Cuban Dance 101
By Rocío de Lucía (Cuban Musicologist)
We want to start by saying that perhaps contrary to what many expected, all Cubans do not dance like salsa professionals; not even all of them like to dance. For some, it could be an evident axiom; for others, not so much, so it is worth the clarification. Although, Cubans have alternatives for any dancer. If you prefer slower and more relaxed types, you can practice danzón or son. But, if you desire faster and more energetic movements, you can try the casino, conga, rumba, and even reggaeton with its extreme sensuality add-on. In general, Cuba is full of options when you ask about dance styles. That’s what we want you to learn from our article today. Let’s find out what are Cuban dances like?
Local dances that Cubans like
The last three decades of history have changed the music-dance scene in Cuba quite a bit. Although many people tend to think that people from Cuba only dance casino (salsa style), rumba, and danzón, the truth is that Cubans nowadays practice a diverse and modern variety of dances. The cultural opening of the Island revived its link with international trends, a connection quite similar to other regions of the Caribbean and Central America such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, among others.
Like in other Caribbean contexts, reggaeton has become the favorite musical genre among the youngest and most of the Cuban population. However, even when Puerto Rican reggaeton is widely consumed by the Latinxs community everywhere, Cubans have their own style, different and particular. Without the intention of doing a far-fetched musicological dissertation in this regard, we will comment that this Cuban reggaeton is distinguished by a specific rhythmic cell based on the Cuban clave.
Cuban reggaeton also uses and generates a lot of local slang. Some of the most popular reggaeton names are Chocolate MC, Yomil y el Dany, El Chacal, Divan, El Taiger, Harrison, El Kamel, etc. Then, the dance has particular characteristics and patterns, totally different from the rest of the geographical area.
Besides reggaeton, the other most danced genre is timba, with its casino dance. Timba is a mix derived from Afro-Cuban jazz, similar to son (original type of salsa), but faster and more aggressive. Cubans started calling it casino dance since its widespread use in casino clubs during the ’50s. The style sets the basic rhythm of the salsa, but it does not do it linearly but freely.
This style allows greater freedom of improvisation and more spontaneous and rhythmic movements. You can dance in pairs and around, hence the famous “Ruedas de Casino” (Casino Wheels, a type of casino danced in a group). Among the most popular orchestras of this timba genre are: Alexander Abreu y Habana de Primera, Bamboleo, El Noro y Primera Clase, Alain Pérez, Pupi y los que Son Son, Adalberto Álvarez y su Son, and Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco.
In addition to these dances, we found Rumba dance, a folkloric style that remains strong among Cuban people. The Rumba style is divided into Yambu, Columbia, and Guaguancó. The dancers’ energy and flavor explosion is their central characteristic. Despite its more than a hundred years of history, this “mestizo” style continues to captivate generations and generations of Cubans.
The dance varies according to the style of each dancer and the type of variant. You can dance in pairs, separate people, or in a group. You can find rumba dance at both public and private parties, as well as in cultural or recreational centers. One of our favorite places to dance rumba is the Callejon de Hamel.
Another folkloric Cuban dance very vivid on the Island is conga. This genre has a marked African influence, where percussion plays the leading role. This style is a single type of dance, but in a group: the musicians play the congas (drums) and horns, and the dancers follow them through the streets, setting a basic rhythm with their feet. It’s also common for Cuban people to dance at least one conga at private parties and Carnivals.
Other styles danced in Cuba.
Cuba has been working hard to preserve a few other famous but “old school” styles among the popularity of many modern dances. “Classical” orchestras are a big part of this effort, groups that have essentially made Cubans dance for decades. Los Van Van and La Orquesta Aragón are two of these bands highly prestigious in the national and international music scene.
Los Van Van developed a music/dance style called Songo, where the Cuban son’s essence is interpreted with a particular rhythmic base and a charanga style of music format. The most faithful follower of this genre has been Maikel Blanco y Su Salsa Mayor. Another of the most beloved by the Cuban people, La Orquesta Aragón, also uses a traditional charanga music format. They mostly performs danzones, chachachás, boleros, and sones.
However, we must point out that these music and dance genres are reserved for most adult populations. In the same sense, you must know that even when it seems paradoxical, the Buena Vista Social Club and its exquisite repertoire are icons currently reserved mainly for tourism and not the Cuban people. But, that doesn’t mean that they won’t enjoy it every time someone plays it.
On the other hand, it is essential to talk about foreign dance styles currently popular in Cuba, like merengue and bachata. For the youngest, electronic and pop music also appear in their tastes. These styles have become very famous after the abundance of more modern music festivals on the Island. In this realm, we need to add a special mention of a phenomenon called Cimafunk. This band has made the funk style fashionable and danceable among Cuban youth, mixed with Afro-Cuban rhythms and other indigenous stylistic features.
Where do Cubans like to dance?
As a general rule, family celebrations, national anniversary dates, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, the New Year, school graduations, religions, and the reception of friends or relatives who live in other regions are often top reasons to organize a party. Food, drink, and dance music will not be missing in these celebrations. We must add that, in reality, there is not always a reason for this kind of event; many times, Cubans meet only for leisure and recreation.
Yes, socialization and partying are essential elements in Cuban society. To better illustrate the Cuban character on this topic, note that some dates indicated as “International Worker’s Day” or “International Women’s Day” are usually commemorations of struggle and protest in other world regions; in Cuba, they are holidays. In addition, we will mention events such as Festivals and Carnivals, different spaces that occur regularly, and where music and celebration abound.
So, if you are looking for a community where you can find cultural parties, not so much in clubs, but spontaneous and artistic events, full of traditions, culture, and joy, Cuba is one of the best places for it. However, you can also find all kinds of venues around the Island with excellent music and an impressive number of people dancing.
If you want to learn more about Cuban dance, we highly recommend the Music Education & Cultural Cuba Tour
Cuba, a benchmark for dancers
We could list hundreds of reasons in favor of travel, and about the benefits of visiting and interacting with new cultures. One of these, without a doubt, is that knowing a new city allows us to confront stigmas and stereotypes usually built around culturally different communities. Cuba has not been exempt from this condition. That is why it is necessary to talk about these common stigmas related to Cubans and their culture.
If you like to dance, undoubtedly, Cuba will not disappoint you, especially since the conceptions of dance tend to be more accessible and without so many rigid structures of interpretation. As a general rule, Cubans value the atmosphere, the energy more than the virtuosity of the movements. Their celebrations are full of life and flavor, a friendly spirit, and communion. Even if you are not a dancer, but you like to enjoy this type of environment, in Cuba, you will have unforgettable experiences, and you will indeed be infected with the joy and warmth of its people.