It was at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba on my second day in Havana, that my friend from Argentina and I watched Cuban dancers practice ballet moves to Afro-Cuban music—something we’d heard so much about. If you didn’t know, Cuba produces some of the best ballet dancers in the world. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba was opened in Havana by the prominent international ballet dancer, Alicia Alonso during the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s. I was lucky enough to watch the dancers practice to live percussion. I wanted to cry because there is such passion, such emotion—such love. I had a thought. The regular traveler does not experience that. The authenticity. To be in the same room as a Cuban dancer. What a privilege.
Dancing in Cuba goes back to before colonization. The native people of the Caribbean, the Taínos, performed rituals known as areíto which involved dancing, singing, and music—reflecting various aspects of Taíno religion and culture. Although not much else is known about these rituals, dancing continued to develop after colonization. With the arrival of West African slaves starting in the 17th century, new influences on the religious dances of Santería, yuka, and abakúa laid the foundation for forms of contemporary Cuban dance and music. A few key periods in Cuban history shaped the dances we still find on the island:
- The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) proved to be a significant time in the history of Cuban dance. The emigration of Haitian refugees to Oriente (the eastern part of the island) introduced dances that reflected their stories of rebellion. These dances developed into a Cuban dance called Tumba.
- During the 19th century, French contredanse was introduced by affluent Europeans. Slaves imitated this dance, and the combination created the Cuban contradanza, a more sensual version of the contredanse.
- In the 1930s, the mambo, a fast and sensual dance, was born in Havana, invented by the native Cuban musician and composer Arsenio Rodriguez. However, as more and more American tourists visited, Cuban musicians noticed Americans couldn’t keep up with the rhythms of the mambo. So one night in Havana, an orchestra invented the Cha-Cha which imitated the steps of the American dancers.
There is a saying in Cuba that Cubans were born dancing. So when you go, be prepared to dance, get involved, and ultimately feel free in your own skin. There’s no judging here.
Looking to have your own version of Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights? Here are some resources to get you started.
Ballet National de Cuba: Attend one or more of the many inspirational ballet performances. Check their programming here.
Callejon de Hamel: A street filled with murals and poetry on the walls by Cuban artist Salvador Gonzalez all representing African culture. Here beautiful, traditional Afro-Cuban dances are performed. A place you must visit. Located in central Havana.
Fabrica del Arte Cubano: Originally created to bring all forms of art under one roof, Fabrica cultivates architecture, visual arts, film, dance, graphic design, industrial design, photography, fashion, music, and theater. Check out their upcoming events here.
Rumba Saturday at El Palenque: Celebrate African beats and rhythms at El Palenque, near the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional between 5th and Calzada Streets in the Vedado district from 3pm to 6pm every Saturday, where locals and tourists alike come to move to rumba, guaguancó, and yambú.
For more information on where to go and what to do in Cuba, check out the Cuba Travel Guide on BackpackingtheCarribean.com.