23 Jul Exploring Culture through Dance: Cuban Salsa
One of the ways I love to engage new places and cultures is through dance. With a dance history that led me from ballet to jazz to hip-hop and finally to being certified as a teacher of Improvisational Tribal Style belly dance, dance is something that just makes sense to me. Experiencing the dances of the “other” then makes us, if even for just for a moment, see through the eyes of the other. Why are some dances step-heavy while others are full of symbolism? Why is some music beat-heavy while other music is lighter, more lyrical? And how does movement or song define culture?
During my time in Ghana I had the amazing experience of watching the Ashanti dancers in rehearsals. It was one of the most astounding things I have ever seen- the strength and fluidity of such acrobatic dance blew my mind. The Ashanti, along with the Ewe of the lower Volta region, are beach people and their dances reflect the topography in that they have the wide-open spaced needed for such enormous and powerful moves. Subtle, furtive movement defined the jungle dances slightly north, and even farther north, the war-like dances of tribes on the border of neighboring countries. This is to say that I see a clear correlation between a community and their dances, and find that exploring it brings me closer to the authentic experience of cultural discovery.
Learning Cuban Salsa from Tony
In Cuba, there is no question as to which dance to explore. Cuban salsa has a reputation. And though partner dance isn’t usually my forte (apart from Jitterbug), I was ready to learn all I could. No classes though. I wanted something purer – a casual encounter on the street becoming a quick lesson or a dinner turning into an impromptu dance party. In that way, I wouldn’t get the tourist brush-off of a classroom environment and get the authentic experience of engaging the individual as well as the dance.
Dancers we met in Palenque de los Congos Reales and partied down with.
While I had several run-ins with Cuban Salsa, two experiences really stick out in my mind. One: In Trinidad, a colonial city famous for their Congolese influence and where I had a fascinating rendezvous with a Santero, Sean and I went to a performance of African dance. The performance included a tribute dance to each of the saints of Santeria. It was pretty epic, but even better; we ended up connecting with the dancers (a troupe of salsa teachers) and dancing the night away with them. At 3 a.m. the bars closed and we were looking for the next party …until we saw the clock and decided to call it a night. The best part was the interpersonal connection that came with excellent dance instruction.
Pig roasting with Rubio in Vinales
Two: In Viñales, after roasting a pig with wonderful country folk, we drunkenly mentioned our desire to learn salsa and (much to our pleasant surprise) they threw on some appropriate tunes and started dancing right then and there. They taught us that moves in the country aren’t quite like moves in the city and we all had a rip-roaring, drunk time.
More country dancing in Cuba at Tony and Odalis guest house in Vinales.
I suppose the point here is that any culture can be engaged through learning its rituals and traditions. By becoming a student of the culture, formally or (as I prefer) informally, we have the opportunity to achieve greater insight into a place and its people. Dance just happens to be my medium.
What are your dance experiences? share them in the comments below.