Dance is intimately connected with Cuba’s culture. Men twist and dip women in intimate and suggestive poses. The rhythm beats a rapid, dynamic pulse that keeps couples twirling around the dance floor for hours. Dancing is a very important part of Cuban life – it’s an expression of joy and sensuality, and offers locals a release from the daily grind. Music venues and discos fill up at night with locals and foreigners alike. As the live music gets going, people sip drinks at the bar and hit the dance floor to unleash some seriously smooth moves. Cuba’s dance scene is spectacular and should be incorporated into any trip to this Caribbean island.
History and Dance Styles
The origins of Cuban dancing date back to colonization, when the Spanish arrived with new instruments (guitars and violins) and different melodies. Punto campesino (peasant dances) emerged from the interaction of Spanish music with Afro-Cuban culture. These dances include the zapateo, yambú, and danzón, which was the first Cuban dance where couples touched one another. Developed in Matanzas in the late 19th century, the danzón is now the official dance of Cuba. It’s a slow, elegant looking affair, where the man holds the woman’s hand high and leads her through a series of matching steps.
Other Cuban dances include the guaguancó, a rumba that has all sorts of sensual undercurrents, and the mambo. Mambo developed in Cuba and originated from the son style of music. It was created in 1938 and gradually made its way into the U.S. in the 1950s, where it gained widespread popularity. These days, mambo feels slightly outdated in Cuba and is mainly danced by older people.
Although salsa actually originated in New York (thanks to Puerto Rican and Cuban influences), it’s very popular in Cuba. This comes as no surprise since its movements are related to mambo, son, and cha-cha-cha. Salsa is likely to be the most familiar dance to travelers, and is what you’ll see being performed at dance clubs around Cuba. It’s a quick, smooth, and seductive dance between partners. Cuban salsa is especially known for its above-the-waste movements, including shoulder and torso motions.
Cuba’s National Center of Schools of Art has two ballet schools and a modern dance school. In fact, the Cuban National Ballet School, located in Havana, is the largest ballet school in the world, with approximately 3,000 students. The Nacional Ballet de Cuba, started by the outstanding dancer Alicia Alonso in the 1930s, performs throughout the world and is renowned for its talented dancers. Other notable ballet companies in Cuba include the Ballet Folklórico de Oriente in Santiago and the Camagüey Ballet.
Dance schools are found throughout Cuba. They can vary from professional, well-known academies to tiny rural schools. Wherever they are, one thing is for certain: Cubans know how to dance, and are usually darn good teachers.
At the schools, you can schedule hour-long sessions. The teachers will base your lessons upon your prior experience. If you’re a novice, your lessons may be broken up into two sections – movimiento and partner dancing. During the movimiento portion, you’ll be taught the basics of how to move your body while dancing, including the best ways to sway your hips and shoulders. This process helps instill your body with rhythm, which will be especially important when you begin dancing with a partner.
After an hour or so of movimiento, you’ll be paired with a partner of the opposite sex and learn to dance. The teachers are patient and proficient, providing their students with the utmost attention as they learn new dance moves. Couples can also take lessons together. Oftentimes, you’ll learn one move – for example, the basic salsa step – and then practice it repeatedly until you have it down. You’ll then be taught another move and combine what you know until it all becomes more natural and fluid.
Clearly, the more you practice, the better of a dancer you’ll become. It’s recommended to take at least a few lessons if you want to commit some of the moves to memory. Serious dancers will want to stay in the same place for at least a week and arrange daily lessons. And of course, the best way to cement your new moves is by hitting the local dance floors in the evening.
Dance lessons can cost anywhere from CUC5 to CUC25 an hour.
Cabarets (known as espectáculos) are important in the Cuban entertainment scene, and most towns have one. At these cabarets, guests are typically treated to showy numbers by scantily clad dancers and performances by musicians, singers, and magicians. The dancing is usually done in both partner and all-male/all-female acts. The dancers are fast, sure-footed, and strong. Men whirl women around the dance floor, smiling toothy, white smiles the entire time. It’s impressive and inspiring.
Havana, Santiago, and Matanzas all have excellent cabarets. The cabarets may have a restaurant and offer guests drinks and dinner during the show. Tables are usually scattered around the edge of the stage, offering you a place to sit, eat, drink, and take in the show.
The best cabaret is the Tropicana—although it’s expensive, it’s undoubtedly the best show in town. The Tropicana has been in operation since 1939. During the ’40s, it was one of the world’s most famous nightclubs, headlined by celebrities like Nat “King” Cole and Carmen Miranda. These days, it’s still spectacular. You’ll see beautiful, colorfully dressed showgirls parade down isles and dance onto the stage. The whole show includes acrobats, an orchestra, and nearly 200 performers. The Tropicana’s two-hour show runs nightly.
Where to Go Dancing
There is no shortage of places where you can practice your dance moves in Cuba. Nearly every town has a disco that hosts live music almost every night of the week. The musical style varies from day-to-day, but can include everything from son to salsa. Friday and Saturday are usually the liveliest nights of the week.
The cover charge at these discos is usually CUC3–CUC5. Drinks are around CUC1–CUC2. The discos don’t usually reach their peak until later in the evening. Certain clubs may have a consumo mínimo—in these clubs, the price to enter not only includes the entry fee but may also include a certain number of drinks and/or food.
Pretty much every town has a casa de la cultura and casa de la trova. At these venues, folkloric music is played, including son and trova. The music is excellent, and locals often come here to practice traditional dances. These casas are good venues to listen to fantastic folk music and pick up a new dance move or two from a local pro. Music is often played during both the afternoon and evening.
Private nightclubs have become increasingly popular in Cuba since they were legalized in 2011. These days, there is everything from chic discos to seedier jukebox joints available. Big cities like Havana and Santiago usually have the most options.