Dance Is Life

By: Sandra Spernacka

On an island, in the midst of great change, people dance tirelessly, still rooted in the past. Dance is a way of life for the nearly 11 million Cubans living in the scenic country and has been, dating back before colonization.

Music and dance is one of Cuba’s greatest exports according to Highbrow Magazine, with roots from both Spain and West Africa. Ranging from the Afro-Cuban beats of the Rumba to the sensual rhythms of the Salsa, many Cubans dance to live and live to dance.

“I can’t respond for all the Cubans that like music so much but I can respond for me. It is something that is born within you, that is in your blood,” said Gabriella Allon, 27, general director of Rosio, a flamenco dance company located in Old Havana.

Before the invasion of the Europeans, the indigenous Taíno Arawak people, who were deeply in tune with each other through music and dance, inhabited Cuba. They were known for their rich dance celebrations. The Areíto, a type of performance and ceremony involving dancing, singing, and music conveyed elements of both the Taíno culture and religion. The beats of the music are often characterized by the music of rattles and drums.

Classic Taíno villages typically included an extravagant dance square for the festivities to take place, although they were often held on the dance grounds outside the chief’s house. During the early days of colonization, at the end of the 15th century, the Taíno chiefs hosted Areíto celebrations for the Spanish visitors.

Only a few years later, in the mid 1500’s, populations from West Africa were brought over to Cuba in ships to work as slaves. Without their drums and their willpower to dance through the agonizing journey, many slaves may not have arrived to Cuba alive. These exact drum and clave beats played on the slave ships are still used today in modern Cuban music.

A little later, at the time of the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804, many Haitians escaped slavery and settled in Cuba. It was during this time that the Tumba Francesa was born- a dance that told the story of revolt and of suffering but also of bliss and fulfillment. It emerged in Oriente, Cuba and is considered as a secular Afro-Cuban genre of dance and music.

It is danced to drums rather than woodwind instruments and rightfully, the word Tumba means “drum” in both Bantu and Mandinka. It is characterized by French style dance, with straight-back and held-torso movements and figures. The Tumba Francesa combines the traditions of West African, French, Bantu and Spanish origin, is a product of Haiti and resides in Cuba.

In the 19th century, during the booming sugar industry, slaves watched the Europeans from their windows, and they began to imitate their moves. From this, the Contradanza, a sensual and flirtatious dance was created and though it was based off the French Contradanse, it was notably different with the incorporation of African cross rhythms.

The Contradanza was the exemplar for the Danzón, Mamba, and Cha Cha Cha that followed soon after. Outside of Cuba, it was known as the Habanera, or the dance of Havana and after its international popularity in the later part of the 19th century, Cubans adopted the new name.

In the second half of the 1800’s another dance, known as the Rumba, was born. It was traditionally danced by poor African workers in the streets of Cuba and has become one of the most representative genres of music and dance on the island till this day. Based on African music and dance, it includes polyrhythmic drumming as a key component, but the seamless merging of both African and European culture and style is evident in the Afro-Cuban dance. is something that is born within you, that is in your blood.

The Danzón, yet another dance that evolved in Cuba, was based off the earlier Contradanza, which incorporated African musical traits through the instrumental cross-rhythms. This dance was originally considered scandalous because of its slow rhythm and need for couples, sometimes couples of different races, to dance closely, timing their hips to move together.

During this time, many people believed that the dance should be banned and replaced by European dances. But very soon Danzón became extremely popular and was the official musical genre of dance and music in Cuba until the 1930’s.

This is around the time the Mambo was created, which was derived from the creolized African Rumba. It was characterized by freedom of movement and described as “feeling the music.”

On October 28, 1948, Alicia and Fernando Alonso founded the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company, which turned into a school only two years later. Its idea was to promote the talents of many Cuban dancers. Although the company struggled during its beginning stages, the revolution marked a new beginning for ballet on the island. Fidel Castro single handedly gave $200,000 to Alonso, a supporter of the revolution, and very quickly the ballet became a part of the national identity.

With this new funding, the school was restructured and renamed the National Ballet of Cuba. Till this day, the ballet has enough funding to search the island and hand pick the most gifted dancers to join the program. These students train for free for a period of eight years, supported by the government. They begin to earn $30 a month after the training is complete. This salary is comparable to the salary of doctors and other skilled professionals living and working on the island.

The ballet dancers training at this prestigious school are considered to be the country’s most esteemed exports according to PBS. The school is the largest ballet school in the world, with 3,000 students and is considered the most esteemed ballet school in Cuba.

The Cha Cha Cha was born just around the same time as the ballet, in 1951, when one night in Havana, composer Enrique Jorrin came up with the dance. Apparently, American tourists couldn’t keep up with the syncopated Mambo steps and so a new dance, the cha-cha-cha was born.

Soon after, during the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, despaired Cubans turned to music and dance to keep up their spirits. When Fidel Castro and Che Guevara opened up Cuba’s National Art Schools in 1961, many people healed their souls and lives through dance, through artistic outlets. These schools represented hopefulness, optimism, and revolutionary enthusiasm in the beginning years.

Many say that Cubans are born dancing, it is part of them, it is part of who they are. They live through dance, love through dance, and suffer through dance. “It is something one can’t really explain. It comes from within,” said Allon.

The Salsa, a Cuban staple known all around the world, was born in New York in the 1970’s, where many Cubans moved, so far away, but were able to hold each other and their culture close through this dance. Many Cubans find Salsa to be a part of their cultural and social lives, characterized by substantial movement of the body both above and below the waist, with the shifting of the ribcage and the up and down actions of the shoulders.

“Generally, all Cubans dance salsa. We all have the Cuban ‘touch’ in our blood,” said Allon.

Because a large portion of the Cuban population is of African decent, people have adopted the Afro-Cuban music and dance as part of their culture and every day lives. The salsa music played today in Cuba has a very strong Afro-Cuban influence.

“There is a lot of young people that don’t like classical music, that don’t like Salsa, that like the discotheque more, Reggaeton, Rock and Roll…but 90 percent of us love Salsa, or ‘the Cuban dance’ how we say it,” said Allon.

Reggaeton, introduced in Cuba in the 90’s has been greatly influenced by Puerto Rico and Miami. In Lucy Walkers documentary “ A History of Cuban Dance,” Reggaeton is seen as globalization, as an international satellite used by Cubans for cultural influence.

Cuba is known for its dance and music, with features derived from both European and African influences. There are many styles that are a fusion of the two different cultures, just like the Cubans themselves, who are just as much descendants of the Spanish as they are of the Africans.

So what exactly is dance to Cubans? “Its like the Spanish to the Spaniards in Spain- Salsa is Cuba,” said Allon.