Dance & Music in Santiago de Cuba

Dance & Music in Santiago de Cuba Jim Lepore, Associate Professor – Dance Program University of Washington, Seattle

Hombros, siempre hombros,repeated our instructors. They were members of Cutumba, a professional ensemble of sixty dancers and musicians based in Santiago de Cuba. And they insisted that we keep our shoulders circling as we moved through the dance phrases. This signature of the Cuban Haitian dances of Voudu – a sensuous and seemingly effortless rolling of the shoulders – would not come without exacting its toll on the uninitiated. Our screaming shoulder muscles and the pools of sweat on the floor made that perfectly clear. But these were dues willingly paid to approximate the fluid rhythms of our hosts, who remained relentless, yet good-natured, in spurring us along. We North Americans needed to “loosen up”. This lesson would prove invaluable on many fronts during our stay in Cuba.

Participants in the dance component of the Eleggua Project’s music and dance workshop included a multi-ethnic array of professional dancers, university professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and dance scholars. In organization and professionalism, the workshop classes surpassed our expectations. Because music and dance are so closely interwoven in AfroCuban culture, the morning song class served entry into the complex rhythms that would soon surround us. The dance class which followed, accompanied by as many as ten musicians, was conducted by a master teacher with six assistants. There was abundant individual attention, and a good balance of repetition and new material.

Our afternoon lectures, conducted by Cutumba’s resident Scholar, illuminated the specific AfroCuban traditions that we studied in the studio classes. This is one component of the workshop that will be expanded in future. Since most Cuban research in folkloric and popular traditions has yet to be translated for English speaking audiences, we couldn’t get enough.

Our second studio class of the day focussed on Cuban popular dance. This was designed to allow us entry into the social milieu of Santiago, which is saturated with “son”, the roots of today’s “salsa.” Material for these classes had application in any locale in which Cubans congregated socially and played music – not at all a rare occurrence. A couple of strategically placed steps, especially if the hips go in the proper direction, immediately transcends at least one barrier separating “touristas” from Cubans.

The workshop, of course had its glitches. There was no hot water in the hotel for the first several days, we had to enlist our translator to amass sufficient quantities of bottled water, and we were often subjected to the mercurial moods of our bus driver.

My strongest recollections, however, are of moments when things came together. I remember the vitality of a Cuban-Haitian “Gaga”performed by our Cutumba instructors, the history and elegance of a “Tumba Francesa” preserved in Guantanamo, the stylistic subtelties of a “son” or “changui” danced by an elderly couple. And the tour de force? Sharing ambulatory delirium of a “conga” with hundreds of Cubans through the narrow cobblestone streets of Santiago as part of the Fiesta del Fuego.

“Everyone we met was warm, friendly and open. On previous tours the pictures brought back were of buildings and things…in this case they are of people and smiles. So many highlights; the professional standard is very high, after every show our students and the Cuban students would dance together, sitting in on the rehearsals for “Dracula” and “Don Q” at the National Ballet School, the performances…but most of all the interaction with the Cuban dancers.”
Kim Breiland, Artistic Director, Stages Dance Company, Victoria, BC

Note: Republished from our archive

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