Recommended reading: WHY CALLING CASINO “SALSA” MAKES IT HARDER TO GET BETTER AT IT
People are often introduced to the dance of casino under the label of “Cuban salsa” or simply “salsa.” Indeed, though casino is the actual name of the dance, it’s rare to see just the word “casino” used to market classes for this Cuban dance today. Even though casino is not salsa, given the popularity of the term “salsa,” as I’ve explained here, can we even get away from using this label?
I’ve been raking my brain for years, asking myself that simple question. And I’ve asked different people who I’ve seen use this substitute term—“salsa”—for casino. Why can’t they use casino when they market classes for this dance?
“I know it’s called ‘casino,’” I often hear people begin, letting me know that they are aware that there is a difference. “But the fact of the matter is, if I do use that name, I wouldn’t get people to come to classes; or people would be confused as to what I’m offering.”
So it boils down to this: casino is not a viable marketing term for this dance. Not only does it confuse people, it discourages them from coming to lessons.
And I get it. Casino means something else in English. It’s the place where people go to gamble, to spend away their savings.
Why would anyone, other than Cubans themselves, associate it with a dance?
Like I said: I get it.
Which is why I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the same thing does not happen when people try to market son classes.
I mean, when was the last time you saw a son class or workshop being marketed as anything other than “son”? I’ve yet to find one person who changes the name of the dance to something other than son to make it more understandable to audiences everywhere; so that people know it’s a dance.
This baffles me to no end. Son, as a marketing term for the dance, has the same shortcomings that casino does. “Son” means an entirely different thing in English—someone’s male progeny—and therefore people do not readily associate it with a dance, much less a Cuban one.
And while son is like casino is the sense that they do not have viable marketing terms (because of the same reasoning people use to explain why they change casino’s name to “Cuban salsa”), unlike casino, you rarely—if at all—see people changing the name of the dance to something else.
Let me give you some examples that I found upon a perfunctory search on Google.
From Salsabor a Cuba (http://www.salsaborcuba.com/):
The dance school ‘Salsabor a Cuba’ in Havana (Cuba) offers dance classes for Cuban dances like Cuban Salsa, Rumba, Son, Kizomba, Bachata, Tango, Reggaeton, Folklore Yoruba, Cha-cha-cha, Mambo, Rueda de Casino, among others.
Baila Habana, which motto is “Salsa-Son-Rumba” (http://www.baila-habana.com/en/), clearly doesn’t change names, either, for son—but it certainly does so for casino:
Learn to dance salsa in Kuba in our dance classes with our professionally qualified dance instructors. You are also welcome to learn to dance son or rumba or other dance styles such as Cha-Cha-Cha, Mambo, Bachata or Reguetton.
And the Denmark-based Mi Salsa Cubana (http://www.misalsacubana.com/) offers dance trips to Cuba to learn Cuban dances as part of a program which is described as follows:
The dances taught in this program are: Salsa, Son, Rueda de Casino, Mambo, Cha Cha Cha, Rumba and Afro Cuban dance.
Like these three, there are many more examples on the Internet. Feel free to browse.
So, son’s name, as you can read above, does not get changed. What gives? Why would those who are teaching these classes or marketing them assume that the general public doesn’t understand that casino could more than a place to gamble, but then when it comes to son—well, that label clearly refers to a Cuban dance and not a person.
Sarcasm aside, I hope that you can see the contradiction surrounding the marketing of these Cuban dances. Because that’s when you really start questioning these terms that you see used left and right and sometimes take for granted or assume that people would understand.
Now, one could argue that son’s name does not need to be changed to anything else because son is not a popular dance. I don’t think there are any academies which specialize in the dance of son alone. Most of the time, people learn son or about son after they have come into contact with the marketed-as-“salsa” casino. That is, by the time people learn son or of son, they are already in. Their attention has been already grabbed by a marketing strategy that sounded relatable and appealing—“Cuban salsa”—and made them come to classes or take a workshop. Therefore, son’s name doesn’t need to be changed because it is taught within an already-established Cuban dance context in which people would not associate it with anything else.
This is a very plausible explanation that I have myself devised here for the purposes of being my own Devil’s advocate. However, that’s all it is: an explanation. The contradiction is still occurring: casino’s name gets changed to “Cuban salsa” or “salsa” while son’s name remains unaltered.
So, how do we solve this contradiction? Or, more to the point: can it even be solved?
I’d argue that, yes, yes it can. It most certainly can. But only if you want it to be solved. Indeed, if you don’t care about the terminology because, to you, salsa and casino are the same thing (though they are not, as I’ve explained here), then what I’m about to say is going to fall on deaf ears.
But if this contradiction does bother you, too, and you haven’t figured out a way of resolving it, hear me out, see if what I have to say makes sense.
So, how do we get away from “Cuban salsa” and start calling the dance of casino by its name and get people to recognize, like they do with son, that casino is a dance?
Okay, so first, one would have to stop basing marketing strategies about Cuban dances on assumptions. A lot of what I see out there and the conversations that I have with people, as far as marketing is concerned, really boils down to this: people are extremely ready to discard ideas, without even trying them, that do not go with what they already think works.
For instance, every single one of the people who have told me that “casino” as a marketing term does not work (because of reasons explained above), when asked whether or not they have actually tried doing it, always respond that no, they haven’t.
But how do they know that it won’t work? I mean, maybe it truly doesn’t work, calling casino “casino.” But how do they know?
The fact is, they don’t—because they haven’t tried it. What they know works is to call it “Cuban salsa,” thus relying on a term that is more relatable, and wait for people to show up to class.
And, sure, that works. It has for everybody. Why is there a need to change something that is working? If it isn’t broken, why fix it, right?
Well, for starters, I’d argue that it is broken. Calling casino “salsa” creates many issues for non-Cuban dancers, as I’ve extensively explained here.
But let’s assume that it isn’t broken. Can something else work, too? Can we call casino by its name and make it work?
Again, I think it can be done.
And to do it, son is a great place from which to learn how.
If we establish that son’s name does not need to be altered because people typically learn son in a context in which it is understood that son can be nothing but a Cuban dance, then the same idea can be used for casino.
To put it in concrete terms, for casino to keep its name and not need to be changed to something else—“(Cuban) salsa”—then we need to create the context in which casino means nothing but a Cuban dance.
That’s where most of the work needs to be done. And the good news is: it’s not a lot of work, actually. All you have to do is use the following two words back-to-back:
That really is it!
Doing something as simple as marketing your classes, events, and socials as “Cuban dance” will create that context that we’re looking for. Not only is “Cuban dance” relatable to and understood by most people, but also once people come to Cuban dance classes, casino, like son, will be understood outside of the monetary context with which people are more familiar. It will create a new context for this word, and a new meaning.
It already works for son. It will also work for casino. It just requires us to be a bit more aware of what we’re saying, and how we’re saying it.
For example, a social media post marketing your classes could look like this, Come to our Cuban dance classes this week and learn some casino!
Or the name of your classes, instead of Cuban salsa (Casino) classes could be, Cuban dance classes (casino).
These are just suggestions, the first things that came to mind. This is not meant to be a template but rather to get you started thinking about how to modify the way classes are advertised. If these suggestions sound “weird” at first because it’s still unclear to you what “casino” stands for in these examples, just know that’s it’s all in your head. You’ve seen the label “Cuban salsa” to refer to casino used too many times; therefore it is difficult seeing casino without it.
So here is a quick test you can do. The Son Test, if you will. Instead of “casino,” use “son” in whatever you’re writing. Because you’re not used to seeing “son” associated with “Cuban salsa,” you’ll get an idea of what someone else (who hasn’t seen “casino” associated with “Cuban salsa”) will think when they read what you wrote. If it’s clear to you that son is a dance when you read Come to our Cuban dance classes this week and learn some son! then the same thing will apply to casino. That is, it will be clear to someone else that, when you write “casino,” you’re referring to a dance.
Alternatively, you can always go “hardcore casino” and not compromise, creating a context through sheer force of will, repeating the name enough until people understand it is a dance and not a place to gamble. That can be done, too. This blog’s title is an example of that. I specifically came up with this title so that no one could argue to me that one couldn’t reach people by using these terms. I get thousands of views every month from people looking to read more about casino (the dance), so I know it works.
Whatever path you choose, again: it’s all about creating the context.
Lastly, if you’ve been one of the people I’ve talked to about this at any point in time (and there have been many), please don’t take this personally. This post is not intended as a critique of anyone in particular or of how they are doing things. Whatever you do, and how you do it, is your business. What I seek to do here is simply open up a dialogue about the marketing terms that we use. Because, folks, that’s all these things really are. Whether it’s “Cuban salsa” or “Cuban dance,” or whatever else, these are all substitute terms for the dance that we are really learning:
If I continue to try to teach free lessons at my university association next year, I might ask the student association to try to mark my classes as “Casino” while other student teachers continue to use “Cuban Salsa”. If so, you’ll perhaps get your first data point on the question.
I have to say though, I’m a good example of why teachers don’t do this, as I came to casino via googling “salsa” and ended up first trying “New York style” before stumbling onto “Cuban style”. I wonder sometimes if I would have ever ended up doing casino if weren’t for this (regrettable) phenomenon.
In the minds of non-Cubans, Casino dancing is much closer to Salsa than it is to any other dance, so I don’t see any problem with calling it “Cuban Salsa” to people outside of Cuba. There are distinctive elements within New York style Salsa, L.A. style Salsa, and Colombian (Cali) style Salsa — but they all have a similar foundation to what people outside of Cuba understand to be “Salsa” dancing. Casino can also be danced to “Salsa” music, because the timing is essentially the same.
I don’t think the success of your blog is a valid comparison, because I imagine that most of the hits come from people who already know what “Son” or “Casino” are — and, of course, there is no cost for someone to view your blog if he/she doesn’t already know. On the other hand, to draw people into a paying class, they need to have a general understanding of what they are paying for. Unfortunately, the reality outside of Cuba (especially in the United States) is that the word “Casino” is meaningless to most people from a dancing perspective, and that won’t change until there is a dramatic increase of the dance into popular culture (like movies, TV shows, etc.). The word “Salsa” already has a huge head start.
Bottom line, if an instructor teaches Casino and gives students a respectful, authentic representation of the actual dance, then *why* does it matter to you if the instructor says “Cuban Salsa” to get people in the door? If non-Cuban students end up learning to enjoy the music and to dance the same dance, then isn’t that what you really want, ultimately, rather than focusing on using a specific name?
In all honesty, this response feels as if you only read the title of the piece. I know you read it, but there’s no real “conversation” with what I wrote here, so it’s hard for me to concoct a reply. I’d love if you could tell me exactly how you disagree with what I propose, not the reasons why deviating from the status quo won’t work, which, believe me, I’ve heard countless times.
I don’t think that it’s only, or even mostly, a problem with the use of the word “casino”;
IMHO the big problem is that “salsa” has been thoroughly marketed for over 4 decades now, and thus it is very hard to get away from that “shadow”, regardless of the name used.
Maybe the answer is “Cuban dance”, Cuban popular dance” or “Cuban social dance” as marketable terms.
Anyways, another thing that would be very useful, yet maybe even harder to achieve, is the use of a single term by everybody offering the content.
This happens with “salsa” simply due to the sheer force of over 4 decades of advertising, even though no “high council of north American dances” published any rules for naming classes…
God knows, I feel your pain, and indignation, they have been mine for many years. That said, I’m loving this site and if I don’t entirely agree with everything put here, you’re dealing with so many of my pet subjects of the last 25 years or so. You may be working in a very different environment but here’s hopefully some insights from living and working in the UK.
I learned “Cuban Salsa” beginning 1991 from a Cuban in London, the first to teach here. Early on we went to see Los Muñequitos de Matanzas at a club and after their set, they joined in the social dance and actually, kind of took over the floor. I couldn’t figure out what was happening but it looked so different from what I was learning. It wasn’t till 1994 when another Cuban arrived- there were literally only a handful in all of London back then- that I saw anything like it again. He was teaching a class where I was a DJ and at first I just wondered what the hell he was doing. Then, when he finally got going, making complete figures, it was almost like I was back watching Los Muñequitos again, it was the same dance. Clearly, though my first teacher stood out a mile from the Colombian dancing that dominated London Salsa at the time, his basic structures had adapted to his environment and lost the essence of Casino.
This new teacher was most definitely a bailarín, very showy, but in his dance group I was for the first time able to analyse what made the dance the way it is. One of my eureka moments was watching Homero dance Guaguancó barefoot, during which his connection with the ground and the way this flowed through to his torso became apparent. I’ve never seen anyone teach this, or try to. Cubans learn it through osmosis and never think about it, foreigners usually only see and learn steps and figures, then wonder why they still can’t actually dance. This may well not have been an aspect of Casino when it was born in the affluent layers of Cuban society but today it is this often subtle, Afro-Cuban derived subtext, which gives Casino so much of its flavour.
In 1997 I made it to Cuba for the first time with my then wife, and we did a crash course at the dance academy of Narciso Medina in La Habana, at which we would crawl through a hatch into a little attic and, each of us with a 2 litre bottle of water, dance Casino, Danzón, Guaguancó and Son for 3 or 4 hour stretches. Jesus, it was hot! And thanks for the clases, Tomás, I’ll never forget them.
The forward stepping is, as you say, fundamental to the dance and it’s really difficult to progress without breaking the habit of back steps, it certainly gave me problems for a while. My partner dances a lot more than me these days, necessarily with Salsa and “Cuban Salsa” dancers and though she prefers a contratiempo, it often takes a few dances to get used again, to Casino logic. That said, I don’t see such technical issues as the biggest problem in teaching Cuban dance to the British. We found several much greater obstacles to passing on what we wanted to. Firstly, most of our students came to us with something entirely different in mind from what we had to teach them and expected us to be different from how we were. Many had no interest in music, Cuban culture or even dance, really, and just wanted a “fun” way to keep fit.
My ex had studied historic European dance in Moscow where she became close with several Cubans and she was well versed in the Afro-Peruvian and indigenous dances of her country. I had worked as an English teacher in Tenerife, where I first discovered Salsa and Son. We taught Casino for many years in London, in clubs and adult education centres as well as running our own courses. I wanted to advertise the courses as Casino because that’s the dance I love and calling things by their proper names is important to me. But we just knew that we’d end up with a crowd of gamblers without adding (Cuban Salsa) or advertising Cuban Salsa (Casino). In the UK today, and in spite of there having been, for many years now, Cubans teaching Casino under various descriptions in many major cities, you couldn’t market a course as Casino, let alone Son, and expect to reach beyond a tiny niche audience. It would just be sectarian lunacy. Where I now live, outside of London, such advertising would attract precisely nobody. “Cuban Dance” might draw another tiny crowd here, particularly among well established teachers with a personal following but they would expect anything from dances for the Orishas to, well, have you seen the film “Cuban Fury”? If the Cuban involved in that film was willing to so misrepresent their country’s culture, not to mention the history of Salsa, or have any part in it, you can see anyone with an interest in popularising historical and cultural truth has an uphill struggle.
I’m a social dancer, not a performer, I’m British, “white” and with no pretensions or desire to comply with anybody’s torrid “Latin lover” fantasies and all the spray-on suntan that would involve. We had to compete with other teachers who were better, showier dancers and were able to tap into a fantasy that just wasn’t us. If I say so myself, with time and experience we became excellent, really professional teachers. Our agenda was to give students the vocabulary they needed to really dance rather than just robotically perform sequences, but that was often not what they wanted. We used to start every class with core body movement exercises, isolations, both to warm up and also to allow students to gain control of the parts of their body from which our culture has excluded us and which they would need, to dance Cuban. We did ok, many stuck with us over the years, but we found that most students preferred classes in which they would actually learn less, but would be constantly “wowed” by their exhibitionist teachers, most of whom couldn’t even plan a lesson, let alone pass on what they knew to anyone who couldn’t already dance. Obstacle number one, then, is that many people here tend to want confirmation and satisfaction of their fantasy rather than to learn about Cuban dance and culture as they are. They will see no beauty in and not be impressed by Casino because they are looking for quite different things. In the UK, that remains by far the greatest section of the audience for “Latin”.
For historical reasons, the English, whatever colour, are generally strangers in their own bodies. Centuries of protestant body shame and industrial work ethic have created a culture, or lack thereof, in which non-aggressive physical expression is socially unacceptable. Men worked then on their day off, went to church, drank and/or got in a fight to let out their pent up feelings. Dance is only for women, gays and toffs who have the time. You can see in professional ballroom, the camp aesthetic that persists. Not that I am at all homophobic or think gays shouldn’t dance, but it cuts me when TV dance judges constantly affirm theirs as THE way men dance and dress, because a heterosexual dance aesthetic is quite excluded from social or show dance in the mass media.
An important part of the resulting inhibition is the ability to play in a dance. We generally don’t know how to make physical jokes, to coquetear, to tell a story or develop a relationship in movement. We, particularly the middle class, are a verbal people and can be excruciating sharp and witty in words, but the same through our body has not merely never been cultivated but has been educated out of us. Likewise, if your motive in dancing Latin is to keep fit, make new friends or suchlike, you will not necessarily dance in relation to the music which you probably don’t particularly like anyway, and will tend to demand simple, dumbed down music which sounds close enough to what you already know, to go through your moves to. Sounds familiar? I’m pretty sure that catering for a musically unsophisticated foreign dance market has played a part in the demise of Timba.
We do, though, have a history of popular social dance here, which began to take off in the early 20th century as growing layers of society found themselves with a little more money and leisure time and Jazz influenced music, fake jazz, began to cross the Atlantic. Ballroom couples dancing used to be very popular, albeit in a terribly stiff, inexpressive way. This began to break down in the 1960’s and ‘70’s with the arrival of successive waves of genuine African-American and Caribbean music and to some extent dances, which took hold particularly among working class youth in the industrial north. This coincided, though, with a generational rejection of partner dance, in favour of soloing. It seems this is a necessary stage in recovering body literacy.
If you take a crowd shot from a YouTube clip of some Motown act on Ready, Steady, Go! of the early ‘60’s you’ll see white working class kids dancing. See how rigid and lifeless they are, like ghosts drifting around a floor. By the seventies, this had developed into a quite athletic style, a boxing shuffle, with upper body still held absolutely rigid, often very fast footwork interspersed with kicks, drops, break dancing and spins. This was, at its best, music driven and dancers would really connect with and interpret music in a way you hardly ever see in any form of Latin dance over here. Check out some Northern Soul clips on YouTube. This style has changed little except that there is a slight but perceptible increase in upper body movement, the dancers are loosening up, relaxing, and tend to look a little more at home with themselves, less defensively aggressive than in decades past. It’s useful to take snap shots of dance over time to see these dances not as fixed things but as a living social process.
New waves of body popping and break dance have accelerated this evolution until young people are growing up in our cities with quite a high degree of body literacy, much more than my generation. Some teenagers we once tried to teach in a school were ridiculously shy of dancing with the opposite sex, but the anxiety around being labelled “gay” for dancing is evaporating fast, as is homophobia. It’s a bit sad, though, that “Latin” hasn’t drawn in many young people, mostly just increased its appeal to my ageing generation. Who knows though, one day, English dancers might even take that connection with music of which I know we are capable, and take the leap back into couples, but I suspect I will not be around to see it. If I’ve played a small part in bringing that about, I’ll be content with that. Meantime, I haven’t taught a course for more than a decade and am happy to take a view on all this unburdened by the need to make a living. Getting out a bit more as my kids grow up, me, the Mrs and whoever else, will just be doing our thing and looking out for people who feel something like the same, because you can’t push stuff on people who aren’t ready for it, just be yourself and hope somebody appreciates it. Some do.
Thank you for all that input! I’d love if you could channel some of these comments you’re making into something that could be turned into a blog post for this blog. I certainly want to hear more about your journey with casino and all the frustrations, and I’m sure other people want to as well. If you’re ever interested in writing something for the blog, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with an idea or a draft. Cheersz
Great post Rufus