Something to Consider When Taking a Workshop on a Dance You Don’t Know at a Cuban Dance Event



Think about your experience with casino. When was the first time that you felt confident enough to say to yourself, “Alright, I’m going to dance with someone now. By myself”? Wherever that thought fell within the timeline of your casino dancing trajectory, chances are it was not after the very first class that you took. Or the second, or the third. Chances are you took a while to muster the courage to actually go out on your own. The reasons vary across individuals. Some feel like they cannot start dancing until they get to a certain level—i.e. past “Beginners;” others feel the need to know as many turn patterns as possible; and then others just want to perfect whatever they do know before they attempt anything else.

Whichever the case, my point is this: people don’t usually think they know how to dance whichever dance they are learning just after a couple of lessons. It takes times, practice, patience. But more than anything, it takes repetition.

Repetition is key. The more you do it, the more confident you’ll be. The more you’ll feel like you know how to dance (that particular dance).

What I want to talk about in this post is what happens when that much-needed repetition is lost or absent, especially in the context of workshops at Cuban dance events.

Namely, I want to ask you, the reader, the following question: What is the point of taking a workshop about a dance that you’re not going to be able to practice later, outside of the workshop?

I’ve been struggling with this question for quite some time now. On the one hand, the one thing that characterizes Cuban dance events and congresses where workshops are offered, nowadays, is exactly the diversity of dances which are offered. But on the other hand, the other aspect of these events that cannot be overlooked is the dominance of casino dancing and the music to which it is danced. As diverse as the workshops are, this emphasis on casino during the post-workshops portion of the events (the dance social) serves to greatly undermine any effect any non-casino workshops may have had on the people who partook in them. I have already written about this contradiction and offered possible solutions, such as offering more workshops of one dance as opposed to different single workshops of many dances; or that the DJs playlists’ be more connected to the content of the workshops which were taught earlier that day. Those interested can read more about this here.

But what I want to do in this post is simply to examine the workshop structure of Cuban dance events that is typically being offered today and what it means for you, the attendee. So I’ll go back to the question I asked earlier: What is the point of taking a workshop about a dance that you’re not going to be able to practice later, outside of the workshop?

If your goal is to learn how to dance a certain dance, there really is no point if there is no follow-up afterward. That is, if, upon returning to whichever city you live in after the event is over, there is no one there offering more of the same content which the workshop offered, then your attendance to that workshop was pretty pointless.

Remember, practice is key. It was key when you were learning casino, so why should it be any different with any other dance? Indeed, if you don’t have a space to practice, you will forget what you were taught. It is that simple. And, of course, then there is this the fact that you cannot learn how to dance any Cuban dance in one single workshop—or two, or three.

So you are essentially wasting your time and money—again, if wanting to learn a new dance is your goal. If your goal is simply to be exposed to a new dance because you enjoy anything dance-related, then you are fine. Any dance will do. Just like people who want to take a workshop because of the workout which they will get from it. If, on the other hand, you want to get exposed to new knowledge about a dance, that’s also a good goal to have, and any dance will do, too. Just make sure that from early on in the workshop that that is the goal of the instructor, too. Some instructors, for instance, rather than talk about the rich history and culture contextualizing the dance they are teaching, go straight into dancing without much of an explanation. (I’ve seen this happen quite a number of times with Afro-Cuban “body movement” classes involving the Orishas.)

For me, workshops which focus on cultural and historical aspects of the dance are the ones worth spending money on if there is no follow-up afterwards. Because even if I don’t come out of this workshop learning how to do that dance (no one will because no one can teach you the intricacies of any Cuban dance in one hour), I will come out better informed about the dance. (And no, simply dancing is not being informed. Many people take “Cuban salsa” classes where all they do is dance, and they are never informed that the dance is actually called casino or why it has the name that it has. Or those who take Orisha classes and are never informed they are doing a religious dance. Or those who take rumba but are never told that there are three styles of rumba.) In other words, I learned something with meaning attached to it. It wasn’t simply the decontextualized movement of the feet, hands, and overall body just for the sake of doing a dance. Anybody can do that—and teach that.

But let’s be honest for a minute here—“real,” if you will: is this diversity of workshops really working? Are people really learning dances other than casino?

Let’s acknowledge first that, solely based on the DJs’ playlist, it is as if said diversity didn’t even exist. Music other than “timba” rarely gets played. Now let’s posit the following: The most obvious way of figuring out if people are really learning other dances is to observe what happens when music other than “timba” does get that rare play. Take the example of rumba guaguancó. Judging by the amount of guaguancó workshops that are being offered nowadays, you’d think that by now people would know how to dance, say, a guaguancó song all by themselves. But the truth of the matter is that in those rare instances in which a guaguancó song does come on, very few dance, and most of the time it is the instructors doing the dancing and getting people to join them and mimic what they are doing. Guaguancó, which is supposed to be a dance involving a man and a woman, ends up being a group dance. And of course people aren’t going to dance guaguancó regardless of the fact that guaguancó workshops keep being offered at Cuban dance events: people don’t get to practice outside of these workshops! When they go back home, there is no one else to teach them guaguancó. No one is there to take them beyond the introductory class they took. So they never become proficient.

Now, if you have taken workshops from me, especially son workshops, you might be saying, “But you teach workshops other than casino, which you’re saying are a waste of time if we don’t have a space to practice afterward. What gives?”

Here is the thing: that son workshop which I teach, that is not just a “son workshop.” There is more to it. I understood a long time ago that teaching a new dance was impossible unless it is done through a progressive set of classes. So I’ve never had the audacity to say to anybody at any workshop, “You’re going to learn son.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I´ve always made clear that they cannot learn son in one hour. And so what I do focus on, seeing that casino is the predominant dance, is teaching whatever concepts from son I can but with the goal of eventually incorporating what I am teaching into casino. It’s not a far leap, casino is an evolution from son. On the other hand, and as I have explained in this post, son concepts go better with parts of the songs they dance to. What I do, then, is find a way to make this other lesser known dance (son) relevant within the context of the dance that is more known and practice (casino). That way, people get to learn something new and they can use it afterwards.

Likewise, when I conducted a casino with guaguancó class where I live with the help of master Afro-Cuban dance instructor, Yudisleidy Valdés, I emphasized the use of the little guaguancó they had learned from in the small guaguancó sections that get played every now and then in the song to which they dance casino. That way, they weren’t learning guaguancó just for the sake of learning it, which then leads to nothing because they don’t get to practice either because no guaguancó-only classes are offered, or because guaguancó music rarely gets played. There was a goal to this, a method. They could actually use it, and they would get to practice it every time a song had a guaguancó section. (More about this here.)

If you want to take a workshop of a new dance, my honest advice as someone who teaches these dances, is to make sure that you will have a follow-up once you return from the workshop. That someone back where you live teaches the same dance. Some people, lacking instruction where they live, have the means to travel and seek instruction somewhere else. Clearly, my advice doesn’t apply to you because you are seeking the further instruction. You’re good. But for the rest of the folk who don’t have that “green” luxury—money—, think twice. Chances are, you’ll be wasting your time and money by taking that workshop if your goal is to actually learn a new dance.