Dissipating Misconceptions: Is Casino a “Style” of Salsa Dancing?

 

Chances are, if you live outside of Cuba, you were introduced to the dance of casino through a plethora of names. The instructors teaching you casino may have called it Cuban salsa or salsa cubana, casino salsa or salsa casino, salsa rueda, or Cuban-style salsa. The list could go on.

My point: the common denominator in all these pseudonyms is “salsa.” Salsa is what binds them together. Salsa is the word that gets your attention, picks your interest, and makes you go and take a lesson.

Why? Because if they said casino, and you lived outside of Cuba, you would not associate it with a dance, much less a Cuban one (at least that’s the argument that many people make).

But that is the name of the dance: Casino. So why do people refer to it as “salsa”?

The question was, in a way, answered above: because “salsa” is what people know. And because the dance of salsa (L.A., N.Y styles) and the dance of casino are danced to the same music: son. That is, if you were to play “Llorarás” by Oscar D’León, you could dance casino or salsa to it. The same thing could not be said about salsa and, say, bachata. Two different musical genres, requiring two different dances. But when it comes to casino and salsa, they are both danced to the same music; so, for marketing purposes, it makes sense for instructors and promoters to use the term “salsa” when referring to casino.

The question remains, however, is casino salsa, or a style thereof?

The short answer is: No.

The long—but not too long—answer?

Well, since you insist:

Casino is not salsa for three main reasons. (These are my reasons, mind you, but I’ve found them to be infallible.)

  1. Casino predates salsa.
  2. Casino can be danced to more than “salsa” music.
  3. Casino is choreographically different than salsa.

Let me explain.

Casino is a dance which was developed in the mid-50s. Any book, article, or Wikipedia page on this matter will tell you that the word “salsa,” as it pertains to the music, was not used until the 70s—and outside of Cuba, to boot. Casino, historically, is older than salsa, or salsa dancing, for that matter. In other words, before there was even such thing as “salsa music,” there was casino.

So. Casino predates salsa. Therefore referring to it as “salsa” would constitute an anachronism.

Reason 2: Because casino predates salsa, this means that people were dancing casino in Cuba, back in the 1950s, to something else. And that “something else” was son music.

Indeed, the dance of casino cannot be confined, musically, to “salsa” music because, when it was developed, salsa did not exist. And now, with the takeover of the “timba” movement, the musical association to salsa is even less substantial. In fact, nowadays, when it comes to casino and the music it should be danced to, it’s all about “timba.”

And last, but definitely not least, casino is choreographically different than salsa. This requires a much more in-depth explanation, and I will be dedicating a whole blog post to just that. For now, suffice to say that, when it comes to salsa dancing, we all know it is linear, danced on the slot. When it comes to casino, however, we dance around the partner. This makes a tremendous difference between the two dances.

So, with all this said, why do people refer to casino as salsa? Again, it’s a marketing strategy to lure you in and get your attention, get you to come to classes.

It’s a strategy that, so far, has worked. You have gone to classes. You have been introduced to the dance. You dance it.

But a small, yet very important price has been paid: the dance has lost its essence.

First, by calling it “salsa,” casino was stripped of all its cultural meaning, of its rich history and tradition (because, let’s face it, if instructors who market this dance as “salsa” were to tell you that casino was developed in the 50s, the salsa “fantasy” of this dance would fall apart once you did the math about casino and salsa).

Second, because casino is being referred to as salsa, it opens the door for it to be danced like salsa. More and more, nowadays, you will see people dancing casino and applying salsa concepts; for instance, the back-step would be very prevalent (future blog post about this), or the dance could turn into something very linear (future post about this as well). In fact, looking at the way casino is taught nowadays by many instructors who simply scratch the surface of the dance and then decide they have the necessary knowledge to teach it, “casino-style salsa” has become a linear dance, with some Afro-Cuban body movement thrown in. (I’m given to understand they are calling this “timba dance” now; look it up on YouTube; you’ll see.)

And third, the current story on casino—and its emphasis on “timba”—does not permit us to fully explore Cuban music, and all that it has to offer. Confining oneself to casino, as it is marketed today, will be to forget a deeply-rich musical heritage that, regrettably, is not being passed down as it should. In my case, it was not until I began listening to the music produced in the first half of this century that I understood the richness of the dance, what one could truly do with it. Only by going back to son music, and son dancing, was I fully able to experience what a beautiful—and rewarding—dance casino could be.

If casino is not a style of salsa, then don’t refer to it as such. Don’t call it casino salsa or salsa casino, Cuban salsa, or Cuban-style salsa. It is not. And it never was. Use the name it was given: casino.

You might say, “But if I do, if I do use casino, no one would understand me. No one would know what I’m talking about.” No, they won’t. But if you use salsa they won’t understand, either. If you were to use salsa, you non-dancing friends would instantly think about any salsa dancing they have seen on television or movies, which I assure you is not casino. You would still be giving them the wrong idea of what it is you dance.

Tell them you dance casino. Their brows would furrow in confusion. But if they are interested—and they will be—they will ask. And once they do, all you’ve got to say, more or less, is: “Casino is a Cuban dance developed in the 50s.”

That’s it! Again, would they know what you’re talking about? No. But at least now they would know there is a Cuban dance called casino. And, if they are further interested, they will look it up, or ask you to show them.

I get a ton of people who always tell me it’s hard for them, when they have to tell their friends that they dance casino, not to use the word “salsa.” “It’s what they’ll understand,” they tell me. My response to that is always the same:

“When you tell your friends that you dance bachata, do you use any other name for it? Do you call it, perhaps, “Dominican dry-humping”? That’s certainly something they could relate to! If they are not dancers, they won’t understand what bachata is. And yet you take this for granted, and throw the name here and there without an explanation, and expect your friends to know. (Same thing with the Kizomba craze going rampant nowadays.) So why the double standard with casino?”

Other people tell me: “I call casino ‘salsa’ because Cubans themselves call it salsa.”

To them, I say: Yes, Cuban call it ‘salsa’, too. And there are two reasons for this. One, they are trying to market the dance to you (an outsider) in terms that you will understand and will make you go to their classes. Once outside of Cuba, they see that there is a market already created with the label ‘salsa’ for their dance. For them, it is easier to be part of that market than to create a new one from scratch, under the label ‘casino.’ It is a very lazy stance, and as a Cuban myself, I don´t participate in it, nor do I condone it. I may get fewer people in my classes, but those I do get, they go in knowing fully well what they are getting themselves into, when it comes to the dance.

The other reason Cubans themselves may call it salsa is because they, like most of us, are misinformed. They don’t know the history. And because they may also refer to the music they listen to as “salsa” (again, lack of information), calling casino “salsa” fits perfectly.

But then you have the biggest casino dance show produced in Cuban television history, which ran from 2004 to 2006, which was called Para Bailar Casino, not Para Bailar Salsa. The name has always been casino. Anything else is a misinformed label.

At any rate, why are we so stuck with the name “salsa,” anyway? Isn’t the music that people have been primed to believe casino is danced to called “timba”? When you go to a Cuban-themed event is all about “timba.” When we dance, it is to “timba” music, not to mention that many a number of people go to great lengths to stress to others that “timba” is not salsa music. So, why do we keep using “salsa”?

Perhaps because that is the fantasy people want to believe. Most people outside of Cuba do not set out to dance casino. They set out to dance salsa. That’s what they want to tell their friends they dance. That’s what their friends will envy them for, because “salsa” is the label their friends understand.

But it is just that: a fantasy. You want the real deal? Then let me formally welcome you to the Matrix. Here, take the red pill:

It’s called casino.

Many people tell me, “I’ll just wait until the name becomes popular.” But here is a reality check: it won’t. Not unless you start using it yourself. Not unless you start saying, “I dance casino.” Not “I dance Cuban salsa,” or “I dance Cuba-style salsa.”

I dance casino.

Say it.

If you don’t, no one else will do it for you. If you don’t, no one will eventually understand what it is you are talking about.

Let us call the dance of casino by its name, shall we?

 

 

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