lot in the Mexican culture. The attitude of "I love you so much, yet I just can't stand you and I hate you." Oh the contradiction!
Learning To Lead:
Something that I have had to learn in folklorico dancing is how to lead. The men are responsible for leading their dance partners in couples dances like polkas. Learning to lead has been an ongoing process. I have had to learn how to communicate with my hands and body language to my partner. It's not as easy as you may think. There is a lot of responsibility placed on the man. I am amazed at how easily you can lead your partner astray. Move your hand or finger a wrong way and that can cause your partner to respond and react in a way you didn't intend. You have to exude confidence and clarity. No second guessing yourself. Simple techniques as to hand positioning and placement have been explained and shown to me. The best practice and learning tool has been hand on experience. I came into all this with practically no experience what so ever so I have had to learn from scratch.
I have been put through an ongoing "man camp" of sorts to ensure that I accurately portray that masculine image on stage and throughout the dance. The man has the added task of making sure his partner on stage looks good. Even if she messes up, the man has to make it all work out. This is a difficult challenge at times as some of my partners have felt that they did not need to know the dance because it's up to the man to lead. Some of this irresponsibility stems from the idea that the woman just needs to go where the man leads her. This put a lot of stress on me as a beginner. I've been labelled as a "weak" leader at times, which is harsh, but I'm man enough to take it.
Let me just say that just because a man leads his partner, that is no excuse for his partner not to know the dance fully. Women have just as much responsibility in knowing the dance as the men do. Everyone must do their part. The best couple performances I've had are where my partner fully knew the dance and we worked together as a single unite. I was able to guide and direct my partner rather than force her to do the dance. Disastrous performances have resulted when my partners have put all the responsibility on me, even asking me to tell them what to do during the performance. Perhaps some day I will have enough experience and skill to do that, but for now I'm only a beginner. I'm learning myself! One partner even told me, "I have man issues and don't like a man to control me!" Oh No!
Some other tricks to produce the "man" image is good posture. A nice tall robust posture - chest up and out. Appearing larger than life! Keeping your feet apart and at shoulder width produces a firm planted stance that is masculine. The first position I learned was "dance position". This position has to be firm, elbow up, chin up, standing tall and yet appear relaxed.
At times, dances call for a type of hugging posture. This is done by the man pulling the woman's arm, putting it around to his back and him holding her hand. The woman always hugs the man like this because that is considered manly. It would be improper for her to pull his arm to hug her.
There's also a lot of kissing motion in the dances. Getting in there for the kiss, nice and close is a way of appearing more manly too. But you have to go about it in the right way, otherwise it will look feminine. That's a big no, no!
Arms also need to be positioned in a way that is masculine, however, they also need to appear relaxed. In Vera Cruz dancing where the arms are at your side, I have been corrected repeatedly about keeping them relaxed as I have a tendency to make fists and tense up.
On a side note, when couples dancing, it is important to keep your fingernail nice and trim. This is something I have learned repeatedly while doing Chihuahua and Durango dances. Long fingernails can lead to injury! I have seen bloody hands and fingers due to razor blade nails on both men and women. No Freddy Kruegers or X Men Wolverines allowed! Wow, there's so much to absorb and learn about in this dance stuff!
I have been told repeatedly that I don't act anything like what I look like. I think the point people are trying to make in their unsolicited analysis of me is that I have a man look, with my goatee and shaved head, but my personality is contrary to my appearance. Often times people think I am angry or mean and unkind based upon my appearance. Then I open my mouth and they kindly inform me that my "purse" has fallen out. Thanks, that really builds self esteem.
One huge criticism and area of ridicule, rejection and mockery has come from my walk. Okay, I'll just bluntly say it - I swish! No, I'm not talking about basketball. There's sugar in the walk. I have been called every name in the book, Bea Arthur to you name it. It has been described as a swagger, a bounce, all the way to a big swish and everything in between. I'll admit it's a sore subject with me. People can be heartless and cruel. I'm not mentioning this for pity or sympathy. I only bring it up because we are talking about dancing and the man image. To hear people speak of my walk, you would think that I was a caged gazelle that has just been set free in the open tundra that is experiencing freedom for the first time in his life, flailing and bucking wildly through the pasture with his rainbow flag. It's okay to laugh, I'm use to it.
Part of the "man camp" was becoming aware of what my body is doing. Of course, this has led to paranoia over my walk. I have made huge efforts to be more conscientious of my walk and body movements. It's exhausting. It is always on my mind and has become an obsession. I have tried to alter myself by controlling myself and keeping my hands in my pocket or keeping my arms stiff and straight, keeping my shoulders rigid and so on. The stiffness works against much of what the dancing instruction is trying to accomplish. I have often been corrected about this. It is a lot of work and effort. Whenever I let up, I slip right back to swishin'. It is a constant area of personal embarrassment and shame. Honestly, its the greatest thing I hate about myself. It's hard not to have a complex when your constantly being reminded of it. This has lead to some drastic efforts including testosterone enhancing supplements to increase masculine behaviors.
Why do I swish? Well, I suppose there are many reasons. I always thought shattering my pelvis when I got ran over by the tractor had something to do with it. Read more about that in "The Miracles of Dancing" post. Therapists may claim I spent too much time in childhood around mama rather than papa. There are deeper reasons why people are the way they are, people are so quick to judge and draw conclusions. Whatever the reason, I swish - bottom line. As long as I keep dancing, I will continue to conform my self to the image and act out the role expected of me. But between you and me, well, through all the efforts I still get that runway feeling anytime I walk a straight distance or cascade down a staircase. Guess I was just destined for bigger things! One tool I use is videos. I watch performances and look for any areas that need improvement. I pay close attention to my walk. I also watch videos of other dance group to see how their male dancers act.
During all this torture of "man camp", God gave me a priceless gift. In all my efforts to transform myself into a socially accepted expectation of manliness, God revealed Himself to me. Now before you think I'm getting all "religious" on you, allow me to explain. Let me remind you that Faith is one element of Mexican culture, so let's go there for a moment. God reminded me that He knows everything about me, even better than I know myself. He knows exactly why I walk, talk and act the way I do. He understands me completely.
God created me in a unique and special way for Himself. He did that for all of us. He is the only on in the whole universe that is able to truly love and accept us completely and unconditionally. Let's be honest, people don't like everything about other people or themselves for that matter. Even between loved ones and friends. We live in a world that thrives to find the flaws in people and raise themselves up by putting others down. Certainly in my own life, whatever you go looking for to discover, you'll find it - good, bad or whatever. Whenever people let me down or disappoint me with their disapproval or their lack of satisfaction over my life, God's love never fails. He's the only one that's able and that's why I choose Him and serve Him. Now that's definitely something worth dancing for!
As I mentioned last week, Herencia Mexicana is heading to Denver for three days of performances! If you're in the Denver area, be sure to come see one of our shows. Herencia has been practicing every night, late hours to be at our best. I'm even giving the pigeon dance another try! It better be flawless because if I don't nail it I think I'll be retiring from folk dancing and mark the whole experience up to a mid life crisis! Come out and see if I get it right!
Contact Information for "The Big Wedo":
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Twitter: Michael Smith @onebigwedo
Contact Information for Ballet Folklorico de Herencia Mexicana:
Richard Solorzano, Director: (909) 201-1957
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Note: Looking for your own adventure or journey? Herencia is a great place to find one! Herencia Mexicana practices in Duarte, California. Folklorico lessons and performances are both available. Herencia Mexicana performs for private & public events of all kinds. Book your event today! Herencia Mexicana welcomes new students. No previous folklorico or dance experience required.
All are welcome.