After eleven years living, dancing, teaching tango, and writing in Buenos Aires, I came home to L.A. in 2014, where I'm reconstructing my life.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Salsa Cubana Experience

My recent post on my tango-exchange in Cuba has left me dreaming. Here's more about this phenomenal country and the experience of traveling there to dance.

These days ladies alone do well anywhere on earth they travel. The world has gotten used to women on their own in airports and hotels due to business traveling, and more recently, vacationing. I’ve traveled alone in many countries and I wholeheartedly recommend it for those decisive independents who don’t get too lonesome at dinner for one. I’ve wandered by myself through Europe and South America as well as all over the United States.

But the one country where it doesn’t work out well is Cuba.

I fell in love with the country and its people on a dance exchange in a group of forty people. Not wanting to wait until it got too hot or until the end of the rainy season which would soon begin, I went back on my own three months later. (To be sure I had my U.S. Treasury License to do research with me.)

Wanting to avoid both the high cost and tourist ambiance of the big hotels, I rented a room in a crumbling 18th century palacio on the Malecon, with a balcony overlooking the sea and the lighthouse across the bay. The owner was friendly and accommodating, insisting on giving me Spanish lessons every day, the location was fantastic, I had maps and a list of phone numbers of Habaneros I had met on my first trip, and the weather was perfect.

But I had a problem. I was an American woman. A tall, pale-skinned redhead, there was no way I could blend in as I always try to do wherever I go. It was impossible to walk down any street in Havana day or night without every man on it calling out to a female tourist, or hissing in a particularly Cuban construction worker way, just part of their macho roles. It isn’t dangerous, just not comfortable. Mostly it’s the younger men--the older Cubanos’ machismo translates into better manners.

I took a bicitaxi one afternoon from the Cathedral across town to calle San Miguel to deliver a letter from the States to a dancer. The little old taxista cycled me over potholes and around pedestrians and trucks to the remains of an old hotel. Without comment, he chained up his bicycle and led me into the lobby, inquiring of several people the whereabouts of my friend’s room. I could tell that there was no way he was going to let me fend for myself in that dark warren of habitaciones, like a medina in Cairo. He was only satisfied when we found the correct room, which was divided into three tiny windowless areas altogether no bigger than a broom closet.

Two men were playing chess in the middle space in the front of the open door. When they didn’t understand my explanation of why I was there, the woman across the hall came over and instantly got a handle on the situation, and I delivered my letter.

The taxista was sitting in the shade by his bicycle when I came out into the sunshine, as I had asked him to wait for me. From there he pedaled me back across the square and plazas to El Floridita, where I had to change my $20 bill in order to pay him. Then I joined all the tourists drinking daiquiris and flashing their pocket cameras while posing in front of the Hemingway memorabilia on the walls. I sat at a table of Belgian girls and we talked about Jacques Brel and sang some of his lyrics together. It felt good to be in a group of women.

A tourist woman alone feels vulnerable in Cuba wherever she goes, despite the policeman on nearly every Havana street corner day and night. She can’t lose herself shopping, because there isn’t any. People-watching on the Malecon or Prado is an open invitation to be hassled or hustled. She’s more comfortable in the bars, lobbies and dining rooms of the tourist hotels because there is a security person for every few guests. But then she’s just meeting other tourists, and probably those from her own country. Cubans aren’t allowed in the tourist hotels, except in the public areas by special invitation.

This is one country where women can feel more free and have more fun going in a group. Especially if you are a dancer like me. In BuenosAires on vacation before my move here, I boldly went alone each night to the tango halls where I danced until dawn with no problems. There is a strict formal code of behavior here, and in all my trips to Argentina, I never once had any sort of difficulty.
Cuba doesn’t work like that. There are very few salsa clubs per se, and I wouldn’t recommend a woman entering them alone, hoping to dance, as she might in Buenos Aires. The Cubans dance all the time, but informally at parties and casual gatherings. They can’t afford the clubs which are priced in dollars. And so it’s mostly other tourists who are at the clubs anyway (and "professional" Cubans who hope to earn some dollars off of them).

So unless you meet local people who invite you to their fiestas, a Havana trip will not usually provide hours of salsa dance experiences. Live musical groups perform in bars and cafes everywhere so you can listen to some great stuff, but in order to dance, you must bring your partner.

Women who want to dance salsa or to study folklore and religion or education or medical care in Cuba will learn more and have more fun in a group of like-minded individuals.

I was lucky because I had Miriam, an elegant Cuban woman I met on my first trip who became like a sister to me. Because of her I was just another dancer on the Prado in the middle of Cuban friends passing around a bottle of rum. Because of Miriam I went to a Senior Citizens Sunday afternoon soiree in the club on top of the Teatro Nacional and danced old fashioned Cuban Danzon with a dapper oldster in a white suit and white fedora. Because of her I danced at a fiesta in a private palacio owned by her friend’s mother, and with friends and family in Miriam’s small home. There’s rarely any food at Cuban fiestas, but lots of rum and cigarettes, and everyone dances all night long to a few beat up cassette tapes or a couple of pirated CDs. And then the drums come out.

Miriam and several friends took me to the Callejon Hamel on Sunday afternoon for the weekly Rumba, an Afro-Cuban music and dance fest with religious roots.

Liza, the island’s only tango teacher, became my best friend and we danced tango together, she and I, wherever we could persuade the ubiquitous live musicians to play one.

While it’s not a good idea to travel alone to Cuba to dance, the people are so friendly it’s easy to soon have friends. And dance is a easy way to make them. If all else fails, you can always take a class and smooze the teachers, bring little gifts and invite them for a Cuba Libre. It's all a part of the experience.

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