Stuck in Cienfuegos

By Sharon Green, Department of Theatre

“1, 2, 3. Pause. 5, 6, 7. Again! 1, 2, 3. 5, 6, 7.”

In one straight line, with the furniture cleared to the sides of the tiled living room and torrential rain outside, 15 colleagues and I dove into salsa lessons in our temporary home in Cienfuegos, Cuba. “Mujeres, cintura! Hombres, abrazos!” We laughed as a young couple tried to teach us the basics of this national dance and learned firsthand how deeply cultural knowledge can be embodied. No place was this more obvious than in Cuba where streets oozed with music and a direction like “mujeres, cintura,” yielded confusion and giggles from a gaggle of American academics.

Two salsa instructors demonstrates steps to a line of people behind them
Learning steps from our salsa instructors

Step forward, step back. Step side, step center. Within 30 minutes, most of us had conquered, perhaps not mastered, this basic footwork of salsa dancing. Feeling confident in our ability, we were quickly dispelled of any feelings of mastery and delusions that we might look like locals when the instructor tossed in the next element – “Mujeres! Cintura!” Our feet could certainly follow the basics, but our hips were another story. Umm, what exactly were we being asked to do with our waist? The female instructor demonstrated. Precise and easy to follow directions were provided for the footwork, but what we ought to do with our hips – a smooth swivel that was equal measures sensual and athletic – was described simply by naming the body part that ought to move. Fifty-five minutes of instruction guided our feet to the right position and rhythm, and gave us some very specific and concrete instructions to follow. We could do that. But the key to salsa dancing it seemed lay elsewhere. Steps can be taught and learned (in 55 minutes!) but the accompanying hip movement was presumed to already be known, something we would just “do.”

A rain storm – well, let’s just call it a tropical storm because it was one – kept us indoors all day. We had arrived in Cienfuegos, after a day of travel from Havana, the previous evening…just as the rain began. By morning the small area around our house was flooded, as were the roads out of town. Our original plans to depart that morning changed and we found ourselves stuck in Cienfuegos; card-playing gave way to journal writing, napping, rum drinking, and eventually a salsa dancing party. How the dance instructors and band managed to show up despite the flooding, who knows, but they did so in good spirits.

A four-year-old girl dances to a live band
Four-year-old girl showing off her dance moves

Prepped with an hour-long lesson, taught by professional salsa dancers who also happened to be new parents, we found ourselves, suddenly attending a salsa party at which we were the honored guests. We were joined by members of the family who ran the inn – several adults and one four-year-old girl – our guides, drivers, and the musicians. It was the young girl who taught us the most that evening. It took several hours, and the dedication of several members of our group, but she finally felt at ease with the mob of Americans that had descended upon her house. As the music played and the dancing became more enthusiastic, she took several of us by the hand to the dance floor to be her dance partner. With the exuberance of a child who suddenly finds themselves at the center of adults’ attention, she entered the dancing circle that had formed around her for a solo. With glee, she demo-ed her dance skills which featured expert execution of the hip swirls the American adults struggled to master; the applause she received confirmed her mastery of embodied cultural knowledge. If a four-year-old can do it, no wonder the salsa instructors felt no additional instructions were necessary; “cintura!” revealed precisely the ways in which cultural experiences and knowledge can be embedded in bodily practices that can neither be learned nor understood through non-embodied study. This is precisely why our study group’s learning can’t be reduced to narrative reports, nor to historical records. We learned with our bodies; dancing, tasting, smelling, and feeling our way through Cuba.