In times of trouble, Puerto Rican women turn to dance

PhD student Sarah Bruno explores bomba as a practice of healing and strength

By Meghan Chua


At its most basic, bomba is an Afro-Puerto Rican music and dance style. But on a closer look, bomba is also a history wrapped in emotion, strength, and healing.

In her dissertation, anthropology PhD student Sarah Bruno uses bomba as a site and a method for exploring the emotions of Afro-Puerto Rican women on the island of Puerto Rico and throughout its diaspora. She has received a 2020 Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for this work.

Bomba is a powerful tool for understanding how Afro-Puerto Rican women felt historically and in modern times because of its roots in tradition and ancestry, Bruno said.

“Bomba is an oral tradition first and foremost, so practitioners know their history,” she said.

As part of her dissertation research, Bruno has taken bomba classes in Chicago and Puerto Rico and has interviewed practitioners all throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, and Utah. In bomba classes, she says students learn history as well as the different dance styles and rhythms. Holandes is a happy rhythm. Yubá is angry and sad, yet powerful and courageous. Cuembe is empowering and flirty.

“As you learn them in classes, you learn the instructor’s interpretation of each rhythm as well. While you sit there, you’re learning history,” said Bruno, who is Puerto Rican and a Chicago native. “You can’t know bomba without respecting your ancestors and elders.”

Bruno said that existing writing about bomba hasn’t fully tied it to that history, nor made clear how strong (Afro)Puerto Rican women in Puerto Rico and the diaspora have continued bomba as a practice. Using a mix of archival research, performance analysis, dance, and practitioner interviews, Bruno’s dissertation uncovers the emotional dexterity of bomberas, or bomba dancers, throughout time and into the present.

In addition to archival research, Bruno uses the living knowledge of practitioners to help illustrate the history of bomba by asking practitioners to write letters to bomba figures who are real people or characters in bomba songs. These letters will allow Bruno to examine how bomba and legacies within the tradition can be traced through time like a family tree.

“When you’re learning from someone, anyone could tell where you learned by how you dance,” Bruno said.

A dancer moves in the middle of a circle of spectators
A bomba dancer is captured in motion at a performance in November 2019 at a school in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Bruno)

These connections help people who dance bomba feel embraced and affirmed by a community, she added. Bomba is danced in a circle made of singers, drummers, and spectators. The beat from the primo, the main drummer, follows the dancer’s movements, so connection between the two is essential.

“At the end of the day, you will be felt or seen by at least one person. But, there’s a whole circle, so people see you,” Bruno describes.

This leads to recognizing the power that happens when people come together whether in dance or in demonstration, Bruno said. For example, in 2019 when Puerto Ricans were protesting their then-governor who was eventually ousted, some held a bomba demonstration in front of the governor’s house.

“It became something that was very powerful and visceral,” Bruno said. “People were angry. They were also able to [say], ‘You are going to hear us.’”

Bruno says bomba was also used as a healing mechanism after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Bomba appears again and again in these times of catastrophe, including as recently as the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when bomberxs began to host online classes during the stay-home lockdown on the island.

It is bomba’s connection to its history that gives it this healing power, Bruno said.

“It’s a practice of care in bomba that people are learning, that not only allows people to trust and feel embraced but also helps people have a political consciousness.”

Bruno has long planned to focus her scholarship on bomba, starting in her undergraduate program at UW–Madison. As part of First Wave – UW–Madison’s hip-hop scholarship program that mixes academics, arts, and activism – she wrote a collection of poetry focused on bomba. “I knew bomba was just never going to leave me,” she said.

As a graduate student, Bruno has also been active as a teacher and mentor, receiving a Provost’s Office Award for Mentoring Undergraduates in 2019. She has taught her own course for the Chican@/Latin@ studies program on Latinx in Reggaeton and Hip Hop: Blackness, Feminisms, and Performance.

Bruno credits her time in First Wave as having a great impact on her graduate career.

“Being in First Wave impacted my graduate studies more than I can say,” she said. “It makes art and activism and academics entangle in a way that I just haven’t felt the need to disentangle.”