My Cuba: Travelling with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust
Dates of journey: 30th July-20th August 2015
Who with: Just me myself and I
Where: Havana, Cuba
Favourite food: Mango juice/Tostones
Most inspiring person/people you met: Aleida De La Serna: Yoerlis Brunet: Joya Powell from NYC
Greatest place you saw: Havana: Ballet National de Cuba, Matanzas: Museo De Esclavos
Smells like: Thick air, bread fruit, cassava, earth and mangos
Feels like: All your favourite old things that you will never throw away even when they stop working or serving their purpose
Sounds like: Loud, loud, loud: Loud music, raised voices, cars beeping … and at the same time a comfortable calm!
Landing in Cuba, disembarking and gulping thick hot air; an excited heart, a nervous flutter, the sight of a blue expansive sky combined with the sheer delight about three blissful weeks of dance ahead of me…
I have always been best in heat… Cold brings out a furrowed brow and a rolling tongue (my signal for distress even as a baby). So I woke the next morning, warm and happy from a restful sleep and excited about my first full day in Cuba and thrilled that I could put on summer clothes!
My beautiful family- Suzette, Ernesto and their children were very welcoming, and had made me a nourishing breakfast of papaya, mango, banana and guava. I always feel a bit uncomfortable about being seen as the rich westerner, I suppose because this contradicts my lifestyle in the UK as a dance artist. So here I feel mixed emotions; impatience to dispel the myth that everyone in England is wealthy; guilt that I am comparatively rich and so lucky to have this scholarship … this incredible opportunity!
Having lots of connections in Cuba, I was able to make some calls and quickly find some entertainment for my first day. I would be joining a trip of tourists with an American friend and tour guide from Meta Movements, to the outskirts of Havana and a beautiful beach. I joined a group discourse on Orishas, ate a delicious lunch of Frijoles and salad, and took my first dance lesson – dancing the Orisha Iemanja, goddess of the sea…and even better…it happened in sea water. It felt like the perfect start to my dance journey; with stunning views and warm turquoise sea.
After sitting on the beach, playing guitar and chatting, we headed back to central Havana to watch Obini Bata. Obini Bata are an all female Bata group who perform the dances of the Orishas, play instruments and sing. Their work is powerful and slick with a strong sense of unity and sisterhood. It is very traditional and performed to a very high level with beautiful costumes, and dancers who are fierce in their movement and technique. I couldn’t help wondering how much exploration away from the traditional form happens in Cuba. I saw the influence of the large tourist audience on the group’s perception of what tourists want to see. I found myself cringe as they invited Europeans up to attempt each Orisha.
My next very special experience was the following day: A sharing with Cheveredance company set up by Meta Movements. I taught them my latest Element Arts samba show for both male and female dancers. They brought an exquisite Cuban ‘Sabor’ (flavour) to the piece.
We were rehearsing on the roof of a house. It was so hot and we were working up a sweat and running out of drinkable water (well I was- being the only non Cuban meant I wasn’t able to drink the Cuban tap water). As we rehearsed the clouds began to look heavy and threatening and the air became muggy and thick. As we sang ‘happy birthday’ to the birthday boy amongst the dancers, and the girls did some kind of slightly uncomfortable birthday dance on him, and then the rain came down… the kind of rain that you only find in a tropical country, huge drops of unrelenting rain… then came the thunder… then the floods.
My lovely Cuban family had loaned me a mobile phone, and they called and offered to come to the rescue as they were close by in their 25 year old Russian car. We drove through the flooded streets somehow enduring, like a half-submerged submarine through the flood. Something that struck me that day talking to my Cuban family was that there is a place for each and every item in Cuba, and an appreciation of its value. There is no throwing out as there is in the UK because of a desire for an upgrade. There is appreciation so that everything is fixed or darned it right until it really cannot be used again. Of course this happens out of a necessity, but I also saw the beauty in this attitude and appreciation in a way that perhaps in the UK we need to relearn.
Starting the course at Cuba Danza, I felt a huge sigh of relief to be really moving again and to be feeling the pain of a new technique. Yoerlis, the teacher, was just amazing, like a Greek sculpture and simultaneously inspiring and scary. I began to realise that my posture is completely wrong, and to crave more of this style.
It was very special to meet other people on the course and discover more about all of their countries. We had dancers from Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Italy, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, America all there to study Cuban Contemporary and Afro Cuban. My absolute favourite was my first Yanvalou. It felt wonderful to be doing them in a class, feeling my way, taking on board corrections and growing in this style I love so much. And I was suprised to learn that in Cuba they don’t know the term Yanvalou! I loved the classes and relished in this lively atmosphere. I have always loved the acceptance I feel in this kind of group, as a Spanish speaker, as a person of mixed heritage, somehow finding a home in this diversity, in knowing I am in a country where I look like I might belong.
On the breaks we would buy 30 centavos pastries and sit in the sun, or practise windmills and swipes with my French friend, or go over moves from class together or share fresh fruits.
On the Tuesday I took a course of Rumba with the amazing Yohan Corioso. Yohan specializes in Rumba, and travels worldwide teaching. His class was great; He didn’t assume that I was a novice because I came from Europe and gave me exciting and challenging steps like Sha sha elo ke fou. For the first time since I arrived in Cuba I had that magic feeling where your life just makes sense because the movement feels as if it is what you were born to do. Bliss. After the private I rehearsed with Chevere learning their new Rumba/ Casino piece and picking up some tips on my rusty Cuban style Salsa, before walking home through Havana Vieja and along the Malecon to my home.
The next night after college, the beautiful Aleida, a course mate and wonderful dancer from Cuba, invited us to a club – La Gruta, where we finally got down with some salsa. There was a competition and a Cuban didn’t have a partner so I jumped in. And this Gringa (me) was very happy to come 2nd place! So perhaps those tips from Chevere had actually paid off!
Exactly a week after I arrived in Havana, I knew three weeks just wasn’t enough. I was just beginning to find my flow, to understand how things work, to fall even more deeply in love with Cuban Contemporary, Casino, Rumba, Folclore, and to realize how much I needed this time away for reflection. in London, I feel constantly frustrated that I don’t get the time to just think, reflect, enjoy. I feel a constant guilt, disappointment and frustration at all the things I haven’t managed to achieve. It was strange to have this freedom to reflect. I realized just how wonderful an opportunity this is and how it contributes to my growth in other ways. Travelling is so special for the perspective it gives you on your own life.
Talking to my Cuban family, I learnt so many positives, as well as negative sides to being Cuban. They showed me their monthly rations of food – given to every household in Cuba – of rice, beans, oil for cooking, matches and more (amazing!) They explained the Cuban NHS system- reputably the best system in the world (amazing!); The policy on unaccompanied young people and how the police will call their parents if kids are found to be out in the park after 11pm (amazing!);The struggles caused by being paid in Cuban Pesos when most merchandise (shoes, electronics, clothing, some foods) can only be bought in CUC (the exchange rate), making it impossible to be able to afford to buy anything without finding other ways of earning money in CUC (not so amazing!).
I was impressed by the Cuban education system and by what Suzette said about housing (there are no homeless people here). I began to wonder why this model of Communism was seen as such a threat by so many. But what I could also see was the difficulty and divide in these two currencies. I could see that the currency for tourists would bring more wealth into the country – but also exclude Cubans from participating in the simple things we take for granted: going to a swimming pool, going to listen to a live concert or club; eating out.
Cuba also taught me a humility and appreciation for all things mundane. For example, my first experience of going to the supermarket: I was able to buy pasta, tomato sauce, crisps and juice all in one place and figured because it was late they just didn’t have everything in stock. As time went on, I discovered there was another shop to buy fruit (in pesos), another for bread, another for eggs, and another (not that I wanted to buy it) for meat. So to buy a full shop could essentially take up a full day. Then, for example, one day there was no water in any of the shops in our area, which certainly taught me gratitude for the simple things in life.
Likewise the cost and amount of patience necessary to get online meant that I really did switch off for the first time in years. My internet addiction (which I wasn’t even aware of until I got to Cuba) was curbed. There was a hotel nearby my casa where I could buy an internet card for £9 for two hours of internet use, and, as I was in the middle of writing a funding application, I knew I was going to spend a small fortune if I didn’t find an alternative. A friend had told me about a much cheaper card which I could use in the hotels, so on my third day in Cuba, I headed out on a mission to find the source of Etesca government Internet cards. My friend had told me I would find them on La Rampa, opposite Coppelia. Once there, asking around I was told to go somewhere else, then somewhere else.
After two hours of wandering from place to place I finally found a building where I was told I could buy a card but there was a huge queue so, tired and hungry, I almost abandoned the mission. Logic took over though and I joined the queue. Finally, thirty plus minutes later, I emerged with three cards. The next challenge was to locate one of four hotels where I could use the card. This took a good 40 minutes more, (I’m not the best at directions), and as I clambered excitedly inside, I was disappointed to be told I couldn’t come inside unless I was a guest. I asked where I should sit to use my card, and he gestured outside in the street, where there were around 20-30 Cubans dotted along the hotel walls engrossed in their phones. I went and joined them on the curb and began the tedious process of trying to log on despite server failures, which took about 20 minutes. Finally I quickly collected my emails (I didn’t fancy staying sitting in the street much longer by then), then took another 20 minutes to log back off. Whilst work messages and my funding application came high on my priority list, and WhatsApp was a close third, I quickly learnt to minimize my internet time. I only went on Facebook once the whole trip, so refreshing, for me that hard time getting online was a blessing in disguise!
There was a wonderful wide-ranging debate on Cuban television about the pros and cons of wifi; whether they should have only one currency; young people’s music such as Reggaeton; interest in western brands and the effects of tourism. It was refreshing to see a debate, in a country where so few people use the internet, focusing on its negative effects and to understand how, without this access to the worldwide web and the world outside of Cuba, tourism might be seen as having a negative effect.
At the Cuban Contemporary School, there was a man who must have been in his 80s or 90s who had a big smile and everytime I saw him he made me smile too. I had the feeling I knew him and we would always stop to say ‘hello’ to one another. It turned out he is the Director of the Folclore School and a Rumberoand I was so excited when he invited me to the Palacio de la Rumba.
I had always struggled with jetes, but by the end of week one I reconnected with that glorious feeling of flying through the air in a jete. My body was getting stronger in a way appropriate to the technique. I was able to hold my leg up higher and easier and beginning to grasp the torso curves and contractions, the use of my ‘ingles’ (groins) and most of all, I was loving the live music everyday. In the afternoon we would study Afro Cuban with Yoerlis, where I would always try to position myself behind Aleida who had such a beautiful way of moving, or there would be a class of a hybrid of ballet barre specific to Cuban Contemporary. The classes were beginning to feel good (perhaps apart from Barre class).
I began to ease into the way of life that week, finally beginning to understand how to get around, realizing how safe Cuba really is and, for the most part, being able to communicate and feel a bit more like a local. Cubans have such a strong accent that every now and again I would be completely baffled by a sentence and my friend Nicoletta, the Italian, would have to translate into Spanish for me, much to my annoyance! But I really began to fall in love with the country and to unwind further.
On the Thursday night, I took a communal car and went to meet Liorka, an Element Arts dancer who had moved back to Cuba three years previously, and her new baby. Liorka and I had spoken very little since she returned to Cuba (as the internet is so bad), so it was wonderful to catch up and to meet her lovely family.
That Friday, myself, David from the US, Nicoletta from Italy and a woman named Denise from Belize headed to Cuban Carnival on the Malecon. At first it felt like being back in Rio. The same layout of the pasarela, the same electric energy, bustle, flirtation and even people collecting empty beer cans for money. But there was also much that was different, most notably in the music. It was a rumba carnival with trumpets, heavy drums and a repetitive rhythm, but unlike Brazil there was no singing from the paraders. Then, every now and again, there was an all singing all dancing float playing a well known reggaeton track sometimes with a full orchestra on board, and happy Cuban passers-by singing the lyrics and dancing freely and with alegria. The costumes revealed much less flesh than those of Brazil (though the Cuban Tropicana costume did of course feature), with colourful dresses, trouser suits and many men holding huge spinning sculptures. The dancing seemed to consist of a quite simple but high-energy basic step, which tapped and turned and tapped and turned along the pasarela. There were complex partner routines with formation changes and props, which all seemed to be done with a straight face and nonchalance.
After a week of being in Cuba I was beginning to be wound up by the fact that from 7-70, the men (or males) will habitually mutter under their breath, but loud enough to be heard, words like ‘mamacita, preciosa, deliciosa’ or even worse make the noise I make when I am trying to stroke a cat in the street. Even when I went to the bank to change some CUC to pesos with the 14year old from my casa, people would do it shamelessly. Later I asked Aleida what she made of it and how she would react. She said she usually says ‘thank you’ (which was surprising to me and made me really try to analyze why I get so irritated by it) unless they said something rude in which case she would confront them about it. Perhaps this would be a better approach than my scowl at a complement? This particular Friday (I guess because it was carnival and people’s energy was high), it was annoying me even more than usual, so I got brave and decided to make cat noises back at two guys, which I can tell you now is not an effective deterrent. In fact it has the complete opposite effect and they followed us for a good thirty minutes before finally they got bored.
Over the weekend almost the whole school bought tickets to the Ballet Cubano. I haven’t seen much ballet in my lifetime, and I knew that the Cubans are reputedly the best in the world so I was excited to see the show. The theatre was very grand, and of course the air conditioning was set to a level where I felt like I was back in England. As the first act began, I was surprised and disappointed to discover that in Cuba, one of the most mixed countries in the world, the ballet company was almost entirely made up of white or very light skinned dancers, and the few dancers who were visibly mixed were very light skinned. I found this disturbing and even more so when asking two friends about it, was told that it is ‘just like that’ by one, and then I was saddened to hear that as a ‘young, black politician you have little chance of reaching office in Cuba, even though the majority of the island’s people is black.’
The next day we were all getting up super early as Aleida had arranged for us to go to Varadero, so we met at 6am at the school for a beach filled day, which unfortunately didn’t work out. A broken down coach meant we were stranded in the dark, but we quickly (well not that quickly as it was light by the time we figured it out) made new plans and headed to a local Havana beach and spent a full day sunning, bronzing, reddening, eating and drinking.
That night we had planned to go to the famous Club 1830, and made plans to meet to walk there together at 9.30pm. I hadn’t had time to go to the shop before it got dark, and the only shop open after dark in my area was out of water so I was drinking tonic water thirstily after a long day in the sun. When I arrived David was the only one who had made it out in time, and we sat long enough to realize no one else would be coming. So off we headed for an amazing night of dancing, some very cheesy shows (and one gorgeous one of older couples dancing son which made me cry), and some ace dances set up again by the magic Aleida. I realized after one dance with an amazing Cuban dancer, that Cuban Salsa has so much style, so much sabor that I find myself getting shy or trying too hard so I began to focus just on the music and my new mission of walking around and not letting go of my partner’s hands. I left early feeling the effects of the day, and that night I had the worst night’s sleep as the world began to spin and I realized I had food poisoning.
After a day off to recover and rehydrate, I was happy to be back at school, and even happier when we arranged to take a group private with Roberto in folcloric dances of the Orishas. We chose to focus on Oya and Sha sha elo ke fou. Alberto, the sound engineer, ushered me over and whispered ‘Lo tienes todo lo que falta es la confianza’. ‘All you need now is to believe in yourself’. After that every time we saw each other he would say ‘Oya warrior’!
The next day I got back to practising windmills with my French companion, and finally, 3 years later, something clicked. I did a windmill with my hips up and my legs kicking round and landed in the right place… and again, and again and again! How funny that I came to Cuba and, at long last, got windmills!
Aleida invited me to see an Afro Cuban show with her at Arte en la Rampa by a company called Jota Jota. It was beautiful!
On David’s last night in Havana, he invited the whole school to 1830, and it was wonderful to see all the salsa of the globe in one place.
The next day, our last day at the Cuban Contemporary School, we were presented with our class certificates. Aleida arrived late for hers, and as we talked at the end she invited me to parade with her in the Compassa de carnival! I could barely contain my excitement. I love carnival. It was a dream come true to parade in Rio in 2006, and I was so happy to now be parading in Cuba. Even better,we would dance Ochun, an Orisha I particularly love. She began to teach me the steps and I went home excitedly practising. When we arrived at the location, they weren’t so welcoming as Aleida but it felt great to be on the Pasarela again. I found myself asking why I am so in love with these dances and asking questions about who can do it, whether dance is truly for everybody if it is done with enough love.
Nicoletta and I headed to Matanzas for the weekend. Exploring the city we enjoyed a museum about the holocaust and Cuba’s role in helping Jewish people escape from Europe. We met countless beautiful people, artists and passionate promoters of Cuba, its history and its government; people keen to talk about how it might change under the influence of America. We visited the museum of slavery, which had a whole room full of information on each Orisha, and we found the cultural centre and club of the town where dancers in their 60s and 70s danced to Danzon. We also visited the beautiful Varadero beach, where we enjoyed a delicious day of sunshine, and where I thanked Iemanja, knowing that I was nearing the end of my trip.
Back in Havana, I chose for my last two days to take a course with Luanda. The course was for a group of French Salsa dancers, and, as I grew up speaking French, my brain became fully mangled with Spanish and French. The course was really good. With a focus on all the Orishas I felt I hadn’t studied enough at the Teatro Nacional, plus a little salsa (finally I got to practise as a man, so much fun) and rumba to finish off which made me very happy.
Havana D Primeira and Alexander Abreu were playing at Casa de la Musica, which was a really fun night out, and finally my very last night out was with my best Cuban friend Aleida. Aleida had been giving me little private lessons in Palo, Lemanja and Obatala and had been focusing on making sure my upper body was constantly moving with every breath. I took this learning to the club that night, having some of my favourite dances of the whole trip.
We talked about prostitution as a beautiful young girl arrived on the arms of a man who looked like he was in his 70s, and Aleida said ‘You can be desperate but there is always a choice in everything you do!’ Wise words as we watched the same shows (for the fifth time since I arrived on the Island) I found I had a new appreciation for the cheesy dance routines in their technique and simplicity and we excitedly watched the Palo (which Aleida had been teaching me earlier in the day) together.
As the Salsa competitions took place, I felt a new understanding of the dancers and an overwhelming mix of emotions…. a pull to return to the sea; an appreciation of what I am missing out on in the UK; a desire to stay in Havana forever; bemusement at Cuban ways and gratitude for the amazing warmth and heart of Aleida, the people I am staying with, Alberto, and many other Cubans I had met along the way.
Experiencing life in this wonderful and complicated country, I am understand more about aspects which at first confused my western mind. I had slowly relaxed, grown more patient and come to appreciate the pace of life. This experience of the real Cuba with the influence of tourism, the US, as well as its unique recent history cut off from the rest of the world had changed the impression based my expectations and preconceptions before the trip.
I already realised that I need to come back. This country has so much more I need to understand and so much more I didn’t get to see. When I think about this I get restless again at how much more I could have done but the biggest thing of all that Cuba taught me was an acceptance of what is. For me Cuban culture is all of the places I have been, everything I have learnt and no one experience above all the others. What I take away is a love for the country as well as a re-fired passion for Cuban dance and a hunger to learn more about both.