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The Last Summer of Salsa

The Last Summer of Salsa

The first time I went to a club to dance salsa, I elbowed the British ambassador’s wife in the face. I was in the Café Cantante trying out the setenta y uno, a new move which involved resting my elbow on her upper arm. It’s not a complex figure but requires a measure of care and grace. My partner didn’t expect the elbow and turned her head straight into it.

‘How’s your wife?’ I emailed the ambassador the next day. ‘Apart from a fractured jaw she’s fine,’ he replied. ‘Tell me you’re joking,’ I wrote.

Dance of any kind doesn’t come easy to me as a 6’3”, gangly, inflexible, middle-aged white academic Englishman. I was the one who would scurry to the safety of the bar at the slightest risk of being dragged onto any dance floor. My wife remembers the ‘first dance’ on our wedding day—literally our first in a long relationship—as being more like a mugging than a meeting of hearts and bodies. Still, something was unlocked that night. At almost forty I discovered that losing yourself in dance could be fun; fuelled by champagne and the excitement of the day, I was hardly off the dance floor.

On arriving on this tropical island at the end of 2011,  it wasn’t long before I was watching Cubans dance with a mixture of curiosity, amazement and envy. I was nagged by the thought that if I didn’t dance in Havana I wouldn’t dance anywhere. But, still nursing inhibitions, it was almost two years into my time in Cuba before I signed up to my first salsa class. I was still at that beginner’s stage, dancing anxiously and over-excitedly in a club for the first time, when I clumped his wife in the face.

‘Dance is in my blood,’ Cubans often told me. But as it was clearly not in mine, I decided to learn some fundamentals before launching myself onto Havana’s dance floors.

The first challenge was picking out the beat in the multi-layered rhythms of Cuban salsa and its grittier, faster sister—timba. Then there’s the moves. Salsa, like most pop and rock, has a 4/4 time signature, but you step on a different beat: one, two, three – pause, five, six, seven – pause. It took me a whole class to feel comfortable even with the basic step of Cuban-style salsa: behind, step, side, pause; behind, step, side, pause. It took another entire class to pull off a simple turn. Our group of diplomats, journalists and businessmen, meeting once a week at the British ambassador’s residence, moved slowly through the fundamentals—the dile que no, the enchufla – gradually increasing our repertoire. Poco a poco,’ my teacher would tell me, each time I stumbled.

There were times when I was so awkward and clumsy—so far from a salsero—I felt like packing it in. One class I couldn’t put a step right and pulled out half-way through to sit on the sidelines, grumpily nursing my Cristal beer. I still have the text my teacher Daines sent later that night: Amigo, me sentí mal al verte así hoy. Espero que la próxima vez sea mejor. La Salsa es para disfrutar…Tú has avanzado muchísimo.

There comes a point when you have to take what little you know to the clubs. That prospect made me as anxious as I had been on my wedding day. To my untrained eye, every Cuban looked to be a salsa expert.

My stomach was churning the first time I ventured into La Gruta, a club on La Rampa, and not only because I started the night with lasagne, red wine and milky-cocktails—though that can’t have helped. ‘It’s definitely the hottest day of the year,’ I said to my wife on the way in, my hands clammy, my shirt dampening. ‘You said that yesterday,’ Sarah said.

We paid the 3 CUC entrance and descended into a large, dark and slightly musty room complete with lights from a 1980s school disco and a glitter ball. It took some time before I summoned up the courage to dance. A six-minute song can seem an eternity when you’re repeating the same couple of moves over and again. Didn’t Cubans know how to make two-minute records like Motown?

‘Were you sick earlier?’ Sarah wondered afterwards. ‘Retched a little,’ I lied. ‘Why?’ ‘You smell a bit,’ she said. I was relieved that most of the Cuban salseras were five or six inches shorter than my wife.

Salsa isn’t supposed to smell of sick. Salsa, I was once told by a teacher, is sex on the dance floor.

In Havana’s clubs you see European women of a certain age who perhaps left unsuspecting husbands at home for a ‘salsa holiday’ with their female friends, clinging to new Cuban boyfriends. Hot music, hot weather, hot salseros—and strong cocktails—can be an intoxicating mix. One night at La Casa de la Musica, Daines and I watched a young German girl dancing in what looked more like underwear than shorts. ‘She’s forgot her pantalones,’ Daines commented. Perhaps that’s what salsa was: music to make you forget your pantalones.

In those first months learning salsa, I veered between inhibited, rigid Englishman—worried mind whirring away as I wondered whether to do a safe sombrero or risk a setenta complicado—and over-eager teenage boy. On such nights, I would watch Daines and her husband Pavel dancing together so sweetly, smiling so radiantly, weaving intricate hand movements around each other.

‘You’re doing good, but you have a few problems,’ Pavel confided one night. ‘You get excited by the people around you. You lose your timing and forget the lady you’re dancing with. Oh, and another thing, you drink too much Cristal.’

Daines liked her Cristal too. But one day in the spring she announced that she was pregnant, and though she danced with me as late as possible there came a point when she had to set aside the two things at the heart of our friendship: dancing and beer.

It seemed somehow disloyal to Daines to choose one new teacher, so I started having private classes with three of her fellow dancers from the Salsa en Casaschool,which raised some eyebrows at my apartment block. I was so eager to learn that sometimes two would come in one day, one after the other. ‘Es mi nueva profesora de baile,’ I explained to the security man after seeing one of them out of the door. He put a knowing forefinger to his lips.

There was Lill. ‘You’re not washing the windows’, she said, with a corrective slap, teaching me to hold my partner more firmly. ‘Mas fuerte. Macho.’ If my Dile que no lacked conviction, she would throw me an unnerving look. There was Anisley, a former rhythmic gymnast who tried to get my stiff English body moving more freely. If I fell out of time, she would beckon me back with a tum-tum-pa, tum-tum-pa.

Anisley helped to expand my range of figures and put them together better so that I could make it through an entire song more convincingly and with more fluidity. And there was Dayana, who was also a mine of knowledge on Cuba’s rich musical traditions, from son to rumba to reggaeton. She also tried to loosen me up with some salsa free steps. Jump it! Bounce! Italiano! Mambo! Rumba! She was nothing if not an optimist.

All my teachers were busy professional graduates with other jobs: scientific research, information technology, insurance, journalism. It is still normal in Havana to find highly-educated people spinning foreigners round dance floors on an evening. ‘A couple of hours teaching you and I’ll earn what I get in my normal job in a month,’ one of my teachers told me plainly. It’s this social reality which currently allows foreigners on an average income to get access to the kind of top-quality personal training they could probably not afford in London, New York or Madrid.

For me all the extra teaching appeared to be paying off. When we met again, a friend of Lill’s told me that I was so much better than when we had first danced together at the Hotel Florida. With all the extra hours in classes, I shed a few pounds too as we went into the humid summer. Dancing was making me healthier as well as happier.

The trials of learning salsa turned out to be nothing when set against the fun, the friendships I formed and the new world of music I discovered in the process. Legends like Los Van Van and Isaac Delgado were not just names on a CD or distant stars. I don’t think I’ve seen a cooler, more assured performance than Isaac Delgado at El Sauce, a chilled-out venue where you can see top acts for a few CUCs under an open sky. Delgado had been in exile in Florida and this was something of a homecoming, greeted by a still-devoted crowd.

The most memorable show was Havana D’Primera at Tropical, a large open-air club with a broken stone floor and tradition of exuberant performances, with over-heated audiences given to brawling. Whilst even the cheapest matinee ticket for La Casa de la Música puts a serious dent in a state salary—and at the more expensive evening shows most Cubans are guests of foreigners or workers in some capacity—the cheap entrance price at Tropical means that thousands of locals are able to attend. It must have been close to its 5,000 capacity on the Sunday in July when we saw Havana D’Primera.

Heavy rain kept delaying the start of the show and sending the crowd back to the cover of a few trees. Just as the road crew began taking covers off the amplifiers and speakers, down it came again. All the bars ran out of beer, Plancha’o rum and even water. Fights started to break out. We wondered if we hadn’t slipped up in not paying more to go in the raised ‘VIP section’ as our Cuban friends had all advised. It was an untamed Havana I hadn’t seen before, a long way from the orderly prosperity of our life in Miramar, or the ‘Buena Vista’ experience packaged for tourists.

But by the time Havana D’Primera took to the stage, we were as boisterous as anyone. ‘Pasaporte!!!’ Sarah’s petite Spanish friend bellowed for their classic, to the curious and bemused looks of those around us. ‘Necesito pasaporte!!!’ A mass brawl broke out during a song which had an anti-violence message. The crowd parted and young men slugged it out for a minute before white-shirted security piled in and ejected the bloodied hooligans.

The overwhelming mood, though, was joyous. Led by the charismatic Alexander Abreu—el gordo—women in their sixties, seventies and perhaps older were going crazy, hanging off the railings, shaking every inch of their bodies. There are some things you will never learn in a salsa class.

*          *          *

In the early-summer Sarah was sent to report on the crisis in Ukraine. In the past I’ve fretted in front of the television when she’s been away on testing assignments. This time I decided on fun, music and Cristal. To live in the moment, as the Marc Anthony song advises. ‘Hey, charanguero,’ a regular at a favourite paladar would call out when he saw me. A waitress explained that a charanguero was one who lives for parties and dance, one who has to be where the best music is.

There is a circuit of clubs and venues in Havana where you can dance salsa. I learned that the committed salsero might be found at La Gruta on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the open-air 1830 on Thursdays and Sundays, Hotel Florida in old Havana on Fridays. Though not as pretty as other venues, La Gruta became my favourite. There are fewer jineteros to vex you and the Cuban salseros are welcoming and deliver bruising ‘high-fives’ when they recognise you. Seeing the same people every week, Havana sometimes seemed closer to a village than a bustling capital city of two million people.

One thing you’ll rarely hear a Cuban saying is, ‘I can’t go out tonight, it’s work tomorrow.’ When it came to the clubs, Lill was the complete charanguera. ‘All the world knows Lil,’ Anisley laughed one night at La Gruta as yet another dancer came over to embrace her. ‘How does she get so low?’ an amazed American film director who was in town wondered as she arched backwards until her pony tail was sweeping the floor. A Slovakian friend was equally captivated, noting how wide Lill’s eyes were and the way they narrowed when she spotted a man she wanted to dance with. Even hard-to-impress Cubans seemed drawn to her flamboyance. ‘Just do some fancy stuff around me and make me look better,’ I pleaded when she led me to the floor. And she obliged.

By this time I was venturing out of my dance-teacher comfort zone to partner regular party-goers, like the pretty girl at La Gruta who, when she stood up, only came up to my navel. One night, Osmany, who runs the Salsa en Casa school, encouraged me to dance with an eager-looking young woman who was sitting with two friends. She turned out to be a hairdresser from Granma with a sing-song accent. We talked first and she offered to put some colour in my hair. I said I was used to being grey and was comfortable with it. She said it was lindo but insisted it would look even better with some colour. If I was indeed having mid-life crisis, as some English friends suggested when I took up salsa dancing, I suspected I shouldn’t advertise the fact with chestnut-brown hair. I had to decline her kind offer.

Whilst the hairdresser and I chatted away, her two friends sat alongside, frozen and expressionless. Not all Cubans, I was discovering, are exuberant. The hairdresser and I got up to dance and though she moved well she didn’t really know salsa. I had mainly danced with girls who knew what I was going to do it before I did it. In reality, they were leading me. With others, any hesitation and uncertainty travelled through my fingers to theirs. At one point the hairdresser and I got in a muddle. But this time I heeded Pavel’s advice: Never stop. We danced again to the last song of the night, ‘Anda Pégate’ by Maykel Blanco, and afterwards she said I danced ‘muy lindo’. I know it’s slightly pathetic to recall this compliment, but it was the reassurance I needed that I didn’t look like a complete idiot up there with the Cubans.

Another night in La Gruta, a European gentleman in his sixties grabbed Anisley to dance as soon as she was down the staircase. She explained later that her frisky ex-client didn’t start dancing salsa until he was fifty years old, but that once he’d taken it up he couldn’t stop. ‘He wants to dance with every lady in the club,’ she said.

I wasn’t quite such a salsa machine but as Havana heated-up I became more free-spirited than ever. One salsera told me that you only improve by dancing on every occasion you can, with as many people as possible. I took the advice to heart; sometimes I didn’t wait for the night-time to dance. I danced with the cleaning staff at our apartment block, practiced figures with the waitresses in my favourite paladar when they had a quiet moment. ‘Show me,’ a waitress at a cafe on La Rampa said when I told her I was into salsa, and so in the middle of a humid Sunday afternoon we danced to Los Van Van ‘La Maquinaria’ to the amusement of a girl waiting for her bus and the bemusement of a visiting English friend who wondered what Latin demon had taken possession of my body. ‘Él sabe,’ the waitress called over to her colleague. ‘Él sabe.’

Él Sabe. Well, I don’t kid myself: I know very little apart from how little I know. With a thousand hours of classes, I could never dance like Pavel or Osmany. Watching the best salseros you see how salsa isn’t a skill to be mastered, it is something felt within, an expression of their personalities—of their soul, if you like. What I express, I think, is only that I’m an enthusiastic learner of salsa. But maybe that’s not a bad thing to be.

The reassuring thing is that Cubans don’t expect Europeans to be able to dance—certainly not as well as them—and they are invariably generous, even proud, when they see that someone loves their music and has a go on the dance floor.

Well, maybe not all the time. One night my wife Sarah and I were on our way back from a club, talking enthusiastically about salsa. The taxi driver started to chuckle and Sarah asked what was amusing him. ‘The thought of you two doing salsa,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine it.’ He continued to chuckle. ‘Outrageous,’ Sarah said. ‘He’s not even trying to hide it.’ He was still smiling when he dropped us off at our apartment two minutes later.

*          *          *

When Sarah found out she’d been appointed to a new job in Moscow one of my first thoughts was: well, that’s the end of salsa. I started to have regrets: that I had spent too long immersed in a writing project that had made me miserable; that I had moaned too much about the things Havana didn’t have, instead of being more appreciative of that which it did. Most of all I wished—and before I came to Cuba I would never imagined writing this—that I had done more dancing.

‘Salsa is more than just a good time, wiggling your butt and working up a sweat,’ the legendary Puerto Rican salsero Willie Colón once said. He saw it also as a validation of a cultural heritage for displaced Latinos in New York and other strange new urban environments in the 1960s and 70s. Salsa was a ‘sense of home’.

Reading those words, I recalled a conversation Dayana and I had over lunch in a pop-up restaurant in the park close to where I lived. Between forkfuls of chicken, rice and frijoles, Dayana warmed to her theme of salsa as a ‘bridge’. Through salsa she had seen foreigners finding friendship across the cultural divide, love or just sex—though she pointed out that there are easier ways to get laid than learning salsa. For some Cubans, salsa was their means of access to foreigners and with that some hard currency to allow them access to the better things in life. For some, salsa was even their ticket out of Cuba for a new life abroad.

And what about me? Salsa had opened me up to new feelings and emotions. On a Havana dance floor I was often painfully aware of my Englishness, but there were moments when I was someone less inhibited, less rational, more instinctive, perhaps even—can I admit it?—more sensual. I felt like someone, to reverse Willie Colón, rather less at home.

Salsa had also taken me a little closer to the Cuban people. I had got to know and admire their resourcefulness, humour and spirit in the face of adversity. Over that very Cuban meal, on that sweltering August afternoon, Dayana told me of her sadness that some of the old sense of community and togetherness was disappearing. She reminisced warmly about her early childhood during the ‘Special Period’, tough times of dire food shortages and power cuts, but also a time when everyone in the neighbourhood would be out on the streets until the early hours, playing dominoes, gossiping, dancing. Havana is a very different place today, though it may not be changing quickly enough for some. Every week some new stylish paladar or bar is opening, not only to serve the ex-pat or tourist but increasingly the new monied Cubans. ‘We don’t really know what the future will bring,’ Dayana said. ‘But as long as we have food and music we are happy, because that’s all we have.’

Sarah and I held our leaving party at Bella Ciao, our favourite paladar. It was a very humid evening; even the air conditioner was blowing out warm air. My shirt was saturated after a few dances, a sensation I was getting used to that summer. At one point almost the entire party ended up in a conga, led by the high-spirited waitresses.

‘English people dancing salsa!’ an Argentinian friend declared at the end of the night. ‘Next you’ll be playing football.’ ‘I’m impressed,’ a Cuban friend admitted to Sarah. ‘OK, he’ll never dance like a black guy from Guanabacoa, but…I’m surprised.’ There was talk amongst other European men of taking up salsa: if he can do it, anyone can was the theme. I had become an improbable evangelist for Cuban dance.

The next day Sarah said she hadn’t smiled so much since our wedding party. That was the other night in our lives when we danced all night and didn’t have a single coherent conversation. Perhaps that was a lesson for life: talk less, dance more.

Leaving Cuba was harder than leaving all the other places we had loved: it felt like ‘goodbye’ could really mean ‘goodbye’. The morning of the day we left, Dayana came round to the flat and gave me a gift. It was a wooden ornament shaped in the treble clef and came with a note: ‘Para una de los personas que mas disfruta la música cubana en el mundo’.

I made sure that ‘la música cubana’ was playing right to the end. ‘Mi Música’ by Havana D’Primera was the song on my i-pod as our plane left the runway at José Martí airport.

*          *          *

I had thought that I would leave salsa behind in Havana. I imagined that back in grey old Europe its appeal would fade. I had an image of classes in chilly English church halls conducted by some wannabe-Latino with perma-tan and sparkly shirt. But less than forty-eight hours after arriving at Heathrow, run-down with a cold, I was in a salsa club on the Charing Cross Road.

On the bus back to my brother’s flat, I worked out that I’d been dancing for over six hours. I wondered whether there was something pitiful about a middle-aged charanguero. The bus snaked towards north London past kebab houses and twenty-four hour Turkish supermarkets. Two weeks earlier I had been heading back from a night in La Gruta in Sandy’s rusty Fiat, rattling down the Malecón with the window down and a warm breeze in my face, the Atlantic Ocean to the right, singing along to that Pupy song. No te dejé por mala, yo te dejé por loca.

I knew that night, though, that it wouldn’t be my last summer of salsa. That I would soon return to Havana, to dance with Lill, Anisley, Dayana, Osmany and all the other salseros I met, and to drink Cristal with Pavel and Daines and snigger about German girls who’ve forgotten their pantalones. Ya ‘tá bueno, ya!

* * * * * * *

Summer was over. Before I joined Sarah in Moscow, I had to go on a short trip to Madrid. My business soon completed, I went on a bar crawl. On my own and semi-drunk, I stumbled across a bar with a poster in the window advertising a Cuban night. I peered through the window and saw an attractive Cuban couple leading a row of Madrileños in their twenties and thirties through salsa free steps. I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass. I entered the bar and pushed my way into the line. Jump it! Bounce! Italiano! Mambo! Rumba!

Baila bien!’ the surprised salsera from Artemisa exclaimed at the end of the last dance some four hours later. ‘Where did you learn the Cuban style?’ ‘Oh, I’m just a beginner,’ I said, waving her compliment away. ‘I had a couple of classes when I went to Havana.’

November 2014 This article formed part of the november 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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