A Different Kind of Dance Lesson

Updated: Mar 14

Produced by Nightswimming and directed by Brian Quirt, Broken Tailbone is a refreshingly different experience for theatergoers. Written and performed by the magnetic and provocative Chilean-Canadian author, actor, and playwright Carmen Aguirre, it is equal parts dance lesson and autobiography.

Upon arrival, audiences are led into a dimly lit, smoke-filled room. It looks like a dance hall - there’s a stage with a jovial looking DJ wearing a porkpie hat (Pedro Chamale, also responsible for the sound design), a couple of standing tables, and some chairs at the periphery. It is as if one had arrived early at a club to avoid the cover charge and the line-up. The audience have been instructed to bring their dancing shoes and to wear comfortable clothes, but they are completely unprepared for the physically - and emotionally - moving experience they are about to have.

Carmen Aguirre’s introduction to Latin music began with the handful of Latin records her father was able to bring with him when the family fled Chile as refugees in the early 70s (she was only six at the time). Ever since then, Latin music and dance has been the thread running through Aguirre's life story. As she gives the audience a primer on the little-known origins of salsa, meringue, and cumbia (and other lesser known, possibly more controversial, styles like… twerking), Aguirre talks lovingly about her fondness for each of the carefully chosen songs, and of their relevance to the volatile political history of South America. Her amazing story is intimately and inextricably intertwined with the story of the Chilean struggle for freedom. The title Broken Tailbone immediately evokes a raw viscerality. Could it be the code-name of a Chilean resistance freedom fighter? A lethally strong cocktail with secret ingredients known only to an underground coterie of bartenders? One thing is without doubt, the reveal is definitely going to be worth the wait.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the stamina of Aguirre who, at 53, barely pauses for breath. She is a commanding presence, and one would be hard pressed to disobey her instructions. She is clearly “la jefe” - "the boss", as she refers to herself during the show, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. As the audience, at first reluctantly and then awkwardly, scrambles to imitate Aguirre’s dance moves, Chamale provides some fun comedic relief as the timid DJ obediently following her direction.

One might not immediately expect it, but Vancouver is central to Aguirre’s story - in a way, Broken Tailbone is Aguirre's love-letter to the history of the Latinx dance hall scene in Vancouver. Aguirre’s parents were the ones who opened the first ever Latin dance hall venue in the city. Back then the scene was much different than the diverse and vibrant culture it has burgeoned into today. The mixing of the South American diaspora has brought together Latinx people from a host of different countries but also, more surprisingly, it has brought together both the descendants of torturers and their victims. Aguirre narrates riveting tales of fateful encounters such as these, and the festive atmosphere in the theatre is punctuated by moments of solemn silence as Aguirre remembers the passing of an influential friend or comrade.

As Aguirre’s vivid descriptions come to life in the imagination of the audience, it is like being at a dance club transported through time. The combination of physically participating in the dance while simultaneously trying to absorb Aguirre’s storytelling can be initially overwhelming, but soon leads to a uniquely profound understanding: Latin music is not merely the soundtrack to the lives of Latinx people. The music and the people are one and the same – to separate them would be to destroy them both. One can’t help but feel like the unabashed life-embracing passion which Latin people are known for is at least in part fueled by the constant state of political upheaval they’ve been subjected to for so long at the hands of self-seeking foreign powers (the CIA). The defiant human instinct to persevere, to strive towards justice and a better life for one’s family, is all wrapped up together with the innate desire to move one’s body to the rhythm, to venture fearlessly onto the dance floor, and to give oneself to the music. After all, few are more grimly aware than the Latinx community of the fact that life is just too short to do it any other way.

Broken Tailbone is an exhilarating and uncensored physical and educational experience and runs from the 11th to the 14th at Performance Works on Granville Island. Find out more at http://bocadellupo.com/broken-tailbone/