Suggested reading: The Dance of Casino: A Brief History and Definition

Looking back at my previous posts, I have realized that I have talked a lot about Cuban music history, as well as casino partner dancing technique, and musicality concepts to go with the dance of casino. But I have not really delved into the most popular formation for dancing casino; that is, the rueda (Spanish for wheel) formation. So it is about time I switch gears and get to writing about it.

Before I write further, do notice that I said rueda formation. There is a reason for that. Nowadays most people refer to the dance of casino, danced in a rueda formation, simply as “rueda.” I get it. Truly, I do. “Rueda” is catchy, and easy on the tongue.

But “Rueda” is not a dance.

You see, in the zeal to oversimplify things, many who promote this dance have purposely omitted two very important words: the preposition de (Spanish for “of”), and the noun casino. I say that these two words are very important because, without them, rueda would literally just mean “wheel.” So, when you say, “Let’s dance rueda,” you are literally saying, “Let’s dance wheel.”

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? As silly as saying, “Let’s dance line,” I would venture. And of course, you would not say, “Let’s dance line.” What you would say would be more along the lines of, “Let’s do some line dancing.” (I am referring to American country line dancing here. I lived in the South of the United States for six year; so naturally that was the first thing that came to mind.) And so, when you say, “Let’s do some line dancing,” the noun “line” acquires a more logical, understandable, and less obscure meaning: it is dancing, done in a line formation.

Likewise, rueda, by itself, does not refer to a dance. It refers to a formation a group of people adopt when dancing—in this specific instance, when dancing casino.

Yet, as I have said before, many people who teach rueda de casino omit those last two words, and simply call it “rueda.” The problem with this marketing strategy of oversimplification is that, in the process, the eager young minds who go to dance classes and learn a dance called “rueda” will 1) call it rueda, as if it were a dance (it’s not; it’s a dance formation); 2); could likely consider the dancing that they do in this format as a group-centered dance which does not translate to dancing with another person individually; and 3)—this is the saddest one: will never learn the name of the actual dance that is being done in the rueda formation (that’d be casino).

All these things can happen. And in fact, they have happened to me.

I was at a club once, in this town I was visiting which shall remain nameless, where they were having a dance social. At some point in the night, as I was taking a break from dancing, a girl approached me and asked me, “Do you dance rueda?” It was late, I was tired, and I didn’t feel like giving a five-minute lecture on what “rueda” actually meant, so I said, “Yeah. Sure.” Her face brightened up and she smiled. “Well, we’re doing a rueda next song,” she said, pointing at a group of people hanging out at the back of the club. “Do you want to join us?” I said, “Sure.” (I know, I’m quite the eloquent guy.) As I said that, though, I realized that the music was still playing, and I had this girl in front of me who danced casino. At a club full of salseros, this was simply an opportunity that I could not let go without taking advantage of it. So I said to her, “Hey, this song is still not over. So while we wait to do the rueda, would you like to dance some casino with me?”

What she said next, and the way she said it, still haunts me to this day.

Okay. That was pretty dramatic.

Anyway, she said to me, “Sorry, I don’t know what casino is.” And as she said this, she had this utter look of confusion on her face.

Well, imagine mine. Here was this girl who had just asked me to join her in a rueda (of which I had to assume was casino; though, to be fair, people have begun dancing American bachata done in a rueda formation, but I didn’t think she was referring to that), and when I asked her if she wanted to dance casino with me, she had had no idea what casino was.

It is as if she had told me she wanted to tell me a knock-knock joke, said “Knock, knock.” I had said, “Who’s there?” and she had said “No, no. ‘Knock-knock’ was the joke.”

Or if she had said, “I love timba.” I had asked her, “So you like Havana D’Primera?” And she had responded, “Sorry, I don’t know what that is.”

The worst had happened. A false marketing strategy had succeeded in creating ignorance.

She had referred to rueda as if it were a dance. Check.

She did not think she could dance the same thing she danced in the rueda outside of said formation. Check.

She did not even know what the rueda was of; in other words, she had not even heard of casino dancing. Check.

Looking back, I should definitely have gone with the five-minute lecture on rueda de casino.

Of course, this is an extreme case. I know some of you reading this are saying, “Well, I know that the whole name is ‘rueda de casino’ (or ‘casino rueda,’ if you want to use English syntax), but it really is just easier to say ‘rueda.’”

Like I said, I get it. It’s catchier, easier on the tongue, specially if you do not speak Spanish. Saying “Cha-Cha” is catchier, faster, too, than saying “Chachachá,” but that doesn’t make it right.  The name of the dance (this is a Cuban dance, too, by the way) is chachachá because of  the fast three steps the dancers do when they  do the cha-cha-chá step. That said, I do not even want to think about the reasons instructors make up to explain why they call it “Cha-cha.”

All I am saying is, if you want to call it “rueda,” be prepared for all the horror stories you will create. I am sure that what happened to me was not an isolated incident.

While we are on the topic of simplifying things for easier consumption (capitalism at its best), I remember having a personal conversation with Eric Johnson, producer and director of the “La Salsa Cubana,” which happens to be an extremely well-executed documentary on the story of a group of people who formed a rueda de casino in Guanabacoa (a city in Cuba) to compete in the show “Para Bailar Casino” (notice that the show was not called “Para Bailar Rueda”), and I remember Eric telling me that the original name of the documentary was “La Rueda de Guanabacoa.” He decided to change it, however, because “La Rueda de Guanabacoa” was not as catchy or as easy on the tongue. He wanted something that would be easier to say. (If you have read my posts on salsa vs. casino, then you know how I feel about a title such as “La Salsa Cubana” in reference to the dance of casino.)

You might say, “But wouldn’t “La Rueda de Casino de Guanabacoa” be more consistent with what you’re saying? Why is it okay for him to just say ‘rueda’?” My answer: There is a difference. There is a difference between saying rueda and meaning a “dance” (which again, it is not; it is a formation), and people saying “la rueda” and meaning “a group of casineros in Guanabacoa who have their own particular way of dancing casino in a rueda formation.” In Cuba, because ruedas de casino are so distinctive among cities or even neighborhoods within the same city, it is common to say “La rueda de (name of place) to signify how the rueda de casino that they do in one place is different than what they do in another place. There will be more on this later, as I also plan to write about the main differences between rueda de casino in Cuba and outside of Cuba. (I did: Here it is)

Others reading this may say, “But I have heard Cubans say, ‘Vamos a hacer una rueda,’ (‘Let’s do a rueda’, in English.) They don’t say, ‘Let’s do a rueda de casino.’ What’s up with that?”

The answer to that is simple, albeit a mouthful: context appropriateness. First, notice that they don’t say, “Let’s dance rueda” because they know rueda is not the dance. When they say “”Let’s do a rueda,” it’s the right context: everybody is dancing casino individually, and someone decides that they should all get into a rueda, so he/she shouts out to get in that formation; or the music is playing, and it’s casino dancing music (son), and someone says, “Let’s do a rueda,” it is implied that the rueda will be the formation in which they will dance casino, because that is what they were going to dance even if they were not in the rueda.

But I repeat, they don’t say, “Let’s dance rueda,” as if rueda was a dance.

So let us get the terminology straight.

The dance is called casino.

Casino can be danced with a person, individually.

On the other hand, it can also be danced with a number of people; when this happens, couples arrange themselves in a circular formation known as a rueda.

Rueda is the formation and casino the dance. Therefore, when people dance casino in a rueda, they are not dancing rueda, they are still dancing casino.

And this way of dancing casino in a rueda formation is called rueda de casino.

Omit de casino at your own risk.

P.S. Want to know more about rueda de casino? Read part two by clicking here!