The year was 2010. The event: the famous Orlando International Salsa Congress. It was my first dance congress. It, too, was the first time I got exposed to what “Cuba” and its music and dances really meant in the overall “Latin” dance community in the United States; that is, it pretty much meant nothing. Cuba was directly absent on DJs playlists as well as on the dance floor. All throughout that weekend, DJs did not play any music from Cuban musicians—though what they were playing was Cuban music; the dance floor, likewise, was filled with people who only knew how to dance American salsa.
As a casinero, I was pretty bummed. I remember trying, time and again, to dance casino with different salsa dancers and just feeling utterly helpless as I realized that they could not follow what I was doing, and if they did, it would feel very awkward.
I kept trying, and I kept failing, until, at some point, it just dawned on me: we are not dancing the same dance.
Looking back, that should have been obvious to me. However, back then the dance of casino had been very heavily marketed to me as a style of salsa dancing (e.g. “casino-style salsa”). Therefore, I believed it was salsa. In fact, I called it salsa, like many of my Cuban friends still do.
So why did I, a Cuban, thought that casino was salsa? For the same reason that a lot of other Cubans, living inside and outside of the island, think the same thing: I was misinformed. I did not know the history. I had not done my research.
The Orlando International Salsa Congress was my wake-up call. After seeing how Cuba and its contribution to music and dance had been so readily discarded at this event, I started doing serious research to attempt to understand why this was happening. Many of the conclusions I have made over these past few years, based on this extensive research, have already been expressed in my other blog posts.
But back to topic. This realization—that salsa and casino are two different dances—was followed later by another realization which took some months to set in and be internalized. This latter realization came about on a night of frustration, as I departed a salsa dance social and asked myself the same question, over and over again: “Why do I keep trying to make salsa dancers dance casino with me? Why do I expect them to know what I am doing?”
Thing is, I should not have expected salsa dancers to know how to dance casino. Heck, some of them probably only knew casino—if they knew it at all—as “rueda”, and did not even know it could be danced outside of this formation.
But I did expect it, and I think a number of you reading this, in some way or another, do too. And the reason a number of you expect this is because you still perceive casino as a style of the same dance: salsa. If that is the case for you, I strongly urge you to reconsider.
What is the point of writing all this? Is the point to say that casino dancers should not dance with salsa dancers, because, allegedly, they dance two different dances?
Not at all!
You see, a lot of people have come up to me over the years with this issue. They want to know what to do when they are in a salsa social and the people there do not know how to dance casino. They have come to me, either complaining that their partners cannot follow/lead them properly, or they want to know the leads in casino that the salsa dancer will follow. In their minds, these two dances are similar enough that some kind of middle ground can be found.
To those who come up to me, I always recommend to them the solution I found for myself a couple of years ago. It’s a no-brainer, really: learn to dance American salsa. That about solves the problem.
And why not? Would you go to a kizomba social, only knowing how to dance bachata, and expect the people there to dance bachata with you?
No, right? Well, it is the same principle here. The hard part is getting in the mindset that casino and salsa are two different dances. Yet, the sooner you do that, the easier your dancing woes and troubles will be fixed, and the less frustrations you will have, when you encounter yourself in a room full of salsa dancers.
In other words, I am not saying that casino dancers should not dance with salsa dancers. I am saying that casino dancers should dance salsa with salsa dancers.
I am not advocating division. The division is already there, for those who have the eyes to see it. That is why I began this post with the Orlando salsa congress anecdote. Because right then and there I noticed how the Cuban dance community—and specifically the casineros—are treated by the larger majority of salsa dancers; that is, as if they don’t exist.
Or else, why do you think Cuba is the only Latin American country that gets its own dance congress within the United States when it comes to what people think of as “salsa”? Exactly! Because, in the salsa congresses, Cuba is rarely—if ever—present.
So the division is there. And while it’s nice to think that, because we dance a “style” of salsa (we don’t), we are part of the bigger community, the division remains there to remind us that the casino dancers are not part of the “salsa community” even though many casino dancers try to “fit-in” by adjusting their circular casino steps to the more linear American salsa, or by mixing up the two dances as if they were one and the same. Those people would say they are “evolving” the dance. To them, I say, “You don’t see that mixing from the salsa dancers when it comes to casino.”
Think about it. When have you seen salsa dancers throw in a “Vacila” in their repertoire? When have you seen them do “Dile que no”? And yet casineros, in their desperation to fit in and be able to dance what they were taught with everybody, are compromising and doing cross-body leads and doing right turns all the time. In short, this “evolution” by mixing the two dances is only happening one-way.
I am not advocating division. That division is already there. What I am advocating is respect. Because I want people to actually dance casino.
By trying to mix the dances in order to fit in in the bigger community—of which we are not considered a part of, to begin with—or by trying to get salsa dancers to dance casino with us, the awkward result looks more like a mediocre version of what it was originally intended to be. On top of this, you will put off the salsa dancer who may be interested in learning your dance. For instance, if the experience that this salsa dancer gets when dancing with you is that of an awkward dance—and it will be—then they will be discouraged from trying it out in the future.
Respect the salsa dancers. Learn their dance instead of trying to change it by mixing it with casino having a difficult “conversation” with your partner throughout the song.
But more importantly, respect your own dance. Respect what you do. No one else will do it for you if you do not. Once you do, you will see that, even though salsa dancers may not necessarily want to learn casino, at least they will know that the dances are different and will respect that difference; and instead of “Cuban style” or whatever other label they use for it, they will start calling it casino.
And as a casino dancer, that is all you can really ask for.