The Fallacy of Learning to Dance Casino the “Cuban Way”
Immersed in PhD duties as I am right now, I have barely had time to update this blog for a while. Today, however, a thought beckons, calls to be fleshed out, explained.
So I’ll go straight to the point—a thesis statement, if you will:
No one, and I mean absolutely no one, can tell you how Cubans dance.
The above statement also serves as a way of a disclaimer for this blog. The reason I say it is a disclaimer is because, with this blog, I am not seeking to tell you how to dance casino exactly like Cubans dance. In fact, in none of my pieces you will find anything resembling the following statement: “This is the way that it has to be done because that is how Cubans do it in Cuba.” Furthermore, nor am I seeking to construct a paradigm for casino dancing that will inevitably lead to me saying, “This is the only way you can dance casino.”
All am I seeking to do with this blog is to expose you “to a different way of looking at, or thinking about, a certain aspect of Cuban music or dance” (from “What is Son y Casino”).
But what is that “different way” to which I want to expose you?
Well, of course: my way.
This might be obvious to some of you who are more experienced dancers, but to others who are just beginning to come into contact with casino as a dance and are reading this blog for tips, historical references, etc., it might not be so obvious. Whichever the case, I want to make the aforementioned statement abundantly clear.
So I’ll repeat it again: by reading “Son y Casino”, you’re being exposed to Daybert’s way of looking at, understanding, and dancing casino.
Although I always make a point to clarify this during any workshops I give, the necessity to make the same statement in my blog became clear to me during a conversation I was having the other day with a good friend of mine. We were talking about the Casino Dancing Videos (from Cuba) page I had recently created (I strongly invite you to take a look at it if you have not done so already), and he was mentioning that, as he watched Cubans dance, he noticed they were not adhering to basic musicality concepts I had talked about in my blog, namely this piece, in which I explain how you can adjust your steps according to each section of the song. To which I responded that of course he was not going to see that, exactly as I had suggested he could do, because said suggestion had come from my own interpretation of the music and how it works. In fact, if you were to re-read that piece, you would not find any reference to how people in Cuba dance; for the videos that I show you as reference to make my point are all videos of me dancing casino.
The whole thing got me thinking, however. Are people who are reading my blog taking my word as an all-encompassing “truth” about how Cubans dance casino?
I sincerely hope not. And I sincerely hope that they are not doing that with anyone else’s words, either. The reason I am saying this is because, just like in this blog, where you’re reading about my own idiosyncrasies in dance—what I like to do and not to do—so are you getting the same from any instructor from whom you learn. The best example of this is found at Cuban dance congresses. I have often heard people talk about how, for them, it is often counterproductive to take workshops because every instructor has a different way of doing the same moves, or they call the same move by a different name, or that the basic steps one instructor does not match the same basic step of another instructor. (This is not a critique of the congresses themselves, but rather an observation of a very real phenomenon, which speaks to the various ways people, and in this case instructors, understand casino.)
The bottom line of what I am trying to say is that people who attend these Cuban dance congresses go in thinking they are going to learn how to dance casino as this nonfluctuating dance with has a certain set of moves that need to be mastered, but what they are really doing is learning casino as each different instructor from whom they take workshops experiences it, understandings it, and ultimately dances it.
The issue is, people are not being told this. And it makes sense, from a marketing point of view. If people want to learn how “Cubans dance,” and they are told that what they are learning is how this particular Cuban dances, well, that will not sell as much, or attract as many people. People want a cultural experience that transcends any individual instructor because they think of the dance as one single entity shared by a group of people (in this case Cubans).
But People, that doesn’t exist.
What I mean by this is is that casino as a dance exists and can be recognized when people see it. What doesn’t exist is any one way of dancing it as “the way” to dance casino.
The way I like to think about this is by comparing it to a language. Take Spanish, for example. Spanish comes from Spain, and currently it is the official language of twenty one countries. Now, when people from El Salvador and people from Bolivia speak Spanish, those who know Spanish can understand them. However, those who know Spanish will also notice that they have different accents when they speak, that their intonations are different, that they use different words to refer to the same thing. That while they are not speaking different languages, their way of experiencing the language varies according to their idiosyncrasies. This cross-lingual variation does not happen only between countries. It also happens within the country. In the case of Cuba, for example, the way Cubans speak in Havana (west) is not the way Cubans speak in Santiago (east). In fact, many westerners from Cuba poke fun at the way easterners speak Spanish because it sounds different.
(Bringing the topic to the U.S., doesn’t the same thing happen here? Do Northerners not make fun of Southerners because of their accents? Heck, even within cities in the north. Does New York not have its own distinct “accent” than people from Boston? So, you see, the same thing happens here, too.)
Let’s go back to Cuba for a second. If people in the eastern regions speak Spanish differently than people in the western region, could it be possible that they dance casino differently as well? (And again, I don’t mean to the point that it looks like another dance, but that it has its own “distinctive accents” that differentiate it from how people from the other regions of Cuba dance casino.) I would personally say so. And it would not be me just saying it. It would be any number of people who have traveled to Cuba and visited both regions and noticed the same thing (in fact, in some classes you’d find instructors selling their lessons as “Havana-style” or “Santiago-style”). Cubans themselves would say there is a difference, and as you watch the thirty-something videos on this page, you will find differences as well.
All of this to say: within Cuba, there is not “one way” of dancing casino. There is no “Cuban way” of dancing casino, just like there is not “Cuban way” of speaking Spanish in Cuba.
All an instructor can tell you is that there is simply “his/her way.” But again, many of them do not because if they were to tell you that, then they would be telling you, implicitly, that there are other “ways” to do it, that other instructors teach the same thing differently and therefore, if you find yourself not liking the class, you can go to another instructor and try them—which could lead to you possibly staying with the other instructor and the original instructor losing money.
So, marketing-wise, it is just easier to say, “This is the Cuban way” so that, even if you struggle to learn the dance with said instructor, you stick with him/her because every other instructor would teach you the same thing (because apparently “the Cuban way” is just one) and you will struggle just the same. In this scenario, the instructor does not lose your business.
But let me be clear again, no one can tell you how Cubans dance. No one can tell you they are teaching you to dance casino “the Cuban way.” That simply does not exist, and like many things, such as “Cuban salsa”, it is a marketing strategy to get you to try their business.
With this, I am not saying, “Don’t try to emulate Cubans when they dance. Instead, do whatever you feel like doing.” Don’t get that wrong. What I am saying is, “Do try to emulate Cubans–after all, that’s where casino comes from. Just don’t take one person’s way of dancing casino–however great it might be– to be representative of the way all Cubans dance in the island.” In other words, don’t take that person’s version of dancing casino as “the Cuban way.” That doesn’t exist.
As someone who is learning casino, then, all you can do is keep this in mind, learn from whom you like (could be one person, could be two, could be more), and, as we say in the U.S., “do your own thing” based on what you like as long as your sources are dancing casino. At the end of the day, that is what social dancing is all about.
When I write my pieces, I am not expecting what I am saying to become “the norm,” or saying them as if they were. All I am trying to do is to expose dancers to my way of looking at things so that, if they find something they like, they can take it with them and apply it in their dancing.
Thanks for reading!