Whenever one mentions Cuban dance, everyone automatically thinks about salsa. Although casino (Cuban’s equivalent of salsa) is very popular and a staple of Cuban culture, what defines Cuban dance is its extraordinary richness.
Indeed, from contemporary and classical, to Afro-Cuban (such as Chango and Rumba) or ballrooms (Son, Chachacha, and mambo), the country can be considered the mecca or kingdom of dances.
1. Afro-Cuban dance styles
What first attracted me to study Cuban dances extensively was the country’s strong roots in its African heritage. Indeed, as someone passionate about body movements, I love the way Cuban uses African dances to speak and pay tribute to their gods. Dances such as Chango are not just body rhythm; they represent incantation to African gods of romance, war, seduction etc.
In the Yoruba religion, Chango is a god depicted as a strong and powerful ruler characterized by his mighty axe. That’s why those in Cuba who dance to Chango music carry an axe. Furthermore, this god’s key elements are thunder and lighting. Finally, the instrument that characterizes him is the bata drum. In Cuba, Chango is worshiped in the santeria religion.
o How is it danced
Wearing red clothes, with a crown, an axe, and no shoes, the Chango dancer moves with confidence and authority. As the drum plays, he displays his skills barefoot, showing strong signs of his presence. The rhythm of a Chango song typically starts slow but gradually increases. As such, the dancer must match the song’s pace with his dancing ability. The more the song progresses, the more he enters a trance and displays speed, body contortions, and muscular strength. He is also a god of seduction, so ladies, watch out.
Other types of Cuban dance styles associated with chango are Ochun, Obatala, Yemaya.
This dance is one of the other prevalent Afro-Cuban dances. It is as popular as it is shredded in mystery. Do not confuse Abakua, a men’s initiatory secret society, with a developed dance form, with the Abakua dance company, which does not have anything to do with Abakua. The songs are performed in their secret language, and dancers typically wear tight outfit that covers their whole body with a hood on their heads.
They also wear cowbells around their waist and use their hips to make the bells ring.
o How is it danced
As the singer leads the dancer into the “arena,” the latter enters a trance on the rhythm of the drums. The dancers do not typically reveal their faces and utilize a lot of improvisation. They usually switch quickly from one side to the other and use their waist to assert their physical presence. Note there that the dancers are barefoot.
This dance/music has become one of the Cuban culture’s flagships. Rumba is said to have been influenced by Abakua. It was primarily danced by dark skins Cuban, free slaves, and poor light-skinned Cubans and although it received strong support from the government since the 1950s, it’s still primarily danced by black people.
Note that Cuban Rumba and ballroom rumba are entirely different. There are three types of Cuban Rumba:
👉 Yambu (characterized by the sound of a squared drum).
👉 Guaguanco (which is a fast pace rumba).
👉 Columbia (there, solo male dancers display their talents in succession).
o How is it danced
It typically starts as a “duel of seduction” between a man and a woman, with the man using his dancing skills to take the lady astray. On the other hand, she does everything to avoid the lure and uses her dance skill to evade the intruder. She will often place her hands in front of her genitalia to avoid constant attacks by her male partner. Rumba is, therefore, a tangle between two individuals of the opposite sex. Dancers borrow moves from other Afro-Cuban dance styles, such as Chango or Abakua.
Additionally, there is a vital element of physicality in Rumba. Indeed. Because of the rhythm and speed of the songs and the work on the leg muscles and torso, this dance can be very demanding physically. Put another way, if you are not in good condition, you will likely feel the pain.
– With partners or alone:
Both men and women move in coordination, facing each other or starting at the opposite ends of an “imaginary” line. As the man makes the first moves, they approach each other, the lady using all her senses to fend off the numerous attacks that besiege her.
Unlike Yambu and Guaguanco, which uses a female partner, only men dance Columbia. This style is the fastest of the 3. It requires a quick witted mind and the ability to create moves on the spot and with speed.
2. The ballroom Cuban dance styles
2.1. Danzon – the National dance of cuba
Danzon is another one of the prized Cuban dance styles. It originated in the 19th century. A couple’s dance, it has significant significance for the general Cuban public. Unlike Rumba, Danzon is more of a social couple dance akin to ballroom dances and has strong connections with the elite of Cuban society. It originates from the Europeans who migrated to Latin America during slavery mixed with African elements incorporated into it by the creoles.
o How is it danced
o Example of Danzon music
2.2. Son – Elegance amongst Cuban dance styles
The musical genre dates back to the 19th century. It mixes Spanish and African elements. It also has a ballroom element, as couples dance together at a relatively gentle pace. One of the critical instruments in son is the clave which has its own patterns and differs from the Rumba clave.
“El manisero” written in 1928 is one of the most famous Son.
o How is it danced
As two partners hold each other close, they move in various elegant postures. These can take the shape of circular motions, moving forward and backward, and sideways. Sometimes, a break can occur where the dancers stop and use their bodies (not their feet).
3. When Afro-Cuban and ballroom meet
3.1. Casino / Cuban Salsa
In Cuba, a popular form of dance dating back to the mid-20th century comprises a group of people dancing together in a circle (casino de Rueda). The casino dance style has evolved to include single couples. That form (Casino) is marketed as Cuban salsa abroad. However, many ardently dispute that casino is the same as salsa. The latter itself originated from the US in the mid-’60s. There are two main types of salsa (New York and Los Angeles styles, where the main difference lies in the beats on which the steps are danced). Both Casino and Salsa find their strong roots in Cuban Son.
o How is it danced
For one, it is danced more in a circular motion than in a line. Secondly, it draws from a wide range of dances that include the ballroom types such as son, Danzon, and chachacha, as well as the Afro-Cuban styles such as Rumba, Chango, or Abakua. It also has a strong element of physicality and “street inspiration” that the other types of salsa do not display because they are more “studio” based. Check this song and see if you can see if you identify the changes in rhythm and musical styles.
3.2. Casino de Rueda
As I mentioned above, casino de Rueda is a social type of Cuban dance that involves more than one couple. The group size can go as wide as the imagination allows it to grow. Ladies and men enter a playful and rotating circle where partner changes are frequent. The wheel can go in both directions depending on what the “caller” asks for. It’s a bit like a game of musical chairs, where you must execute movements before going to your designated position. When executed correctly, it gives a great show of what good teamwork looks like. In THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO RUEDA DANCE, I argue that it should be used by businesses constantly looking for team-building activities. It’s more effective than many events companies pay a lot of money to organize because it has one significant advantage over these other activities. It breaks physical barriers and allows subconscious fun, thus inducing acceptability for whatever messages the businesses might have.
This is the kind of storm you never want when it’s on its way but that you gladly accept once it hits you. From a humble start, the genre has increased in popularity to become mainstream. First, however, it posed challenges to the authorities because it advocated consumerism and a certain degree of capitalism.
Reggaeton contrasts with the traditional Cuban dances that focus on certain mannerisms, courtship, etc. It has a more sensual, even sexual, tone, even if messages are often passed down through the lyrics.
o How is it danced
4. The gods of dance – Contemporary dance in Cuba
When I decided to study Cuban salsa, I had no idea I would be drawn to such an extent to the world of contemporary dance. I did not even know this dance existed until I bumped into it. As someone who always judges dancing by how people use their hips and core, I should have known I would invariably end up obsessed with this one. For sure, one could expect a salsa dancer to try and meddle with Cuban rumba, son, and the other popular dance forms, but contemporary?
4.1. Danza Contemporanea de Cuba
When I first watched them drill, I was immediately seduced and decided to revisit my training to incorporate Cuban contemporary in my program. Today the dance accounts for 30 to 40% of my regular regiment. Although I would not disparage the other forms of contemporary dance in the world, Cuban contemporary dance is something of a magical concoction. Indeed, it draws on many dance forms, and its training rivals any professional sport. Under the guidance of masters such as Luis Roblejo, they ensure no students slack off or are behind in their technical precision. My dream is to learn directly from the masters.
5. Cuban ballet or the pride of Cuba
Although I do not explore ballet in my dance diet, writing about Cuban dance styles would not be complete if it did not include ballet. Ballet in Cuba has transformed since the 1960s with a close association between education, labor, and artists. Not only have ballet dancers worked tirelessly in their craft, but they also brought ballet to Cubans of all races and social classes.
This Cuban dance style originated in the mid of the 20th century and is practiced on the music type of the same name. It’s one of the musical genres that found great success in the United States, along with Mambo and Son. The tempo is generally slower than other types of music, but several syncopated steps are added to match the song’s style and rhythm.
Cuba’s relatively old dance form came to prominence at the end of the 19th century. The dance is slow and reminds me of the afternoon Sundays of my childhood in the Caribbean. A time when people, after having had their lengthy lunch, rested on their rocking chairs and listened to endless loops of bolero. Definitely a time travel experience.
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