The Afro-Cuban Turn of the Dance of Casino

For years now, an Afro-Cuban dance craze has been sweeping over the Cuban dance community, even reaching the salsa community. Thus, it wouldn’t be surprising to find at a salsa congress, for instance, an Afro-Cuban body movement workshop. Likewise, Cuban dance events have become more accepting and welcoming of the Afro-Cuban dances. Along with rueda de casino and casino workshops, other options such as rumba, palo, some of the Orisha (African gods) dances, among others, have made it into the workshop schedule so that those who would like to learn the basics, can do so. And of course, some dance academies have their own Afro-Cuban dance curriculums. This is a well-deserved inclusion, and a needed addition; for without this part of the Cuban music and dance tradition, the picture would not be complete.

However, along with strictly Afro-Cuban dance classes, a new trend has begun to emerge: the mixing of the Afro-Cuban dances (mostly, but not exclusively, rumba guaguancó) with the dance of casino. In this section, therefore, I will seek to explain what has generated this drift toward the Afro-Cuban when it comes to casino, the factors which have contributed to its emergence and fomentation, and its repercussions in the dance of casino.

First, let us begin with casino itself. Casino has three dances from which it stems: son, danzón, and chachachá. Rumba, or any of the other Afro-Cuban dances (which besides rumba are mostly religious), were not a factor in the development of casino. In fact, two of its three forms, yambú and guaguancó (the third, columbia, being an explicitly individual dance) rumba does not exhibit the partner work connection characteristic of casino. While yambú and guaguancó is danced by a couple, the couple do not come together at any point in the dance, much less into a closed position, so prevalent in not only casino, but in son, danzón, and chachachá.

Here is an example of rumba guaguancó, the most popular of the rumba dances. Dance starts at 1:37:

Rumba played no role in the development of the dance of casino. And yet a workshop like this is very common nowadays:

In this video we see casino and rumba (in this case guaguancó) mixed together in the same dance. You can see a rumba break from 0:43 to 0:54, just to name one, and vacunaos (those kicks he throws at her) abound.

So, how do we explain this? How do we explain the inclusion of rumba guanguancó in the dance of casino when casino itself never developed from it? Some people argue that that is how casino may be danced by the blacks in Cuba, due to their rumba tradition. And yet, if we look at a video like this one, where two Cuban blacks are dancing casino in Havana, you do not see one single rumba break in the dance.

It must be something else. What I am about to write stems from years of observation and general knowledge of the Cuban dance scene in the United States, as well as outside of it.

First, let us go to Cuba. In Cuba, the ENA (National School of Arts) is where most dance instructors who teach outside of Cuba are trained. When it comes to dance, this school offers classes on ballet, modern and folkloric dance, and espectáculos musicales (stage performances). The instructors who come out of ENA, therefore, have a strong training in the folkloric dances, rumba being one of them. On the other hand, espectáculos musicales usually include son, danzón, mambo, and chachachá. It is important to note that nowadays it is very hard to find people in the island who can dance these dances socially, outside of a stage. That is the case for mambo and chachachá. Danzón is still alive thanks to the elderly who have kept the tradition. And the stage son, though somewhat close, is still not the dance which people execute socially. In sum, these dances have, throughout the years, dwindled in popularity in Cuba (with some regional exceptions like the province of Santiago de Cuba). Mostly, what remains is what the stage has made of them. Chachachá, for instance, is now a mere amalgamation of individual shines.

That said, the ENA does not teach casino. Since casino is so popular, so “street,” many instructors there consider it to be below them. In short, the stage has left casino alone and with the people. In Cuba, casino is a dance you learn by watching other people do it, by asking a family member to show you a couple of steps, by joining a rueda at school during lunch break.

What this means is that concrete methodologies for the instruction and diffusion of casino in the island have not been created. That is not the case with the folkloric dances, however. ENA graduates are very well versed in technique and have been imparted a replicable methodology when it comes to the folklore.

What happens, then, when they migrate outside of Cuba and have to make a living by teaching dance classes? What happens when the prevalent social dance outside of Cuba is casino and rueda de casino and people barely know the folkloric tradition? What happens when you haven’t been trained in casino, and casino is what’s on demand? What happens when the DJs won’t play rumba music at the clubs?

These Cuban instructors find a way to sell what they were specially trained to dance, that’s what happens. Specifically, they find a way to market the folkloric dances by falsely making it relevant to what people already dance: casino.

The Afro-Cuban turn, as it pertains to the dance of casino, then, can be seen as the response of Cuban graduates from the National School of Arts to a lack of demand on that which they were trained. By creating a false relationship between casino and rumba, they create a demand for rumba and the Afro-Cuban dances on a public who knows little about Cuban dance and will believe anything they are told. This makes sense to them as instructors because they cannot sell casino by itself. They were never given the tools or the technique to pass it on to others. And so, when you see them dancing casino, many times it is very sloppy, sometimes even stage-like (remember they were trained on that, too), which they then compensate with a very technical Afro-Cuban section.

This, in turn, has created the false idea that in Cuba casino can be mixed with rumba, or that rumba is needed when it comes to casino. But we should begin to see this Afro-Cuban turn for what it is, an opportunistic marketing strategy that has very little to do with the current production of casino dancing in Cuba.

In fact, if you were to watch videos from the popular casino dance competition show in Cuba called, “Bailar Casino,” which ran from 2004-2006, you will never find people mixing casino with rumba. Take a look.

This is not to say that there cannot be rumba elements in the dance of casino. People shimmy left and right when they dance in Cuba, and some people would use some of the footwork from rumba columbia when dancing casino. But breaking off entirely from each other and doing rumba in the middle of a casino dance? That’s a fantasy which has been created by these ENA instructors—and also by social dancers who have migrated from Cuba, mostly black, because the white European public now expects it of them—in order to sell a workshop/classes outside of Cuba.

Also, sometimes, some songs will start with a rumba, and then will switch to son. In this case, dancers will dance rumba in the rumba section, and casino or son in the son section. But they won’t be both in one section. This is a good example. Notice how they switch the dance from rumba to casino on 1:38, when the music, likewise, switches:

This problem, in my opinion, has an easy solution. Event organizers and dance instructors need to play Afro-Cuban music at congresses, socials, events, and classes. The very reason that there has been a need to mix these dances stems from the fact that, no matter how many rumba classes instructors teach, rumba music very rarely gets played; therefore, instructors have to make their classes relevant somehow—otherwise, what would be the point of learning a dance if I am not going to dance it, anyway?—by making it seem like it goes with casino. It doesn’t, and it never has.

You can do son and it will still look like casino.

You can do danzón and it will still resemble casino.

You can do chachachá and it will still be similar to casino.

You do rumba, and it will be nothing like casino.

In the zeal to promote and foment Cuban dance culture, a very important piece of the equation has been left out: the respect for the dance traditions. This not only pertains to casino. The Afro-Cuban dances are suffering heavily as well, for the same thing is happening to them.

Those who teach and attempt to promote Cuban culture through dance should take a moment to think about what they are doing with their classes, and ask yourselves these questions:

Are you truly being respectful and faithful to the dances you teach?

Or are you teaching something that will sell, no matter how you go about it?

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