Sunday afternoon at one of the Hilton hotels in Atlanta, United States. After last night, we are all tired. At the Atlanta Salsa Festival, the dancing didn’t stop last night until 4 a.m. The All Stars have already had a performance on Saturday, and they have just finished rehearsing for the one tonight. As for me, I’ve recently left my hotel room, still sleepy, and gone down to the lobby to look for Jorge, whom I had almost harassed all day on Saturday trying to get him to agree to an interview with me, until he finally said he could on Sunday. I find him with the rest of the All Stars, still talking about the rehearsal that they’ve just finished. Rubbing my eyes and yawning, I ask myself where in the world these people from Santiago de Cuba get their energy. It is then that Jorge turns around and sees me. I imagine that, upon seeing me, he is thinking to himself, “Not this guy again.” I smile. He knows why I am here. A couple of minutes later, and after I have effusively thanked him for allowing me this interview and taking time out of this busy schedule to talk to me, we sit down to talk about the All Stars, casino, and Cuba.
DLD: Tell me a little about the founding of the All Stars. How did the idea come about?
JLR: It all started at the vocational school of Santiago de Cuba. This school is a school where highly intelligent students are chosen. That’s where we started to do small performances. After I left the school, the kids with whom I had worked also left for their respective universities. So I put it all behind. I liked to DJ. It was my hobby. So I focused on that.
Later, Santiago de Cuba hosted a big rueda de casino event, and the kids called me so that we would continue with the project that we had started at the vocational school. At first, I didn’t want to because I had lost the drive; but they pushed me and pushed until we founded the All Stars, which actually wasn’t the name it received at first. At first, we called the group “The Flavor Machine.” This happened in October of 2003. At this rueda event in Santiago, we didn’t win anything. It was a very hard competition, but it was an experience.
In December, we got together again for a quinceañera party that needed dance couples. And this stayed with me. So on the 7th of January, I call on the kids and I tell them, “We’re going to change the name of the group. Let’s call it ‘All Stars.’” “And why ‘All Stars’?” they asked me. And I told them, “Because we are going to do something big, and if we’re going to do it, we have to make sacrifices.” These were 17 and 18 year-old kids who had to juggle dancing with school. They would leave their houses at 7 a.m., come to practice after school at 5, then return back home at 9 or 10 p.m. This was almost daily at the beginning. It was hard. But so it was.
Then we participated in the TV show Para Bailar Casino. We have the privilege of being the only rueda, during the the three years that it aired, that was awarded the maximum amount of points that can be awarded, out of the more the 300 ruedas which debuted on the show.
DLD: What is the objective of the group?
JLR: What I saw was happening was that the essence of couple’s dancing was getting lost; so then I set myself to prove people wrong when they said that the youth didn’t know how to dance. Of course they did. In the beginning, I’d tell the kids, “We have to have a motive and an objective.” And the motive is to feel the dance and to respect it. If we are going to do this, we have to respect it. The objectives were never fixed because they were always changing, once the previous objective was completed. The University of Santiago de Cuba didn’t have a dance troupe at the time. We began participating in the festivals of the FEU (Federation of College Students). These kids I was working with were kids a bit outside the norm; these were kids who had talent and were good students. And this was my pride and joy: I was directing professionals. I am not a professional. I am simply a person who likes what I do and who has respect for tradition.
DLD: How does one become an All Star?
JLR: I don’t do auditions, really. When I look for someone, I do not care that they dance well because the moment that I look for professional dancers, the group becomes…I don’t know. It’s hard for professional dancers to adjust to the style of the All Stars. So I don’t look for professional dancers. I look for social dancers. I don’t care whether they dance well or not. I always say, “As long as you can walk, that is enough for me.” And this way one can mold the dancer to the group. And this is why the group as its own seal or signature. When people come to the group with a different style, it takes years to mold them to the standards of the group. I always say, to those who enter the group, that in order to become an All Star they will have to spend, at the very least, four years with the group. This is what I’ve learned from med students because I’ve have about seven of them in the group. By the fourth year of their careers, they leave the group because the career becomes too demanding. It is them which have given me that philosophy. So, four years it is.
DLD: Can you tell me a little about the group’s creative process? How do you come up with choreographies? How much time do you put into rehearsing?
JLR: Rehearsals are always done from 6 p.m.—though the time can change depending on how busy we are—until 9 o’clock. Although, when we’re feeling very energized, sometimes we go at it for four or five hours.
We normally put together a casino rueda in two to three weeks. I really cannot do it in a week because, if I were to, the result wouldn’t have any quality. Because, first, you have to choose the music, see if the turn patterns go with the music. I have seen a bunch of ruedas that are very good but don’t go together well with the music. I’ve also seen when the music is very good, but the rueda turn patterns do not go hand in hand with what is happening musically. And when these things happen, the rueda just doesn’t come out.
I come up with ideas for choreographies during the early morning. All the music that the All Stars use, I edit it. Recently, we did a homage to Los Compadres with the Septeto Santiaguero, and we had a choreography for the song La familia de Ramón; and I told the kids, “Let’s do something with the new album.” And we started putting together a new choreography. But I always felt things were missing. I would say: “It’s put together, but we’re still missing the spectacle aspect of it.” Those are the things that occur to me at night. Sometimes my wife gets scared when I wake up all of sudden and tell her, “Don’t say anything, don’t say anything,” and go to my computer and get to work so that things come out in the style of the All Stars.
DLD: Can you tell me about this “style”?
JLR: Look, we have a very different way of doing a rueda. Before, the casino rueda was done in a very traditional way. We once broke from tradition. At a dance competition in Santiago de Cuba, we took the circle and disintegrated it—and we were disqualified. I told the kids, “Well, someday this will become acceptable. I don’t know if it’ll be within a year or two, but I am not going to change the way the All Stars does things.” Then we went to Para Bailar Casino with that same rueda choreography with which we had been disqualified in Santiago, and it was here where we received the maximum amount of points that I had talked about before—which are fifty. We have a turn pattern which is called El horizonte (The horizon), were we break off the circle and make a line. And the jury at that moment got on their feet. When we came back into the circle, they didn’t know in what moment or how we had done what we did.
Another pivotal moment was when I scheduled practice one day for 4 p.m.—which was a mistake on my part because many of the kids were at school—so the only ones who arrived were six of the twelve men of the group, though we did have all the women. And I say, “OK. Let’s have a man dance with two women.” And so we did a casino rueda with two women per man. Later, we brought it to a competition. The kids were apprehensive because the jury was composed of dance masters like Eduardo Rivero. (This happened at the Sala Polivalente in Havana.) We took up the entire scenario. The song was “Si a una mamita” by Los Van Van. We brought the house down. After the number, the jury went on to deliberate and called me to the side. They asked me, “What is this?” And I said with these words: “I don’t know what I did. It occurred to me…so I did it.” Well, today that rueda is one of the most-watched casino rueda videos on YouTube.
Sometimes people want us to dance like the others. I cannot do that. If I do, then I am not an All Star. In the casino that we dance, we mix the traditional with the contemporary; we don’t do Afro-Cuban dancing because this saturates the choreography. I want people to see casino. It’s not that I don’t like Afro-Cuban dances. We do do them, but I can’t spend most of the choreography doing it. If I want to do that, then I pick a strictly Afro-Cuban song and do Afro-Cuban dancing. I cannot do a Changó when the song’s lyrics are going, “Don’t leave me, my love.” And I have seen ruedas which go from an Enchufa to a Yemayá, from a Setenta to another Orisha, and so on. It becomes a rueda of Afro-Cuban dances. I am not against this because, well, to each his own. But the audience wants to see the dance of casino, too. I like hearing the audience say, “Now this is a casino rueda.”
And now I am working on something else, I’m not going to say what. I haven’t been able to put a lot of time into it because of national and international engagements. So I haven’t been able to sit down with the idea, because this rueda needs to be studied. But it’s going to be something very novel. It will probably come out in 2017.
DLD: Tell me about the pedagogy that is used for learning to dance casino in Cuba. How do people learn to dance casino in Cuba?
JLR: Look, if you go to Cuba and watch people dance, you’ll see that no one dances the same. Not even on the timing of the foreigners, which is the one, two, three, five, six, seven from New York (this is what I’ve heard, that this form of counting was developed there); because in Cuba it has always been: one, two, three, one, two, three. Like the musicians who count only to four. And then there are people who say that casino is danced a certain way, and that is not correct. The dance of casino belongs to the people. You watch people dance, and there you’ll see this guy dancing a certain way, and there you’ll see that guy dancing another way. In other words, they dance it like they feel.
But I’ll tell you something: the dance schools in Cuba are for foreigners. There are very few schools in Cuba which teach dance classes to Cubans. Cubans learn empirically. Cubans are born dancing. And I’ll tell you something else: teaching a Cuban is more difficult than teaching a foreigner.
I learned to dance casino at twenty. I would dance on my own when Oscar D’León would go to Cuba. I liked dancing on my own a lot. I always would look at casino and say, “I’m never going to learn to dance that.” But one day I decided to learn, and I learned it in a week. It happened like this: I used to go to a school and sit down to watch the rueda de casino there. Then, a friend of mine called Rodolfo, who attended that school, taught me a little bit of the basics. He’d tell me, “You do this like this, and that like that.” And within a week I was the director of that rueda. It was then that I began to create choreographies, for I did have the imagination for it.
DLD: What is the most poignant difference that you’ve noticed when it comes to how casino is danced in Cuba and how it is danced outside the island?
JLR: Nowadays, the dance of casino in Cuba has received a bit more of a boost and, unfortunately, what has given it this boost have been foreigners who visit the island. The way I see it, maybe the people are dancing it more now so that the foreigner can see it, not so much so that the Cubans can see it. And nowadays in Cuba there has been an explosion of dance instructors that I feel embarrassed to call “dance instructors.” I didn’t study dance. But I know that a dance instructor should know about all dances. I tell me kids not to tell other people that they are dance instructors, but rather to say that they are dancers of the All Stars. Then there are many dance instructors who are just making stuff up on the go—I’ve seen it. And both in Cuba and Europe everybody is a dance instructor. Any Cuban in Europe can declare himself a dance instructor because foreigners think that all Cubans know how to dance casino. It is at this point where culture starts taking a secondary role and our values begin to be lost. It’s incredible to me how people lose their identity for the sake of money.
Today, there is a lot of competition in the world, people fighting over who’s the best. I always say that no one is better than anyone. I tell my kids, “We have to focus on our project. Good, bad, or mediocre, this is what is ours. The one thing we have.” I don’t let anyone distract me from my work.
DLD: There are those who call the dance “casino.” Others call it “salsa” or “Cuban salsa.” Where do you fall on this terminology?
JLR: What I have heard is that the name “salsa” comes from the Fania All Stars. That is, that “salsa” is the music. And, really, nowadays Cubans say “Cuban salsa” to refer to both the dance and the music. Indeed, in Cuba people say, “Let’s dance salsa.” But personally I don’t like to use this name. I have to defend what is mine. Because what I know is that salsa is son.
DLD: Well, Jorge, thank you very much for speaking to me and for visiting the United States.
JLR: Sure thing. We’ll be back soon.