At the Hotel Nacional: If you want to groove to the beats we all know and love, the spectacular five-star
art deco-detailed hotel built in 1930 offers a traditional Cuban music concert with guest
singers featuring some of the surviving members of the Buena Vista Social
Club and two high-spirited dancers three nights a week
By Bonnie Rosenstock
Photos: B. Rosenstock
Cuba has a rich dance history that goes beyond its famous exports: salsa, rumba and cha-cha-cha. On a Road Scholar trip, Cuba Today: People and Society: Havana to Cienfuegos (May 9-16, 2018), the tour participants were treated to the traditional, popular and contemporary, performed by dancers of all ages in different settings. Cuba dances.
In the northwest Havana neighborhood of Pogolotty, we entered a crumbling structure, which had been a movie theater in better days. Now known as CD (Complejo Deportivo) Jesús Menendez, it houses a capacious rehearsal space for the Havana Queens whose 10 members gave us a brief demo of their talent, a flamenco number and some impressive dance break moves. The Havana Queens was founded in 2012 by general director and choreographer Rosario Garcia and Swiss-born Patrick Hofer, the general manager. The independent dance company (that is, not state-run) presents original works celebrating Cuba’s African and Spanish roots, along with traditional folklore and contemporary forms. The company’s full-time members, ages 18-31, have honed their dance chops in various professional state-run tuition-free dance schools as well on the city streets and from studying American break dance videos to perfect “power tricks.” Auditions require proficiency in three dance genres. The full company has about 30 performers, equally divided between men and women. They usually perform in a restaurant-nightclub named Paparazzi every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The group has won several awards for their virtuosity, and their YouTube videos are dazzling.
In Cienfuegos, about two and a half hours east of Havana, we visited a children’s community project called “Dansaré,” or “I will dance.” And dance they did, with poise and professionalism. The project, directed by Professor Ceidy Rodriguez, consists of 40 children, ages 4 to 18. They specialize in traditional Cuban countryside folk dances from the east-central part of the country. They are state-sponsored through the House of Cultural Development in Cienfuegos. The project has open enrollment courses every year, so all kids who are interested can just show up with their parents. The kids go through a three-month artistic and arts appreciation training course, and those with the most potential will be taken on as new members of the group. They mainly perform in nearby areas of Cienfuegos but also participate in festivals and contests in Cuba every year. Many of the kids use this training as a way to prepare for auditions to enter in the local school of performing arts, the Benny Moré Art School and Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). Moré (1919-1963), the region’s most famous musician-bandleader-singer-composer, is also recognized outside of Cuba for his influence on and contributions to Latin jazz.
Cuba is committed to arts education and training from primary school to university level. I recently read in Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta’s memoir, “No Way Home,” that thanks to former prima ballerina Alicia Alonso and her ex-husband Fernando, the methodology of the Cuban Ballet School, which they founded, is practiced in all ballet schools in Cuba, so that no matter where you live, you will be getting the same quality of training.
Our last dance-related visit was to a senior citizens center in Santa Clara, a half hour northeast of Cienfuegos, called “The Joy of Living.” A delightful senior couple demonstrated danzón, the official music and dance of Cuba, which was popular when the citizenry was very reserved and women had chaperones. Its heyday was approximately 1879-1920. It is a slow couple’s dance, which reminded me of a more rhythmic fox trot. It eventually evolved into what we know as the fast-paced mambo and cha-cha-cha. There are also wonderful YouTube videos of this dance form.
The main objective of the senior center is to help seniors remain physically and mentally active and to increase their quality of life. The center has 120 members, who are in their 70s and 80s. Some members formed a band, “The Fearless Guys,” where the musicians specialize in the Cuban rhythm called “son.” Some seniors organize sports and games, like “Quimbumbia,” a challenging but outdated ball game of skill—now I know where those Cuban baseball players come from. Others play dominoes, checkers and Parcheesi. They meet three times a week on a regular basis and all live in their homes with their families.
Of course, if you want to groove to the beats we all know and love, the spectacular five-star art deco-detailed Hotel Nacional (built in 1930), where we stayed in Havana, offers a traditional Cuban music concert with guest singers featuring some of the surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club and two high-spirited dancers three nights a week. US $25, or $50 + dinner and a drink. Well worth it.
Road Scholar program, Cuba Today: People and Society: Havana to Cienfuegos. www.roadscholar.org, or call 617-426-7788. Road Scholar operates travel to Cuba under the “People-to-People” general license, one of 12 categories of authorized travel.