Ela Mesma Company

Dispora Dance Theatre

A historical trail of the dancestyles we work with at Ella Mesma Company and some ponderings over the people at the top…

I recently went to an audition in London that had advertised for Afro Cuban dancers for a Latin show touring the world (how exciting!). The audition was fun: though we mostly danced hip hop choreo. The cut came and they called Ella (I was actually surprised about getting through as I retired as a bgirl this year and I had come with my mind ready to smash an Afro Cuban dance session!), but then they came to tell me: “Oh embarrassing: there are two Ella’s: we wanted the other Ella: when we wrote Afro Cuban we were referring to skin colour not dancers who dance Afro Cuban dance: sorry we only want BAME artists: the panel wrote Afro Cuban but they meant ‘black'”.

Based on who is at the top, based on history, based on so many things I think that positive discrimination for positive change is 100% necessary. I am actually BAME: but I am not what most people imagine a BAME person to look like, so frustrating as it is, I regularly experience this kind of thing. But it shocked me that the people making these decisions were embarrassed to say ‘black’ or ‘bame’ on the advert, and so to avoid their discomfort chose to advertise for Afro Cuban dancers. I asked a few Cuban and non Cuban friends how they would interpret Afro Cuban: they all suggested their understanding of the term was to refer to dance styles not to an ethnic group… One person pointed out that there were not enough ‘Afro Cubans’ in the UK for them to only employ Afro Cubans and that Cubans have a range of skin tones.

It made me wonder about their knowledge (or lack of?) and what their fear of saying ‘black’ or ‘BAME’ was… and about their responsibility to look after and understand who their dancers are. It got me thinking about how muti-layered getting a job like this might be… Is this positive discrimination? Or is there something deeper… Is there stereotyping and misinformation present? Is it right that this panel of white men are making this show? What message or interpretation of Cuba will they put out into the world in their show? Will the BAME artists be in other sections or will they only dance Hip Hop and if so why? It made me think about the responsibility of the person in charge, and how often that person is a white middle class male….and it also made me wonder how much they knew their history…

I am not a historian, but through teachers, travel and study, I have learnt some things on my dance journey. I think for anyone working with these styles, these are important basic things to know. So in the hope that one day this panel might read and learn (and anyone else interested), here is an education about Afro Cuban dance. I hope you find the journey interesting!

Dance has always been an integral part of daily life in Africa. Africans forced to Brazil, Cuba, America and the Caribbean islands as slaves meant that the diverse dance styles of many African ethnic groups merged with indigenous and European dances. Dance helped enslaved Africans maintain connections with their homeland, keeping cultural traditions alive. Enslaved Africans in Cuba, Brazil, the Caribbean, and South America were given more freedom to dance than enslaved Africans in North America.

Afro Cuban

The term Afro Cuban refers to music and dance that combine elements of black African, indigenous and Spanish culture. Nearly 1 million Africans from West and Central Africa were captured and brought to Cuba from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and Afro Cuban dances reflect the traditions and dances of four main groups of enslaved Africans. The majority of enslaved Africans in Cuba were Yoruba and thus the Yoruba religion is still strong in Cuba today. As the religion includes drumming and dancing, these feature in Afro Cuban folkloric dances. Some of the best-known dances are attached to the Yoruba-based Afro Cuban religion of Santería: a syncretic religion (interlacing intra-African and Roman Catholic belief systems and religious practices). Both men and women sing and dance, but only men traditionally play the sacred batá drums that accompany the rituals. The percussive rhythms, songs, and dances of Santería are meant to please the orishas (deities) and to persuade them to join the celebration. There are many Afro Cuban dances, but they include dances of the Orishas (spelled òrìṣà in Yoruba), Rumba and Palo (explained further below).


Originally, the term rumba was used as a synonym for party in northern Cuba. Traditionally, the three main styles of rumba are Yambú, Columbia and Guaguanco, each of which has its own rhythm and a characteristic style of dance and singing.

Rumba: Columbia

The columbia style is a solo dance, generally, though not always, performed by males as a competition.  The dance of the columbia is acrobatic, mimetic, and competitive; one dancer follows another, each trying to outdo the rest. The columbia is the most virtuosic showpiece for the rumba dancer, with a wide vocabulary of movements that can include gestures from Abakuá, Congo, or Yoruba dancing; Tumba Francesa from Oriente (which is to say, Afro-Caribbean Domingan / Haitian influence); Spanish dancing; pantomimes and mini-dramas that can involve boxing, household tasks, or memories of slavery; and moves from later genres like tap or breaking (breakdance). Women also insisted on dancing columbia, traditionally the province of the male dancer. The most famous Columbiana was Matanzas’s Andrea Baró, and in the UK there is the amazing Luanda Pau daughter of Domingo Pau.

Rumba: Guaguancó

Guaguancó is a dance for couples representing sexual competition between the male and female. The male tries to “catch” his partner with a single thrust of his pelvis. This erotic movement is called the vacunao (‘vaccination’ or more specifically ‘injection’), a gesture symbolizing sexual penetration. The vacunao can also be expressed with a sudden gesture made by the hand or foot. The drummer often accents the vacunao. Holding onto the ends of her skirt while seductively moving her upper and lower body in contrary motion, the female ‘opens’ and ‘closes’ her skirt. The male attempts to distract the female with fancy steps, until he is in position to ‘inject’ her. The female reacts by quickly turning away, bringing the ends of her skirts together, or covering her groin area with her hand (botao), symbolically blocking the ‘injection’. Most of the time the male dancer does not succeed in ‘catching’ his partner.

“The dance is performed with good-natured humour” David Peñalosa


Palo, also known as Las Reglas de Congo, is a religion with various denominations which developed in Cuba among Central African slaves from the region of Congo. Palo dances involve many pelvic and torso movements. Drums and hand rattles are used in this music, which is based upon communication with ancestral spirits, the dead, as opposed to the Orishas.




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