Salsa in Madras: Social dance in a conservative city


Madras is one of those conservative cities that likes to keep its boys and girls at a safe distance. Parents clamour to get their children enrolled in colleges that are rather strict about this, and colleges have responded to this with enthusiasm. One famous college made a rule that girls will sit at the front of the college bus and boys behind and there will be a firewall of teachers in between. To counter this attraction other colleges have come up with separate roads and staircases inside the campus for boys and girls. In this context of competitive conservatism, I was surprised to hear of salsa in Madras.

I decided to go to this event with two schoolmates expecting to see rebellious youngsters, perhaps those from other cities with parents safely away. Well, Madras is also a city of surprises: the first set of people I saw were old mamas and mamis with their attractively clad daughters in the dance hall. Unfortunately, the mamas and mamis were not dancing, with just one exception. The rest had accompanied their daughters to protect them from the harsh city that Madras can be. The mother sat at a distance occasionally giving the daughter napkins and diet cokes during the break, and the daughters comfortably crossed the intimate world of social dancing and parental presence.

I was stuck by the sight of a protective mother watching her daughter dance with a glint of pride in her eyes. From the perspective of traditional Madrasi sensibility, protecting daughters and bringing them to a social dance like salsa are contradictory. While the idea of social dancing is not very Madarasi, the idea that one’s children should be accomplished in every sphere is very Madarasi. Perhaps, that should have made salsa irresistible to the protective mothers.

One of my schoolmates, now an accomplished salsa dancer, went to the dance ring while I settled with the other in a corner seat. It was apparent even to the untrained eye that salsa was new to the city. Some of the elementary moves were overused and you could see the dancers watching and learning on the fly from the more accomplished ones. My dancer friend literally pushed, rolled and twisted his partners and danced with intense glee; at times I wondered if he were a dancer or a puppeteer.

My other friend, now a doctor, surveyed the scene intensely and turned to me. “Look at the shape of her body…”, he said. I waited for him to pass a cheesy comment. “…she will have problems during delivery”, he completed. I was unprepared for the twist from the sensual to the cerebral. I guess that too is Madras, a city were it is more acceptable to indulge in the cerebral than the sensual.

The night ended and the trio returned. My friends were generally satisfied, the dancer having danced and the doctor having analyzed medical issues. It was a bittersweet experience for me. I would have loved to join the revelry and excitement, but not a bone in my body likes to dance. But then, not all was lost as the social scientist in me saw the grand city change and quietly shelved a research project for the future. In Madras, that is pure indulgence.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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