Dancing with Cubans

This is Part 3 in a series about the time I spent in Cuba not long ago. To see all posts in chronological order, Click Here.

There are two questions I start asking everyone I meet: “Why are the women so flamboyant in flaunting their bodies?” And, “Can the Cuban government change its spots?”

When I tell our tour guide, Liliana, about the women I saw at the Casa de Musica, she shakes her head. “Those were jinateras, girls who sell themselves to make extra money.”

“But most of the women around here dress like that. Why?”

“Ask the men,” she says, turning to a group of locals drinking coffee at the next table. They give several reasons: “the climate,” “it’s the style,” “the custom,” and “the men like it.” Laughing, one adds, “We don’t have dangerous animals in Cuba. Only women.”

cub girl phone

Girl with jury-rigged phone on street

Liliana says the two major forms of entertainment are music and sex. At most clubs they have condoms on the menu, and sex education starts early. “They use a banana,” she says.

Raul with daughter Mariela

Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, who’s widely loved, is director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education.

A willowy, freckled brunette, she campaigns for AIDS prevention and LGBT rights. She led the first parade—a conga dance through the streets of Havana—against homophobia, and was instrumental in getting a law passed that allows transgender people to legally modify their gender and receive sex change operations at no cost.

As to whether Cuba’s government is changing, I hear two narratives: “It’s changing fast,” and “It will never change.”

LarramendiIn old Havana, Julio Larramendi, a chicly dressed art photographer and gallery owner, says, “With Raul at the helm, things will be different.”

Artists like Larramendi—rather than hedge fund managers and bankers—are the privileged, the 1% in Cuba, who for years have been allowed to travel and sell their work abroad, which cushions their life at home. Larramendi says, “My parents and I were part of the revolution. We still have commitment.” He shakes his head. “Our children don’t. They want to go live in Miami or California, but I decided to stay here. The future is here.” He says Cuba today is not what it was two years ago, and “next year there will be greater changes.”

I hear the opposite on the plane we take from Havana to the Eastern city of Holguin, when I ask a 26-year-old chef, Juan, if the government is changing. He gives his head a firm shake. “Maybe when I die. My father is 56 and all my life, he’s been saying things will change, some day it will be different.”

Juan, who wears a gold earring and his hair cut and gelled to stick straight up, had to pay a fee to be admitted to culinary school, where he studied four years to get a job in a restaurant that pays him $15 a month. He would like to visit relatives in New Jersey, but to apply for a visa, he says, “You have to go to Havana two times, buying two round-trip tickets, and pay the application fee of $160, whether you get the visa or not. That adds up to a whole year’s salary.” He frowns. “Nothing’s changed.”

From Holguin, we take a chartered bus on the rough, two-lane road—the only road—that runs the length of Cuba. A billboard proclaims, “Siempre adelante”—always forward, which seems like cognitive dissonance. A horse-drawn wagon is pulling a flatbed on which a dozen working men are standing up, jammed together, and in the fields men are cutting cane with machetes. Along the sides of the road they’ve planted a living fence—a continuous row of sharp-thorned cactus—to prevent livestock from crossing.

In the countryside, the only cars we see are beat-up junkers, not the slick, refurbished gems of Havana. But the landscape is bucolic: fields of corn, hollyhocks and sunflowers, roosters crowing, cows mooing, mountains rising on one side and on the other, the sea.

When we reach Santiago de Cuba, our hotel offers dial-up Internet on an antique computer for $8 an hour, but I avert my eyes. I don’t want to go near it. Contrary to what I’d expected, being unplugged has been a relief. I hadn’t realized until I was forced to withdraw from it how much the Internet keeps the brain and nervous system on edge, alert to the dinging, ringing, and tapping in the never ending cycle of receiving and responding. Just a few days after disconnecting, I could feel my body letting down. It was a level of relaxation I hadn’t experienced since the 90’s, before email, before the 24-hour glut of information.

I’m awakened the next morning by the sound of drums. Walking out on my balcony, I see four groups of musicians gathering in the square, drumming, singing, and I feel my body entraining with the music.

Cuba musiciansAs I walk about the streets, I’m holding myself taller, aware of my hips, the length of my steps, the loosening of my shoulders and neck. And I’m actually beginning to enjoy the way women dress. It’s not subtle but vibrant and fanciful, and it’s inclusive. A man I meet at a music club says, “Our first principle is: Every woman is beautiful.”

On several nights we go to dance performances and each is radically different. The Afro-Cuban dancers are fierce and raw, acting out stories of the gods struggling with each other. But the Tumba Francesa, developed in the early 1800’s, is polite and formal. On French plantations in Cuba then, the slaves would gather at night to make music and imitate the court dances they’d seen their owners doing—minuets and quadrilles. At a club in Santiago, we watch pairs of dancers sashay out in costumes made of cheap fabric but styled like those of the slave owners, with ruffles, sashes, and petticoats. The dance looks like a mix of African, 18th century French, and American square dancing, to the beat of giant drums.

cu tumba ladiesAfter the last number, the lead male dancer reaches for my hand to lead me to the floor. I hesitate; I’ve had a bout of intense vertigo recently, and I’m nervous the dancing might bring it back. But I can’t help myself. I rise, and as the drums grow louder, the Cuban is so masterful that it’s like playing tennis with a strong player—you hit better—and with a great dancer, you can’t make a mistake.

Of the numerous men I’ve dated, there was only one who liked to dance. Most men don’t understand that they don’t have to be Fred Astaire; if they can lead and keep the beat, any woman in the room will be their partner. Knowing this, I tried to encourage my son to dance but he never quite took to it. So to be in a country where men are enthusiastic to dance with me…. well, it’s the closest I’ve come in quite a while to bliss.

TO BE CONTINUED.

 

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21 thoughts on “Dancing with Cubans

  1. Jo-Ann

    Hi Sara. Loved this story, and the women’s dresses in particular. Hope life is going great for you. You sure do get to go places I fear I will never see. Best thing is you make it possible for me to enjoy these places. Wishing you all good things,
    Jo-Ann

    Reply
  2. Jack Sherman

    Hi Sara, I love your blogs, especially your experience in Cuba. I am a 70+ year old Canadian man and my country upbringing included country dances. Everyone attended, parents took their kids, and we all learned to dance, from the conga lines to the “chicken dance”! I remember my parents bedding me down in the cloak room on top of a pile of coats and waking me for the midnight lunch. The dances were in the old rural,school houses and the orchestra was local self-taught musicians. The bass player actually made his own bass fiddle. Lots of great memories and your blog of Cuban life brought those memories back to me. Thanks for not being tempted back to the internet while there, except to post, for us fortunate enough to appreciate my your blog,
    Sincerely,
    Jack

    Reply
  3. Jill Van Dyke

    Hello Sara, I am very sensitvie to all the buzz of the internet and was about to unsubscribe to your email. i read it though and enjoyed being able to vicariously travel with you to Cuba, Thank you for that opportunity Jill

    Reply
  4. Judi Turner

    Your attitude of openness toward people is inspiring and your willingness to participate is uplifting. Now
    I want to go to Cuba.
    Judi Bachrach Turner

    Reply
    1. hank scheinberg

      Sara,
      It’s been many years since Jackie Komaroff introduced us and we hung out looking at property in Venice and Marina del Rey.I still have the copy of REAL PROPERTY you gave me with your personal inscription.What you probably did not know about me was that I had spent almost 2 years commuting between my job on Wall Street and my reserved room at the Sevilla Biltmore on the Prado in Havana. The timeframe could not have been more interesting or exciting–November 1958 until the Spring of 1960, before, during and after the Revolution.
      I have never been back, preferring to relive the adventuresome days of my youth in my mind and enjoying seeing Cuba through the eyes of a talented observer such as yourself. I have many Cuban friends who managed to get to the US in the early days after all their homes and land were confiscated. I won’t go back until they do. I truly felt the spirit of the people reading your blog. My best to you. Hank

      Reply
      1. Sara Davidson Post author

        Hank, how could I forget you? You taught me a great deal about real estate, and I remember you had a computer store when no one even knew about personal computers. I live in Colorado know, but at this moment, I’m in Venice, staying with a friend. If you’re in L.A., I wish you could come to my talk tonight. Warmest, Sara

        Reply
  5. Beverly kai

    Great Photos.

    I plan on going dancing in Waikiki.

    I’d subscribe to HECK.

    I wd prefer to WRITE for it. My memoirs pour out of my fingertips.

    You contacte me cuz I can write..

    Bev In Honolulu

    Reply
  6. Paul Kritzer

    Sara: It’s always a joy to share your postings. You’ve caught the flavor of Cuba. Thanks, again.
    Paul Kritzer, CJS 65

    Reply
  7. sherry burbach

    I enjoy traveling with you to places I will never get to see. Very interesting and down to earth.

    Reply
  8. Ed Bennett

    I’m nearing 60 and LOVE to dance! Perhaps it was my being raised in Motown. The sultry sounds of soul, blues and even rock force me to say “Eddie you’re have a bad day, but someone else is having a worse day, so be happy.”

    Reply
  9. enid murray-shirreff

    Wow, what a difference from cold, windy England, although the sun has come out at last and I hope Spring is here. I love hearing tales from the Caribbean, having lived in Jamaica for many years. We never made it to Cuba – in those days no-one did – but I have friends who have been there fairly recently and loved it. It sounds wonderfully colourful and relaxing and I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll get there one day!

    Reply
  10. Allen Bahn

    I spent 5 years in a German concentration camp.My mom was a lawyer who practiced without charge to defend people against brutality of natzi regeme.Her fee was one hug if she lost ,two hugs if she won.She won cases to free 10,000 people from concentration camps.She was killed in the court room and I was imprisoned age of 3.
    I can never erase the image of prisoners shot without trials in Cuba by Castro I like your Blogs but I can not deal with a government that has killed it,s people

    Reply
    1. Sara Davidson Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that such actions are unforgivable. My strong hope is that the country will move toward freedom and democracy.
      The miracle is the spirit of joy that the Cubans have been able to cultivate in their lives despite their harsh circumstances.

      Reply
  11. Arlene Jenkins

    I am still enjoying reading about your travel to Cuba. We do not always realize how fortunate we are to live in our great country, enen though we still have a long way to go to solve poverty and crime.I feel blessed !

    Reply
  12. diana keck

    Dear Sara … I can’t wait to hear more about your experiences in Cuba. It is SO well written, informative,
    and helpful to explore your insights at so many levels. Hope you’re doing well … Let’s connect one day
    soon. Sending you love and blessings …. Diana

    Reply
  13. Trish Oliveira

    Hola, Sara! I came across your blog and really enjoyed your writings and thoughts of Cuba. I’m a tour manager who has been traveling and working full time in Cuba since 2012. I consider Cuba my second home now and I have wonderful friends there. As a good friend (he’s a Santero) says: “Enjoy my country, but try not to understand her…” Cuba is fascinating as it is mysterious, and I love the culture and people.

    Best,

    Trish Oliveira

    Reply