Why do Salsa, Yoga and Samba Matter?

There is a collection of activities which are very widespread in European and North American societies, which tell us a great deal about people’s interests, hopes, fears and attitudes. They provide huge benefits, and some risks, but are little studied and discussed by academics and the media. I have been calling them Adopted Cultural Practices, meaning activities which have their roots outside mainstream ‘Western’ cultures, but are widely practiced by Westerners. Examples would be yoga, salsa and capoeira. They can be viewed as hobbies or recreational activities, even sport. However, they differ from other such pastimes in a number of particular ways. For instance, they all combine several modes of expression or intention. Yoga is used for physical health benefits; to keep the body supple and strong, but it is also considered to be a form of meditation, a type of mental unwinding and cleansing. Salsa is a way of moving to rhythm, but also provides opportunities to interact with others, particularly people of the opposite sex. These facets are inherent aspects of the practices, rather than random byproducts. Compare this to going to a gym, or jogging, which are much more focused on a single goal. The skills involved in learning an Adopted Cultural Practice usually require expressive, physical and ludic (game-playing) engagement, they challenge the whole person, rather than just one aspect of our being.  

Another feature of these kinds of activities is that they always come with a good deal of what you might call cultural baggage. When you are learning the ways to move your body that are involved, you are also exposed to a foreign vocabulary, often describing those very physical movements of positions. This might be in Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Sanskrit or another language, depending on your chosen practice. This opens up the idea of an underpinning culture which will also include music, beliefs, ways of interacting, food and so on, in short, all of the many interwoven things that make up a culture, so that when you get more involved in one of the practices, you find out more and more about another part of the world and another way of living. This is obviously not compulsory, and for many people, going to a weekly yoga or salsa class is just an enjoyable but relatively minor part of their lives. But very often, these activities start to take over; people become somewhat obsessed. One class a week is no longer enough, and they practice more often, go to social dances, in the case of salsa, weekend workshops, and festivals. The activity can become a major, even the defining aspect of one’s life — again, just like a culture that one is part of. 

As such, the influence that the Adopted Cultural Practices have on our society is, I believe, profound, especially considering all the different types that exist. As ways to socialise, to exercise, to define oneself, to relax, to think, to feel, these activities affect millions.