The Little Greatness of America

A Celtic music band plays loudly on the stand. Three little girls look at one another demurely, they exchange a few words and pretty soon they are dancing in front of the stand. The little blonde took the initiative and the lead, but the black girl twirls in the air with the grace of a young gazelle. The third girl is Asian, as luck would have it. She copies assiduously the blond girl and the black girl. What can I do? I am not deliberately creating or reinforcing stereotypes; I am calling the play as it unfolds before my eyes.

I must add, for the sake of the integrity of my reporting, that the little black girl seems surprisingly well-prepared. Her eight braided queues make her look adorable. That hairdo must have taken hours to create. She came wearing black tights and a matching short black skirt with sequins. Her elegant performance looks a little premeditated. I compliment her mother as they are leaving. Mom thanks me brightly but do I detect a bit of smugness in her smile?

My small town is having its annual summer Arts and Wines Festival. Some of it is a little pokey, of course, because this is a small town. Having heavy wine breath in the sunny afternoon would be an example of pokey by my standards. Much of the weekend festival is good, or even very good, like many artsy-craftsy things are in Santa Cruz.

One member of the Celtic band is a piper and Irish whistle player I knew when he began, under the influence of a local radio program. Every year, the piper takes a long tour of Scotland and of Ireland. What he brings back is not your daddy’s Celtic music however. I wonder if anyone outside the Western Hemisphere puts more invention and plays this genre of music with more brio and with more spirit. That’s a genre that sees itself as determinedly traditional in the areas where it was born.

Three troupes of belly-dancers accompanied by a band of six together replace the Celtic group in the afternoon sun. Language fails me a little here. First, there are 13 dancers on stage in all. That’s many more than you will see in any Middle-Eastern night-club. Second their performance is only at its core “belly-dancing.” The women do wear slutty costumes that say, “belly-dancing.” They all begin together with conventional motions from the traditional repertoire. Soon however, each group takes off in its own direction. The largest group does a number they call “Turkish can-can,” with high boots worn below fish-netted thighs and under raised skirts. If the name sounds a little ridiculous, the act itself is not. It forces your mind to see things that don’t normally go together. It works because the number is well choreographed and perfectly rehearsed. The mind comes out refreshed, invigorated. “I will be damned,” one part of my brain tells the others.

The second group’s numbers are fairly conventional but their costumes are eye-popping. Below the more or less usual sequined push-up bras, they wear long, wide flowing skirts over harem-pants. The skirts are decorated with masses of thick fabric flowers. On their heads are elaborate flowered and gold bonnets held to the hair with a smartly hidden system of pins. No specialized supplier anywhere in the world offers this kind of outfit. Evidently, the women designed and sewed them themselves.

I don’t have the talent to describe the third group’s performance. It’s a narrow locally-based troupe and it’s headed by a slim local Mexican-American woman. I have not seen her perform in two years. She looked wonderful two years ago; she is even better now. It seems to me that she specializes in taking conventional belly-dancing moves and extending them beyond what you would think physically possible. That’s what other women flock to her group to learn from her.

A Moroccan friend of mine is also watching. He is a gifted composer and a talented, versatile musician. He co-founded a band composed mostly of local musicians that is now in demand in Morocco itself. My friend has seen one hundred times more belly-dancing than I have. His own American honey is a belly-dancer, and a good one. He confirms my impression of the last troupe of belly-dancers and he explains it. “These women,” he remarks to me, “these women go to the gym every day. They have good muscle tone. It’s unheard of in the Middle-East.”

Another Moroccan I know is sitting in the front row with his new wife, a recent import from the old country. The wife is about forty. She seems dazzled. She and I don’t have a language in common. I ask her husband in French what she thinks. “She is dazzled,” he says.

After several encores, the belly-dancers and their band are pushed off to make room for the next and last performance of the afternoon. A largish Salsa band walks on stage. The band leader is a Mexican, not a Mexican-American, an immigrant, my ears tell me when he presents his musicians in Spanish. Salsa originated in the Caribbean, in Cuba, in the Dominican Republic and in Puerto Rico. It was perfected in New-York, like much else in the world, and in New Jersey. No Mexican Salsa band leader would make it anywhere in the Spanish-speaking world, only in the United States. Here, we are not so punctilious about authenticity, the deep-frozen version of quality for the shy of judgment.

Let me explain: My mother used to warn me against making hasty judgments. Everyone’s mother did. The last time, in my case, must have been around 1975. Our half-educated, liberal elites stopped passing judgment on anything but “right-wingers” around the same time my mother gave me the last admonition Yet, they are inveterate snobs, yearning to appear cultured, even in their own eyes. Their cultural safe haven is the worship of “authenticity,” of that which is reputed not to have changed ever and is therefore untouched by the dreaded pollution of “commercialism.” And yes, the assumption that some cultural artifact has existed for centuries and has not changed for centuries is itself usually wrong. Thus, when it was destroyed, the Plains Indians (Sioux, Cheyenne) beautiful, manly horse-centered culture could not have been in existence for more than three hundred years at most. And, even more heart-breaking, there was no reggae in Jamaica, or anywhere before 1960 at the earliest. Much of the American cultural elite spends its time fooling itself with the cult of authenticity so it does not have to be “judgmental.” Fortunately, the rank and file of this country is not paying attention. But back to the Arts and Wines Festival.

Soon, people begin to dance, many of the Latinos attending, of course, but not only they. A good number of Anglos join in. It’s apparent they have attended Salsa school, probably right here in town. The descendants of Germans, Swedes and Irishmen can dance tropical if they half put their minds to it. I don’t speak derisively of Salsa lessons. They would never happen in Europe. Regulations and fees, and taxes collected in advance of any business income would discourage the most courageous entrepreneurs there. It’s true that in some locales of some countries, government agencies might offer free “Salsa” lessons as part of some educationally multi-cultural program or other. But when the government agencies were finished with the offering, it would not be Salsa anymore, it would be mayonnaise, the healthful egg-free kind, probably!

And then there is the issue of finding paying students in sufficient numbers. Europeans are not used to paying for cultural anything except movies. Nearly everything else is subsidized and usually mediocre. (There are a few cultural events that are both subsidized and brilliant in Europe. I am currently thinking hard about these important exceptions.) At any rate, few European adults could be counted on to join Salsa classes. The Brits and the Irish spend six hours each and every day drinking beer. They are just not available for frivolous pursuits. The French would be too terrified to look ridiculous in the end. The Germans would try it, enthusiastically, and most would end up looking ridiculous. Some Spaniards might go for Salsa at first but they tend to be mightily dignified people, full of an exaggerated sense of self-regard not much compatible with the disciplined abandon Salsa demands. I don’t know about the Italians. I have never seen an Italian dance, under any circumstances. And I traveled within Italy several times, I even lived there for five months. It’s a mystery.

How about the other Europeans, you want to know? They are all some kind of Germans. I am well aware of the fact that many have spent centuries eviscerating each other either to defend the notion that they were not German, or at least, that they were somewhat special. I don’t care. Almost all of them eat sausage five times a week. I rest my case! As for the Russians, I don’t really know. They are not European. Every time they pretend to be, the mask slips down the face of a man holding a knout. (That’s the technical term for the horse-whip used to keep the peasantry in-line and satisfied.) They might learn Salsa though. The Russians have surprised us before.

Not all but many of the Salsa dancers are so-called “mixed couples.” Opposites do seem to attract. Mature Mexican-American women dance with their Anglo boyfriends or perhaps, with their second-chance Anglo husbands. A short, stocky, muscular, dark Central American guy is whirling a thin blonde with a striking Finnish face (emerald-green eyes, broad cheek-bones). Or maybe, Salsa school is where people of different backgrounds have the best chance of bumping into each other and of seducing each other. When the opportunity arises, Americans will take it. They always have.

I notice an older, tall, whiter-than-white couple. They call to mind two chicken breasts lightly-broiled on white bread. Both have light-gray hair. They Salsa graciously rather than merely competently. The man wears gray and silver running shoes with orange trim. I suspect the silver shines in the dark. He is seriously balding. He has a gold loop in each ear. Well, everybody does not have to practice understated cool like me!

Unlike members of any other nation, Americans very generally are willing to try new stuff. They also have an endless faith in self-improvement. Many end up inventing, creating the sorts of novelties that only trickle occasionally out of other national cultures. What goes for belly-dancing and for salsa goes for engineering, and for chemistry, and for political initiative, and for movies, of course, and for fiction, by the way. Here is the long and the short of my little story: By any count, even on a per capita basis, the United States has legions of “amateur-this” and “amateur-that.” It has so many that the best American amateurs are often better than professionals elsewhere. This is the little base of American greatness. It’s there, even when we are flopping as a nation-state, even when we are becoming poorer by the day, even when we give ourselves awful political leadership. Underneath and aside from the ever-tightening government institutions, there thrives a profoundly anarchistic, self-reproducing, enormously creative civil society.

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