I am writing from Guantanamo, Cuba. I have been surprised and delighted to learn that Guantanamo is actually a really beautiful city and not just the home of the U.S. naval base. I spent a week in Havana taking daily dance classes and touring around different areas of the city, but I am so excited to be in Guantanamo. From what I understand so far, the culture here is different than in other regions of Cuba because of the proximity to Haiti and the immigration of former slaves who came to this eastern region of Cuba during the Haitian Revolution as well as the influence of the Spanish colonialists. Therefore, Cuba is exemplary of the adaptation of the diaspora – different cultures blending together to form new traditions.
The daily classes I am taking have focused on two different forms of dance: folkloric, Oricha traditions and salsa. The folkloric, spiritual Oricha dances focus on fundamental techniques of torso articulations and polyrhythmic division, meaning that the movement of the feet and arms are keeping two different rhythms. The major lesson I am learning about folkloric dance is the history of the Orichas and the prevalence of the traditions in modern society. Orichas have remained an integral part of the Cuban culture at large – most people know the intricate and varied histories of each deity or saint even if they do not ascribe to a religious connection to them. Salsa is similarly widely present in the day to day society; on any given night thus far, we have gone to clubs in Havana and now in Guantanamo that are packed with people dancing salsa and rumba. The intricate partner work seems to be second nature and flawless as couples whirl around the room. Similar to the longevity of the Oricha traditions, salsa is a centuries old form that has developed out of other rhythms and dances.
Yesterday, we went to La Casa de Changui: I had never heard of Changui, which is a rhythm and dance style that was born in the mountains of Guantanamo centuries ago. The dance steps look similar to salsa but with a distinct shuffling of the feet and a smoother, less articulated motion of the hips and torso. It was amazing to be able to go to La Casa de Changui and learn this from the people who are still carrying on the tradition. We were given a private concert by the house band and learned some of the rhythms and dance steps. It was so interesting to see the origin of a dance form that is widely popular even in Bloomington, IN. I know that there is a club in town that has salsa nights every weekend – now knowing the origin and having been to the region that birthed the rhythm gives me a new respect and appreciation for the lineage and staying power of dance. This form has transcended many different cultures across the globe – various styles of salsa have developed in other countries outside of Cuba and coming to Guantanamo and learning about Changui is an important step in understanding and mapping that lineage of rhythm and movement across the world.
Amelia Smith is a Master’s student in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at IU.