Why Cubans Calling Casino “Salsa” Is Not a Good Reason for You to Do It, Too

Dansa23

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I have dedicated many a post to trying to get this point across: casino is not salsa; the two terms cannot be used interchangeably. To that end, I have written specifically about why the dance of casino cannot be considered a form or style of salsa dancing; I’ve written about the drawbacks of calling casino “salsa”, and how doing this makes it harder to get to an advanced level of casino dancing because thinking of casino as “salsa” hinders learners’ progress, as it teaches them to negatively transfer principles of salsa dancing into a dance that is completely different and has its own set of principles. (Think of this as learning tango using bachata dancing techniques.) Lastly, for those who still feel a marketing pressure to call casino “salsa” or “Cuban salsa”, I have suggested a better term: “Cuban dance.” This label is as marketable as “Cuban salsa” and not only does it stay truer to the dance, it also decreases “negative transfer” (see above). The best part of this is that, once learners come to class, it can be specified that the “Cuban dance” in question is casino—all this without having to resort to “salsa” because it was never marketed as such.

I strongly recommend, if you haven’t done so already, that you read those posts mentioned above. Not only will they help cement the idea that casino is not “salsa,” but they will also be of tremendous help in understanding where I am coming from when I write what you are about to read (and what you can expect to read from this blog in general, if you are new to it). I will leave links below to each one so that you can read them in their intended order:

  1. Dissipating Misconceptions: Is Casino a “Style” of Salsa Dancing?
  2. Why Calling Casino “Salsa” Makes It Harder to Get Better at It
  3. Is It Possible to Market Casino as Anything Other Than “Salsa”?

Despite all that I have written on this topic, I have found that, even if people intellectually understand that casino is not salsa, that calling it “salsa” may be detrimental to the learning of casino, or that it could even be marketed differently—even if they understand all this, they still see as OK calling the dance of casino “salsa” or “Cuban salsa”, and there is one last-resort reason I often hear from them:

Cubans themselves call the dance of casino “salsa,” so why shouldn’t I?

Indeed, why should others do what Cubans themselves do not do? What’s the point of “staying true” to the name of casino when the Cubans themselves do not? And if Cubans themselves call casino “salsa,” isn’t calling casino “salsa,” just like Cubans do, showing respect for the culture, being respectful to Cubans?

These are all very understandable questions. I would be asking the same things, too, if I had been taught to dance “Cuban salsa” by Cubans who called it that, or have Cuban friends who call it that.

This is even something I can relate to on a personal level. My mom every now and then asks me if I have taught any “salsa workshops” recently. My dad wants to know where I have traveled recently to “teach salsa.” My sister asks me about my “salsa blog.” And so on. Every member of my family is Cuban, born and raised in the island, and they call casino “salsa” sometimes. Which reminds me of this ironic saying in Spanish, “En casa de herrero, martillo de palo,” which roughly translates to, “You’ll find a wooden hammer in a blacksmith’s house.”

Heck, even I often used to call casino “salsa” back in the day. So what changed?

Well, what changed was that I left Cuba and came to the United States. I saw how salsa was danced here in the States—and later, with the help of YouTube, in most of Europe and Asia. Most importantly, however, was that I learned what “salsa dancing” meant outside of Cuba.

And when I saw what it meant—when I saw all this on-the-slot dancing being called “LA style salsa” and “New York style salsa”—I realized that it had nothing to do with what I had thought of as “salsa” in Cuba.

Because what I had thought of as “salsa” in Cuba had always and unequivocally been casino.

And that is the crucial point people need to comprehend before they argue that they call casino “salsa” because Cubans are the first ones to do it:

Cubans call casino “salsa” because, in Cuba, to say “salsa” is to say “casino.” There is no other point of reference for “salsa” in Cuba than casino. That’s why the names are used interchangeably.

This is very, very different to what happens outside of Cuba. And you know it.

Sure: when people say “salsa” outside of Cuba they might be referring to casino. But they may not. They may be referring to New York style salsa (on2), Colombian salsa, salsa from Puerto Rico, etc.

The word “salsa,” in and of itself, outside of Cuba doesn’t necessarily mean “casino.”

Problem is, most Cubans don’t know that.

Think about Cuba’s history. The island has had an embargo imposed by the U.S. since 1962 (casino was developed in 1957), which has made Cuba effectively isolated from the rest of the world. Add to this the fact that most Cubans cannot really travel outside of Cuba for pleasure. This lack of contact with everyone else meant that Cubans were not exposed to salsa dancing as it was danced outside of Cuba. They were more exposed, however, to what began to be called “salsa music,” a term that became highly divisive in Cuba among musicians. Despite criticism, in the late 80s some Cuban musicians started making the same music they had always made, but now under the label of “salsa” so that they could enter the international music market. (This is why Manolín dubbed himself “El médico de la salsa” and Issac Delgado “El chévere de la salsa”. Likewise, Paulo FG would often shout during his songs, “¡salsa!”) Musicians started calling their music “salsa,” and since Cubans in the island were dancing casino to that music, “salsa” was also accepted as an alternative name for the dance of casino, though it never replaced it (as I’ve said,  “salsa” and “casino” in Cuba are used interchangeably). This is largely why the term “salsa” is used in Cuba to refer to the dance of casino.

For a Cuban, then, to realize that “salsa” can mean something other than “casino,” several factors would have to come together: first, he/she would have to leave the country (less than 5 percent of the population in Cuba has Internet; trust me: they don’t use it to go to YouTube to watch salsa videos from other countries); then he/she would have to know how to dance casino in order to spot the differences if he/she were ever to dance with a non-Cuban; and then he/she has to like casino enough to actually go out to clubs and socials, and thus be exposed to people dancing salsa-not-casino. (This can also happen in Cuba through exposure to tourism, but most Cubans don’t go out to dance in tourist spots because entry is very expensive. So there is really very little exposure to the outside when it comes to the dance scene.)

So it’s hard for a regular Cuban to know that there is a difference between “salsa” and “casino” outside of Cuba, even if they live outside of Cuba. That’s why my family, for instance, keeps calling it “salsa.” They dance a little casino, but never go out to salsa (on2, on1) socials. Most of the dancing they do happens during house parties with other Cubans. That’s why most of my Cuban friends who dance casino but do not go out to dance sometimes call it “salsa,” too.

Again, most Cubans are not aware that there is a difference.

With this, I am not saying that Cubans are right when they call the dance of casino “salsa”. They aren’t. The label of “salsa” is still a misinformed one because a) casino was developed before salsa dancing, so it cannot possibly be salsa; and b) they don’t know when they are saying “salsa,” others aren’t necessarily thinking “casino.” In short, they are using the salsa label out of ignorance.

And that’s very different than people who  know that there is a difference between casino and salsa, that the dances aren’t the same, but who still very consciously use the label of “salsa” to attract students to their classes. I see this as a serious lack of cultural responsibility; for in doing this they become participants of a process in which outsiders get to define Cuba’s cultural products (because they are doing it to fit their needs), not Cubans themselves.

Someone reading this may ask, “But my teacher is Cuban, and he/she knows the difference. And he/she still calls the dance ‘salsa.’”

Yeah. They do.

But they do that because “salsa” is what you know, and they want you to go to their classes. In short, they need your money to keep the classes going; so they call casino “salsa” because it is something that you can understand. That’s how they lure you in. It’s as simple as that. (And yes, they also lack the same cultural responsibility as other non-Cuban instructors who do the same thing.)

Regrettably, as I have extensively explained in the second post from the list I gave you at the beginning, this ends up doing more harm to the dance than good.

So, please keep these things in mind the next time you hear a Cuban saying that they dance “salsa.” Rather than seeing this as a way to validate the way you want to call things, use the opportunity to ask the person why they don’t call the dance “casino” instead. Ask them why they are calling it “salsa.” See for yourself.

It is my hope that, when that happens, having read this you’ll understand that even though it may be the same thing to them because of their limited experience, it is most certainly not the same thing to you. Because when you hear the word “salsa”, you don’t necessarily think about casino. In fact, you have to add “Cuban” to “salsa” to differentiate it from other dances.

This crucial difference makes the argument of calling casino “salsa” “because Cubans do it” faulty on the very premise it is built.

But hey, if you’re still looking to call things how Cubans call it, don’t look any further: I am a Cuban. I call the dance “casino” because I know there is a difference in meaning and intention. Now you know it, too.

Join me in calling it that.

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