Should Ruedas be Used to Introduce People to the Dance of Casino?

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Written by James Bucklew.

Why is it that beginner dancers are so attracted to ruedas?  After watching an elegant demonstration of the Cuban dance of son or watching a great chachachá, or even just two very accomplished casino dancers grooving to the driving rhythm of a timba song, they’ll perhaps clap politely and acknowledge the grace of the dance.   But when they see a rueda de casino for the first time, the response is much more akin to, “What is that?!” and, even more importantly to us dance teachers, “I would like to try that!”

And so the whole sad spiral begins.

Why “sad spiral”?  Well, this blog post is precisely about this phenomenon.  In order to get people interested in Cuban dance, we have long depended on the social attractiveness of rueda de casino to enlist more students and members to our dance groups.  The fundamental problem is that rueda de casino is most emphatically not a beginner enterprise.

Let’s take Cuba, where rueda de casino originated. In the island, most everyone gets some introduction to casino dancing.  From family, from friends, at school (yes there are classes in some Cuban high schools), in Casas de la Cultura, etc., there is an ambience from which one can learn to move with the music and do some of at least the most basic of casino figures.  Most Cubans can find the beat (whether it is one, five, three, or some other number should be the subject of another blog post) and have some notion of leading and following. With a sufficient amount of motivation, they can dance an entire song with their partner.  And if one, as a Cuban, were particularly interested in dancing after having archieved some level of mastery of the dance, then that person could perhaps consider joining a local rueda group.

That is the point. It is inconceivable in the land of origin of rueda de casino that beginners without any previous dance experience would begin dancing that particular advanced dance form.

But outside of Cuba we do it backwards.  Could it be that perhaps we in Europe and the United States have found a new way to teach Cuban dance and get people interested in it?  Well, most definitely we have a new methodology. However, it is one that I have come to perceive as a gigantic failure.  The evidence is all around us, but we don’t want to see it.  The reason that I have come to dislike this philosophy of learning rueda de casino first is that I, as a Cuban dance teacher, spend virtually my whole time correcting problems that beginners developed by starting off dancing rueda de casino.

What follows is an incomplete list of the main issues in this problematic relationship between beginner casino dancers and rueda de casino.

1)  Most fundamentally, you have to be able to find the beat and continue moving your body to that beat consistently throughout a song.   Cuban music is awesome. To the initiate, it sounds so exotic!  But also, to a beginner salsa or casino dancer, it is intimidating. In fact, many beginners have told me that it seems like it is an incomprehensible “wall of percussion” coming at them.  They have no idea of where the beat is (or which one to pay attention to).  Being in the rueda, on the other hand, helps them overcome this issue because there is someone calling the moves, letting them know of where the beat is, keeping the count.

The problem is that this process does very little to teach students exactly how to find the beat on their own.  They are always dependent on the rueda leader to tell and show them where the beat is.  And if they can’t find the beat on their own, they can’t even begin to consider the other important aspects of the music that will allow them to develop other necessary skill sets for pair dancing.  You need to be able to understand the rhythmic structure of the music to be able to not just find the beat once but to carry out that beat reliably throughout an entire song.  Pair dancing makes you evolve, makes you listen to the different parts of the song, makes you come to understand and listen for the patterns of the cowbell, conga drums, timbales, and bongo.  Dancing in a group minimizes or makes superfluous this crucial skill.

2)  A pair dance requires that someone is the lead and that someone is the follow.  That implies that the dancers have to know the basic rules of leading and following.  Without those rules being followed (whether there is awareness of them or not), any pair dance is impossible.  For a clean dance, the lead must be clear and unequivocal and the follow must know exactly what his/her responsibilities are in following that lead.  The follow must learn to wait for the lead and dance to the rhythm of the leader.  I’m not saying just dancing on beat but rather dancing to the rhythm of the leader, which is very different.

The way most casino groups run is that there is virtually no lead and follow technique developed at all.  Rueda de casino as practiced outside of the island is a series of called choreographies.  When enchufa (enchúfala, enchufe, or lots of other names are used) is called, what happens?  The lead makes a vague arm motion (e.g. maybe yanking the follow forward on one and immediately raising the arm). By then, the follow has already started forward on beat eight and a half and does her own step sequence, ignoring (justifiably) the incomprehensible arm movements of the “lead”.

In other words, the leader and follower will do their part regardless of whether they led or were led correctly.  No one is actually leading or following anything.  They are simply performing the choreographed steps of a rueda figure.  And all they need for that is a caller to tell them when.

So we do a partner change and everyone is smiling.  We’re dancing!  The problem comes on the dance floor when no one is yelling the name of the figure so that both partners know what is about to happen.

I’m going to geek out a little bit on a technical detail here, just to give an idea of one of the important fundamental problems that arise from not teaching casino leading and following techniques in rueda de casino.  Living in the United States, what I see most is that given that leading and following are not typically taught in rueda de casino groups, people fall back on or learn from others or, so help me, actually learn from their so-called “casino teachers” various American salsa techniques of leading and following.

But this sort of leading and following is not applicable to Cuban style casino.  In casino, the follow should always move forward, (i.e. there is no need for back stepping or marking backwards or, most importantly, for the leader to lead a back step).  (Please note that this is polemical; a minority of Cuban follows do take back steps but even here they are not led back steps.  And in the vast majority of those cases, the back step is not done with the weight of the body.  It is more of a marking step backwards. )  When the movement is always forward, then there is no need for “in-line” arm tension for the follow.  The follow’s arm is a dead weight (no arm tension) in the direction of forward travel (for side movements, however, it is rigid which allows the leader to lead pivots and turns).  In American salsa, back stepping is an important part of the dance.  The leader must be able to lead that aspect of the dance which means that in-line arm tension is a necessity. Yet this is the exact opposite of the requirements of leading and following in casino dancing.  This one factor of arm tension creates a completely different feel and flow to casino versus salsa dancing.  In my opinion, you cannot dance casino well with rigid “salsa” arms.

3) The essence of good social dance is the expression of the music.  Someone that does that well is said to have musicality.  Again, this is different than staying on beat.  This is hearing the different parts of the song, the introduction, the montuno, the coda, the various solos, the accents, etc., and being able to express with your figure selection and body movements what is going on in the music.  The only way to develop this musicality is to listen deeply to the music, become familiar with its structures, to develop an emotional response and be able to express that response through your dance.

As a member of rueda, this process is completely outside of what you do.  You follow the pattern choice of the caller. End of story with regard to musicality.  It’s possible (though rare in most ruedas) that the caller may have some sense of musicality (him/her)self and may call figures in keeping with the song, but it is much more difficult to pull this off in a rueda than in a social dance.  Most ruedas are just a called sequence of the usual moves:  70, enchufa, enchufa doble, etc. without any relation to the music other than its fundamental beat structure.  It accustoms the dancers to thinking of the dance as just a sequence of figures carried out more or less successfully to the beat.

4)  Perhaps the most pernicious effect of learning casino via ruedas is the inevitable distortions of pair dancing principles caused by dancing in the geometric confines of that circle.  The geometric nature of rueda, as it is usually danced where almost every figure, terminates with a Dile Que No into the open position, imposing a tight spatial constraint on every figure. There, no matter what small missteps have occurred, the follow and lead must rigidly be in a certain place at a certain time.  One common result is L-shaped dance trajectories instead of circular arcs.   Another is that rueda dancers learn to take big steps since in the rueda they routinely dance too far apart and they’re constantly trying to cover a distance in the rueda which is almost invariably too large.  I’ve never seen a group of beginners have a small tight rueda.

This phenomenon of ending up with unequal sized footsteps in order to make rueda figures work out can be seen in the following video.  Look at the relative sizing of his footsteps as he counts “6” for example in the first minute or so of the video.

In pair dancing, however, the importance is on staying close and taking even sized small steps. It is the exact opposite philosophy of a rueda.: if it is necessary to rotate the axis of the pair a little bit more or less, it isn’t a problem. Good dance principles are maintained. Compare that result with the footstep size and consistency of the casino dancers in the first minute or so of this video:

5) Casino is a complex dance in comparison to many other Latin dances.  In contrast to salsa, with its dancers going back and forth in a slot or with just a couple of more or less obvious dance positions (open and closed), casino has a more complex structure.  It is a circular dance with the dance trajectories defined by arcs of a circle.  It has a geometry defined by the overall geometry of the rueda from which it came from (i.e. pair dancers in open position orient themselves to the center of an imaginary rueda). But as the dance progresses, that center is allowed to vary and reestablish itself every 8 counts of the music, if desired.   Casino, in contrast to the two positions of salsa, has three positions: open, closed, and “to the side” (sometimes called the “caída” position).  Every eight beats of the music, the dancers must be (jointly) in one of these three positions.

Salsa is based on a slot. It is easy to know “where you are.”  Casino is more free-flowing. Our position is not something that we can discern from a fixed point in space; rather, it is gleaned from our position relative to our partner. There are more or less required steps coming from each of these three positions and so the dancers must be able to recognize “where they are or what position they are in.”  In a complex circle dance like casino, this guiding principle helps us to organize what would otherwise be a chaotic sequence of footsteps into something having a recognizable structure.  This underlying structure allows us to then improvise within that structure and create a free flowing fun dance experience for ourselves and our partner.

People who dance exclusively in a rueda never develop this sense of where they are.  They know where they are in the rueda since almost all of the figures terminate in open position, oriented towards the same fixed center of the circle.  The fixed center of the circle, in turn, never varies. All figures end in the open position and establish the same orientation— usually some open position basics (guapea) is done—, reestablishing the beat; then the next figure is called.  You don’t have to know where you are relative to your partner since your position is established by the other dancers in the rueda.  A positional sense of awareness can never develop mainly because there is no need of it.

So what ends up happening is that, when these dancers try to pair dance, they are severely limited in their abilities to choreograph in their minds what figures can begin from a certain set of moves. For example, enchufa starts from open and ends in caída, then exhíbela starts in caída and ends in caída.  Good casino dancers do this process whether they know it or not.

You may be saying, “I don’t care that much about pair dancing, I just want to dance rueda anyway.  For my pair dancing, I’ll just dance merengue or something simple.” That’s fine.  But the most pernicious effect of dancing in ruedas all of the time is that your rueda will always be composed of beginner casino dancers who, as we have explored here, actually know very little casino principles/techniques.  It is called “rueda de casino” for a reason.  It is casino dancing performed in a rueda.  You will always have people that don’t really know where the beat is by themselves; people who have no idea of the why and why-not of how figures operate, of good movement and positional awareness during the execution of a long figure sequence.  Such ruedas are forever condemned to be unimaginative and boring.  In a previous blog post, Daybert Linares has touched on exactly this phenomenon as to why he usually doesn’t like to dance in ruedas.

So what is to be done?  Nothing but the obvious, really: to insist on teaching the fundamentals of casino (the basic positions, the son basic step, how to move between the basic positions, fundamentals of lead and follow, etc.—I even teach the structure of the music and musical awareness) before putting people in a rueda. It is not an easy thing. In my case, many beginners drop out because, well, this stuff is hard.  Then again, it is hard to be a beginner in any pair dance form.  It’s called “beginner hell” for a reason.

So yes, I end up with probably fewer students; but I think those fewer are more committed and end up as better pair dancers. And as a final result, our ruedas—when we do get into them—are better, too!

About the Author:

James (Jim) Antonio Bucklew beginning with the first steps of the Cuban son danced with his Camagüeyana mother has been learning, dancing and teaching Cuban dances for more years than he cares to admit. He has studied under several famous Cuban teachers on the island, in Miami and in Europe.  He is one of the founders of Madison Rueda and has been teaching rueda de casino and pair dancing in southern Wisconsin for the last 10 years. Most recently he has been teaching and learning casino in the vibrant Cuban dance scene of the Canary Islands of Spain.  He is currently teaching and dancing with the Rueda 505 Cuban dance group in northern New Mexico.

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