My first time was in Havana. I’d been thinking about it all day and was excited, but nervous and unsure about how it would go.
It was a hot, sweaty affair, full of loud, throbbing rhythms and gyrating and twirling couples moving in perfect sync to the music.
I was entranced, mesmerized by the seemingly choreographed maneuvers on the dance floor, marveling that they didn’t all bump into each other. I watched with my mouth wide open, stunned at the rhythm, coordination and beauty of what I was seeing. Cubans are amazing dancers.
Other couples moved together in every available space between the tables and chairs, either unable to make it as far as the actual dance floor or perhaps too self-conscious to subject themselves to the critical eyes of the crowd surrounding it.
I nervously wiped the sweat from my brow and hoped that someone would ask me to dance despite the fact that I had only the vaguest idea of how. And yet I sighed with relief when a man came up and asked my friend to dance instead of me, happy to watch rather than going out and embarrassing myself on the dance floor.
Later in the evening there was a performance. It kept going and going, the professional dancers exhibiting an astonishing amount of energy and stamina while the coordination of their routines was perfect.
They then led us in a sort of salsa line-dance, which I tried keeping up with. It was like an aerobics class where I don’t know the routine and after colliding with the people all around me I just collapsed in laughter at my own inability. I probably should have taken this as a cue that a lesson or two would be a good idea, but I didn’t.
I’m pretty sure Cubans are born dancing. They must pop out of the womb and immediately start doing salsa steps, wiggling their little baby hips to the music that’s so ubiquitous it’s probably playing in the delivery room.
They hear salsa music just about 24/7 from the time they’re born, and I’m sure they grow up watching mom and dad and aunties and uncles dance, and they do what kids do. They copy. I saw little girls, aged about 7 or 8, who were shaking their butts and salsa-ing on the street to some music coming from a nearby restaurant. Then a younger girl of not more than five came and joined them, and even she had some moves.
Whenever there is music (which is a lot), whether in a nightclub or a restaurant or on the street or in a car or in their home, Cubans are dancing. They just can’t stay still. They’ll get up from their table and just start moving, and the women will dance with any partner that asks, old or young, handsome or ugly, big or small; all that matters is that they can dance.
Thus you can’t be in Cuba and not go out dancing. According to the men I met, you must always want to go dancing in Cuba. It’s incomprehensible that maybe you don’t.
What on earth are you even doing in Cuba if you don’t want to go salsa dancing every night?
In Santiago de Cuba I went to Casa de la Trova, alone, because it was Saturday night and in this city of a million things to do at night, I was determined to spend at least one night out.
As I walked into the space and saw it was filled with tables, several of the grey-haired tourists turned to look at me. Where was the dance floor? Where were the Cubans? It was obvious that Casa de la Trova was completely the wrong choice. But I’d paid 5 CUC to get in, so I was staying at least for a while, no matter how out of place I felt.
I found a seat at a table and started to enjoy the music. Within minutes a man asked me to dance.
He must have been hot in this tropical city, his skinny, wiry body clad in jeans and a sweater. But he smelled great, and although his chiseled face wasn’t really my type, I agreed, because this was what I’d come here for.
He took me to the balcony and we started to dance. As usual, it didn’t take him long to realize that my salsa skills are about as good as a monkey’s. He reverted to the beginning, teaching me the most basic steps.
It was nice of him to show me, but every time a man asked me to dance he ended up having to teach me and I always just found it kind of embarrassing. Couldn’t he just lead and does it really matter if I’m doing it right?
He told me that he’s a salsa instructor. This was not surprising; they’re always salsa instructors. Seriously, as a female just about every man you’ll ever meet in any kind of dance hall in Cuba will tell you he’s a salsa instructor. You do the math.
But we danced, me stiff and awkward in his arms, all my concentration on what my feet were doing. And it was okay, until he pulled me close and started grinding. Um, what? Is there grinding in salsa?
I pulled away, not feeling comfortable grinding with this man anywhere, never mind on a balcony overlooking a busy street where everyone could see us.
But he pulled me back, again and again, alternating between normal salsa steps and grinding, me drawing away every time, him pulling me back.
The song ended, and I thanked him for the dance, saying I was tired and I’d prefer to sit for a while to listen to the music. He took the hint and disappeared.
The next guy to ask me to dance was actually very sweet, and although he also tried to teach me some steps it didn’t seem like he was all that great of a dancer himself. But maybe that was just me dragging him down. And at least he didn’t try telling me he was a salsa instructor.
We sat and talked and then danced some more. He was lovely, but I somehow accidentally (I swear!) led him to believe I’m 26. Oops.
He was concerned when I said I was tired from walking around all day. According to him, I’m on vacation so I should just spend a couple of hours walking each day, then rest, so I can have energy to go out dancing in the evenings! I didn’t even try to explain my lifestyle; that this wasn’t just a ‘vacation’.
All was good until I got so tired I couldn’t even count dance steps anymore. At this point we stopped dancing, leaned against the balcony railing and he put his arm across my shoulders, pulling me close for a hug.
We talked some more, but it was all getting too affectionate. His arm was still around me, and he’d occasionally kiss my forehead, in the kind of gesture that I associate more with a guy I’ve been with for a few months rather than one I’ve known for an hour.
I decided that was enough, and it was time for me to go. He leaned in, I think for a kiss, and I turned my cheek at the last moment.
I actually liked this guy for once and could have an actual conversation with him, but he was just going too fast, and I had no intention of acquiring a boyfriend in Cuba. I made my escape, slightly worried that he would follow me.
When I ran into him the following evening, he suggested that he go with me to Baracoa the next day! I said no, politely, that I would prefer to travel alone. He wished me happy travels and that I would find a companion to spend time with. I guess he doesn’t think a woman can just be happy on her own.
Hard wooden chairs lined the walls of the dark, dingy room in Baracoa, leaving a small space for dancing couples. My friends and I found three in a row and sat, laughing as we watched the host’s antics.
I was sipping on a mojito so strong it burned my throat when a man asked me to dance. As I clutched his sweaty hand he started with the line, ‘I’ve been watching you for a while; you’re the most beautiful woman in the room!” Seriously.
He asked my name, then introduced himself as ‘The Hijacker of your Heart’. All I could do was laugh at the pure ridiculousness of it, which I guess was the intended reaction.
We danced together all night, the Hijacker always asking me before anyone else had an opportunity. I could see another man watching, waiting to jump at a chance, but he just wasn’t pushy enough. Annoyance tugged at my brain, because while I could actually dance with the Hijacker without stepping all over his toes, I like to change it up a bit. But there was no escape.
I was choked for breath, my lungs filling with the same stale air as the room got hotter and hotter and sweat dripped from my every pore. I ran away, to the freshness of outside, which at any normal time would have been unbearably humid but compared to that tiny room was a very welcome relief.
Unable to drink another terrible mojito and desperate for hydration, I went on a quest for water, finally finding the only bottles in town at a restaurant way down the road.
I returned to the club, passing out bottles to my appreciative friends. The Hijacker was thrilled to see me, having thought that I’d left for good.
We danced some more, and he kept feeding me the same old cheesy lines – ‘I’ve been watching you all night,’ and ‘You are the most beautiful woman here.’
Towards the end of the evening the Hijacker apologized for all his compliments and asked if I liked him. “How can I like you,“ I said, “when I don’t even know your real name?” He laughed and told me, and I promptly forgot it. I guess I really didn’t like him that much.
Going out dancing in Cuba is essential. It is, in fact, such a big part of the culture that if you don’t at least give it a try you’re missing out on an endless source of fascination and amusement, even if it’s only at yourself!
So if you go to Cuba, best brush off your dancing shoes and be prepared to get your boogie on! And yeah, maybe think about taking a lesson or two.
Do you like dancing? Are you any good at it or do you have two left feet like me? Will you go salsa dancing when you go to Cuba?