cuban dance

The Best Guide to The Different Cuban Dance Styles

1. Afro-Cuban dance styles

What first attracted me to study Cuban dances extensively, was the country’s strong root with its African heritage. Indeed, as someone passionate about body movements, I absolutely love the way Cuban uses African dances as a way to speak and pay tribute to their gods. Dances such as chango are not just body rhythm, they represent incantation to African gods of romance, war, seduction etc… 

1.1. Chango:

In the Yoruba religion, Chango is a god depicted as a strong and powerful ruler, and characterised by his powerful axe. That’s why those in Cuba who dance on chango music carry an axe. His key elements are thunder and lighting which sometimes are featured in the songs. Furthermore, the instrument that characterises him is the bata drum. In Cuba, chango is worshiped in the santeria religion. 

o   How is it danced 

Wearing red clothes, with a crown, an axe and no shoes, the chango dancer moves with confidence and authority. As the drum plays, he displays his skills barefoot showing strong signs of his presence. The rhythm of the chango song typically starts slow, but gradually increases. As such, the dancer must match the song’s pace with his dancing ability. The more the song progresses the more the he enters a sort trance and display speed, body contortions and muscular strength. He is also a god of seduction, so ladies watch out.

o   Illustration:

Other types of Cuban dance styles associated with chango are Ochun, Obatala, Yemaya.

1.2. Abakua

This dance is one of the other prevalent afro Cuban dances. It is as popular as it is shredded in mystery. Do not confuse Abakua; which is a men’s initiatory secret society with a developed dance form; with the Abakua dance company which does not have anything to do with Abakua. The songs are performed in their secret language, and dancers typically wear a tight outfit that covers their whole body with a hood on their heads. 
They also wear cow bells around their waist and use their hips to make the bells ring.

o   How is it danced 

As the singer lead the dancer into the “arena”, the later enters a kind of trance on the rhythm of the drums. The dancers do not typically reveal their faces and utilise a lot of improvisation. It’s typical for them to make a quick switches from one side to the other and use their waist to assert their physical presence. Note there that the dancers are barefoot.

o   Illustration: PUT YOUR DANCE VIDEO

1.3. Rumba

The dance/music has evolved to become one of the flagship of Cuban culture. Rumba is said to have been influenced by Abakua. It was primarily danced by dark skins Cuban, free slaves and poor light skinned Cubans and although it received strong support by the government since the 1950’s, it’s still primarily danced by black people. 
Note than Cuban Rumba and ballroom rumba are completely different. There are 3 types of Cuban rumba: yambu (characterised by the sound of a squared drum), guaguanco (which is a fast pace rumba) and columbia (there, solo male dancers display their talents in succession).

o   How is it danced 

It typically starts as a “duel of seduction” between a man and a woman, with the man using his dancing skills take the lady astray. She, on the other hand, does everything to avoid the lure and uses her own dance skill to evade the intruder. She will often place her hands in front of her genitals to avoid the constant attacks by her male partner. Rumba is therefore a tangle between two individuals of opposite sex. Dancers tend to borrow moves from other afro-Cuban dance styles such as chango or Abakua.
Additionally, there is a strong element of physicality in Rumba. Indeed. because of the rhythm and speed of the songs and the works on the leg muscles and torso, this dance can be very demanding physically. Put another way, if you are not in good conditions, you are likely to feel the pain.

– With partners or alone:

Both man and woman move in coordination, by either facing each other or starting at the opposite ends of an “imaginary” line. As the man does the first moves, they approach each other, the lady using all her senses to fend off the numerous attacks that besiege her.
Unlike Yambu and Guaguanco, which uses a female partner, only men dance Columbia. This style is the fastest of the 3 and demands a quick wited mind and the ability to create moves on the spot and with speed. 

o   Illustration: PUT YOUR DANCE VIDEO

– Guaguanco:

– Columbia:

– Yambu:

2. The ballroom Cuban dance styles

2.1. Danzon – the National dance of cuba

Danzon is another one of the prized Cuban dance styles. It originated from the 19th century. A couple’s dance, it has a big significance for the general Cuban public. Unlike Rumba, Danzon is more a social couple dance akin to ballroom dances and was strongly connected to the elite of Cuban society. It draws its origins from the European who migrated to Latin America during the slavery times; and had African elements incorporated into it by the creoles. 

o   How is it danced 

o   Example of Danzon music

2.2. Son – Elegance amongst Cuban dance styles

The musical genre dates back to the 19th century. It mixes Spanish and African elements. It also has a ballroom element integrated into it, as couples stacked together dance at a relatively mild pace. One of the key instruments in son is the clave which has its own patterns and differ from rumba clave. 

El manisero” written in 1928 is one of the most famous Son. 

o   How is it danced 

As two partners hold each other close, they move in various elegant postures. These can take the shape of circular motions, moves forward and backward; as well as sideways. Sometimes a break can occur where the dancers stop, and just use their bodies (and not the feet).

o   Illustration:

3. When Afro-Cuban and ballroom meet

3.1. Casino / Cuban Salsa

In Cuba, a popular form of dance dating back to the mid 20th century comprises of a group of people dancing together in a circle (casino de Rueda). The casino dance style has evolved to include single couples. That’s the form (Casino) that is marketed as Cuban salsa abroad. Many ardently dispute that casino is the same as salsa. In fact, the later itself, originated from the US in the mid 60’s. There are two main types of salsa in there (New York and Los Angeles styles; where the main difference lies in the beats on which the steps are danced). Both Casino and Salsa find their strong roots in Cuban Son. 

o   How is it danced 

Cuban salsa (casino), is one of the most famous of Cuban dances. Ironically, it’s probably the only one that does not exist in Cuba. Indeed; salsa is really a misnomer in that the dance (casino) was given the name salsa to fit into a category, and to appeal to an international audience. The dance traces its origins to the beginning of the 20th century, predating the “real salsa” of New York in the mid-60’s. There are many differences in what people generally call Cuban salsa (casino) and the other types of salsa like New York and Los Angeles. For one it is danced more in a circular motion than in line. Secondly, it draws from a very wide range of dances that include the ballroom types such as son, Danzon, chachacha and the afro-Cuban styles such as rumba, chango or Abakua. It also has a strong element of physicality and “street inspiration” that the other types of salsa do not display because they are more “studio” based. Check this song and see if you can see if you identify the changes of rhythm and musical styles. 

o   Illustration: PUT VIDEO You and Yulia

3.2. Casino de Rueda

As I mentioned above casino de Rueda is a social type of Cuban dance, that involves more than one couple. The size of the group can go as wide as the imagination allows it to grow. Ladies and men enter a playful and rotating circle where partner changes are frequent. The wheel can go in both direction depending on what the “caller” asks for. A bit like a game of musical chairs, where you need to execute some movements before going to your designated position. When executed properly, it gives a great show of what good team work looks like. I argue in THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO RUEDA DANCE, that it should be used by businesses who are constantly looking for team building activities. It’s more effective than many of the events companies pay a lot of money to organise, because it has one big advantage over these other activities. It breaks physical barriers and allow subconscious fun, thus inducing acceptability for whatever messages the businesses might have.

Casino de rueda - a social cuban dance
Casino de rueda – a social cuban dance

3.4. Reggeaton

This is the kind of storm you never want when it’s on its way, but that you gladly accept once it hits you. From humble start, the genre has increased in popularity to become mainstream. It posed challenges to the authorities in that it advocated consumerism and a certain degree of capitalism. 
Reggaeton is at stark contrast with the more traditional types of Cuban dances that focus on certain mannerism, courtship etc. It has more a more sensual, even sexual, tone into it, even if messages are often passed down through the lyrics.

o   How is it danced 

4. The gods of dance – Contemporary dance in Cuba

When I decided to study Cuban salsa I had no idea I would be drawn to such an extent into the world of contemporary dance. I did not even know its existence up until the time I bumped into it. As someone who always judge the how dancing activity by the way people use their hips and core; I should have known I would invariably end-up obsessed with this one. For sure one could expect a salsa dancer to try and meddle with Cuban rumba, son, and the other popular dance forms; but contemporary? 

4.1. Danza Contemporanea de Cuba

When I first watched them train, I was immediately seduced and decided to revisit my whole training to incorporate Cuban contemporary in my program. Today the dance accounts for 30 to 40% of my regular regiment. I would not disparage the other form of contemporary in the world, though I am not that attracted to them, but Cuban contemporary is something of a magical concoction. Indeed, it draws on all kinds of inspiration and their training rivals any professional sports. Under the guidance of masters such as Luis Roblejo, they make sure no students slack off or is behind in their technical precision. My dream is to learn directly from the masters. 

o   Illustration

5. Cuban ballet or the pride of Cuba

Although I do not explore ballet in my dance diet, writing about Cuban dance styles would not be complete if it did not include ballet. Ballet in Cuba has undergone a transformation since the 1960’s with a close association between education, labour and artists. Not only have the ballet dancers worked tirelessly their craft, but they also brought ballet to Cubans of all races and social classes.

o   Illustration

6. Cha-cha-cha

This Cuban dance style originated in the mid of the 20th century and is practiced on the music type of the same name. It’s one of the musical genres that found great success in the United states along with Mambo and Son. The tempo is generally slower than other types of music; but a number of syncopated steps are added to match with the song style and rhythm. 

o   Illustration

7. Bolero

A relatively old dance form of Cuba it came to prominence at the end of the 19th century. The dance is slow in nature and reminds me of the afternoon Sundays of my childhood in the Caribbean. In fact a time, where people, after having had their lengthy lunch, rested on their rocking chairs and listened to endless loops of bolero.
Definitely a travel in time, this dance is.

o   Illustration

8. I have more to offer

Don’t forget to check-out all the info I put out on salsa and other afro-Cuban dances. I have many programs that will make your gym seems useless. From dancing with salsa, Zumba, bachata to strength and conditioning and flexibility; my programs cover all areas. They have been created with dance as their core and I added programs that fit the purpose of becoming a strong and flexible dancer. Some of these programs will definitely introduce you to new muscles in your body.

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