Salsa in Cuba: Just let it come to you

14 Jul

The reason that I decided to study abroad in Cuba in the spring of 2012 was because a friend casually said “You know Georgia, you could go salsa dancing every single day if you went to Cuba.” I’ve been to Cuba five times and a big question when I get back is always “Did you dance salsa a lot?”

My answer is always “Yes, but dancing just kind of happens in Cuba. You don’t really actively seek it out.” The best way to illustrate this point is a comparison of two nights out in Havana during the last trip I took.

The first one was a Wednesday night. I was meeting up with a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in more than a year. The only plan we had was for him to pick me up when he arrived in Havana from Matanzas. Around 10 pm, Ariel and two of his friends showed up outside the house I was staying in, yelling from the street up to the third floor where I was staying, a lo Cubano.

            I ran downstairs, happily embraced Ariel, met his friends, and gave Ariel the gifts I had brought him. He asked what I wanted to do and he suggested we go see Interactivo, a music project I’d heard a lot about. They were playing at a venue, Bertolt Brecht, that I like in the Vedado neighborhood. We bought a few beers and sipped them as we walked from Centro to Vedado (which, FYI, is about an hour walk). We arrived at the spot, paid our $2 CUC cover, and went in.

As soon as we walked in the door, I ran into my friend Andres (“El Fino”) and some of his friends from his dance workshop at the Teatro Nacional that I had unsuccessfully attempted to join earlier that week. Our group was ready to gozar. The band was rocking—there were probably at least eight or ten musicians on stage playing a groovy fusion of traditional Cuban music, rap, hip-hop, rock, and funk. Though there were a good number of tourists there, it was mostly a local crowd, and the whole place was pulsating with people dancing casino (which is pretty much Salsa). One of Fino’s friends, a dancer in a local troupe, grabbed me and seemed surprised that I could keep up. At one point, the music turned to an African rumba-style song—extremely percussive and intense, and I’m right in front of the band, sandwiched between El Fino and his professional dancer friend, following along to the almost-primal rumba movements. Dancing in a club in Havana in between two good-looking mulato men—had I died and gone to heaven?

The next evening, I went to 1830, a restaurant/club overlooking Havana Harbor that has Casino (read: Salsa) nights twice a week. I had been to 1830 before and enjoyed it, even though it’s definitely more of a spot for older Canadian women to come and learn to dance with young, black professional dance instructors. (Yeah, it’s a little weird). There are a lot of really good dancers at 1830, but a good deal of them will try to hustle you into taking lessons with them if you’re a tourist. I met El Fino and his dancer friend from Chile at 1830. I had to beg El Fino to let me pay his cover in exchange for him accompanying me—he didn’t want to go because, though a $3 CUC cover is hardly anything for tourists, it’s a little steep for a lot of Cubans (especially following the $2 CUC cover Fino had paid the night before at Brecht). We had a good time dancing, doing a silly line dance, and watching a performance at midnight, but it certainly felt more forced than the night before.

For the most part, the only Cubans at 1830 were professional dancers trying to get clients or accompanying their foreign students. There wasn’t the same sense of abandon and organic energy that I felt the night before. It was fun, but it was too orchestrated. You went to 1830 specifically to dance casino, versus going to see the band at Brecht, where you went to see an amazing group of musicians and it inevitably erupted into a dance party. But that wasn’t really the REASON for going.

I think my big takeaway from this was what I’ve always known about spending time in Cuba—you have to just go with the flow. You can’t expect too much to happen exactly as planned or on a specific itinerary. Let the experiences come to you, whether it’s dancing Casino, seeing a great band, or enjoying a long walk from Centro to Vedado with a best friend.

People who have traveled to Cuba and danced, what do you think? Is my assessment accurate, or is this just one side of the story? People who have traveled in other countries, do you agree with just letting experiences come to you

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4 Responses to “Salsa in Cuba: Just let it come to you”

  1. marshmallowgreen July 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    Never been to Cuba but it comes to me in dreams sometimes. You describe it so well. The well preserved/restored American cars put me in a trance. Take me with you, please!!!!!

  2. lifehacksandodds September 3, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    I completely agree with you! I’ve been living in Cuba for two years now, and almost never go salsa-dancing, exactly for the reasons you’ve mentioned. I do dance a lot though! And a pity you couldn’t get into the taller at Teatro Nacional, it’s really nice, you should try to follow some classes next time you’re in Cuba! Great observations, enjoy reading your blog!

    • gschrubbe September 3, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

      Thank you! Two years living in Cuba? You my friend, are made of sterner stuff than I! I look forward to seeing more of your posts…that bakery sounds amazing.
      Yes– you dance a lot in Cuba, it’s just always unplanned… 😀

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