Afro Cuban dance in Cuba

African culture is as integral to Cuba as the rhythm that seems to pulsate through every aspect of daily life on this Caribbean island. A significant proportion of the population (some estimates say over 50 percent) are thought to be descended from slaves, brought over from West and Central Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries to work the sugar cane plantations. Music and dance, a link back to the rituals of their homes, was for slaves a form of self-expression when so many other freedoms were denied. Many dances bore a strong resemblance to tribal rituals in African countries, with knowledge and traditions passed down generations – the conga being a prime example.
Even after slavery was abolished in 1886 African culture was oppressed. Percussion and ‘bodily contortions’ were illegal and dismissed as ‘cosa de negros’ or ‘something blacks do’. Over time though, and particularly following the 1959 Communist revolution, African influences were incorporated into more traditional music and dance, becoming better known and even celebrated, the famous son musicians Buena Vista Social Club being a pioneering example.
Ships traveling between destinations such as Buenos Aires, Montevideo and New York would often stop in Cuba, so Cuban dances quickly spread around the Americas, then on to Europe. Cha-cha-cha, son, mambo and of course salsa were quickly adopted and adapted to new crowds. Today practically all popular Cuban music and dance forms have recognisable African elements, which when combined with Spanish heritage gives them a very unique appeal.

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Cuba salsa dance holiday

Cuba salsa dance vacation

Learn to salsa with the pros in Santiago de Cuba, tuition, day trips and nights out

From £1750 to £1850 15 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2023: 2 Jul, 26 Nov, 18 Dec
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Types of Afro Cuban dance

Pre-revolution, the danzón was Cuba’s most popular dance. Based on much more formal dances first introduced by the Spanish, this courtly, elegant and slow dance nevertheless scandalised high society when first introduced, for how close couples became, and the ways their legs intertwined. After taking power, Fidel Castro made rumba the country’s official dance, feeling it better reflected the country’s African and working class heritage.

Many dances that originated on the plantations found favour in poor, working class neighbourhoods. Rumba, a synonym for ‘party’ was infectious and improvisational, perfectly characterised by the way musicians would turn everyday objects such as stools and barrels into percussive instruments, the rumba developed into styles such as columbia, yambú and guaguancó. These dances are characterised less by their spins and fancy formations, and more by the rolling body movements – hips for women, shoulders for men. In their purest form, they can be accompanied by nothing more than Africa-style percussion and singing, and the footwork is deceptively simple.
Mambo (meaning ‘conversation with the gods’ in the Kikongo language from Central Africa) added African rhythms to the danzón, and swept New York and Europe from the 1950s onwards, followed not long after by the cha-cha-cha.
Another hugely popular and influential dancing style was son that spread around the world through touring musicians. Most people will recognise this seductive style of music thanks to the hugely successful Buena Vista Social Club. The way that son embraced many different styles was the basis for salsa, the Cuban form of which is casino, so-named for the dancehalls where people would perform it. Then there is timba, which is a form of salsa but even more frenetic and with heavier bass, influenced by hip-hop rhythms.
A fun dance to look out for in Cuba is rueda cubana, also known as rueda de casino – which could be described as a kind of grown up hokey cokey. Couples dance in a circle with synchronised moves called out by the leader, swapping partners every few moves; there can be anything from two couples up to 20 or more. It’s a constantly evolving dance, with new moves being ‘invented’ all the time.

Afro Cuban dancing vacations

Learning to dance salsa, rumba, mambo or son in the country where they have their roots adds another dimension to your enjoyment. In Santiago de Cuba, vacations feature an hour of tuition in son each day, as this is where the dance first developed. You may also learn about Haitian elements – after the Haitian revolution at the beginning of the 1800s, many former slaves fled to Cuba, and their influence is also strongly felt in dance and music.

Instructors and dance partners are sourced from one of Santiago de Cuba’s most prestigious schools, with around three hour-long lessons every day, swapping partners each time to keep things fresh. Then, as night falls, it’s time to hit the clubs with your fellow dancers and instructor to put your lessons into practise.

Just starting out on a new hobby? It’s worth nothing here that these vacations are ideal for beginners as well as experienced dancers, with all levels catered for and professional teachers there to help you develop quickly. Dancing vacations also serve solo travelers equally as well as couples or friends, with a very sociable element.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: amaral] [Afro Cuban dance with drummers: Caledonia Worldwide] [Mambo: PeterTea] [Dance lesson: Caledonia Worldwide]