Q&A with Eric Johnson and Sarita Streng, Co-Directors of the Documentary “La Salsa Cubana”
A dance group from the outskirts of Havana strives to win the Cuban national dance competition. It is a story and event that engrosses the country. The group comes from the Guanabacoa neighborhood and their passion is casino Along with the group’s journey, we hear about the fabulous Cuban music, delve into the dancers’ personal lives, and find out how casino started, as recalled by the old school dancers who were there at the time. This is an authentic and rare view of Cuba today and the dancing that lifts the national spirit.
Q: What drove you to make a documentary about Cuban dance? And why casino?
Eric: First, thank you, Dáybert, and the “Son y Casino” blog subscribers for your interest in the film La Salsa Cubana! The project was a collaboration between Sarita Streng and me. I had been living in Havana for a year starting in the summer of 2003. Sarita, who had been my casino teaching partner in San Diego prior to that, came to visit at end of year and we saw La rueda de Guanabacoa perform as part of a rueda festival at Teatro America. The group had already won some preliminary rounds on the TV show Bailar Casino and appeared set to win the final competition. Sarita saw an interesting community dynamic in the group. I had been conducting interviews with some older dancers about the origins of casino. When Sarita left Cuba, she decided to make a documentary film about the group. Later, she invited me to get involved with production and then post-production, and eventually I took over the project and finished what Sarita had started and what we had worked together on for a couple of years.
Sarita: After travelling to Cuba multiple times to learn and study dance I felt inspired to share the beauty of casino and rueda de casino with people outside of Cuba. At the time, I had a license as a dance teacher and researcher to travel to Cuba so I felt privileged to be able to experience casino in its country of origin. Most U.S. citizens were not permitted to do so at that time because of legal issues so this was a way to bring casino to them. As a dance teacher I value the importance of learning about the cultural context and history of a dance form and this value is related to the format of the film. I also love the idea of “dance diplomacy” – learning about and improving cross cultural understanding via dance. Additionally, there weren’t other documentary works about casino or rueda de casino and that inspired me even more to record this art form.
Q: There were many other ruedas in Havana. What was it about the one from Guanabacoa which inspired you to follow and record their journey? How did you learn about them?
Sarita: I did not have the idea of making this film until after I had returned to the US from my trip to visit Eric. I was thrilled to have seen a variety of accomplished rueda de casino groups including La Rueda de Guanabacoa. I was so inspired by their dancing that I found a way backstage to meet them. They were very friendly and invited me to their homes to come visit and socialize. And that’s when we started a friendship. So many of my friends in San Diego at the time were part of my rueda de casino dance group and I wanted to know what the social dynamics and group members were like in a group in Havana. I wanted to know how rueda de casino brought people together in this municipality on the outskirts of Havana and understand who the members were.
Q: Can you tell me about the process of making the documentary? How long did it take you? What did you have to do to be able to film in Cuba? Where did you stay when you were there? And what were the roles of Sarita Streng and Álvaro Rangel?
Eric: Sarita started preproduction early in 2004 and the film premiered at the Chicago Latino Film Festival and Havana Film Festival New York in April, 2011, so that it was about 7 years to complete the film and get it released. Like all films, it involved preproduction (planning it out and getting participants lined up), production (filming it), post-production (putting together the story and editing it into a final coherent piece), and marketing. Sarita met our director of photography Alvaro Rangel via a spiritual retreat and he agreed to do it pro bono. That was a huge break because Alvaro’s photography is natural and organic and worked perfectly for the project. Also, Alvaro, who lives in Miami, grew up partly in Venezuela and attended film school there, which made it relatively easy for him to get a journalist visa from Cuba to enable filming with professional equipment. Bill Martinez, a well-known lawyer in San Francisco specializing in Cuba dealings, handled getting a license from the Treasury Department on the US side giving us permission to travel to Cuba to work on the project. Louis Head, who runs a Cuba study group in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also helped with legalities and travel procedures.
Sarita: I would add that Alvaro also assisted with directing some of the interviews in addition to the camera work. We stayed at people’s homes in Guanabacoa. Some of the members of the dance group also became part of our “tech” and scouting crew. For example, one evening when there was no power to hook up to for an interview they helped us connect to a food truck for power. They also helped us find a house where we could shoot the dancing from above for one of the scenes and hoisted Alvaro up to a roof beam to get the shot! This film was low-budget project and we essentially bootstrapped it. We had some fundraisers and our friends and families donated money and we also used some of our own money to make it happen. Alvaro’s pro-bono contributions were invaluable. The film was a labor of love and there were many who donated their time and energy to it.
Q: I would like to get into the specifics of the documentary’s content now, starting with the title. I remember when I saw this film in Atlanta about four years ago, I asked you this question, and I know you wanted to call it at first “La rueda de Guanabacoa.” But my readers want to know, why “La salsa cubana”?
Eric: Great question. Your right, for much of production, the working title was “La rueda de Guanabacoa,” but it wasn’t the right title for release. We needed something that would better catch the essence of the film and make sense to a general audience. At its heart, the film is the story of a neighborhood group that dances rueda de casino. It gets into history and touches on other dances that have contributed to the casino style of dancing such as son, cha cha cha, danzón, rumba and swing. The soundtrack for the film includes many genres such as timba, son, changüí, mambo, and Latin jazz. Importantly, the film is a window into Cuban life and culture for those who haven’t travelled there. So we settled on a title that somehow represents the variety of themes and topics contained in the film. I’d like to point out that “La Salsa Cubana” is simply the title of the film. It’s not meant to be the name of a type of dance or genre of music any more than is “La rueda de Guanabacoa.”
Adding to that, because it’s a topic of discussion and sometimes confusion, the couples’ dance in Cuba is usually referred to as “casino” and the group dance is “rueda de casino” (often shortened to “rueda”) and those are the terms used the vast majority of times in the film by the Cuban participants. There are times when the term “salsa” was used, which is also fairly common term for the dance in Cuba although it’s considered incorrect by some dancers, including me!
Sarita: I let Eric decide on this one – he had stronger opinions on the subject.
Q: One of the things I noticed in the documentary was that all the members of the rueda from Guanabacoa were labeled “bailadores” while Leonardo Martínez Moya had the label of “bailarín.” Both labels can be translated as “dancer.” Can you explain the difference of terminology for the blog’s readers?
Eric: The way it was explained to me is that “bailador” is a street dancer with no official training, while “bailarin” is reserved for professionally trained dancers.
Q: Having filmed in Cuba and experienced how casineros learn to dance there, can you tell me about the difference that you perceive when it comes to how casino is taught among people in Cuba—we see for instance, Jorge teaching his daughter—and the way casino is taught outside of the island?
Eric: During the entire 50 years of casino dancing from the late 1950’s up to the time the film was made, there were literally ZERO dance schools in Cuba that taught casino to the public. ZERO! All casineros learned from family and friends. Sure, Cuba has some great dance schools, but those are for professionals and the focus is always on technical skills and choreographies. Social dancing is a different beast – it’s about constant improvisation, connecting with the music and your partner, showing off your individual style, meeting people and having a good time. And you have to realize that everything in Cuba has been run by the government, and apparently the government never decided that casino schools were something that would be offered. People in Cuba learn to dance at a young age growing up and I think that gives the dance a different quality than when people learn at a dance studio as an adult like in the US.
Q: Your documentary touches on generational differences. In your interview with Los Tradicionales, for instance, they claim to still dance in the style of the 60s. Can you give me your take on what you learned or perceived in regards to the styles of the different generations—say Los Tradicionales vs. the members of the rueda from Guanabacoa—as you filmed them dancing or talking with them about casino?
Eric: That’s a tough question because there are so many factors affecting the way a person dances – age, neighborhood or city, social class and ethnic background, and personal style among other things. In general, I would say that older generation dancers tend to keep it simpler, spend a little more time dancing in an embraced position, and don’t go for the complicated, pretzel-like double handed patterns. The dance has become more complicated over time as dancers invented new moves. In the film, Pepe Argote states that each generation of dancers takes what exists and adds to it.
Sarita: A social phenomenon in casino with the Cubans I have met is that there tends to be more respect and knowledge for the evolution of styles of dance styles than in the US. The younger dancers in Cuba tend to have awareness of the history of the dance.
Q: In your documentary, there are scenes from an interview with Adalberto Álvarez, founder of Adalberto Álvares y su son, which to me is one of the best Cuban dance music bands of today. I noticed that he’s the only musician you interviewed. Was it because you did not have the chance to interview other musicians, or is there a particular reason you chose to talk to Adalberto?
Eric: Adalberto was a big supporter of the TV show Bailar Casino featured in the film and we were lucky to get him to agree to do an interview with us. Sarita and our music rights specialist Lourdes Diez were the ones who arranged that. Initially, he proposed filming the interview at the Habana Libre Hotel, but we ended up filming at his home, which was nice. He had released his CD “Para Bailar Casino” near the time the film work started – the cover artwork actually included dancers from the Guanabacoa group – so it just made sense. I don’t remember seeking out any other musicians to speak with. After all, the main storyline of the film was the dance group and its trajectory.
Q: A documentary, like any film, goes through a lot of editing. There is a lot of material to comb through. And, ultimately, there are scenes that make the cut, and scenes which do not for various reasons. Can you talk about some of the scenes that weren’t included in the documentary and the reasons why?
Eric: Yes, there was definitely some thinning out of material during the editing process. As a filmmaker, you want to get to the essence of things as quickly as possible and keep it moving. All of the scenes started out longer than they ended up, but that’s normal. I would like to have kept in more of Graciela’s commentary on history, and I remember cutting some of Jorge’s commentary about social dancing that was insightful, but there was insufficient material out of which to form a complete scene in that case.
Q: This last question comes from the blog’s readers. They want to know more about what’s happened to the people featured in this documentary—namely the bailadores from Guanabacoa—all these years after the documentary. Have they formed a new group? Are some of them teaching?
Eric: We screened the film to most of the dancers from Guanabacoa in 2013, and, wow, they were all adults, many with families! One of the beautiful things about the dance group was that they were all amateurs with a passion for the dance. That means that the dance group was ephemeral and only occupied a moment in time for them. As you saw in the film, most of the members were disillusioned after the final competition. Albertico tried to restart about six months after the competition without much success. Then Jorge formed a different group in Guanabacoa with all different dancers and did some performances for a while. Jorge died from cancer in 2007 (the film is dedicated to his memory), and then Dreque, the 2nd male dancer after Albertico in the end credits scene, formed another group in Guanabacoa. Albertico moved to the south of Spain, where he still lives. Pepe moved to Equador with his wife Loida (featured briefly in one of the dance scenes) and has since passed away. Graciela is still dancing and teaching in Havana. She’s a national treasure!
Additional information about the film-makers:
Eric now lives in San Francisco, works in tech as an engineer and entrepreneur, and continues to travel to Cuba to dance and conduct research.
Sarita lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she is a mom and works as an occupational therapist. She teaches casino with the Rueda 505 dance group.