Dance keeps its foothold in Cuba


24 August 2003


Dancing brings joy and camaraderie to Cubans in what otherwise might be somber situations. Salsa and son – even classical ballet – are alive and well in Havana, practiced in nightclubs, on street corners and in old, weathered ballet studios.

On a recent trip to Havana, hosted by the US–based non-profit Cross-Cultural Solutions, dancing erupted in a number of venues, sometimes quite unexpectedly. In what could have been a constantly repressive environment, dance provided impromptu bursts of expression.

Cubans will dance at almost any occasion. A solemn Committee for the Defense of the Revolution meeting turned into a block party. Speeches and discussions in this political forum gave way to upbeat music and dancing as the night wore on. Children smiled, musicians grabbed their instruments and crowds took to the streets.

Dance takes on more polished forms, too, such as at the renowned Tropicana nightclub. Performers there have entertained politicians, celebrities and other visitors since it opened in 1939.

Each night gorgeous women and men parade across the stage in the open-air theater, wearing tassled and sequined costumes that for many Americans would evoke images of Ricky Ricardo and his mambo band. Here, street dancing meets classical training as these performers execute pirouettes and arabesques. (Tickets for one 2 ½ hour show are $65 to $85, including a half-bottle of rum.)

In Cuba, ballet is the pinnacle of the dance hierarchy. Cuba’s most famous ballerina, Alicia Alonso, was granted liberty to travel beginning in the 1950s. Since then she has served as an ambassador for Cuban dance to audiences around the world. Members of her company, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, are allowed to travel more freely than most other Cubans.

Dancers there are given the summers off, a blessing since the studios are not air-conditioned and temperatures often soar past 100 degrees. This summer, the ballet company broke from the heat and traveled to Valencia, Spain, to present one of Ms. Alonso’s new ballets.

When fall arrives the building’s open-air courtyard and ragged rehearsal space fill with students. Lean, bare-legged dancers stream down the hallways, which feature cobalt-blue stained glass windows, and take places at the barre. Last year enrollment jumped by 450 students, says company historian Miguel Cabrena. The lessons at the school are free.

Mr. Cabrena contributes much of his research to the Museo de la Danza, just a 15-minute walk from the Ballet Nacional building. The museum serves as a monument to Cuban dance – particularly Ms. Alonso’s accomplishments. Her medals are on display as well as correspondence with diplomats from Fidel Castro to former first ladies and presidents, a reminder that dance has gone where politicians have not.

In trying to explain why all dance’s form – from mambo to salsa to classical ballet – are so well-received in Cuba, Mr. Cabrena says, “We mixed the best from around the world with our physical clime, the Cuban body and the roots of our culture.”

© 2003 The Dallas Morning News Co.