Will Traveling to Cuba Actually Help Your Casino Dancing?

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Haz clic aquí para español.

 

A few years ago, one of my former students of Spanish asked me for a few tips on how to improve his Spanish. “I’ve been to Spain every year for the last four years,” he told me, “and yet I don’t feel that I can have a conversation in Spanish. I can barely speak it.”

I asked him, “Did you speak Spanish while you were in Spain?”

“A little,” he said, and then admitted, crestfallen, that he had mostly spent his time in the company of the people from the university who had gone to Spain with him as a part of the study abroad program. Given that they all had come from the U.S. and were learning Spanish, they all spoke English to each other. In the comfort of said company, this student had barely ventured outside of his group, tried to strike a conversation with strangers in Spanish to perhaps ask for directions, or even with his own Spanish teachers; heck, he probably had not even turned on the TV to watch the news in Spanish, never picked up a newspaper. And why do so? There had been no need. In such a controlled environment as a university-sponsored study abroad program, with teachers or tour guides who could do the linguistic hard work for them during their outings to the city, speaking Spanish was not a necessity.

This student had traveled all the way across the Atlantic several times, hoping to learn Spanish, seemingly by osmosis, and was now standing in front of me, befuddled that he had not, in fact, learned much of anything, even though he had been told that immersion was the best way to learn.

Now, immersion is the best way to learn to a language. It just so happens that he had not really been immersed. At best, all he had done was take vacation in Spain as a tourist who is just going for the sights and the experience of being somewhere new but that plays into their idea of comfort—like the U.S. people who go to Cancún, México for Spring Break, or those who spend a week in a resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. At worst, he had spent thousands of dollars on trips that, as far as his language goals were concerned, had been a complete and utter failure.

I bring up the story of what happened to this former student of mine as a way to shed some light into what can potentially happen to people who travel to Cuba for the purposes of improving their dancing skills.

And that is: a trip to Cuba is simply not enough. I’ve met many who have gone to Cuba as part of a dance exchange program, yet returned and continue doing the same things they have always done. Like my student who went to Spain to improve his Spanish, yet came back showing no improvement, some people go to Cuba because they want to get better by learning from the source, yet come back to continue teaching and dancing as they did before the trip.

What I see as having happened in these instances is that whatever they did do during their trip to Cuba was not enough to push them out of their comfort zones. And that is something that you absolutely need to do in order to learn something else other than what you already know. Because if you are not willing to put yourself in a situation that tests the limits of what you know and pushes you to expand them, progress will never be made.

Think about my Spanish student. He went to Spain, yes, but he never actually attempted to do anything other than what he already did in the United States—spend time with English speakers and speak English most of the time. Similarly, if you go to Cuba to learn casino in an environment that looks and feels familiar, such as a dance class, then you are not really pushing yourself to be out of your comfort zone. In that sense, it is no different than going to the Dominican Republic to experience “Dominican culture” but spending all your time at the resort, which is anything but. (If you think I’ve gone crazy by suggesting taking a dance class in Cuba is not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, I will explain my reasons for stating this shortly.)

A trip is not enough. Being there is not enough. If you really want to improve your casino dancing skills, you need to do the trip right.

So here are the four things that I believe are crucial for a dance trip to Cuba to be successful in improving your casino dancing skills:

  1. If you go by yourself rather than as part of a dance group, do not take classes.
  2. If you do go as a dance group and must take classes, minimize the time dancing with your dance instructors.
  3. Visit to places where regular Cubans go out to dance.
  4. Watch regular Cubans dance.

Let me explain each one in more detail now.

  1. If you go by yourself rather than as part of a dance group, do not take classes.

In an interview recently published in this blog with Jorge Luna Roque, director of the All Stars form Santiago de Cuba, I asked him about the pedagogical differences that he had seen as they pertained to casino taught both inside and outside of the island. This is what he said: “The dance schools in Cuba are for foreigners. There are very few schools in Cuba which teach dance classes to Cubans. Cubans learn empirically.”

To those who are willing to listen, Jorge is saying something that, while it might seem strange to foreigners, is common knowledge among Cubans. And that is the fact that, by and large, Cubans do not learn casino by going to dance schools, like non-Cubans do. Some schools may teach a thing or two, and some cities’ Casas de cultura in Cuba may offer an after-school program for kids (these are free, as they are government-sponsored). But generally speaking, Cubans learn, as Jorge said, empirically: watching people dancing; through family members or friends; by joining a rueda during the lunch period at school; etc.

So, with all of these opportunities to learn for free in Cuba, there is no need to pay for classes. Most importantly, however, is the fact that Cubans cannot afford them! Take, for example, the dance school Baila Habana (http://www.baila-habana.com/en/baila-salsa-son-rumba-with-baila-habana/single-couple-lessons). They charge sixteen dollars per hour. On average, Cubans earn about thirty dollars a month. Do the math. Do you think these classes are for Cubans? Of course not. As stated by Jorge, “The dance schools in Cuba are for foreigners.”

This is why I recommend, if you go alone, to not to take classes while in Cuba. As you can see, classes are for foreigners, and in them, you will be learning in an environment designed to specifically cater to you, the foreigner. Which means that you will learn in a familiar environment—a dance class—using concepts and things that you are familiar with, but do not necessarily represent how Cubans actually learn to dance casino. And, of course, because they want your business, they will teach you whatever you want to learn, not how Cubans actually dance. They are there to make your Cuban dance fantasy come true.

And though you may think you’re learning something new, you will never leave your comfort zone. You’ll still be at the resort, thinking you’re experiencing authentic Dominican culture (to go back to parellel I used earlier). There will never be any progress like that.

  1. If you do go as a dance group and must take classes, minimize the time dancing with your dance instructors.

If the only way you can go to Cuba is through a cultural/dance exchange program, that’s fine. You can learn a lot of cultural and historical information about Cuban dances because these programs have an education component in them. Classes other than casino are perfectly fine to take because, to be honest, other than casino, people in Cuba are not proficient in other dances. Explicit instruction is the way that these other dances would be learned by Cubans.

But again, be wary of the casino classes—or “Cuban salsa” as some of the instructors may call it in an effort to cater to your idea of what the dance is.

Now, when it is time to dance socially, do minimize the amount of time that you dance with your instructors. It is not that the instructors are not good dancers. They can be great. But they also know you. They know your weaknesses and strengths and can play into them. With that inside knowledge—and because they are used to dancing with foreigners, as that is the nature of their job—they can make you feel great about your dancing skills as they play into your strengths and try not to touch your weaknesses. In fact, some instructors go as far as completely adapting to the dance concepts you are bringing from abroad, so that you feel even more comfortable. In the following video, for example, starting at 4:50, you can see how what the instructor does resembles more LA/on1 style salsa than actual casino because the person that is taking classes with him came from the U.S.

So that can happen. And you can finish the song thinking that you rock because you were able to keep up with your instructor; yet if you really think back on the dance, you’ll probably see that you weren’t doing anything different because everything you were doing you already knew how to do well.

You were never pushed out of your comfort zone. And by that not happening, there was never a point in which you had to think, “I couldn’t do this. Let me figure out how I can do it.” You were never shown your weaknesses, nor were you made to face them. That’s why you need to…

  1. Visit places where regular Cubans go out to dance.

By doing this, you are putting yourself in a situation where, not only are you leaving the “resort” and engaging in a more authentic experience, you are also attempting to dance with people who do not know your strengths and weaknesses and can therefore push you out of your comfort zone by making you do things you may not yet be comfortable doing, or that you did not even know that you could do.

Dancing with strangers is the ultimate test of your dance skills. Everything that happens in that dance is based on the continuous, split-second, non-verbal communication that the two dancers have to create as they attempt to dance with each other. It’s a constant, messy negotiation where you have to be actively involved to figure out what that other person is “saying,” rather than a comfortable “review” of moves you may get dancing with your instructors. And because these regular Cubans haven’t been affected by non-Cuban dances, such as salsa, you will gain a better understanding of what actually constitutes casino, and what instructors, Cubans or otherwise, are trying to pass off as “casino” by mixing it with something else.

That is progress. That’s how you get better. That’s how you truly make your trip to Cuba count.

If for some reason you are having trouble finding regular Cubans to dance with, don’t forget that Cuba is more than Havana and Santiago de Cuba! So, please, please, please, step outside of these two cities that are the most-visited cities when people go to Cuba to learn dance. Go to another province such as Holguín, Camagüey, or Matanzas. There are people who dance casino there, too. In fact, I’d argue that that makes for a much more rewarding experience because, given that Havana is such a hot spot for dancing, chances are that you will dance with people who have danced with foreigners before, and who know how to cater to your needs (point 2). You need to see more Cubans dancing with each other, not Cubans dancing with foreigners, to see what casino really looks like. Which brings me to the last point:

  1. Watch regular Cubans dance.

As you escape the “resort” and seek more authentic dance experiences, do not forget that sitting down and watching people dance is also part of the learning process. Remember what Jorge said, “Cubans learn empirically.” Follow that advise. A night at a dance social sitting down and watching people dance is not a wasted night.

I would argue that, in fact, foreigners’ lack of exposure to regular Cubans dancing is an intrinsic part of why there is such a disparity between the way that casino is danced in Cuba, and the way it is danced outside of the island. Go to YouTube and do a search for casino dancing or “Cuban salsa.” You will see that the most-watched videos from these searches, in their majority, are not those of Cubans dancing in Cuba (in its authentic setting), but rather videos of instructors doing a demonstration after a workshop (in a setting that is familiar and comfortable to you, the student who learned through dance classes at an academy). I have already written extensively about the pernicious effects of having that as our examples of what constitutes casino in this previous post. I strongly urge you to read it.

Get used to the sight of regular Cubans—not instructors—dancing; make that your point of reference. You are already in Cuba. And in traveling there, you have already admitted to yourself that there is something to be learned from the people in the island which you cannot find anywhere else.

So watch them dance, learn from it, and then try to imitate what you see. After all, that is exactly how Cubans learn to dance casino.


Traveling to Cuba for the purposes of getting better at casino will help you insofar as you are willing to let it help you. If all you do is continue doing the same things you already do outside of Cuba—take classes, dance with other foreigners, go to places that cater specifically to foreigners, dance with your instructors—your skills won’t see an improvement. Yes, you went to Cuba. Yes, it was fun. But if your purpose was to improve your dancing, notwithstanding any friends you may have made, you wasted your time. What you learned in Cuba you could have learned anywhere else.

If you, on the other hand, are willing to place yourself in situations that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable because they are not relatable to your experience, that is when you will be really learning from the source and having a more authentic experience.

That’s when your casino dance trip to Cuba will truly begin.

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