On the Need for Afro-Cuban Dance Instruction to be More Specific and Less Panoramic


In the past, I have written pieces on Afro-Cuban dancing as it pertains to the dance of casino. You can find both pieces here and here. In them, I have talked about things that I see happening in the dance of casino as people start teaching to incorporate Afro-Cuban dancing into casino. That “incorporation” part is key to understanding where I come from when I write about this. That is, I only talk about Afro-Cuban dancing in the context of it being mixed with casino. I have not talked about Afro-Cuban dancing as its own entity. Two reasons for this. One: the blog is called “Son y Casino”, and so everything that I write here has to do with either son (music and dance) or the dance of casino (and rueda de casino). And two: because I’m not really equipped to do so, since my understanding of Afro-Cuban dancing is limited. I don’t delve into the Orishas for reasons I have extensively explained, and I while I know enough to distinguish (by sight) between the three styles of rumba and what each one entails, I don’t dance columbia (not to be confused with Colombia, the country) and have a very rudimentary knowledge of yambú. And though I can “defend” myself dancing a guaguancó, I still have a long way to go. (There are, of course, other dances in the Afro-Cuban dance tradition. I only mention these because these are the ones I have talked about.)

I do wish, however, that the part pertaining to my (lack of) rumba skills were different. That is, I wish my knowledge of yambú was more than rudimentary. I wish I could dance a mean guaguancó; that I could be a badass columbiero (rumba columbia dancer).

I wish. But right now, I really cannot. And this is not because I physically cannot, or because I do not have the time. But rather it is because of the nature of the majority of Afro-Cuban dance lessons that are being taught in the States.

In what follows, then—and this is what this piece will be about— I will attempt to explain why, despite that fact that I really want to learn rumba here in the States, for example, in most places I cannot, as well as what ends up happening because of the way Afro-Cuban dances are being taught. I will then conclude with a small, very logical suggestion, to what I see is a very real and palpable problem for many students who are seeking to delve into some (or all) of the Afro-Cuban dance tradition. Congruent with what I’ve said above, this is not strictly about Afro-Cuban dances. It is still pertinent to casino for reasons I will explain below.

So let’s get to it. When it comes to Afro-Cuban dance lessons, there is often no specificity to what is being taught. In my experience, Afro-Cuban dance classes are often a sort of panoramic view of the Afro-Cuban dance tradition, in which one day the students will learn to do some basic yambú, and the next lesson would be dedicated to, say, Yemayá. (Here I want to take a moment to say that this is not the case for every single Afro-Cuban dance class. There are instructors in the States who do teach a series of classes on just rumba guaguancó, for instance. But this is the minority.)

At any rate, because of its panoramic approach, students are being exposed to a number of Afro-Cuban dances. However, because the class itself is so broad in scope, students are not really acquiring the tools to be able to dance any one dance in specific. Think about your casino trajectory. Did you learn about all the complexities of casino in one or two classes? I’m pretty sure you did not. Likewise, I’m also pretty sure that it took more than one or two classes for you to muster up the courage to dance casino with someone on your own for the duration of an entire song.

With this in mind, it is no wonder, then, that the following scenario takes places at pretty much every single Cuban dance event—be it a social or a bigger congress—that I have attended.

The scenario is the following: Charanga Habanera is blasting through the speakers. The dance floor is packed with people dancing casino and rueda de casino. You are in the middle of that crowd. Then the song ends, the floor starts to clear up, yet you know it will be filled with people in seconds, as the next song from another “timba” band starts playing. But the next song is not by Alexander Abreu, Elito Revé, Manolito y su Trabuco, El Niño y La Verdad, Klimax, Los Van Van, Paulito FG, Adalberto Alvarez, Bamboleo, or all those other bands you are so used to dancing to. No. This time, the song that follows has a very distinctive sound: instruments-wise, you can only hear drums. There is nothing else. Just drums, and of course, the singing. Someone might tell you that you are listening to Muñequitos de Matanzas, an Afro-Cuban music band whose repertoire includes a lot of rumba. This particular song, they tell you, is a guaguancó. You nod your head in understanding, and that’s pretty much all you do because you realize that you are not comfortable enough to dance to this music on your own. Sure, you’ve taken a couple of Afro-Cuban dance classes, but not to the extent that you feel that you can ask a lady out to dance a guaguancó. As you look around, you start noticing that you are not alone. Everybody else is pretty much just standing there, listening to the music, not really knowing what they are supposed to do with this music they are not really used to dancing to. The dance floor, teeming with people moments before, is now empty. The music keeps playing, and it sounds like this:

It is at this point that instructors come into the picture. They gradually step into the dance floor as their bodies sway to the rhythm of guaguancó. Soon, he’s doing all sorts of things to try and “vaccinate” her. She, on the other hand, is doing everything in her power to fend him off. It’s the rooster and hen game, and you know this because that’s one of the things you remember, if anything, from the one or two guaguancó lessons that were offered as part of the “Afro-Cuban dance lessons” series.

The instructors’ dancing turns into a show, as you and every single other person which does not know how to dance guaguancó (which is pretty much everybody but the instructors) can do nothing else but watch. It’s a pretty damn good show, and you all applaud vociferously at the end.

Then the latest hit by Havana D’Primera comes on, and the dance floor begins to, again, flood with people.

If the above scenario has not happened to you, you either are one of those instructors, or the instructors have chosen to be inclusive and gotten the women and men to make lines and face each other, urging everybody to copy what they (the instructors) are doing.

The above scenario has been exactly the same thing that has happened to me at every single Cuban dance event I have attended. No exceptions. I have never in the years that I have been dancing casino here in the States witnessed a floor full of people socially dancing a guaguancó when that style of music gets played. Never, ever.

In fact, I was at an event this weekend where what I have described to you happened. And just three weekends ago, I was at a Cuban dance social where the DJ played a rumba columbia, and essentially the only two people on the dance floor dancing were the DJ himself (who knew how to dance it) and one of the instructors from the group that had put together the event. Everybody else was just watching.

The irony in all of this, as I witnessed it not only at this event this weekend, but pretty much everywhere else, is that some of the people who do not enter the dance floor during a strictly-guaguancó song for X or Y reason are the same people who do start doing guaguancó steps when they are dancing casino!

So, in my way of seeing this phenomenon (you might see it differently), what is happening is that a dance like rumba guaguancó, for instance, in the attempt to make it “current” and appealable to the “mainstream dance” (casino), is being taught more like an addition to casino than a dance in and of itself. I mean, that is the only way I can explain why someone who starts throwing vacunaos--a staple of guaguancó– everywhere when they are dancing casino suddenly becomes motionless during a guaguancó song. On the other hand, when it is taught as its own dance, it is often taught as part of a conglomerate of dances where the student does not really get to go in depth with any particular dance, thus rendering him/her once again motionless when a guaguancó song comes on. Indeed, he/she was not given the necessary tools to carry on a full song, but rather just enough to throw snippets of it here and there when they are dancing casino, where it really doesn’t go–unless the song has a guaguancó section–as I explain in this other post— like “Ave María qué calor” by Timbalive, for instance. (I am using guaguancó here as an example only. However, this is easily applicable to any one Afro-Cuban dance that is being taught as part of that conglomerate. Also, while many can argue that there is a need to being exposed to all the Afro-Cuban dances, some fail to see the point in specificity. After all, to learn casino or guaguancó or son or whatever other Cuban dance you specifically want to learn, you don’t have to get exposed to all dances from Latin America.)

I, for one, besides having my own personal desire to learn rumba (well) in all its styles, would love to see a packed dance floor, just like it was when Los Van Van was playing, but this time when rumba music plays.

And to do this, I think it necessitates a drastic change in the way Afro-Cuban dances classes are approached pedagogically. While I understand the need to expose students to all the different dances, there should also be a space where students, after being exposed, could learn a particular dance in more depth so that they can eventually learn to dance to whole songs, just like they do with casino. (It is important here to point out that, inversely, when teaching casino, most instructors rarely teach danzón, son, chachachá, or any other dance but casino.)

Why this does not happen as much as it should in the States is beyond me. Again, I am not versed in the Afro-Cuban dance tradition, but I would love to be in those things that I like, such as rumba. And there are a lot of people who are, and who are really, really good at it who are teaching. And yet their classes continue to be panoramic, and their students continue to essentially sit down or watch them, their instructors, when a style of music other than “timba” comes on at a social or congress. This is my humble call to those instructors to consider changing the theme of their Afro-Cuban classes toward something more specific. But it is also a call to the students to start requesting this of their instructors. Instructors often do not want to take financial risks renting studio space if they do not know if people will come to their classes. So you telling them that you want a specific class to be taught can make a very big difference.

Personally, I know that, where I live, if a strictly rumba guaguancó class series were to be offered for, say, six consecutive weeks or more, I would be the very first one to sign-up.