Why Calling Casino “Salsa” Makes It Harder to Get Better at It
In late April, I was invited to attend and teach at a Cuban dance event in New York City. I taught three workshops there, one of them being a “Technique for Casino” class. That class began with a question that I always like to ask when I go to out-of-town events to teach casino.
I asked the attendees, “Who’s ready to learn some salsa?”
Most of them raised their hands.
So I asked them a follow-up question:
I looked at the people, and they seemed to be confused by this second question.
So I asked them a third question, “What’s the title of this workshop? The one on the schedule of the event which some of you were just taking a look at before coming in.”
Someone remembered and said, “Technique for Casino.” And I said, “Yes, indeed. So why are we ‘ready to learn some salsa’ if this is a casino class?”
So why were people ready to learn salsa in a casino technique workshop? Why were the attendees thinking that they were going to learn salsa even as the workshop title didn’t mention “salsa,” or the word “salsa” was nowhere to be found neither on the schedule of workshops, nor on the name of the event itself (6th Rueda and Cuban Dance Weekend)?
The easy answer is: because the labels “casino” and “(Cuban) salsa” are used interchangeably. To say “casino” is to also say “Cuban salsa”—or “salsa casino,” or “casino salsa,” or “casino-style salsa.”
But let’s take that easy answer a step further and question why this even happens. Why do people use these terms interchangeably?
To answer that question, we have to acknowledge the following: the dance exists within a capital-driven market, which feeds off the interest of people who want to experience sexy/exotic/sensual/hot/caliente foreign, Latin dances, and the stereotypes of these dances that the people, who pay money to learn these dances, bring with them.
The way things are set up, we cannot escape this market. The only way to do it would be to teach free classes all around, and that’s not going to happen. So, because people get paid to teach Cuban dances, and because people pay to learn them, the moment that people either get paid to teach or pay to learn, they become part of the market for Cuban dance.
Without customers, without people who want to learn these dances, a market wouldn’t exist. The customer, therefore, is paramount to the existence of said market. And the great majority of customers, when hearing about dancing and Cuba, they don’t think “casino.” That means something entirely different to them. They think “salsa” because that’s what they’ve come to associate with Cuban music and dancing. That’s the stereotype. That’s what they want to learn. That’s what they are paying money for. To learn salsa. “Cuban salsa,” but salsa nonetheless.
(Again, going back to the anecdote: my class was titled “Technique for Casino,” the word salsa was not on the title of the event, nor on the schedule, and still people thought they were in a salsa workshop.)
The market has made these terms interchangeable—and, at times, even made “casino” entirely disappear in favor of the “Cuban salsa” label—so that, on the one hand, instructors get to make money by attracting people to their classes; and on the other, so that people’s desire to learn a “Latin dance” (don’t forget the stereotypes) gets acknowledged and fulfilled.
Some people reading this may be saying, “Okay. So, your clear cynicism aside, what’s the big deal about it being casino or salsa?”
Well, there would be no big deal if the interchangeability of the labels meant just that: people use different names for the same thing. It happens in language all the time (i.e. lift vs elevator).
But there is a big deal because, when it comes to technique, “casino” and “salsa” use very different concepts.
Recently, I wrote a piece on why there is an argument about stepping forward or backward when dancing casino. And what I concluded was that, the constant back step when dancing casino outside of Cuba happens exactly because casino is generally taught, outside of Cuba, using salsa dancing principles and concepts that are a result of the influence of the Miami-based Salsa Lovers, who sought to teach salsa using casino rueda. This not only encouraged to back-step or back-rock (like in salsa) predominantly, but also kept noticeably linear movements in their figures (like in salsa), and even to style using salsa concepts. I strongly recommend you read it if you want to know more about this.
What happens in casino, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. You have predominant forward-stepping when dancing, and the figures are circular, not linear.
Let me give you very clear examples:
Here is “Dedo,” danced following the Salsa Lovers’ way. Look at how they back rock and she keeps the line most of the time:
And here is the same move, but done by two Cubans. Notice how it’s not linear and the steps are predominantly done by stepping forward:
The technique and principles used to execute this figure of the same name were very different in both videos. That’s why I had to begin that class in New York with the questions I did. Because I had to make sure that the attendees and I were on the same page. And we weren’t. If I hadn’t started like that, I couldn’t later teach them to go forward on the first step of the Enchufla, and not to back-rock, like they would normally do—because that’s what people do in salsa.
I had to set them up to understand where I was coming from.
And to do that, I had to tell them that there was a difference between “casino” and “salsa,” starting with the time periods in which they were developed—casino in the 50s; salsa (the linear salsa of the U.S.) in the late 80s and early 90s; and that casino was around before there was such a thing as “salsa music.” And then I told them how the dance of casino received its name. And then I had to explain why stepping forward in casino made more sense, given its circular nature.
All of this might seem like a lot of talking, but it pays off. Because then people are more receptive to your ideas if you try to propose doing something they’ve always done a certain way, now done in a very a different way.
Then I can actually do a casino technique class, with casino principles and concepts. Not a casino technique class which borrows principles and concepts from salsa dancing and ends up being something else.
The thing is, I have to do this exact same thing every time I teach a workshop because most people have been taught to back rock and to make their casino more linear (thanks Salsa Lovers!). I can never get past basic casino concepts that they should know before doing anything else. I’m always stuck in the same loop, teaching the same class over and over again: that casino is different than salsa, that casino uses different concepts and principles and technique than salsa. And then showing them one or two figures which give them an idea of this difference.
I can never do anything advanced. Therefore, the attendees don’t get anything advanced because they are not even past the basic!
So it ends up looking like this:
Everywhere I go, this is what happens. I wish I could go somewhere where everybody was on the same page—that is, they actually danced casino using casino technique—and I could actually delve into more advanced concepts in order to help people become better casino dancers, not so that they can begin to truly dance casino.
But that’s not going to happen—that’s not even going to begin—unless we stop using the label of “salsa” to refer to casino. Because the moment we do use that label, you can say good-bye to actual casino technique. The moment the dance becomes “Cuban salsa,” you open the door for it to be danced like salsa, with salsa principles, concepts and technique. (Even people in Latin America, who do not dance linear salsa, use the back step when dancing salsa in their own ways. And so, calling casino “salsa,” in their case, activates the salsa dancing knowledge they already have—if they know how to even do a basic step—when what they should be doing when learning casino is starting from zero, because it’s a different dance.)
Now, all this said, I get that “casino” is a hard label to use in the market. I get it. I truly do.
Which is why I’m not so stuck on “casino.” Like I said, we’re all part of a market, which means that even the most hardcore use-casino-only people, or those who think of themselves as cultural gatekeepers, are also making money out of their lessons. Like everyone else, they’re selling a product. They’re benefiting from it financially. In that sense, they’re not so different than everybody else.
At any rate, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: there are other labels, which do not mention “salsa”and are truer to the general idea of the dance.
For instance, a label that I’ve begun seeing more often now is “Cuban dance.” So, you know, if you are teaching casino and want people to step forward, dance in a circular fashion, and overall use casino principles while avoiding the overlap with salsa—that is, people thinking that it is salsa—, this is a great marketing term. A “Cuban dance class” doesn’t set people up for thinking they’re going to learn salsa. And sure, you could argue that “Cuban dance” doesn’t really give an idea of what it is that they will be learning. But “Cuban salsa” doesn’t, either, because, again, they are not learning salsa. If anything, the latter term is highly misleading and drowning in stereotypes. At least a “Cuban dance class” doesn’t lie about what it is: after all, casino is a Cuban dance. And once the people are in the class, you can actually tell them that the Cuban dance they are learning is called casino. No need to even make a comparison to salsa.
The Cuban dance community needs more people questioning the marketing terms which are used. My workshops always begin with an “attack” on the mind, not an attack on the feet. I want people to think about what they dance, to create informed dancers, before they even begin dancing. And sure, some people would just rather go straight to the dancing. But the vast majority welcomes it.
Whatever we end up doing with these terms, let’s all get on the same page—you know, the one that reads, “Let’s not call casino ‘salsa.’”