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An army of little girls in long skirts

An army of little girls in long skirts

By Margaret Atkins

For a long time, before those Walt Disney characters burst into the repertoire of Cuban children, the most popular costumes at kids’ parties were gypsies for the girls and little Gallegos for boys. It’s easy to understand that the mestizo nature of the Cuban nation right from its origins would hold onto so many cultural vestiges from Spain. Centuries of Spanish colonialism, descendants of the Spanish and Creoles born on the Island but raised listening to the memories of their parents. Immigrants from the provinces of Galicia and Asturias, from Valencia, the Canary Islands and Aragon…all these groups made their imprints on the formation of Cuba. Many of them would get together in their mutual assistance societies that today still conserve the traditions and folklore of their different regions. “I have two countries: Cuba and Spain”, would be recited by a little dancer at one of the shows that would be put on, in little theatres and in the large halls of Havana where the society dance groups would perform.

In the afternoons, after school, an army of little girls in long skirts, their hair pulled back in a tight bun and adorned with a flower, march to their Spanish dancing lessons. Fans and combs, castanets and high-heeled shoes are the key ingredients. Schools sprout everywhere and are open to all without the rigorous selection criteria of the famed Cuban dance academies. Little girls can make their dreams come true, for a day at least, in shows even if their future paths will be distant from the world of dance. And in those future days these dance teachers and their classes will be fondly remembered along with the magic of the stage complete with makeup and colorful costumes. Ah yes, and the intoxication of applause. I have watched little white, black and mulatto girls from all levels of Cuban society in the same group as little girls with Downs Syndrome and difficult teenagers.


The salon where mothers await the end of class becomes a meeting place for friends. Sometimes a father appears, clumsily combing out his daughter’s hair. Talk turns to dresses and dance shoes, sewing and choreographies in preparation for the shows. Dance school involves everyone; it creates bonds and multiplies efforts. Many of the teachers have been trained by the same schools where they now teach. Some schools manage to send instructors to Spain to perfect their techniques. The preferred dances are those called “Classical”: Galician and flamenco, but there are also folklore groups concentrating on dances from Aragon, Valencia, the Canary Islands and others. The need for music to accompany the dancing has motivated the teaching of instrumentalists and we see guitars, tambourines, cajas and bagpipes at the salons, often acquired with much sacrifice and sometimes through the help of generous donors from Spain.

My daughters dance in one of the many Spanish Societies of Havana. They are part of that army of little girls: long skirts and flowers in their hair. As they are growing up, I think I shall look back with nostalgia to those days of heels tapping on the floor. I am comforted by the thought that these schools are still around, still growing strong. And even if my girls don’t continue on stage as adults, I’ll be able to hear the rhythm of castanets again in my home when my grand-daughters take Spanish dancing lessons.





María del Pilar Rubí is a freelance photographer who works closely with the subjects of her pictures thus creating an atmosphere of trust.






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