Are Artists Destroying Casino as a Social Dance?

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Let’s start this post with a video. It’s a short one, a little over a minute. Give it a watch.

The above clip comes from a very popular dance TV show in the United States called Dancing With the Stars. In it, celebrities get paired up with professional dancers and they compete every week to stay in the competition, picking a musical genre and performing a choreography to it, showcasing their abilities with different dances as the weeks progress.

While the title of this video insinuates that this is “salsa”, anyone who actually dances salsa knows that the above video is most certainly not salsa dancing. In fact, if you were to scroll down in the comment section of the video, you’ll find several people pointing this out.

Yet, for most people in the United States, the above video is salsa dancing. Do scroll down to the comment section. You’ll find a much greater number of people simply mesmerized by the dancing, not even noticing that the song has very little—if anything—to do with what we know and call “salsa” music, and accepting at face value that this is “salsa dancing.”

What this video and these comments show is that there is an undeniable lack of dance culture in the United States—and judging by the fact that this show also has a U.K. version, I’m going to suggest that this lack of dance culture extends to parts of Europe as well. (By “dance culture” I mean that dancing permeates the lives of the people, that dancing is as common as running; barring those who cannot for physical reasons, anybody can do it.)

Language reflects the culture which speaks it. To me, the clearest indicator of this lack of dance culture is that we only have one word for people who dance: “dancer.” Think about it. If someone tells you that they are a “dancer,” you are not going to think that this person simply likes to dance. No. You are going to think that this person takes dance seriously, practices dancing regularly, and that most likely dancing is his/her profession.

But what about people who just dance for the sake of dancing? What about people who dance because it’s fun and they like it? Well, there is no word for it. They would say that they “like to dance” or are “dance enthusiasts,” but there is no word that I know of. In the same sense, someone who is learning the piano or just likes to play it for fun wouldn’t call themselves a “pianist.”

So there is no dance culture in the U.S. and parts of Europe. Because of this, then, what people conceive as “dancing” is often what they see in movies, musicals, music videos; you know, choreographies like the one shown above from Dancing with the Stars. In other words, there is no clear demarcation between the stage and the social dance floor. Precisely because there is a lack of dance culture, the people do not have the tools to differentiate between the choreographed dancing that happens on a stage, and the social, unchoreographed dancing that can happen off it.

This stands in very sharp contrast with Cubans, for instance, who do have a more pronounced dance culture. Again, let´s look at language. Cubans do have different words for professional dancers and for people who just like to dance for fun, socially. These words are bailarín (professional dancer, went to Art School) and bailador (social dancer, likes to dance). What this means is that Cubans are able to differentiate more clearly between the dancing that occurs as part of a show or performance, and the dancing that is done socially.

In fact, the role of the bailador, the social dancer, is so important in Cuba that there have been televised dance competitions, such as Para bailar in the 80s and Para bailar casino in the early 2000s, in which the bailadores, and not bailarines, are the ones who compete. Think of the main dance shows that you see on TV nowadays in the English-speaking world. (I’m thinking of So You Think You Can Dance and the already-mentioned Dancing with the Stars.) These shows are highly-professionalized and have very little to do with social dancing. They are for bailarines.

But in Cuba, when it comes to showcasing good dancing, what people want to see are the bailadores. Here are a couple of videos showcasing regular people dancing alongside internationally renowned bands on national television:

 

 

 

Likewise, as mentioned above, dance competitions are filled with bailadores that have nothing to do with professional dancing. You can see this clearly in the following video, from the televised dance competition Para bailar casino in Cuba. Even as you watch the amazing dancing that happens in the video, do notice that when, at 2:38, the hosts ask the dancers what they do, the male says he works at an optic, and the female studies nursing:

 

As you have seen, to Cubans, casino is a social dance, not some one-time choreography done for television or a dance show. Even when casino dancing is televised, it retains its social dancing aspect, and bailadores are the norm and what’s expected from the public. Whereas in the U.S. and many parts of Europe (and I mention this because this is where casino has taken its biggest hold outside of Cuba) what happens on the stage and what happens on the social dance floor is often inseparable in the minds of the people.

All of this brings me to the very question that gives this post a title: Are artists destroying casino as a social dance?

Well…yes.

Let me tell you why I believe this is the case.

As you have seen, in Cuba casino has been kept “off the stage” and therefore outside of more artistic settings. It is a social dance performed primarily by bailadores or “social dancers.” Even when it is put on stage or televised, or is part of a competition, bailadores, and not professional dancers who graduated from the School or Art (artists), are the ones partaking in it. Moreover, because there is a “dance culture” in Cuba, Cubans have the ability to look at an artistic performance or representation of casino and see it for what it is: a show intended to entertain, an opportunity for artists to showcase their talent and art. But casino? Leave that to the bailadores.

However, outside of Cuba we have a different picture. As we have also seen, outside of Cuba, the demarcations between the stage and the social dance floor are not so clear precisely because people did not grow up within a dance culture that could give them the tools to be aware of this difference.

But what’s even more important is that, outside of Cuba, many of the people who are teaching casino are not bailadores. Indeed, most Cubans who are teaching casino in the U.S. or Europe are bailarines, professional dancers. Artists. And in many ways, their artistic background seeps into what they teach, sometimes to the point that all that students really get is a sort of Cuban-themed So You Think You Can Dance, where much of what occurs in these classes are artistic choreographies that have very little value on the social dance floor.

Let me give you some examples to show you what I mean by all of this:

 

In all the above videos, what you see is not really casino as it is danced by the regular people in Cuba. Watching these videos, I feel like I am watching Dancing with the Stars, but with a Cuban touch. As someone who is used to seeing casino danced mostly by social dancers or bailadores, this looks choreographed—and in many ways, it is; look at the Seo Fernandez video or the Wilmer and Maria one and you will notice that there are clearly-choreographed steps, such as when they break off and do their own steps individually. That level of choreography does not belong on the social dance floor. But people eat it all up because, for many, that’s precisely how they have come into contact with dancing: through choreographed performances in movies, shows, musicals, etc.

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with choreographies. They are fun and entertaining. I personally enjoy watching dancers create their art in whatever way they want. But in cultures where a dancer, by definition, is a professional, an artist whose job is to create art with his/her dancing—and, as we know, art can be very flexible; in cultures where dancing is mostly considered an art form and rarely something more—for lack of a better word—“mundane,” like running, and therefore all dancing can be art, thus enjoying the flexibilities of what art can be; in these cultures, it is very easy for the social dance to get lost in the artistic expression. Indeed, think of the dozens of commenters on the very first “salsa” video I showed are oblivious to the fact they are not watching “salsa”—or even listening to it—but totally think they are watching salsa. The artistic expression has replaced the dance, as it is danced socially.

In fact, if you were to compare the casino dancing from the first examples I gave in this post and these later ones, you will see that they have very little in common. The difference will be so stark, you will notice it right away, now that you know what you’re looking for.

That is why the casino dancing videos that I have on the section of the blog called “Casino Dancing Videos” are specifically “(from Cuba)”. Because with YouTube filled with videos of these artists teaching whatever they feel like for art’s sake—and these videos getting thousands of views—we need to be reminded of what casino looks like, and what it actually is: a social dance.

Oh, and by the way: good luck trying to fnd videos of these artists dancing casino socially! I won’t say that these videos do not exist, but they are hard to find. To me, this is the best indicator of how unsustainable whatever these artists are teaching—I won’t call it “casino”—is on the social dance floor. And isn’t it ironic that there are a ton of videos of these artists teaching people to dance a social dance but very few videos of these same artists dancing socially? Again, artistic expression replacing actual social dancing.

And a lot of people are eating it up like birthday cake.

(By the way, this is not happening to casino only. Kizomba and bachata are also experiencing this problem, I’m given to understand.)

At any rate, the reason that I state that artists are destroying casino as a social dance is that artists are the ones who are often the most popular on YouTube. Their dance videos get the most views; therefore, more people are exposed to them than to any other casino dancing videos, including videos of people dancing casino in Cuba. More and more, the artistic expression is replacing the actual dance. It would explain the explosion of fusions that are coming out of the international Cuban dance community nowadays. Every day, casino is becoming less casino, and more of everything else.

So, can this be stopped? I don’t know. What I do know is that you can be more conscientious about what you dance, and that there are many videos out there, and people, showing and teaching what casino looks like when danced socially. This blog has dozens of those videos on the “Casino Dancing Videos (from Cuba)” page, which I have painstakingly collected, as they are really hard to find and, given the low number of views they have, it speaks volumes about what people are watching as their reference for casino.

And then there are videos of bailadores teaching to dance casino as a social dance. Here are some examples, though I would always recommend watching something straight from the island. As you watch the videos below, also try and re-watch the first videos and see how much closer these videos come to the last video, which is a video of Cubans dancing casino as part of a couples’ competition:

 

 

I do want to make something clear as I end this piece. By writing this, I am not saying that artists have no business teaching casino, a social dance. There is no rule as to who can do it, be it an artist or otherwise. All I am saying to artists is: Put the art aside for a minute; leave it for the performances.

Teach people to dance casino as a social dance.

Otherwise, there won’t be much of casino left to dance outside of Cuba.

 

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