This is a very good example of Cuban salsa, as taught abroad.
And this is a very good example of casino, as danced in Cuba.
How did casino become “Cuban salsa” outside of Cuba? And why does what is being taught abroad look so different from what is danced in Cuba?
As a starting point, I find this quote by dance researcher, Juliet McMains, quite useful:
[T]he idea of tango—its mythologized origins in the brothels, its boiling passion, its image of domination and rebellion—proved to be more profitable and marketable than the dance itself. Tango students…were either unprepared to learn the complexities of the dance, ill-informed about the technique, or uninterested in the movement style practiced in Argentina. Instead, a proliferation of new dances circulating under the same name emerged as dance teachers codified and redefined the dance for Western consumption. (111)
As a starting point, the tango was the first Latin American dance that made its way abroad. Or rather, the idea of tango made its way abroad. People abroad had a thirst for “Latin” passion and rebellion (thanks, Hollywood stereotypes!), and sought to emulate through dance. That the dance itself had nothing to do with what was danced in Argentina was of no consequence here. As long as it fit a “feel”, it sold. People did not want to learn about Argentine tango. They wanted to escape the monotony of their lives.
And so teachers found a way to make that happen. As McMains continues:
Westernized tangos were similar enough to other ballroom dances to be mastered without extensive study, referencing the Western fantasy of tango as exotic Other primarily by adopting only those elements most easily appropriated. (112)
What passed for “tango” in the U.S. paved the way for the practice of repackaging Latin American dances outside of their authentic contexts for the consumption of people that may not have been that interested in how a foreign dance was practiced in its respective country of origin. Indeed, salsa on 1 and on 2 are an extension of this. I have written extensively here about how salsa on1 and on2 very much followed in the footsteps of tango. When both styles became more consolidated in the early 90s, salsa on 1 and 2, or Los Angeles- and New York-style salsa were intrinsically U.S. dances with very little similarities to how people danced salsa in Latin America.
But I have more proof. Fast forward to the 2000s. Bachata music and dance begin achieving major popularity in the US and Europe, catapulted to stardom by videos like this one. What many of the millions of people who watched this and other similar video failed to understand as they rushed to a dance academy to learn the sexy, sensual bachata, was that this was already very different from what Dominicans danced on the island. By then, bachata had been repackaged and refined for Western consumption. In fact, many of the turn patterns had a similar look to salsa on 1 and on 2.
Because of globalization and the Internet, this practice or repackaging and reselling did not go as well. People who actually danced authentic bachata began speaking out. Arguments ensued. Eventually the dust settled, and terms like bachata sensual appeared, as an acknowledgment of the fact that the dance had been modified. Bachata from DR became “traditional bachata” like it was some sort of dance that only older people dance.
Continue fast-forwarding to the late 2010s, when kizomba makes its way into the Latin dance scene. Now, the fact that a dance from Angola, an African country, became the latest fad in dance events that had traditionally featured Latin American dances goes back to Latin dances being an “idea”, rather than a practice. That is, the idea that by engaging in these dances, you can escape the quotidian and feel sexy, experience desire and sensuality, be rebellious. None of which had anything to do with how people danced in Latin America. Indeed, there is a reason why other Latin American dances like cumbia do not achieve this level of popularity abroad. They do not fit the “idea” of Latinness. If a teacher were to find a way to make it fit, however, trust me: it would become the next thing to learn.
At any rate, kizomba also went through a recodification, and just like bachata, different dances began appearing that had very little to do with kizomba: sensual kizomba, bachakiz, urban kizz, etc. All with the purpose of creating that “idea”, that “feel”. And soon enough people lost interest–if they ever had any–in actual kizomba. If you care to look, you will find online discussions about how Westerners have transformed this dance to fit their needs.
(I could also talk about zouk, but I am not going to. By now, I hope that you get the point.)
So how does all of this connect to Cuba and casino–and Cuban salsa?
Well, after examining the problematic history of how Latin American dances are taught outside of their authentic contexts, of how they were redefined, recodified and repackaged with very little similarities to the actual dances, would it not make sense that casino has received the same treatment outside of Cuba? Why would Cuba be left out of this if, as cultural critic Gustavo Perez Firmat asserts, “contemporary ideas about Cuba have not abandoned habits of perception established many years before anyone had ever heard of Fidel Castro” (10).
And of course Cuba has not been left out. Especially when considering that Cuba (and specifically Havana) was the de-facto go-to place for much of what came to be considered the “Latin” atmosphere in the first half of the twentieth century. Older Hollywood movies are inundated with the sounds coming from Cuba, the attempts to emulate Cuban dances, their songs. Posters like the one below appeared in US newspapers for many years, portraying Cuba as an island “so near and yet so foreign”:
In movies such as Week-End in Havana (1941), Cuba is presented as a diversion from the way in which US people lived–an escape, if you will (rings a bell?), but one that is, as Perez Firmat asserts, “ultimately undesirable: a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. To ‘go south’ is also what happens when an enterprise fails” (11-12). Here again is another parallel, for if Latin American dances were modified to fit Western consumption, it was precisely because they were ultimately undesirable in their authentic contexts.
For decades, Cuba was the lens through which US people perceived Latin America. Cuba was, in fact, instrumental in helping to create the idea of the “Latin” atmosphere, where people can go and escape their everyday lives and feel, even if only for fleeting moments, passion, rebellion, sensuality, abandon. This is why Cuba continues being a point of interest for many people.
Now, you may say, “But Cuban dance events have a different feel than salsa events. People are more carefree, the dress code is less formal; there is less focus on sensuality, less pretention, and more emphasis on just having a good time.”
When you look at it that way, Cuba does seem to have escaped the Western recodifications that other Latin American dances have received.
Except, if you look back at the video which with this post began, you will see that it clearly has not. The modifications have occurred, just differently.
Let us remember that because of the U.S imposed embargo on Cuba, the island was off limits to US people for decades. Travel from Western Europe was also scarce, as Cuba had allied with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. While salsa on 1 and on 2 thrived in the United States and Europe in the 90s and 2000s, very few people had any idea what was happening in Cuba, dance-wise. Eventually pedagogical videos started making their way to the Internet, which I have extensively talked about here. Those first videos taught salsa structured through rueda. In other words, the point was to teach the “idea” of something Cuban (rueda) using something students already knew (salsa). It made sense then, that as these videos became more visible and people started emulating them more and more, some concepts of US salsa dancing were slowly codified into the dance of casino.
Other attempts at visibilizing Cuban dance occurred during this time, mainly those made by Boogaloo Productions. They actually traveled to Cuba and recorded people dancing. One caveat here was that many of the people used in these videos were professional dancers, who are notorious for applying stage aesthetics and fusions to their dance, and thus did not faithfully represent how casino was danced in Cuba socially. (Also, casino is not taught in professional dance schools in Cuba. At least not as of five years ago.) The other caveat was that in creating pedagogical videos, the producers themselves attempted to codify a dance as if it could be mastered without extensive study–which is exactly what Western teachers have done all throughout history with Latin American dances.
The other piece of the puzzle that we have to consider here is that Cuba is intrinsically Black. Indeed, more than 50% of its population is black or has black ancestry. This, of course, does not fit well within the “idea” of Latin America that was created abroad. Affluent white people living in the suburbs did not go to Latin clubs (slumming) to feel black. They went to experience the “Latin”, and “Latin” has long been codified as “Brown” or something close to white, if we take Cuba as an example. (The 1950s show I Love Lucy comes to mind.) Let us remember that the term Afro-Latino, which (finally) acknowledges the descendants of black people in Latin America, has only become more widely used in the past ten years or so.
Cuba, then–and this is where I know I am going to get criticized–became a way to experience Africa by proxy. Just like salsa and tango became a way to experience “Latinness,” Cuban dances, specially Afro-Cuban dances, became a way to experience a Blackness that was “so near and yet so foreign” (poster above).
The confluence of these two things, the codification of casino through Western concepts, and the desire to experience black culture through Afro-Cuban dance and music, paved the way for what is known today as “Cuban salsa.” Indeed, when people began learning more about Cuba, the “salsa” that they had associated with Cuba (because Cuba was considered Latin), was quickly supplemented by the new-found Afro-Cuban dances that were alive and well in the island.
The only way for a foreigner, an outsider, a tourist, to make sense of what they were seeing in Cuba was to conflate the salsa that they were expecting to find, and the Afro-Cuban dances (secular or religious) that they were now just encountering (as if the slave trade had stopped south of the US).
And here is where we get to “Cuban salsa.” I sincerely hope that taking you through that long history of Latin American dances abroad helped you understand a little better where we are now.
Look at the first video in this post, “Cuban salsa” is just that, folks: a conflation of a long tradition of Westernized “Latin” aesthetics and the decontextualized, uncaring mixing of Afro-Cuban dances. (In an attempt to make it even more exotic, some instructors are now calling the dance “timba”; read more about that here.)
Cuban salsa, as described above, is what foreigners, outsiders, want to see, want to experience. It’s the perfect encapsulation of what they think Cuba is for: for both experiencing Latinness and Blackness.
The truth is, in Cuba, outside of instructors who teach foreigners to dance (and thus cater to what they want to learn), the intercalation of casino and Afro-Cuban dances is not as commonplace, even within the black population. In Cuba, there is an understanding of the time and place of religious dances. Outside of personal idiosyncrasies and preferences, rumba has its place as its own dance, not as an add-on to something else, which is how it is being treated nowadays. Again, barring individual preferences, in Cuba casino is danced as casino, its own dance; and you will not find much of the concepts that you were taught outside of Cuba applied to how casino is actually danced in the island.
Cubans dance casino, an authentic Cuban dance. They dance rumba, they dance Orishas. Also authentic dances. Non-Cubans, in their vast majority, dance Cuban salsa, an unauthentic amalgamation of everything they do not understand–or do not care to understand. I hope you now see why this is the case.
Thank you for staying with me all the way to the end.
McMains, Juliet E. Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2006. Print.
Pérez Firmat, Gustavo. The Havana Habit. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Print