Havana Rakatan

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As any woman who has walked the streets of Havana and been catcalled can tell you, one of the most pervasive aspects of Cuban culture and society is its machismo. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines machismo as “a strong sense of masculine pride.” But in my opinion this definition does not do justice to the term, for machismo implies much more. The Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia Española) defines machismo in a way that is more nuanced and truly reflects the hierarchies of power inherent in the term: forma de sexismo caracterizada por la prevalencia del varón (“form of sexism characterized by the prevalence of the male”).

Dances do not emerge from a vacuum, but rather are cultural and societal products. And like many aspects of Cuban society and culture, the dance of casino has certainly not escaped the effects of machismo. Intentionally or not, many Cubans who promote and teach this dance, having grown up in Cuba, pass down certain tendencies, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies to their students. Sadly, some of these have their roots in machismo.

What I seek to do with this post is scrutinize more closely some of these strongly held beliefs and the practices that many Cuban instructors and dancers have about the role of males and females in the dance of casino, for in many ways they reflect the machismo of the culture in which they grew up. By doing so, I want to bring awareness to some of the practices and beliefs that we may take for granted as “part” of casino, and which are actively contributing to an environment of sexism and toxic masculinity that are driving people away and excluding many others.

In the wake of the #metoo movement and all the awareness it is raising about sexism in our societies, I believe this is not only a timely post, but also a much-needed one, as serious conversations about topics like these can often be offset by the “fun” nature of dancing.

Here are some of the pernicious effects/beliefs that a culture of machismo has had in the Cuban dance of casino. The list is by no means extensive. Feel free to comment below with other instances of machismo-driven beliefs/practices that you have heard other Cubans express/perform/pass on as they pertain to the dance of casino.


The woman as embellishment

It is the (strong) belief of some male—typically Cuban—casino dancers that the predominant figure in casino should be the man. That is, they believe that when you watch a couple dancing casino, the man is what onlookers’ eyes should be drawn to. They—the men—are the ones doing all the turn patterns, the crazy footwork, and the tricks. The women, on the other hand, are there only as embellishments whose sole purpose is to make the man look good and let him “do his thing.”

Let’s examine some examples of the predominance of the male figure in casino.

Notice in this video how Roynet—the male dancer—shines a lot more than his partner:

This is Carlos Sánchez, a Cuban instructor. I know for a fact that he believes this woman-as-embellishment-only mentality, as he has expressed this on social media:

This guy looks likes he is dancing by himself, not to mention how he (mis)treats his dance partner:

This video is my favorite: the woman steps out of the frame, and the man starts doing a solo because, you know, a man’s gotta shine:

Now, some of you, after watching this last video, may argue, “But he was doing rumba columbia! Columbia is supposed to be done by males only.”

**Cough, cough.**

My point.

Rumba columbia is a product of this pernicious Cuban machismo: a dance which premise is to deny women access to perform it. And while there are women nowadays defying this and dancing rumba columbia, notwithstanding its “rules,” that is not the norm.

In conjunction, these videos also show another strongly held belief among some male casino dancers: not only are women there to adorn the male dancing, but they are there to keep the beat while the men shine. Indeed, if a man’s going to shine and do all that fancy footwork, a man’s bound to lose the count of the steps. It is the woman’s job, then, to let the man shine, yes, but to also make sure that when he’s done showing off, he returns to the beat. Notice how in the following video the man is turning and shining, and he loses the count. The woman, on the other hand, has been doing her steps steadily. So, to return to the dancing, the man looks down at her footwork and uses it to get back into dancing with her:

So, in short: women in casino: let them man do his thing until he decides to return to you. And when he does, you have to be there, having kept the beat the entire time and waited for him to be done. (I’m not making this up. I’ve heard the whole woman-keeps-the-beat-while-man-shines viewpoint from a number of Cuban instructors/dancers.)

This, of course, sounds like the recipe for a disastrous relationship. And it is no surprise that many women stop dancing casino because of all this perceived female passivity. I have personally talked to many Cuban (and non-Cuban) women who, having started with casino, switched to salsa and now prefer to dance NY or LA style salsa because they enjoy the freedom of expression that these dances allow them.

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This kind of “male-first” mentality can be further glimpsed in some of the metaphors used by some instructors—I’m guilty of using some of these myself—when explaining the basic dynamics of the dance to beginners. Here are some examples:

  • The man is the Earth, and the woman is the Moon.
  • The man is the Sun, and the woman is the Earth.
  • The man is the center, and the woman is the periphery, walking around the man.

All of these metaphors have one thing in common: everything revolves around the man.

And what better example of this than the renowned tornillo? Isn’t a tornillo performed when a woman walks around the man, turning him as he progressively lowers himself to the floor until he’s parallel to it, thus mimicking how a screw is screwed? Let’s watch an example:

And yes, women can do tornillos. (If you rewind the video above a little, you will see the man doing a tornillo to the woman.) But while tornillos are not exclusively for men, female tornillos are not as organic. What I mean is that you cannot lead a tornillo for a woman. There’s no turn that a man can do which signals the woman that she’s about to do a tornillo. Indeed, women who have done tornillos socially know that a tornillo comes more as a surprise than anything else.

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Although it is not too common, in the Cuban dance community you may see, every now and then, a man dancing with more than one woman. Here are some examples of this:

With two women

With three women:

Dancing with two or more women is considered a feat of prowess for men. Indeed, the men get all the credit and show that they are synchronized enough to be able to handle not one, but two—and in some cases three—women at the same time. It’s the machista’s wet dream. Never mind that the women themselves have to show creativity and flexibility to not run into each other while they dance, and a great deal of improvisation. The man gets all the credit while the women are just there to help him shine; they are embellishments.

Even in the rare occasions when two men are dancing with a woman, the credit typically goes to the two men for being synchronized enough to pull it off:


The “Unmanly” Man

Machismo affects not only women. Indeed, its effects also extend to any man who falls outside of the strict social and behavioral norms and practices of what constitutes masculinity in the island—a construct deeply ingrained in the construction of the Revolution. In an interview in 1965, Fidel Castro, then Cuba’s leader stated that, “We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant.” From 1965 to 1968, the Cuban government sent homosexuals, among other people it considered insidious to the cause of the Revolution, to work camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). Gay men were sent to these facilities for conversion, for punishment, and as a kind of deterrence.

With this dogma that barred gays—and more noticeably homosexual men—from Cuban society, it is no wonder that some of it seeped into the dance of casino, which is only two or three years older than the Cuban Revolution. Indeed, the sight of two men dancing together—as a couple, not doing synchronized shines individually—in the Cuban dance scene is very rare. And in a performance? I’ve yet to see it. (If you find a video, please send it to me).

The Cuban Revolution’s dogma of the strong, virile male revolutionary, or the “New Man,” as it was called, left no room for anything else. In dancing, this translated to what you have already seen: a man-centered dance. Needless to say, this man at the center could not look effeminate, unmanly. And if he did, he was shunned by others, criticized, called amanerado (effeminate). On the other hand, two women dancing together are fine. Two women dancing do not damage patriarchy. Two men dancing together and exhibiting “effeminate” traits constitute a threat to a society built on the premise that males are superior to females.

Homophobia makes it really hard for heterosexual men to be close to each other as men and also makes it harder to be vulnerable. Any characteristics that society deem “gay”, like love, gentleness, compassion, sharing with others instead of competing with others etc., makes it hard for guys to be their full selves. Therefore some men get caught up in the machista persona thinking that this is real manhood.

This belief is alive and well today. I have lost count of the times I’ve seen Cuban men—and sometimes women—criticize other males because they look too “feminine” when they dance casino, and use this argument to discredit their dancing altogether.

But don’t take my word for it. Can you remember the last time you saw two men dancing together in a Cuban dance social/event? When I go to non-Cuban dance socials, I see it all the time. But I can count with my the fingers of one hand the times where I have seen it in the Cuban dance community—and I’m including there the times where I danced with other men.

Let’s admit it: the Cuban dance community (not the people, but the cultural and societal practices on which it is built) is not a very welcoming place for LGTBQ people, especially gay men.


Concluding thoughts

Casino is, sadly, historically and culturally embedded in sexist and machista practices and beliefs from Cuba. This doesn’t mean that casino is a machista dance. What this article seeks to highlights are certain perniciou beliefs and practices perpetuated by some people are teaching this dance. It has also tried to contextualize the effects that a top-down ideology that sought hypermasculinity in order to carve the path forward to a new, better society (what a failed experiment that was!) may have had on the dance.

By examining these practices and beliefs more closely and understanding why they exist (and I’m not saying that the why’s I provided are definitive), we can take steps toward creating a more inclusive, welcoming, and gender-equal Cuban dance community.

Certain aspects of the dance of casino can be sexist and homophobic, yes. This does not mean that casino is sexist and homophobic. These beliefs and practices come from people. We, the people, have the power to change them, or to keep perpetuating them.