On Rueda de Casino (II): How We Perceive the Rueda Outside of Cuba vs. How It Is Actually Perceived in Cuba

Suggested reading: On Rueda de Casino: When Did It Become Just “Rueda,” Anyway?

In my last post, I talked about one of the biggest misconceptions about rueda de casino: that there is such thing as a dance called “rueda.” In a nutshell, the main point was that rueda is not a dance; it is the formation in which the dance of casino is done sometimes, but not the dance itself. For a more in-depth explanation of this, I strongly recommend you read that post, even before reading this one.

This post, thematically, will be similar: it will be about rueda de casino. Where it will bifurcate from the previous post on rueda de casino is that it will be less about the terminology itself, and more about how the dance of rueda de casino is perceived, and danced, outside of Cuba; it will then compare what happens with rueda de casino outside of Cuba, and what actually happens on the island. Lastly, I will conclude with some suggestions for improving your rueda de casino experience, based on the comparison previously made.

So first, let us talk about rueda de casino outside of Cuba. (To my readers, keep in mind that I live in the United States; therefore a lot of the things I say are based on what I see here; my knowledge of the scene in Europe is minimal, as I gather my information mostly through YouTube videos.)

When you first came into contact with casino, if you live in the States, chances are you did it through a rueda de casino class. Your first class was probably filled with clapping and jumping (“Un fly”), shouting (“Una bulla”), stomping (“Suénala”) and on top of all of this, you found yourself constantly switching from partner to partner (“Dame”). This was unlike anything you had seen before, as far as dances go, and you probably got hooked in the fun of it all. You found yourself laughing with the others as you all tried to figure out, and do, the calls. You came back the next class, and learned some more calls, and as you kept coming, your repertoire of moves to do in the rueda grew. Soon, you were going to clubs; you were doing this dance with other people who also knew it. And if you found yourself dancing out of town, you found, to your merriment, that you could also be part of a rueda with people you did not know because they were doing the same calls you had been taught. All of this should definitely ring a bell with most of you.

Now, I just commented on how you may have gotten started with rueda de casino as a way of bringing up some observations, all of which can be inferred from reading the previous paragraph:

Observation #1: You were only taught how to dance in the rueda formation.

Observation #2: It was a fun dance to do, and it was accessible, easy; it did not require a lot of technique to learn and memorize the calls.

Observation #3: The calls you learned happened to be calls which even people from out of town knew, which allowed you to join in any rueda, anywhere.

In short, when it comes to rueda de casino, many people think that it was an easy and fun group dance that they could be a part of anywhere, because the calls were the same everywhere.

Some, or all of these will hold true, depending on what dance group or academy you started with. We can divide these dance groups/academies which teach rueda de casino into three groups:

Group #1: The strictly rueda de casino group. This type group specializes in rueda de casino, not teaching their students that casino can also be done outside of a rueda format. Usually they (erroneously) call what they dance “rueda” and cannot dance casino outside of the rueda formation.

Group #2: The hybrid group. This type of group teaches not only to dance rueda de casino, but also casino outside of the rueda formation. We can further divide this group into two subcategories.

(A)The group that teaches to dance the same moves in the rueda than in partner work, thus having the only difference between the two being the lack of a rueda.

(B) The group that makes a distinction between formats by teaching different moves in the rueda and different moves during partner work.

Group #3: The salsa group. There are some American salsa groups which focus on L.A. or N.Y. styles which have a small curriculum for rueda de casino. This group behaves like Group#1 in that they strictly teach rueda de casino when they teach casino, yet they don’t fall in the same category because they are, inherently, a salsa dance group or academy, not a rueda de casino one.

With the groups divided thus, we can now proceed to which observations usually apply to which group.

Usually, all of the three observations apply to both Group#1 and Group#3.

Let’s recapitulate:

Observation #1: You were only taught how to dance in the rueda formation.

Explanation: Because Group#1 is a strictly rueda de casino group, they do not teach to dance outside of this formation (Observation#1). For Group#3 the story is a bit different: they do not teach to dance outside of the rueda formation because they already have a dance outside of the rueda formation: salsa. Salsa is what they focus their partner work on; rueda de casino—or “rueda,” as they call it—on the other hand, provides something different than 1-on-1 dancing.

Observation #2: It was a fun dance to do, and it was accessible, easy; it did not require a lot of technique to learn and memorize the calls.

Explanation: The very nature of a rueda de casino dictates that every single person in that rueda has to be synchronized with the rest of the group, otherwise the calls do not come together. If the turn pattern requires everybody to work together and not mess up, and one person or couple makes a mistake, that is it for that move. It simply does not coalesce. Group#1 and Group#3 usually solve this problem two ways:

  • by keeping the moves simple and not too technical, and focusing on just “having fun.” I have found this to be the case specially with Group#3. Usually, the salsa academies which teach rueda de casino do so as a way to provide a dance that is not as technically challenging as salsa, or as space to just goof-off and just do whatever.
  • by teaching moves that are 1-on-1 moves (think Setenta, Sombrero), as opposed to moves that can only be done in the rueda formation. What I mean by this is that there are some moves which are done in the rueda which do not necessarily require a rueda formation to do them. In other words, these are moves that are all about you and your partner, and do not include anyone else (again, think of Setenta or Sombrero). Therefore, by teaching 1-on-1 turn patterns in a rueda formation, if someone messes up, the move does not come apart, which cannot be said for rueda-specific moves such as “Dame” or “Puente,” which require everyone to do it right, or else it will not work.

To illustrate this point, take a look at this video. With the exception of the “Dames”, every single move they do is a 1-on-1 move that can be done outside of a rueda.

Observation #3: The calls you learned happened to be calls which even people from out of town knew, which allowed you to join in any rueda, anywhere.

Explanation: I do not want to point fingers, but in this instance, I have to. There is no other way I can explain this observation without talking about these two dance academies from Miami: Salsa Lovers, and Salsa Racing. These two dance academies, the former led by Rene Gueits, and the latter by Henry Herrera, introduced casino to the U.S. in the late 90s through a series of Salsa Congress convocations in Miami but, most importantly, through a series of DVDs which have been widely watched, spread, and replicated by many across the world. The most successful has been the Salsa Lovers DVDs:

These DVDs do not make a point to distinguish between casino and and casino done in a rueda formation. I would know because I watched them all. Rather, because they always emphasize the rueda, what most people take from the Salsa Lovers’ DVD series, as well as Salsa Racing’s, is that the moves they do are applicable to the rueda because they all have names which can be called.

Because these were the only DVDs which reached a national and international audience, many people who were finding casino for the first time, thought that the dance was self-contained to the moves that the DVD taught. Therefore, people thought all ruedas did or had the same moves. That’s why, when you go out of town, and people ask you to join them in a rueda, they expect that you know the same moves they do; or vice versa; you expect them to do the same moves you were taught.

That’s where the genius of this marketing strategy came in: it was able to spread a version of rueda de casino as if that was rueda de casino. And at the same time, by focusing almost exclusively on moves which were 1-on-1 moves, but done in rueda format, they made it accessible to everybody. Otherwise rueda de casino would draw a lot of people away, when people realize that they can’t do a turn pattern because someone in the rueda keeps making a mistake and the move does not come together (because, again, a rueda-specific moves requires everybody to do it correctly; think “Dame dos”).

I will go into more detail about this apparently monolithic version of rueda de casino further down below. But for now let me talk about the last group: Group#2.

Let us recapitulate: Group #2: is the hybrid group. This type of group teaches not only to dance rueda de casino, but also casino outside of the rueda formation. We can further divide this group into two subcategories.

(A)The group that teaches to dance the same moves in the rueda than in partner work, thus having the only difference between the two being the lack of a rueda.

(B) The group that makes a distinction between formats by teaching different moves in the rueda and different moves during partner work.

Group#2.A is, so to speak, the brainchild of the Salsa Lovers and Salsa Racing DVDs. Most of the moves they do in the rueda are mostly out of those DVDs. The only exception is that this group has realized that the moves on the DVDs are not specifically confined to the rueda formation because, again, they are mostly 1-on-1 moves which can be done outside of it. This is not to say that they do not teach rueda-specific moves, but it is not what they focus on, for the most part. With all of this said, we can conclude that Observation#1, logically, does not apply to them; though Observation#2 does to a certain extent because they keep the turn patterns accessible and simple. Observation#3 is a definite because they are using the same moves from the DVDs.

Group#2.B is the better informed of the two, and by far the best type of group—though the minority— if you want to learn how to dance casino. This group has gone a step beyond Group#2.A in that they have realized that a number of many other things can be done in a rueda that cannot be done in 1-on-1 dancing—essentially that they do not have to be the same dance—and decided to go in-depth with the rueda formation, making their own rueda moves which only work for their rueda. Typically, some of the members of this group —and definitely its top instructors—have traveled to Cuba and seen what rueda de casino is like there, realized that those DVDs they watched were only one small part of the picture, then returned home with that knowledge and made the necessary changes. One of the best group of this type in the U.S. is Rumbanana, based out of Oregon. Take a look at this video. They are doing rueda de casino, and they are doing a rueda specific-move that they themselves came up with.

Of course, you may have noticed that I am personally biased to prefer Group#2.B; there is a reason for that. And that reason is: this group dances rueda de casino in a way that resembles, more than in any of the other groups, how rueda de casino is danced in Cuba.

Let us take a look at this video, from the Rueda All Stars in Santiago de Cuba.

In this video you can really see what dancing in a rueda formation is really capable of doing. Yes, there are many 1-on-1 moves here (you can never get rid of those), but most of the turn patterns are rueda-specific. Take, for instance, the turn pattern which happens from 0:24 to 0:30. Imagine if instructors were to teach this move in their academies. They would spend a lot of time trying to make it come together because, again, everybody needs to get it right, and depending on the level of the students, the move may take more than one lesson to learn. So, right then are there, you see why the question of accessibility becomes paramount to instructors who are trying to make a viable business out of a rueda de casino class and get people to come to it. That’s why they resort to the Salsa Lovers DVDs, because that is the easy stuff that everybody can get. That is what is accessible to most people. It is the fool-proof formula.

But, I repeat, it is only one small part of the whole picture.

You see, Cuba is not a country where you can sit down in front of your computer, log on to the Internet, and look up rueda moves that other people from Cuba are doing. Though there are some basic moves that all ruedas share, like Dame or Enchufa because rueda de casino, in its very early stages (let’s remember that it began in 1957, give or take a year) was first spread from Havana to the many parts of Cuba through the people who volunteered to the National Literacy Campaign in 1961.  When rueda de casino traveled outside of Havana, the majority of people who came into contact with it were given only a certain number of moves, which, by the way, did not even get the same names. For instance, what some people may know as “Exhibe,” others know as “Sácala.” And the famous, brand-specific “Coca-Cola” is actually known as a brand-less, generic “Botella” (bottle) in Cuba.

However, as the years passed, people began making moves of their own, and because there was no Internet at the time, no one had way of knowing the moves unless they personally saw them. More importantly, however, people began making their own ruedas, with moves which were specific to them. Soon, ruedas flourished throughout the cities. In one city you could have different ruedas, composed of different people, all of them with their own signature moves. That is, none of them would look alike in their execution of casino within the rueda formation. Granted, they all shared some common moves like the Dame and the Enchufa—they had to. But everything else was their own.

Let us see an example of this. Take a look at these two videos. Are these ruedas the same?

Again, though they share some common moves, these ruedas are not the same. They don’t look the same. You cannot say that they are doing the same moves in the two ruedas. And of course they are not, because these two ruedas have their own signature moves which they came up with.

And yet, here in the States, in every single rueda you do, no matter if you are dancing in or out of town, the moves they call are, most of the time, the same: Enchufla, Adios, Setenta, Sombrero, Siete, Coca-Cola, Kentucky, Montaña, Dedo. The list goes on and can be traced back to the Salsa Lovers and Salsa Racing DVDs.

That is the perception that we have of rueda de casino outside of Cuba: a dance with turn patterns that, once you learn them, can be used anywhere; a dance that you do just for fun, because these moves do not require a lot of technique to be done.

Everybody can join the rueda. C’mon in. It’s fun!

Well, yes…and no.

Don’t get me wrong, rueda de casino is fun. But there is so much more that we could be doing with it. The imagery that I always like to use is that we have an orange in our hands but we are not squeezing it to get the juice out.

Rueda de casino is not supposed to be so monotone. It is not supposed to have the same moves called all the time. In fact, ruedas are not supposed to be all-inclusive. Ruedas are supposed to be exclusive. That is how you get a really good rueda going. The people in the rueda do not have to rely on simple calls but rather they could take everything that this formation has to offer to create something new with it. Turn patterns that would leave those watching open-mouthed and wondering how it is possible that they are doing that. Wasn’t that your reaction that the Rueda All Stars had on you when you watched their video above?

That’s how ruedas are finally going to get some respect outside of Cuba, because, again, right now they are seen as something simple and fun that you can just join and goof-off in. And let me tell you, you are missing out on a lot of cool things for perceiving it that way.

Of course, making it harder and more exclusive means that not everybody would be able to join. And I get it: as sensitive as people are in the States, you do not want to be mean to someone new who wants to join the rueda. You don’t want to be the one to say, “Sorry, buddy, but this is our rueda. You can’t join because you don’t know our calls.” But how else is a highly-technical rueda de casino going to happen? Every time someone joins because they think they can “dance rueda,” the level goes down, and it goes back to Dame, Enchufla, Adios, etc. All those easy calls.

I, for one, want something more challenging.

My recommendation to people who really want to squeeze the juice out of the orange when it comes to rueda de casino is: find people who want to go beyond the simple rueda stuff and make your own rueda, with your own moves and your own calls. And those moves you make, make them rueda-specific.

More importantly: Be exclusive. That is the key to a great rueda de casino. (How you go about doing that, I’ll leave that up to you.)

Sounds harsh, I know, but when you find yourself having fun dancing your rueda in front of a group of people who are marveling how cool the whole thing looks, believe me, the reward is pretty kick-ass.

P:S. Please feel free to share your thoughts below in the comment section!