Grad student embraces culture through salsa dancing

Kate Jamison, Senior Staff Reporter and Canela Lopez

If body rolls, hip isolations and fancy footwork aren’t currently part of your fitness routine, Ph. D. candidate Vanessa Castañeda wants to teach you how to salsa.

Castañeda teaches hour-long Latin dance classes at 7:30 p.m. on Mondays at the Reily Student Recreation Center. She encourages her students to “let go and embrace looking silly at first.”

“I feel that the class promotes body positivity in that students really learn to connect with their bodies and use or move their bodies in ways that could feel unfamiliar at first,” Castañeda said.

Though she isn’t a trained dancer herself, Castañeda uses her own general newness to the art of Latin dance to bolster the spirits of students trying to salsa for the first time.

“This can be very intimidating, especially if you are surrounded by trained dancers who are able to execute the moves smoothly,” Castañeda said. “However, I make it clear in class that I am not a trained dancer and that we have to look silly before we can look like anything else.”

Salsa dance isn’t the only teaching that she does. Castañeda founded a volunteer program that teaches English to Spanish-speaking immigrants working in the restaurant industry in New York City.

In addition to her dancing, Castañeda teaches Introduction to Latin American Studies every semester, centering her expertise in Brazil. At Tulane, she is studying the cultural identity politics of baianas de acaraje, a cultural group in Salvador, Brazil, descendants of African slaves brought to South America during colonization.

After living in Salvador in 2007 and doing ethnographic research there in the summer of 2013, Castañeda went on to write her master’s thesis, entitled “Traditional as Political: the Quotidian Politics of Baianas de acarajé” at New York University.

Castañeda’s other passions lie in social and antiracist activism on Tulane’s campus. While she was the graduate assistant to the Office of Multicultural Affairs last semester, she aided Generating Excellence Now and Tomorrow in Education, Tulane’s Latinx student union, with the efforts against the Kappa Alpha Fraternity Trump wall.

She said feels that we are living in a turbulent time for civil rights, and encourages students to fight against the powers that be on and off of Tulane’s campus, whether it be through dance, protest or existence.

“Right now we need to protest, we have to bring this to light, we have to like get this into the press and get this into social media and we have to put pressure onto Tulane,” Castañeda said.