Before moving to Richmond in August last year, RVA Bachata owners Ruddy Rivera and Rachel Marie Kleinberg “interviewed” the city by visiting dance socials and saw an opportunity to grow the latin dance scene.
“What we found out was people want to dance and people are engaging in dancing,” Rivera said. “At the same time, we saw that it was different small venues. Very well supported, people show up, dance, but they’re small.”
When playing latin music, most dance venues focus on salsa, a genre that emerged in New York in the 1960s. For this reason, Kleinberg said, she and Rivera wanted to differentiate their brand by focusing on bachata, a Dominican genre whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent decades.
RVA Bachata, a dance social held every Sunday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Champion Brewery, also plays other genres of latin music, like salsa and merengue. The event starts with a 35 to 45 minute bachata lesson which dissolves into the dance social.
“Whenever anybody thinks of going out for latin night, they always just call it salsa night,” Kleinberg said, “With sort of the meteoric take off of bachata becoming so socially popular, we decided that we were going to operate with a slightly different style.”
Bachata originated as a low-class genre in the Dominican Republic — for a time, the music was banned on the radio. This was the case for other popular modern latin genres, like reggaetón, a blend of hip-hop and traditional Latin American music, which was criticized and even policed in Puerto Rico until it became mainstream in the early 2000s.
“People start to drag out that music from the small corner bar all the way to performances in hotels to entertain tourists,” Rivera said.
From there, the music and dance was exposed to popular latin artists who mix it with other influences “in order to make it more accessible and more popular,” Rivera said.
Romeo Santos, a New York-born singer of Dominican descent, is an example of this, having collaborated with English speaking musicians like Drake and Nicki Minaj. His YouTube channel has amassed more than 5 billion views.
Some of those musical influences include reggaetón and remixes with English music. Rivera, one of only a few Latino DJs in Richmond, said he thinks musicians will continue to play traditional bachata, also called “bachata típica,” while others will move forward and evolve the genre.
Rivera serves as the DJ for RVA Bachata’s dance socials. The music he plays reflects the evolution of the genre.
“Every set, I try to run people through some of those [early] eras,” Rivera said. “Typically the music goes in that way. It’s like a wave, it goes up and down in the rhythms.”
Bachata dancing has also taken influence from other dances. In Spain, bachata fused with tango and ballet to form “bachata sensual,” which features more circular body movements.
A lot of this dance evolution occurs outside Latin America, where dancing is still considered a social practice, unlike in the U.S.
“As popular music evolved [in the U.S.], we sort of in many cases lost that societal regulation,” Kleinberg said. “Partner dancing in the classical sense, like you need a person leading and a person following, started to disappear here.”
Other cultures, in this case Latin American, still feature partner dancing as part of a family event, such as a wedding or birthday party, Kleinberg says.
While bachata and other forms of dance do evolve in Latin America, Rivera said that change occurs much more slowly than in the U.S. dance community.
The mainstream evolution of bachata dance and music has been driven by distinct factors. But the two halves of the art form can also build off of each other.
“The music expression and the dance expression happening become a conversation,” Rivera said. “When a person only performs a choreography, meaning a routine … that doesn’t touch the music, the music goes in this direction and the dancing goes in this [other] direction, it’s not a conversation.”
A “conversation” between dance and music occurs when musicians adjust their sound according to what they see in the dancers and vice-versa, Rivera said. As long as musicians and dancers continue to interact in a live venue, the minor adjustments made in the moment will contribute to the genre’s evolution.
“[For example], I can use a rhythm and apply something else that I know and then people are like, ‘That’s not something I normally see when I see people dancing to reggaetón, but that works, that’s really cool,’” Kleinberg said. “It’s through inspiration. The inspiration from the music to the dancer and the dancer to the musicians.”
For Kleinberg and Rivera, it was important to create a family environment at their dance socials, which was why they sought out a brewery as a venue as opposed to a bar. Champion Brewery offers games like pinball and pool. Rivera emphasized that participants have the option to drink non-alcoholic beverages.
“It’s a social event, it’s not a nightclub. It should be open socially for all the range of ages,” Rivera said. “A family is there, mom and dad can dance and baby can watch.”
A diverse group of about 80 to 100 people attend RVA Bachata workshops, with a mix of backgrounds, ages and dance experience levels.
“You’ll see all ages dancing with each other, people with different language backgrounds dancing with each other,” Kleinberg said.
RVA Bachata can be found online at facebook.com/rvabachata.
Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor