On “MCC” and the Dance of Casino: A Perspective 

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If you dance casino or “Cuban salsa”—as some people erroneously call it—chances are that, by now, you’ve either heard of Yoel Marrero (YM), or Método del Cuadro del Casino (MCC)—“Casino’s Square Method”—or Casino Para Todos (CPT)—“Casino for All.” Maybe you’ve seen him mentioned in online discussions or have actually read or seen something of his; maybe he’s commented on one of your dance videos on YouTube. Maybe you know him personally or have bought his online course. Whichever the case, he and his work have been sort of hard to miss on the Cuban dance scene during the past years.

Over the two years which this blog has been online, some people have asked me why I haven’t written anything about YM and his method. Being a blog for the dance of casino, they say, it would be amiss not to write something on YM and his method, especially considering that our works intersect in various ways. (In fact, many of you might have found this blog or known about me because of YM.) I agree, and in my defense, I would say that I have had my own personal reasons as to why I have not until now. However, mostly it has comes down to me not having found the right way to talk about this topic.

I have, now.

What I seek to do with this post, then, is shed some light into the Cuban dance scene (outside of Cuba) pre-YM and MCC as a way of explaining why MCC got some traction with some people—including myself—once it came out. This bit of background is based solely on my personal experience, on how I saw and understood things at the time (and still do). Finally, I’ll talk about what MCC is and is not. In doing this, I hope I finally please those readers whom have asked me to write my take on YM and MCC while maintaining as much objectivity on the matter as possible. This will not be a review of YM’s method for leaning casino, as this would fall within the realm of subjectivity, which I want to avoid.

Let’s take a look at what was there before MCC so that we may better understand why MCC appealed—and appeals—to a number of people.

In the United States, we had Salsa Lovers. I have already dedicated an extensive post to them, explaining the effect that they had on the dance of casino. I invite you to read it in its entirety by clicking here, but if you want the quick summary of what I said, here it is: in the 90s, the Miami-based Salsa Lovers, released a series of DVDs which sought to market to people who wanted to dance salsa a certain way of dancing salsa with some casino principles; in their own words: how to “dance salsa structured through casino rueda”. The contents of these DVDs became the standard for many people all around the world who wanted to learn “Cuban salsa”, and many tried to replicate their moves. The following shows an original clip from Salsa Lovers, followed by a clip from another group trying to replicate the turn pattern.

When I started learning casino, which was in the States, not in Cuba, it was during my college years. I attended a dance group at my University which taught right out of the Salsa Lover’s curriculum. So that’s what I learned first. However, I also grew up in Cuba, and while I had not really learned much there, I did see a lot of casino dancing. So when I started moving beyond the basics and into more advanced stuff, I become more aware of the dance I was learning, and in that awareness I realized that what I was learning was “off,” somehow. Indeed, when I started comparing and contrasting the moves I was learning and the stuff I remembered from Cuba—and I’ll have YouTube to thank for that—then it became very clear that this wasn’t the casino I had grown up with.

Not only was this “salsa structured through casino rueda” from Salsa Lovers very linear in the execution of their figures, the constant back-stepping, which they standardized, always felt…wrong. And it was. I mean, I remember looking at videos of Cubans dancing casino in the island and marveling how “fluid” they looked when they danced—something I couldn’t do on my own—until I realized that it was the constant back-stepping which was holding the dance back—and by extent the constant forward-stepping which was making the Cubans look more fluid in their dancing.

So I stopped learning from Salsa Lovers once I realized all of this. In fact, I left the group with which I had started dancing. On my own, but with some basic knowledge of the dance now, I knew that my next step had to involve looking learning from the Cubans in the island somehow. So I went to Europe.

OK, so I didn’t physically go to Europe. What I did was look for YouTube videos of Cubans who had travelled to Europe to teach casino. Footage of Cubans dancing in Cuba was scarce at the time, and those were the years of the first Cubamemucho—one of the first Cuban dance congresses organized in Europe—so there was some footage from Cuban instructors.  What I saw there reaffirmed what I had already realized: what I had been taught from Salsa Lovers was, indeed, very different from how I remembered Cubans danced. Indeed, the more videos I watched of Cuban instructors in Europe, the more I confirmed this.

These were still the early years of contact between Cuban dancers and the general European public. And it’s no surprise that this came closely following the popular Cuban dance show, Para bailar casino, which I believe finished production in 2005. People from Europe, who never had a problem visiting Cuba, unlike people from the U.S., wanted to learn from the best dancers in Cuba. This is where Yanek Revilla and Diana Rodríguez come in. They were the winner of the couples’ finals. This is where Roynet Pérez comes in, too. He was a runner-up in the competition. Other instructors like Emilito Herrera, Tomasito Santamaría, Juan José Ortíz, Rafael Baro, and Jorge Camaguey also were in that “first batch” of Cuban instructors to arrive to Europe for these dance exchanges.

I call these the “early years” because a lot of things have changed since then. Not only is the Cuban dance scene across Europe much more extensive, but what’s happened with the instruction of casino has also changed. The way I see it, during the first years, instructors arrived to Europe not really knowing the scene there. And when they did, they had to face the fact that, while people wanted them to teach them their dance, they already had a preconceived notion of how “Cuban salsa” was danced, and this was in no small part to Salsa Lovers and all the people who followed suit in Europe. In other words, when the Cubans got to Europe, there was a market for Cuban dance consumption that, if not well established yet, had already started with one “foot behind.” Indeed, the back-step was already well established as the way to dance “Cuban salsa” by the time these instructors got there, as seen in this video:

 

For these instructors, I figure, it was easier to play into something that was already in place, rather than to attempt to change/modify what they saw and maybe lose their business by going against the people who were helping them make a living by inviting them to their events to teach. Or maybe did they not have the pedagogical tools to implement the needed changes. And so, at the end of the day, even the Cubans in Europe were not being of much help. Because while there was some resemblance to what I remembered happened in the island—because Cubans were doing it—the moment they started dancing with non-Cubans, which is what would happen in most of the workshop videos I would find—given that instructors most of the time didn’t come in pairs and had to use the help from an European in the audience to show the turn patterns—it lost that “fluidity” I was looking for. Another example of this comes from one of the most popular casino videos on YouTube right now. With over one million views, here’s José Luis Pelayo Herrera dancing with a non-Cuban:

Then there were those who capitalized on their knowledge of the Afro-Cuban dance tradition to sell their classes by mixing casino with rumba guaguancó and Orisha dancing, like Yoanis Tamayo. For me, he’s a great example of how some instructors adapted to the needs of the dance market in Europe.

This is Yoanis Tamayo dancing when he still lived in Cuba:

But then he got to Europe and saw that there was a big market for dances other than casino, and his dancing changed:

Now, I have already explained why I don’t do Orisha dances in this previous piece, and when and why I would actually dance guaguancó—or any other style of rumba—when dancing casino here. So I won’t go into that again here. Suffice to say that instructors/dancers like Tamayo weren’t helping me, either, when it came to casino because…well, because they were not really dancing casino. They were doing a fusion—sometimes for the sake of fusing and with no musical explanation. Personally, that’s not what I was looking for, nor did it appeal to me.

That was not the casino I remembered, either. Which reminds me: This entire time, I have been talking about the casino I “remembered” from my time in Cuba as my reference point; but I’ve given you all a lot of information about how people attempted to dance casino outside of Cuba. So let me show you. When I talk about the casino that I grew up watching, I’m referring to dancing that looked like these examples:

 

When you look at these videos and then compare them to the videos I have been showing you, I hope you see the difference in how the dance seems to “flow” better in the Cubans’ videos. And there should be a big difference because in these latter videos they’re generally stepping forward. These were the kind of dance examples I was looking for. These were the videos which reminded me of the dancing I was used to seeing in Cuba. The thing was, they were hard to find—and they still are. (For a list of what I’ve found so far, click here.) Hard to find as they were, people outside of Cuba were not watching them. And also many of the videos I have found are fairly recent. What was available six or seven years ago were videos of either Salsa Lovers and people from other groups following their curriculum, or videos of Cuban instructors in Europe that also had their shortcomings, as I’ve already explained. These were the videos that people were watching an attempting to emulate as “Cuban salsa.” I was frustrated.

And then I came across a video of YM not unlike this one:

 

(Well, he took it off. I guess he doesn’t want people to see that video, or me to use it.)

Anyway. At first, I thought his form of dancing was a little outdated. Compared to the videos of Cubans dancing I posted above, this looked a little different—more polished and more formal, if you will. What didn’t help, either, was the 1950s-Cuba dress code. But looking past that, I did see a resemblance to what I remembered from Cuba. It was casino. I could look at it and say that this had nothing to do with Salsa Lovers. Then I learned that the woman dancing with him was Japanese, which suggested that this guy also had the tools to solve the problem that I had perceived with Cuban instructors in Europe, because even if she was non-Cuban, she exhibited none of the lack of fluidity I had seen from the non-Cuban followers helping Cuban instructors in Europe.

So, here was a guy who apparently had an answer to my frustrations and none of the shortcoming which I had seen with previous casino instruction. On top of this, here was a guy who was also unapologetic about the way he called things. For instance, he would never call casino “Cuban salsa”—which it isn’t, for reasons I have already explained here. What’s more, he said that he wanted to preserve the way casino was danced in the island. Seeing how casino had gotten off the wrong foot outside of Cuba, and how I personally wanted to emulate—which was different than “preserve”—what I had seen during my time in the island, this was very good news. And, finally, there was a method to what he was doing: MCC. So at least he had some sort of methodology and wasn’t just teaching turn patterns. So I paid for my lessons—I found YM when there were only two lessons available—and added what he taught to what I already knew.

Now, as I said in the beginning, I will not provide a review of his method or anything of the sort. What I am trying to do here is, quite simply, place within a broader context how YM’s MCC has become something that a lot of people find appealing—just like how a lot of people find appealing doing Orisha dancing during their casino, or mixing it with rumba guagauncó. And finally, what it means to dance casino outside of Cuba, “post-MCC.”

But before we can talk about anything “post-MCC,” we need to define MCC first. Say what it is, and what it is not.

As you may remember from the beginning of this post, “MCC” stands for Método del Cuadro del Casino—“Casino’s Square Method,” in English.

With the goal of making casino available to all—hence the name of his foundation, Casino Para Todos (CPT)—MCC is a method that seeks do just this. A method, as defined by any dictionary, refers to a systematic procedure to achieve a certain end result. The end result here being able to dance casino; and the systematic procedure is based on a choreographic map—mapa coreográfico—that YM devised for this dance. Think of this map as—and I’m going to paraphrase YM’s explanation of MCC in the first lesson—a GPS. It seeks to tell you what you need to do in order to get to where you want to go. In other words, how and where you need to step in order to make a certain turn pattern come out. The idea here is that, by following this roadmap, you will be able to replicate what casino dancing is at its core.

And because it is a method, and because it is systematic, it produces a very similar “look” in the dancing of those who learned to follow MCC’s choreographic map:

Now that I have explained what MCC is, I’ll proceed to explain what MCC is not.

MCC is not a dance.

I say this because sometimes I come across videos of people who learned from YM, and in the comment section, there are other MCC enthusiast who write, “Great MCC” or, “Good MCC dancing!” The people making these comments either don’t really know what MCC stands for, or they were not paying attention to this part of the lesson where it was clearly stated what it was.

So, MCC is not a dance. The dance is casino. MCC is simply a method for learning said dance. A more accurate comment would then be, “Great application of MCC to your casino.”

Now that we have defined MCC, let’s talk about what it means to dance outside of Cuba in a “post-MCC” Cuban dance scene. (By “post“, I mean that it is now available to the public.)

This is why I went I wrote an extensive explanation of the state of casino dancing outside of Cuba. Given that the United States was following the “salsa structured through rueda” curriculum of Salsa Lovers and, in Europe, Cuban instructors were conforming to the salsa-influenced casino they saw there, rather than trying to change things; and given that the MCC actively rejected what was both happening in the U.S. and Europe, and sought to implement change, all the while hoisting high a metaphorical Cuban flag, claiming to be the real thing; given also that videos of Cubans dancing in Cuba were and are not readily-available and are hard to find; given all these conditions, YM’s MCC became, for many non-Cubans, the point of reference when it came to casino. The standard, if you will, because that was the only example of casino being called “casino” that people saw.

In other words, all that I’ve outlined created the conditions for YM to become the point of reference for casino for many of his followers. This is, of course, problematic. (Think of writing a research paper while only consulting one source.) It’s even gotten to the point where I’ve personally seen people disregard and discard videos of Cubans dancing in Cuba, like this one, because it doesn’t look polished, or clean, or technique-oriented enough. So, for some people who strictly follow this method, even the Cubans themselves are not enough now. For some, and I know this for a fact, if the dancing doesn’t adjust to the choreographic map of MCC, then it has little-to-no merit as “casino,” no matter who is dancing it.

The other thing that I have observed is that, because YM was the person to systematically teach to step forward in casino outside of Cuba, to many people, the forward-step has become a sort of staple for his method. But I will say this: to teach to step forward when dancing casino is not to teach to dance casino following the MCC; for that, you need to know and consciously follow the choreographic map of the method. To teach to step forward when dancing casino is to teach casino. That’s how casino is danced in the first place! I say this because I’ve noticed a number of instructors who do not necessarily like YM’s approach are avoiding to teach to forward step in casino–because, again, YM is known for this–even though they forward-step themselves when they dance! 

The following video is a good example of this. Here, at 0:05, you can clearly see that when they start the Enchufa, she is stepping forward. But at 0:49, when they explain how the Enfucha begins, she steps back!

Again, folks, casino is danced in Cuba by predominantly stepping forward. YM just happens to be the person outside of Cuba who was most vocal in reminding us of this. Teaching to step forward is a general principle of casino. No one “owns” the forward step. If you use it when you dance, teach it!

[And I reiterate: this is not a critique of the method, which in reality is only a way of learning to dance casino; nor am I trying to dissuade anyone from learning it. If anything, this post may induce people to check out MCC. Instead, this is a critique of the people who see in this method the true way to dance casino (I’ve tried to debunk such essentialist a view in this previous post); and a critique of the conditions, outside of Cuba, which were created by Cubans and non-Cubans alike, and which have led some people to see things this way.]

At any rate: learn from whomever you want—and I suggest to learn from as many instructors as you can so that you can form the best opinion that you can. After all, there were people outside of Cuba before YM came along who were already implementing the same principles which characterize the casino that is danced in the island and which I remembered.

Not to mention that there are thousands of Cubans in the island who learned to dance casino without the help of MCC. (And again, this is not to discourage people from trying the method—though I know some of you will read it like that. I’m being objective here. These things are facts.)

However you choose to learn casino, if at the end of the day you’re not trying to reproduce the way Cubans dance in the island or you don’t particularly like the videos of them dancing that I’ve shown; if they as a whole are not your point of reference, then you have to ask yourself this question:

Are you really trying (a) to learn a Cuban dance, or are you (b) simply trying to learn a dance that fits a certain idea of “Cuba” that you want to experience?

Because (b) is the whole reason this is happening.

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