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In a far flung Havana neighborhood you’ve never heard of, there’s an intoxicating monthly party where the USA and Cuba are old friends and the drug of choice is the jitterbug (or tap or boogie woogie depending on which addict you ask). Tonight the club is hopping: a dapper gent in Kangol cap and Nikes spins his lithe, smiling partner around the floor while the barman mixes another cocktail. Nearby, a couple spontaneously pops up and into the swing, making room for the two stepper, who’s letting his happy feet fly.
Known as the Santa Amalia Dancers – for the remote neighborhood in the La Vibora section of town where the club is located – these are some of the city’s coolest cats (and kittens). The ‘jazz club’ is actually a living room that converts into an intimate dance floor where a loose group of Habaneros have gathered for decades to cut the rug something fierce. For them, it’s all about the music and the movement, which help keep them vibrant, fit, and hip – no small feat, considering most of them are septuagenarians.
The Santa Amalia jazz club was founded by Gilberto Torres and a group of friends who came of age dancing to the likes of Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, and Cab Calloway in the 40s and 50s. Back in the day, Havana was mentioned in the same breath as Paris – a jazz hot spot that attracted international stars to its clubs and cabarets for legendary jam sessions. Nostalgia runs thick on party days, when Santa Amalia regulars reminisce about dancing to Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, and others in evocative-sounding joints like Hell, Tokio, the Zombie Club, and Sans Souci.
All night jam sessions. Marijuana bars. Poets and painters holding court at sidewalk cafés. This was bohemian Havana and fertile times for jazz on the island, with US bands and Cuban musicians traveling frequently between the two countries. The advent of recorded music and the radio (Cuba had 62 radio stations by 1933), plus US prohibition, which sent Americans flocking to Cuba for various vices and general debauchery, fueled the boom. Eventually, the commingling of son, mambo, rumba, and feeling with ragtime, blues, and jazz itself coalesced into a distinct musical vernacular known as Afro-Cuban Jazz.
In this electric atmosphere the young Santa Amalia crowd would get together to listen to jazz records and copy dance steps from movies like Stormy Weather. “We heard that music and our feet just started moving on their own,” says one of the dancers. Cab Calloway, a dancer nonpareil, was especially venerated.
Torres, himself a radiant dancer, wanted to revive the vibe of those years. So he did what any Cuban would do: he opened his home to friends, ‘resolved’ a few bottles of rum, and let the music rip. Havana in the 80s was ripe for such a revival: the Socialist Bloc was in its hey day, Fidel still smoked cigars, and the Cuban peso had real worth. More importantly, jazz was no longer considered taboo, the ‘music of the enemy’ (an outlook that cut off Cuba from most American music since the 60s and sent the jazz dancers their separate ways). Throughout the 80s, the club grew, surviving the ensuing economic nosedive of the 90s.
Since then the club has flourished and the dancers also now have a monthly party at UNEAC (Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artístas de Cuba) in the heart of Vedado, a regular gig with notable jazz musician and scat singer Bobby Carcassés, and are the subject of the documentary Nosotros y el Jazz by Gloria Rolando. Sadly, while the jazz and dancing are immortal, the dancers are not: the club lost Gilberto Torres not long ago and Lázaro Martínez literally died dancing at one of the club’s gatherings this past August. Santa Amalia regular Ramiro de la Cuesta says, “we’re of a certain age and falling like dominoes,” which is hard to believe watching these folks spin, dip, and dance their hearts out, smiles as wide as a royal palm is tall.
With the passing of Torres, the regular parties in Santa Amalia were temporarily interrupted, but club members keep the joint jumping and the jive alive. Jazz is the staff of life they’ll tell you, and as long as that heady music plays, those feet will keep moving.
Ingrid Firmhofer is a photojournalist, living in Munich, Germany. Dance and music is her great passion. She was awarded with the International Photography Award with a First Place in the category of Music with a series of photos, which show the erotic shaking of the hips of Samba dancers, the harmony of Salsa dancers, the melancholy and furiousity of Flamenco, the fun of gipsy dancers, … She wants people to get infected! On her photos you feel the happiness and the energy of the musicians and dancers. December 2009