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Raulito´s voice cuts through the syncopated music, urgent and insistent. As he speaks, his hot breath fluttering on my ear, he indicates the stage with his head, gracefully arcing his neck. A thrill of excitement shivers through me, adrenalin surging from my gut. Excitement tinged with horror. I can´t go up there, not in front of this audience, not after these performers. And especially not to dance columbia. What is he thinking? Raulito encourages me, gives me a gentle, persuasive push in the small of my back, challenges me with his glinting eyes. “Go on, why not?” he implies, with an inquisitive, impish grin.
Conflicted, my insides shake. Sighting my fear, Raulito chuckles, emitting a deep rumble as his chin tilts upwards and his white teeth glow in his dark face. “Dale chica,” he murmurs again, this time intimately reassuring and comforting with his low melodious tone. And he gives me another, barely perceptible push towards the performers.
The tumbledown Casa de la Cultura, nestled in the heart of the picturesquely bohemian maze of la Habana Vieja´s dilapidated streets, is packed to its gills. More courtyard than casa, the oblong venue is roofless, walled high by irregular Tom´s Secret Garden style walls, with a heavy iron gate at one corner. Paying pesos and smuggling street rum, people are still trickling in.
In a couple of hours´ time, this venue will be a thriving mass of whirring skirts and gyrating hips, of sinuous, synchronised duos, a–throb with energy. Set against the backdrop of the collective heartbeat—the ‘toc–toc… toc–toc–toc´ of the clave—individuals, each with rum–lubricated limbs, will disappear into a pulsating blend of glistening skin and lurid Lycra; all undulating, quivering and swishing in time with reverberating drumbeats, booming bass, and lofty guitars, interspersed with a saxophonist´s trills and sweeping brassy collaborations.
Right now, though, in the waning light of dusk, the crowd is softly swaying, content to feel the breeze and watch the show beforehand. Accompanied by top–notch instrumentals, some of Havana´s most skilful male rumberos strut their stuff, giving virtuoso displays of one of the most technically demanding dances among Cuba´s extensive array of styles: columbia.
Along with guaguancó and yumba, columbia constitutes one of the three main Cuban styles of rumba dancing (none of which are anything like the eponymous glitzy westernised version danced in ballrooms). Guaguancó and yumba are partner dances that originated in urban locales, such as the former slave–port in Matanzas. Columbia, however, is performed as a solo piece—traditionally by black African males—and has its origins in more bucolic settings: the sugar cane plantations. Indeed, columbia´s typically jerky and angular motions, resulting in a series of Vogue–like poses, are said to have evolved from the slaves´ impromptu dancing within the fields, where they would have to take small, tip–toeing steps among the sharp cuttings of cane, and execute rapid changes of direction and unnerving balancing acts to avoid injuring themselves by stepping on the splintery rattan protruding from the soil.
Whatever its roots, well–danced columbia truly is an aesthetic delight. A proud, macho dance, it is reminiscent of tango or flamenco in its execution: wild energy and passion embodied by the dancer is restrained until an almost unbearable tension is achieved, and then unleashed in sudden, volcanic eruptions of expression combining deft agility, acrobatic strength, and staccato limb jabbing, as if the dancer has been momentarily possessed, or is fleetingly experiencing an epileptic shudder. It is an edgy dance, incorporating humour through the dancer´s playful improvisations, yet also intrinsically imbued with an element of danger and competitive aggression. The testosterone–infused dancers are rivals: lions in a show of superiority, each trying to out–roar the other.
I, as a single white European female awaiting my set, do not fit this mould and I feel a further bead of worry jangling.
I consider that dance in Cuba and its accompanying forms of music are inherent ingredients of simply being; like eating or drinking one simply can´t do without. In the face of struggles—material, spiritual, and emotional—Cubans dance. Indeed, over the years, even in times of extreme scarcity and hardship, music and dance have been used inspirationally as a means of uplifting the spirits and of coping.
Bridging a gap between the human and the divine, dance and music are used in all sorts of contexts and in very different ways. Sometimes demonstrative of the playful, expressive, resourcefully inventive and resolutely courageous Cuban mentality and other times a form of reverential worship, one thing can be sure: Cubans dance everywhere. Continuously so. Even when they are not dancing outwardly, you can tell they are dancing within. They shimmy as they sweep the floor, they twirl when talking on the ‘phone, they gyrate as they drive down a potholed road. As for when they dance outwardly: you really know it.
The most libidinously charged and expressive people globally, Cuban current–day choreography really shows this characteristic. Casino, the most popular and commonly danced style, is salsa Cuban–style, with a quintessentially Cuban edge to it: eroticism. If dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire, as has been claimed, then no other nation even comes close to the Cubans.
And all this libidinous articulation is far from being hidden away behind closed doors of nightclubs, or dare I say it—bedrooms; danced displays of erotic confidence and desire are evidenced in every location imaginable: on the street, on the beach, in the kitchen, on the roof tops, midst laundry wavering in the breeze.
My musings are broken by a gasp of appreciation by the crowd: the current stage occupant—unusually tall and ripplingly athletic, with silky copper–toned skin sheathing lithe muscularity—demonstrates an innovative dip, strikes an impossible, gravity–defying pose before jolting back up with an angular kick and karate–style fling of his left arm. Fast and furious, the dancer´s moves momentarily dictate the tempo of the music, musicians and dancer intertwined in a duel of mutually challenging wild and playful improvisations, at odds with one another. And then he´s back, onto the beat with shivering chest contractions and elbow shimmies; a harmonious return to unity.
Along with the rest of the crowd, I am astonished… but not merely by the dancer´s skilful manoeuvres. Lingering in my psyche, flashbacks of gratitude Cubans have shown at my past efforts to dance to the beats of their drums are whipping through my mind, one replacing the next. Overpowered by the spirit of dance and propelled by an unknown force within, I take a step away from Raulito, towards the stage.