dancing like a Cuban

Recommended reading: The Fallacy of Learning to Dance Casino ‘the Cuban Way’

Many non-Cuban casineros would consider the praise, “You dance like a Cuban” to be the pinnacle of their Cuban dance trajectory. It makes sense: if you set out to learn a Cuban dance like casino, Cubans would logically be your points of reference and role models; the people you eventually want to look like when dancing casino. Indeed, even as people start dancing at a dance academy somewhere in, say Poland, France, or Japan, eventually traveling to Cuba and experiencing the dance with the people who developed it becomes part of the dance experience. The trip to Cuba—learning from Cubans in the island—for many, is an imperative.

This “going to the source”—or the wishing of it, as is the case for many U.S. people for whom travel to Cuba is not an easy feat, even as some of the restrictions thaw—highlights a very clear demarcation between what I call in this essay “the places of culture.” That is, where cultures are geographically located. Wanting to go to Cuba to learn casino pinpoints, for these people who wish to travel to the island, a specific place where one can experience Cuban culture—Cuba. The implied message here is that Cuban culture cannot be experienced in any other place but Cuba itself.

This idea that, for many, geographical location constitutes the place of culture gains strength when one considers the following: most Cuban dance instructors who reside outside of Cuba do so, for the most part, in Europe. It makes sense. If instructors and artists want to make a living off of Cuban dance, they have to go to places where, unlike the United States, a) there is a profitable market for Cuban music (without music there wouldn’t be any incentive to learn to dance); and b) there are tangible, unrestricted connections with Cuba (easiness of travel and cultural exchange) which furthers interest in Cuban culture. These instructors abroad are often taken to be representatives of Cuban culture. However—and this is the important part—no matter how “Cuban” these instructors might be, they are rarely seen as substitutes for traveling to the island to learn to dance there. Notwithstanding other factors that contribute to people wanting to visit Cuba, as far as dancing is concerned, the fact that people choose to go to Cuba even as their dance instructor is Cuban furthers the idea that “Cubanness” is, to a certain degree, lost once it leaves its original geographical location. Only by going to Cuba can this “Cubanness” be really experienced.

Indeed, people seem to intuitively understand that the “place of culture” they inhabit (i.e. Europe) prohibits them from fully experiencing any other culture that might attempt to carve a place for itself within the hegemonic—dominant—culture. For those who wish to truly learn to dance “like a Cuban,” then, visiting Cuba is a must.

(I want to clarify that this is just me attempting to think about what other people think about when they decide that their Cuban dance trajectory merits one or several trips to the island. So please don’t take this as fact, but rather as part of the rhetoric this essay is attempting to employ to make a certain argument.)

The idea of going to Cuba as a way of validating a certain cultural experience which typically begins at a dance studio and, ultimately, as a way of learning to dance “like a Cuban” is what I would like to question in this piece.

And to do that, I’d like to invite you to think about languages.

In the study of second language acquisition (SLA), a branch of linguistics, there is a hypothesis that throughout the years has been hotly debated and contested. Known as the “Critical Period Hypothesis” (CPH) this hypothesis states that, in the case of a second language, there is a limited window of opportunity—a critical period—in which a person can obtain native-like proficiency in a language other than their native language. This window of opportunity is closely linked to age: the younger you are, the easier it will be to acquire and understand the underlying rules of grammar and syntax of the second language. CPH has also been used in SLA in relation to phonetics; that is, to account for accents in second language. The younger you are when you learn a language, the least traces of an accent you’ll have—if at all. There are, of course, exceptions to all this, but several studies have shown that this is the case.

All this talk about SLA and CPH has a purpose: I want you to think of dance, and in this case Cuban dance, as a language.

In this juxtaposing of language and dance, think of Cubans as the “native speakers.” Now, to be a “native speaker” of the dance, there are a number of factors that have to be in place. I’m not going to make a list of them because they vary across regions and people, but I do want to focus on one which I believe is a constant among most Cubans who learn to dance in the island.

And that common denominator is the way in which Cuban dance is passed down among Cubans living in the island.

Notice the emphasis above. Passed down. Not taught. This semantic difference makes—and excuse the redundancy—all the difference in the world. What I mean by the dance being passed down and not taught is that the way people learn to dance in Cuba implies a very different system than what people use to learn casino—or any other Cuban dance—abroad. For most Cubans, casino is not something that you learn by going to an academy and having an instructor break things down for you, step by step, count by count. What takes place at a dance academy is what I consider teaching: the communication of very explicit sets of rules which allow the individual to interact with an already-established system. For instance, a child being taught to urinate in the toilet and not in the kitchen sink because, within society, that is what is expected. To bring it back to dance, you are taught so that you might interact successfully with the “system”; so that, in the strictest sense, you can dance with other people within a setting (i.e. a social, a congress, house party) where that is what is expected. Having been taught the rules allows you to function within that context.

Passing down something onto another person, to me, implies a little more than the simple act of teaching. It can certainly encompass teaching to a certain extent; there can be explicit, rules-based instruction. But the passing down of something differs from the teaching of something, in my view, in that, when things are passed down, they often result in actions which extent beyond mere functionality of that which is learned. That is, the individual is not only able to function within that context, but to also experience the several factors which influence and shape this context. For instance, a person asking  their mother to teach them some basic steps after she’s done cooking (my case); practicing with their peers during school recess and learn from each other as they do so; imitating what their friends and family do when they dance during social outings. This passing down of information is occurring in a way that is inextricable from its cultural surroundings. In other words, it’s not the culturally-decontextualized one-two-three-five-six-seven of the dance studio (because, most of the time, that really is all you get from the instructor).

This passing down of dance, affected by the cultural conditions of a specific “place of culture” makes it impossible to replicate it, fully, in any other “place of culture.” Least of all a dance studio. Bringing it back to languages, that is why English sounds differently in England than it does in the United States, than it does in Australia or South Africa, even though it is the same language.

The Critical Period (CP; see above) in this case would not apply to how old one is when one learns to dance casino as much as it’d apply—and this is what I’m arguing—to how much more of a dance, taken out of its cultural context, the person in question has already been exposed to.

In keeping with the language-dance parallel, to attain native-like proficiency, to be able to dance “like a Cuban,” then, you’d have to ideally be surrounded, throughout the process of learning, by the “place of culture.” This is why people ultimately wish to go to Cuba in order to learn and get their “Cubanness” on.

Regrettably, this is something that, for non-natives, is ultimately futile.

It is not because they were not born there or did not learn when they were young. There are many Cubans in the island who learn casino in their twenties and up. The reason is because, for these Cubans, even those who are learning late, when they do learn to dance casino, this casino they are learning is, in linguistic terms, their “native/first language.” Whereas for people who do not live on the island, the casino that they may learn when they visit would constitute a “second language” for the simple reason that most of them were already taught some form of casino (or “Cuban salsa”) before visiting the island.

In the case that there are people who learn casino for the first time during a visit to the island, their status of tourist—of someone who is not really experiencing the culture in its “native” context (if you observe where tourists stay and the things they do when they visit vs. how Cubans live their everyday life, you’ll see what I mean)—denies them access to native-like acquisition. Even if this tourist decides to attempt to experience life and Cuban culture like the natives do for the duration of their stay, it should not be forgotten that this person really never shrugs off their tourist status. Indeed, the always-looming return flight impedes a full cultural immersion. The person will, ultimately, leave. This was never their “place of culture.”

When most people come to Cuba, then, they already come with a “language.” For the most part, this language is what they have been taught at the academies by a number of instructors. This is their “native language” which, as we have seen, differs greatly from the “native language” of the Cubans, making instruction in Cuba, then, be like learning a second language. In other words, you’re not starting from zero. And because you missed your CP, mostly because you didn’t live in the island and were affected by it when you were learning the first time around, you’re now in a position where language learning becomes relational: you start trying to make sense of the second language through your first language. (Anyone who has attempted to learn a second language knows that there is a lot of back and forth translation in your head at the beginning; and that it never fully goes away.)

The Cubans from whom you learn, in turn, will speak your language. That is, they will teach you. Sure, you’re in Cuba, surrounded by the place of culture. But at the moment of learning, you’re in front of an instructor in a makeshift studio (probably someone’s living room or patio). You are, in many ways, recreating your place of culture. Of course, the Cubans in Cuba don’t fully speak your dance language, and so instruction there will be different from what you’re used to, which helps foment the idea that you’re having a true cultural experience. On the other hand, there will be some things that you will be taught that, though you will try to imitate, you won’t fully understand and thus will not internalize because you don’t have the cultural background to do so, as these things are residues of the passing down of dance knowledge rather than the teaching of it. It’s the same linguistic concept of having a word in one language that, because of its specific context, a translation, no matter how good, will ever be able to encompass what it truly means. The German word poltergeist comes to mind. Translating this as “ghost” doesn’t really do it justice. In the same way, the famous Cuban greeting, ¿Qué volá?, though it could be translated to “What’s up?” or “Howdy,” the translations inevitably fall short. Heck, even Cubans themselves don’t fully understand it. ¿Qué volá? is one of those sayings that gets passed down. Attempting to teach this saying is risible, at best.

Though I’ve been hammering the point that the chances of you learning to dance “like a Cuban” are stacked pretty high against you, I do want to end this piece on a rather positive note.

So you won’t be able to dance “like a Cuban.”

So what?

Is the language that you speak, in the way that you speak it, like any other outside of your place of culture? Even in instances of two places of culture having the same language, the accents will differ.

What I am trying to say is that, when learning Cuban dance, you are going to inevitably be influenced by your place of culture, by the cultural practices that surround you.

And it is OK to embrace them and use them to affect your casino dancing in a way that speaks to you.

Think of it as an accent. We all have an accent. Indeed, even if you’re a native speaker of a language, you’ll still have a accent when compared to a native speaker of the same language who lives in a different country, or even within the same country, just in a different region.

With this, I’m not saying, “Do whatever and call it ‘casino.’” That’d be akin to writing a sentence using words from French, Spanish, and Hebrew, and calling the result “Spanish.” That’s ridiculous. What I am saying is, “Work with what you have.” Work within the parameters of the dance; don’t be afraid to give it your own flavor, wherever you come from, as long as what you do still looks like casino. (Of course, this leads to the question, “At what point does it stop looking like casino, then?” I’ll leave the answer to those who care to argue about those things, as I am personally coming from a place where I’m more accepting of differences.) In the event that the product does end up looking completely different (think of the trilingual sentence example above), please do call it something else.

I know that if cultural purists were to read this, they would be rolling in their chairs right now. In response, I ask: Isn’t the Spanish spoken in Cuba accentuated differently than in Spain, where the language originated? If the people in Cuba had simply taken the Spanish language as it was originally given to them, Cubans wouldn’t speak the way they do today, wouldn’t have the sayings they have, the particular words they use for particular things. (And even within Cuba accents vary! Just visit Santiago de Cuba and La Habana—another reason to acknowledge, and accept, differences.)

To pretend that cultural products which leave their original place of culture and get to another place of culture do so without undergoing any transformation at all is laughable in its premise and narrow-mindedness.

It isn’t about getting people to dance “like a Cuban” when they dance. It’s about getting people to dance a Cuban dance like themselves.