Edit: Due to the potentially polemic nature of this post, there are some things that need to be made clear before you read further. First, as the title posits, this article deals specifically with international dance festivals in Cuba. These festivals emphasize dance workshops during the day, often culminating at a music venue at night. Second, this article excludes music festivals which, of course, means that there is dancing, but which main objective is to bring musicians together to play in one place. And third, this also excludes dance and music celebrations such as the carnavales as they really are more about the celebration of dance and music than teaching people how to dance.
Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go.
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place
Over 100 hours of dance workshops, spread out throughout an entire week, from the most popular instructors of Cuban dances around the world; guided walking tours of the historic center of Old Havana that include live Afro-Cuban music shows at the Callejón de Hamel, and the rarely-afforded privilege of watching the National Ballet rehearse at the Gran Teatro Nacional; nightly dance parties at nightclubs with live music, featuring some of Cuba’s most coveted bands, such as Maykel Blanco y su Salsa Mayor, or Paulo FG y su Élite; all the beer, mojitos, and Cuba Libres you desire. Oh, and an unforgettable Friday afternoon at the beautiful Tarará Beach.
This is what you can get at the 2nd International Cuban Dance Festival (formerly known as the “Cuban Salsa Festival”), taking place from April 24th to April 30th in Havana, Cuba. To anyone who loves Cuba and its dances, this is mouth-watering stuff. Not only are your Cuban dance idols—the people you’ve always looked up to, imitated, and tried to take a workshop from if they ever visited your city—all congregated in one place, you also get to learn Cuban dances in Cuba! No more Cuban dance festivals in hotels or resorts-by-the-beach in European or U.S. cities that try to emulate but can never measure up to the actual dance experience in cities like Havana or Santiago de Cuba; to being surrounded by Cuba and its people. This is the real thing!
And it only costs less than 500 euros/dollars for a full pass (not including hotel or flight expenses), a reasonable price if you are coming from a first world country and have saved enough to cover the costs.
Reasonable, that is, except for, you know, Cubans.
Which is ironic, to say the least, given that the festival is taking place in, you know, Cuba.
On average, a Cuban’s monthly salary falls below thirty-five dollars. Given that the full pass is well over ten times that amount, you can understand how this festival is not something a regular Cuban can afford to attend, especially considering that there are no prices for this festival set apart for regular Cubans—that is, prices that, adjusted for how much Cubans actually earn, could allow them to attend this event and partake in and enjoy the same activities as every tourist. After all, it is their country and culture. But nowhere in the website of this event is there a different set of prices for Cubans. And I looked everywhere.
But OK. Maybe there needn’t be prices for Cubans on the website. Less than 2% of the population on the island actually has Internet; so, if they learned about this event, it wouldn’t be online but rather through word-of-mouth. Maybe Cubans did get a special rate, and all they had to do was show up to the workshops they wanted to take and nightly dance socials they wanted to go in order to get it.
I needed to know for sure. So I sent an email to the event organizers in Cuba to see if that was the case.
Turns out there are no special rates for Cubans.
I’ll let the event organizers themselves explain. This is a translated excerpt from one of the emails they sent me after I inquired about prices:
Regrettably, we cannot make a difference between Cubans and foreigners. Access to workshops, tours, and the cost of production that is required for each of the activities offered at this event simply do not permit it. I’ll give you an example: access to the nightly socials for every day of the week during this event, be it at places like Casa de la Música, Pico Blanco, 1830, or La Gruta do not have a entry price difference between foreigners and Cubans. Entry to these places oscillates between 5 to 25 CUC [Cuban currency equivalent to the euro or dollar], bringing the weekly total to 35 and 175 CUC, and perhaps more. Moreover, each participant will have the opportunity to receive a minimum of 36 classes during the week, for which any dance school in Havana would charge between 260 and 540 CUC. A quick calculation gives us a total cost ranging from 295 to 715 CUC [the cheapest full pass was 365 euros].
In the minds of the event organizers, this is great deal. And it is. You’re saving a couple hundred on the workshops and parties alone, plus all the extra money you’d spend with guided tours and transportation if you were to do this outside of this event by yourself. So yeah, it’s a great deal for foreigners visiting the island only. Just not for Cubans.
Cubans, barring those teaching at this event or organizing it, are pretty much left out of the Cuban Dance Festival.
But, as it turns out, this is not the fault of the event organizers. As you read, it’s practically out of their hands. The different places hosting the nightly parties already charge a lot of money. Dance schools in Cuba already make classes unaffordable to Cubans. The event organizers are simply working with what they have. And what they have doesn’t cater to Cubans. Indeed, the system is simply set up in such a way that the people who get to enjoy what events like these have to offer are everybody but Cubans.
This is nothing new, however. Growing up in Cuba, I remember that there were certain sections of Varadero beach on which regular Cubans like me were not allowed to set foot. I clearly remember, in fact, this one time when some relatives of my dad’s girlfriend came to visit. We went to Varadero, and before we even got close to the hotel in the car, the security guy stopped us and asked for our IDs. It turned out only those in our party who had been born outside of the island, or currently resided outside, were allowed to go into the hotel and its allocated beach portion. So we had to turn back. And that’s just Varadero. I could never stay at any hotel in Havana when I lived there, either because I was Cuban or because it was ridiculously expensive for a Cuban. Again, it’s just how the system is set up and works, in a perfect example of neo-colonialism, so that outsiders, rather than its inhabitants, can enjoy the best the island has to offer. No wonder so many Cubans leave.
Now, going back to the festival, I could attempt to argue that maybe a way to include Cubans in this event is to have the nightly parties at other places that can be rented out and it’s the event organizers who set the entry fee. Likewise, Cubans could pay for workshops in pesos rather than CUC (the exchange rate is, on average, 27 pesos per CUC) and let the bulk of the instructor fees be covered by foreigners—of whom there will be no shortage. Maybe use that money, too, to pay for a couple of good music bands. But I am speculating. I don’t live in Cuba, and I never lived in Havana. So I don’t know how the logistics of that would go, or if it is even possible.
What I do know is that events like these are not intended to be for Cubans. Instead, with its foreigner-centered approach, festivals like this one in Cuba are an extension of the dance classes that you take outside of the island, classes which selling highpoint banks on the idea that, if you come to these classes, one day you’ll be able to dance the sexy “Cuban salsa” in Cuba. The dance festivals in Cuba, then, become a sort of grand finale to the journey you began the moment you set foot in your first Cuban dance class, wherever it is that you live.
And it really is an extension of your dance trajectory. Aren’t the same instructors who teach outside of Cuba teaching here, too? Isn’t the inclusion of kizomba and bachata in this festival (yes, there are kizomba and bachata workshops being offered) a response to the growing popularity of these dances where you live?—because, last time I checked, these are not Cuban dances. Aren’t you going to be taking workshops with the same people you always take them: non-Cubans like you, because regular Cubans cannot afford them? Aren’t you going to be dancing with these same people later at the nightly socials because regular Cubans cannot afford to go?
Even though you are going all the way to Cuba to dance, and even though you will be staying in a very different country, events like this one create their own microcosms. As such, they are set up in such a way that most of what you’ll end up doing as part of this event will feel familiar to you. Sure, you’ll be in a new environment, but it won’t be so alien as to make you feel uncomfortable and ultimately dissuade you from ever returning. On the contrary, the guided tours (emphasis on guided), the night parties, the dance workshops, the beach—all these are things meant to draw your attention to one single proposition: “Have fun!”
And isn’t that the very reason people would want to go? To have a good time in Cuba?
Thing is, guess who’s not having a good time in Cuba? Danilo Maldonado Machado, also known as El Sexto, who has been imprisoned twice for using graffiti as a form of protesting the government. Guillermo Fariñas, who has gone on hunger strikes up to twenty-three times. Yoani Sánchez, who’s been beaten outside of her house because of the contents of her blog. My father, a customs agent who was incarcerated for taking a bribe from a tourist at the airport who wanted to smuggle Cuban tobaccos out of the country. My grandmother, who needs arthritis medicine she cannot obtain in the island. My uncle, for whom being a doctor in Cuba was not enough financially; he also had to sell clothes and rubbing alcohol from home—all contraband, of course—to make ends meet. My childhood friend who lived next door, who often went to school without having had breakfast and whose home meals at times consisted of only black beans and a piece of bread.
Not so fun now, huh? And I can keep going. I’ve got stories for days.
My point is this: it’s extremely easy, when attending festivals like this one, detached from the broader Cuban reality as they are in order to give tourists an experience that meets the expectations that, as tourists, they may have of the island, to lose oneself in the “Have fun!” of it all. It’s the easiest thing to focus on dancing and having a good time, and in the process turn a blind eye to the economic and social difficulties of the island and the people who inhabit it.
And when that happens, what you are telling the Cuban onlooker who can only watch from afar as you spin and turn and laugh and mock his/her condition by transforming it into a source of pleasure for yourself is this, “I care more about your dances than I care about your lives.”
I am not trying to make you feel guilty for wanting to go to Cuba, or about having gone. Nor am I asking anybody to suddenly become a political activist. But the truth is that nothing in Cuba can be divorced from its politics. Not even dancing.
What I am trying to do here is create awareness about a situation that may not be so clear to some because most of the attention in the international Cuban dance community is directed toward having fun dancing and there is so little mention of anything else that at times Cuba turns this idyllic place full of happiness and dancing, when it is anything but. I’m not asking you to try and fix the situation (you can’t). I am asking you to be aware.
Personally, I am not opposed to people going to Cuba because they want to dance, though I do offer some words of caution for when you do go in this previous article. If you like Cuban dances, why not? Not going would be a waste of all that time and energy you’ve already put into learning.
But an even bigger waste would be going to Cuba and remaining the oblivious tourist while you are there.