Written by Slava Pashchenko
Before l discovered casino, I had two brief stints with social dancing: LA salsa on1 in Boston and NY salsa on2 in New York. Although both were decent enough experiences, it was casino that I fell in love with because it offered something special—community. It made all the difference. After all, being a beginner in a dance isn’t especially fun no matter what dance you’re trying to learn. But it was a lot easier in casino due to the encouragement I got from people in the dance scene, which definitely made it easier to stick with it.
At first, I thought it was due to the inherent joy embedded in Cuban music or perhaps the result of the community building aspect of the rueda. I still think these two play an important role, but my experience in Europe has changed my opinion, and now I give most of the credit for the community aspect of casino to the fact that the casino scene is still only developing in most American cities. It’s a still a project under construction and depending on the city, you never know quite what you’ll get in terms of teaching or opportunities to dance.
I have to admit that when I first started, I didn’t much enjoy this very much. I lamented the fact that there were relatively few venues hosting events catering to casineros while salseros were able to find a place to go almost any night of the week. Nevertheless, I stuck with it because of the people and the music. With time, I was rewarded with invites to smaller niche venues that don’t show up on Google, to socials held at dance schools, and to good old fashioned house parties. It turned out that in the San Francisco bay area, I could easily go dancing 3 times a week. It was still not quite daily, but definitely enough.
Then I met a Swiss gal and decided that it was a good idea to get my Master’s degree in Zurich. While here and after some travel around northern Europe, I’ve found that the atmosphere in Europe is quite different. Salsa and casino are almost equal in terms of popularity and in many places, casino (or “Cuban salsa,” as it is called here more often than not) is the more popular of the two. Dance clubs dedicated to timba and cubatón abound. As a result, it was quite easy to find classes and events. Just a simple search on Facebook or Google, and I found a plethora of dance nights. Initially, I was ecstatic to find out that even a relatively small city like Zurich had Cuban music/dancing 3 or 4 times per week.
There is a cost to this, however. In the United States, the smallness of the scene makes it a lot more close-knit. Anybody new stands out, but because they’ve chosen a rather niche style to dance, newcomers are usually accepted with a smile and met with a lot of curiosity. When I traveled around the United States, it was easy to find events and almost instantly get invited to the going-ons in that place after just one night out in that city.
Despite dancing at every opportunity, I have found it was substantially harder to break into social circles in Zurich. Being a Cuban salsa/casino dancer doesn’t make you special. I get my dances, but people aren’t eager to talk about dancing or to recommend events in the same way as in the smaller scenes where each person at the event makes a difference in terms of helping to build it. After 2 years in Zurich, I have developed some close relationships with dancers, but I still know more people in Boston despite going there just once a year to visit my parents and despite a casino scene that probably has less than 100 dancers.
I don’t want to ignore the cultural differences between Europe and the United States, nor who runs the events or teaches in Europe. These are worth more consideration and something that I hope to develop on in the future. These aspects definitely play a large role in how Europe compares to the United States in terms of both the skill of the dancers and the community surrounding casino. However, I personally believe the biggest difference between the two still comes down to size of the dance scenes.
Being a hard core casino dancer, I’ve always dreamed about building the casino scene in such a way that it will someday overtake LA/NY style salsa, but I’ve come to think twice about whether that might take away some of the community that surrounds the casino scene in the states. As the dance expands and as Cuba opens to the United States, we should absolutely try to grow our scene, but also be conscious to as much as we can preserve the community that’s been built around it.
I’m not a fatalist and I don’t think casino in the United States is destined to repeat the same path as in the bigger cities in Europe or to become like salsa in the states. We are in control over the culture of the dance and how we introduce people into the community is how those people will introduce newcomers as well. Continuing to be friendly to people and encouraging people to join the casino revolution is going to be key in this. But if instead it becomes a competition about who is leading the movement and which dancers are at the top of the pecking order, we’re going to quickly lose the community aspect, which I believe is currently the biggest asset we have in fueling growth of the dance.
This brings me to the closing question of this article. What would you do to grow the casino scene in a sustainable way? I’ve given a few thoughts, but I do not have the answers. It’s something very much up for discussion and argument. I would be glad to have your thoughts on the topic.
About the Author:
Slava Pashchenko. I pursue a Master’s degree at ETH Zurich. I consider myself an enthusiast of casino and have the goal of growing the dance as well as community surrounding the dance wherever I happen to find myself. Thanks for reading and hope to catch you on the dance floor!