Renowned travel writer and Cuba expert Lydia Bell took some time to tell Cuban Life why Cuban dance moves her so much.
Traditional Cuban Dance
A Cuban dance-related memory that stands out radiantly in my mind is watching Adriana, erstwhile member of the rumba troupe Clave y Guaguanco, dance on a private rooftop in Central Havana (click here to see more of her work with her wonderful dance partner Toto). Adriana is a maestra who in that moment was Oshun, the Afro-Cuban goddess of the river, of beauty and love, whose colour is bright yellow. The waves of her gilded skirts rose and fell and twirled against an overcast Havana sky as she moved with her innate elegance.
Dance is an integral part of Cuban Culture
Dance is everything on this island, whether that’s a street-corner rumba with its siren call of passionate singing adorned only by the thrilling pulse of a drummer; the life-affirming energy of an awesome salsa troupe; the hypnotic power of a bembé, a party for the Afro-Cuban Orishas; or just the Miami-inherited regaeton that has crazed the youth the island over (and causes many cultural practitioners to fear an erasure of more Cuban traditions). Of course, Cuba’s classic dance offerings are also up there. The country that produced Carlos Acosta has its virtuoso Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Danza Contemporeanea de Cuba and Carlos Acosta’s Acosta Danza are where to look for progressive modern dance with a Caribbean lilt.
Rumba is the key
Rumba is woven into the soul of this country, more so even than Cuba’s globally famous salsa. The music blends Congolese-style percussion and Andalucían-style flamenco soul-baring singing and its sound is one of the first and most enduring of the island.
To tap into the jugular of music and dance, I really recommend you go east. Most Cuban musical genres, from son to rumba, were born in Oriente – the eastern provinces of Las Tunas, Granma, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, lands of virgin jungle, deserted beaches and wild rivers. Cuba’s second city, Santiago de Cuba, wedged between Sierra Maestra and the Caribbean, is a potent mix of West African, Haitian, Jamaican, Spanish and French influences.
Santiagueros and Santiagueras have a particular flavour. They can be flighty and over the top, being the Neapolitans or Sicilians of Cuba, and their ‘guaperia’ is infamous – especially the men’s. Guaperia describes a peculiarly Cuban, fearlessly swaggering, vain-handsome machismo that’s decidedly out of fashion outside of Latin America. The women are coquettish and curvy and show what they have. Every woman has a little bit of Oshun in her – that Afro-Cuban goddess of sweet waters and sweet loving – and Santiago women are renowned as the best dancers in Cuba. In the tierra caliente – the mercury tips higher in this part of Cuba and humidity can be nigh-on unbearable – dancing well indicates being good in bed. As a teenager in Santiago, still, if you can’t dance salsa, it’s harder to get a partner (or so I’ve been told). In Santiago, even the farandula –the celebrity and It-crowd – dance salsa. This isn’t the case in Havana, where they have turned against it because of a sort of internalised snobbery and misguided cultural cringe.
Santiago Carnival is a must see
A fabulous go-to for dance is Santiago’s annual August technicolour Carnival, which remains intense and earthy and rootsy, not just a tourist sham. Old-school salsa crackles over the sound system. The dancers wear hand-sewn clothes inspired by the 19th century. Carnival’s crazy congas own the night with their mega drums and their Chinese cornets and their swing. This is not music to doze off to – this is music to get fired up to: and that pretty much describes Santiago as a whole.
The best places to see dance in Havana
If you cannot get to Santiago, Havana has its treasures. I really love the energy and elegance of the rumba dancers in The Conga Room, in Old Havana’s closely stacked streets. Very touristy, but still a wonderful place to immerse yourself in fiery street rumba is the Callejon de Hammel, a alleyway full of street art by Salvador González Escalona, who created this sacred space in this poor part of town. At noon on Sundays, Havana’s Afro-Cuban community worship their gods here with fevered dance and song. You can hear the clave; the distinctive sound of the 12/8 slap of a palm on the Cuban batá and cajones a mile off. Once in the melée, the tropical air turns thick and soupy, the dance and the beat become relentless, and sweat pours off bodies – spectators and dancers alike.
What is Cuba’s favourite dance?
For pure salsa, the top clubs are La Casa de La Musica (in the leafy suburb of Miramar and in downtown Central Havana), big-band timba venues with electrifying energy where the likes of Alexander Abreu’s Havana di Primera, Bamboleo, Manolito Simonet, and salsa star Maykel Blanco play. Or there’s Los Jardines de 1830, the gardens of a colonial building on the cusp of the Rio Almendares. Because of the strong foreign contingent in the form of visiting salsa groups and tourists in these venues, you have to tolerate a quantity of hustlers and gigolos both male and female. It’s part of the unvarnished Cuban experience and is unquestionably the most popular dance in Cuba.
Exploring the rhythms of Baracoa
Along from Santiago, the gorgeously remote fishing town of Baracoa, closer to Haiti than Havana, is another interesting spot for dance in its way. The town has its ubiquitous salsa and rumba venues, of course, and its club in a cave, full of humping reggaetoneros, but I prefer the far-flung hamlet of El Gūirito and its fiesta campesina. Here, the Grupo Kiribá-Nengón, a cultural ensemble that keeps alive 19th-Century kiribá and nengón country music and dance (rustic precursors to son, Cuba’s iconic traditional music of Buena Vista Social Club fame). Out of these nengón and kiribá traditions evolved the changüí of Guantanamo, then the son out of which salsa evolved.
The ensemble makes their traditional sounds with age-old Cuban instruments – the tambor or African drum, the tres or Cuban guitar, the claves or percussion sticks, güiro or scraper, the maracas, which I don’t have to explain, and the marimbula, a plucked box which I’ve also seen in Jamaica. The nengón dancing unfolds slowly, methodically and politely. Men in guayaberas and straw hats and women in long blue dresses slide their feet along the floor as they go. The average age is about 70. Meanwhile, in an open-sided lean-to shack a large iron cauldron perched on flaming rocks bubbles away, cooking left over guape slop for the pigs that run wild.
Maybe it’s the old lady in me, but when I think of this Cuban dance I sigh and smile inwardly, and wish that the world at large was still even a bit like this.
What is the national dance of Cuba?
Dating back two centuries, Danzón is the official music and dance of Cuba. It has a 2/4 time and is slow and elegant but was once considered too scandalous for high society!
What are some other popular Cuban dances?
Don’t forget the cha-cha-cha! ViolinistEnrique Jorrín introduced the rhythm which would give birth to the cha cha cha dance in 1953.