Bailar! Dancing in Cuba
Crafted from African and Spanish influences, Cuban dance is well-known around the world: Son, Pilon, Cuban Salsa, Danzon, Rumba, and Cha Cha Cha, all originated in Cuba.
Music and dance are an integral part of Cuban life and celebration, and children learn to dance pretty much as soon as they can stand by imitating those around them. Once in primary school, formal dance classes are taught in the (Castro-initiated) education system which focuses on the arts as well as traditional maths, revolutionary history and science subjects.
Cubans therefore are all effortlessly amazing dancers. Cuban guys are such strong dance partners that dancing with them is easy, it doesn’t matter your ability at all. Basically they hold you tight (think spot welding) so there is pretty much no chance of you being able to do something wrong.
A 90-year-old friend and I had a Cuban salsa lesson in Trinidad, and that was actually quite fun – especially considering you could count the timings out loud and not feel like an idiot. It made absolutely no difference on the dance floor though as each song could signify a different dance – machacha anyone? and so the best thing to do was just to hold on.
One night in Baracoa we had gone out as a group to a la Trova house. To qualify as a trovador in Cuba, a person should be a singer-songwriter, although we saw groups both nights we went – each with very different music to each other. The band was on a step on one side of the room, with a dance floor space in front of them, and then chairs for spectators on 2 sides. The bar was right at the back and the MC (who was a doppelganger for Patrick Swayze’s brother) spent the night zipping between seated guests and the bar, ensuring everyone had a cold drink in hand.
The dance floor is normally crowded with other couples and so your partner will navigate his way around the floor avoiding everyone else, and ensuring you do not do something unexpected to screw up the dance. It’s actually quite nice not to have to think and just to hold on and ensure you follow his lead (and murmurings – “you spin, you spin the other way, I spin now…”)
I think that night I had managed to hit the jackpot for dance partners as I had 3 local guys decide they wanted to dance with me all night. I think it had turned into a bit of a competition as every time I finished a dance and returned to my seat, the next (all working independently and trying to gain the majority of the dances) would come over to ask for the next dance.
This went on for about 6 songs when finally I begged off and said I needed to finish my mojito. I have no idea how one of them – from across the darkened and crowded room – managed to determine I had drained the last from my glass, but as soon as I had, he was at my side, with his hand out waiting for me to rise.
I was seated closest to the dance floor with my friends (a married couple with grandchildren) sitting in the line of chairs behind me. My (male) friend leaned forward to tell me something and put his hands on my shoulders as I inclined back to hear him. One of the guys I had been dancing with and who was sitting next to me saw this, quickly leaned over and asked whether the guy behind me was bothering me and did I want him to do anything. I rapidly replied he was my friend – seeing the night ending in a very different way.
After another couple of dances I managed to sneak away home – after waiting to ensure all three were otherwise occupied. Definitely a night to remember, and a huge amount of fun!
It was too hard to take care of a camera when we went out at night, so I have no photos to show (probably luckily I think). I did however find the below clip on youtube, which will illustrate the jawdropping ease with which Cubans dance (with each other – no stuttering tourists in sight).