Roots of Afro-Latin Rhythms

In each episode of the Mix(ed)tape Podcast, researchers Melissa Villodas and Andrés Hincapié speak to Black dancers, choreographers, musicians, and academics about the roots of various Afro-Latin rhythms, the role of dance and music in identity formation, and how racism manifests in the Afro-Latin dance scene.

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April 14th, 2022

Pursuing a PhD is a huge undertaking, requiring hours of research, reading, writing, rewriting… and rewriting again. It can become all-consuming and even a little maddening.

“I was going crazy,” remembers Andrés Hincapié. “I needed to do something else, so I started dance.”

Hincapié, now an assistant professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Economics, was born in Colombia and learned to dance with his mom when he was a small child. It wasn’t until he began his PhD when he truly began to formally train in Latin dance.

“It’s like a reset,” he says, adding that dance clears his mind allowing him to return to his research with a blank slate.

Melissa Villodas, who is graduating with a PhD from the School of Social Work this spring, was worried she wouldn’t have time to dance once she started writing her dissertation. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a Puerto Rican family. Listening and dancing to salsa provided a connection to them and a feeling of escape she didn’t want to lose.

“When I go to dance, I feel rejuvenated,” she says. “I could have had the most stressful day, but when I’m dancing, I’m not thinking about that anymore.”

Collaboration is a value that draws many researchers to Carolina. But UNC economist Andrés Hincapié and social work researcher Melissa Villodas met on the dance floor, not in the halls of UNC.

Hincapié and Villodas are dance partners in the Cobo Brothers Dance Company, a Latin dance team based in the Triangle. At the start of the pandemic, their classes and rehearsals got moved to Zoom. To make up for the disconnect they felt from remote classes, the duo would meet in a parking lot to practice outside of rehearsal.

“At the end of that we would sit down at the parking lot and just talk about what was happening in the world, specifically related to social justice and racial injustice,” Villodas says. “This was happening during the murder of George Floyd and that caused a lot of distress for us.”

In their conversations, the two started to reflect on the social groups they occupy, how they experience racism, and ways they may be able to create a more anti-racist space. That’s when the first notion of starting the Mix(ed)tape Podcast came about.

“Naturally, being researchers, we thought the best way that we can gather information about what’s happening in our communities is by talking to Black dancers in our community,” Villodas says.

In their first season, which wrapped up in the fall of 2020, Villodas and Hincapié took a case study approach. In their still-ongoing second season, they’re interviewing experts about the history and contributions of Black people to various Afro-Latin rhythms. They treat the podcast structure like they would a research project.

“I bring my economics self to everything,” Hincapié says.

When exploring rhythms and songs, he asks who benefits from the cultural richness of Latin dance. Villodas finds herself drawn to the intersection of Afro-Latin dance and identity formation.

“The research that I do is usually related to youth and young adults. At that stage in life, you’re trying to figure out who you are,” Villodas says. “I think for Afro-Latinos in particular, trying to figure out where you fit in with media and culture is part of that story.”

Through their collaboration, Villodas and Hincapié have noticed themselves picking up one another’s thought patterns, considering the interplay of economics or social work in their respective works, as well as during interviews they conduct for the podcast. As they spoke to more people for the podcast and listened to their experiences, they realized there was a lot more to unpack.

Hincapié attributes the origins of Afro-Latin rhythms to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when more than 10 million enslaved Africans came to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.

“The people who came here enslaved not only brought their ability to work, but also their culture,” says Hincapié, adding that enslavers tried to break those cultural ties.

Hincapié and Villodas realized dancers in the Afro-Latin dance scene are often unaware of the African roots involved in many rhythms and the true meanings behind popular dance songs. They launched a sub-series of the podcast entitled “Were You Listening?” In that series, Hincapié focuses on individual songs and how they’re so much more than a good rhythm to dance to, discussing the beauty and the perils of the Black experience in the Americas.

Unpacking Afro-Latin rhythms from the Black perspective has helped paint a more complete picture of how not only Villodas and Hincapié understand and dance to these rhythms, but the community’s understanding as well.

“For people of color and the Black people, in particular, who partake in the dance scene, I think they are beginning to feel heard,” Villodas says. “Their side of the story is being told through our podcasts.”

Andrés Hincapié is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences.

Melissa Villodas is a doctoral candidate in the UNC School of Social Work.