When Bomba began as tradition in Puerto Rico, it was a way for enslaved Africans from central and west Africa to communicate through music and dance. Acknowledging Bomba as a history coming from multiple traditions helps both dancers and instructor Lío Villahermosa cope with the changing present.
Today is Christopher Columbus Day and students gather on a cement outdoor space in Santurce to dance Bomba. The barril/drum players are the first to arrive, followed by dancers from various professions and neighborhoods. Like the tradition of Bomba, the students in attendance this evening represent a diversity of cultures. Bomba is a Puerto
Rican musical tradition with Spanish, African and Taíno rhythm and gestures. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in Puerto Rico tells only one part of the island’s history, while Bomba embraces the intersecting cultures, as well as their challenges with colonialism.
On this day, the tropical heat matches the temperament of those in attendance. Kisses on the cheek and warm saludos/greetings are exchanged as students catch up with each other and wait for their instructor, Lío Villahermosa, an artist, dancer, and teacher in Santurce.
There is a familial sentiment among the dancers and among Puerto Ricans on the island. Greetings begin with exclamations of endearment, “Hello beautiful/Hello bella,” are followed by a loving compliment or a sly remark. The chatter continues as the coquis/tropical frogs chirp in the background. A loud, “Hola!” pierces through the melody of chatty
dancers. Villahermosa arrives wearing a blue shirt with a logo of “La Calle Loíza,” a festival that took place three streets away and two weeks prior, to celebrate art and culture in the face of increasing homelessness, drug violence, and the rapid gentrification in Santurce.
The barill players take seats on the bleachers in between Jorge Díaz Ortiz’s home and his neighbor’s Air BnB guest room. Ortiz is the executive director of AgitArte, Inc., a non- profit organization that has led community education and art programs in marginalized communities since 1997. He is among the dancers learning Bomba this evening. He talks with Villahermosa, who takes a moment to light a cigarette. A few more dancers enter the gated concrete area and join the men’s conversation. Both Villahermosa and Ortiz grew up in Santurce and have witnessed how the barrio has changed. Abandoned buildings and addicts are commonplace.
“I found Bomba searching for the history of my father,” Villahermosa says to a visitor, who asks why Bomba is his passion. Villahermosa’s father died of a drug overdose, when Lío was 10. As a teenager, he began visiting neighbors to learn Bomba, not knowing his father had been a well-known Bomba dancer before his addiction. Lío found peace learning his history and power embodying his traditions.
Ortiz smokes a cigarette with Villahermosa. The second percussionist arrives with a chicken shaker and sits on the bleachers, where audience members have sat to view puppet shows that tell stories about big banks arriving at the island to purchase abandoned buildings and properties on the shoreline. While the landscape of Condado Beach and area residents have changed over time, Bomba remains the same.
The rhythms of the barril and chicken shaker reverberate through the tropical heat. Villahermosa is ready to begin class. The barril is reminiscent of the water drum integral to Native Taíno ceremonies. The rhythm of the drum represents the heartbeats of both the dance and dancer. During songs, bomba music blurs the line between the dance and the drum.
Bomba songs describe current events, as well as life events of triumph, sadness, and love. Enslaved Africans created Bomba on sugar cane plantations to communicate with each other, since their regions of origin in Africa did not always share a common language. The students attending class today come from various traditions. Some are new residents who are not from Puerto Rico, yet embrace Bomba’s rhythm.
Villahermosa contemplates which song to sing next and looks preoccupied, as the dancers await further instructions. He rests his fists on his hips, with elbows bent, and when he lifts his foot off the ground and drops it, the percussion instruments take his cue and slow down to a pause. The chicken shaker fades to a rhythm that mimics the rain that fell shortly before class. Villahermosa asks Awilda Rodríguez Lora, a performance artist and neighbor who manages an artists’ residence and AirBnB next door, to lead a warmup. Her current AirBnB guest and permanent residents are among the dancers in attendance.
The class follows Lora’s lead. Her movements are fluid and the warmup is a mixture of yoga poses and figure-eight hip shakes. Her constant smile reveals her passion for movement. As beads of sweat trickle down Lora’s back, she ends the warmup with a gentle stretch. The dancers form a crescent moon shape around Villahermosa, who reviews the choreography from the last class.
As Villahermosa speaks, the percussion instruments play a new rhythm. Men and women practice various postures together and sing in unison. After a few rounds of song, they break into two groups based on female and male choreography. When Bomba was created, the enslaved African women would lift their skirts to mock the female plantation owners who arrived from Europe overdressed for the tropical heat. Depending on the song, the men would pursue the women in dance by exhibiting their strength with intricate footwork and bent elbows. Movements in the dance resemble Spanish flamenco with straight backs, extended arms, and bent wrists. In other moments when hips are closer to the ground with bent knees and curved backs, the audience can see choreography of West and Central African dance. The changes in choreography and song
lyrics signal Bomba’s diverse cultural origins. Lora joins the men when the group splits and skirts are distributed to the women. Villahermosa hands Lora a yellow scarf.
Villahermosa has presence, and as a teacher is both commanding and gentle in his instruction. The steps for this song are flirtatious, yet the women and men never touch. Feet are raised and lowered to the ground during a dialogue, through dance, between men and women, who raise their skits and pull away. Darting eyes and outstretched arms accompany the sensual extension of the women’s skirts. Suddenly, as the women dance with their skirts raised as high as their heads, the men’s spins abruptly stop, signaling a power struggle between the men and women, since Bomba allows for gendered expressions of the sexes. Bomba’s sensuality is in direct opposition to the Africans’ perceived frigidity of Europeans, who enslaved Africans in Puerto Rico.
Once the men find their rhythm, Villahermosa asks Lora for his peñuelo/ yellow scarf, which he wraps around his head. He puts on a skirt and begins to dance. By traversing Bomba’s male and female aspects, he invites the group to transform. One reason is to help male and female dancers see their traditional roles. Another reason is to show that because Bomba is fluid, dancers can participate in both roles. “All I am doing in the moment is living the experience,” says Villahermosa of his ability to move easily between Bomba’s male and female aspects. On the island of Puerto Rico and in the diaspora, he has made history doing it.
The female dancers respond to the steps of the male dancers and continue a dialogue with them, through their bodies and without speaking. When Villahermosa wears his yellow scarf and embodies the spirit of a female dancer, he changes the energy of the women and men in the group, while maintaining his joy in the dance. He is all aspects of Bomba.
Removing his scarf, Villahermosa urges the women to dance with more passion. “You are calling the man. You are responding to his heartbeat.
Move, go, dance.” The women push themselves in the complicated choreography and practice dancing from their hearts, in unison with the drum. The dancers have yet to reach their climax. Their guide, Villahermosa sings a few minutes longer and raises his hands up and down, as though to throw a scarf on the ground or shake it off. He then sits down on the bleachers and rests.
“Ahora vamos a improvisar,” he says. It is time to improvise and give thanks to the percussion instruments. Utilizing the steps the group learned as a class and what dancers need to speak from the heart, each dancer takes a turn expressing gratitude to the percussion. In a Taíno ceremony, participants step forward to speak of gratitude.
Whatever had been conjured up in the heart of the dancer is released with this improvisation. The rhythm of the percussion instruments responds to the dancers’ expressions of thanks. The dancers bow to the drums and Monday night Bomba is complete.
In the context of Puerto Rico today, Bomba is a way for communities to be in conversation with the past and the changing present. Both dancer and instructor acknowledge their multiple roots and remind themselves of the fluidity of gender in art.