The GDR with Palm Trees… and Salsa Flow

Interactive artist and Portsmouth University lecturer Simone Gumtau visits Cuba and explores the relationship between dancing and politics in that culture.

‘Cuba – Breathtakingly beautiful. Raw. Emotional. Challenges the senses and intellect. Addictive, thought provoking and life changing.’ Julia Cooke

As I whiz through Havana, I observe droves of duty-bound German couples in their practical clothing. Tourist maps in hand, they earnestly scour every inch of Old Havana and Cuba in transition. My friends back in Germany eagerly share their experiences of travelling across Cuba. Most will proudly point out that they were there as Individualtouristen, rather than on a package holiday, and that they made sure to get off the beaten path and mingle with the locals.

Of course, I am one of them, albeit on a less ‘individual’ path. In an act that some tourists of the modern day would consider cultural barbarism, I’ve booked myself a package holiday to the Pearl of the Antilles. It is a tailor-made stay to experience one of the most lucrative Cuban exports: salsa dancing! As I’m writing this, I am listening to Havana d’Primera, a popular contemporary salsa band that tour the world providing Cuban flavour to the global salsa community. Their throbbing beat encapsulates everything ‘Cuban’ the rest of the world desires: the rhythm, the passion, and the joie d’vivre of its musicians and dancers.

You can lose your dancing, find yourself simultaneously switched off and present in the moment; it echoes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, where both your body and mind are challenged to the point of not coping but are able, just, to master the action. In dance, this state of flow is the point that comes (almost) naturally. For those uninitiated to learning dance, this is more than finding your left and right foot and swaying your hips. This is executing moves with muscles you didn’t know you had, at a speed where your brain always seems to be just behind your body. This flow is what seems to keep salsa dancers and tourists hooked on Havana.

Dancing plays a huge part in daily Havana life. It provides various professions; it features in religious ceremonies, and street parties. Not everyone knows how to perform every dance but there seems to be a kind of generic vocabulary that allows people to compose movement to rhythm. Sure, if you were raised in this culture and had practised since childhood you would likely be better at it, but the depth of embodied skill achieved by the wider population is, to my eyes, remarkable.

While in pedagogic theory we talk about kinaesthetic learning (learning through activity of the body) and are at great pains to reintegrate this into the curriculum. Well, Cuba embodies it. This goes far beyond the simplistic idea of ‘having rhythm’: they have a well-practiced, deep-rooted knowledge of the body’s potential, the skill to understand and explore aspects of visual and haptic display. The Afro-Cuban folk dance Rumba (not the ballroom version that is more familiar to us) is a fairly accessible form of visual-dance theatre where bodies move as signifiers for storytelling. Rueda de Casino, a synchronization of movement between dancing couples where commands by the ‘cantante’ are transposed into body movement, has people displaying an easy exuberance and joy that tends to understate the sophistication of the proprioceptive skill involved.

Cuba does seem to harbour the kind of things that have escaped the liberal-capitalist West: community, fun, an awareness of the moment. These are things that most of us, burnt out from a consumerist mindset, have to laboriously relearn, through yoga, mindfulness, or life coaching workshops. This prioritising of the collective, in a social and not just socialist way, is something I had only observed once before, in the pupils at my Secondary school who arrived after emigrating from East European countries under the Sovjet regime (such as Romania, the Czech Republic and the German Democratic Republic). For them, the concept of privacy as we know it was pretty much non-existent, or at the very least a lot less valued. A lack of living space meant young people lived with their families, and congregated on the Malécon for all activities unsuitable for family viewing. Public lavatories tend to have saloon-style doors, or even no doors at all, so ladies who are usually comforted in their own little cubicle are faced with having a stranger beside them as they go about their business. It is interesting how quickly the concept of privacy becomes unimportant.

There are other parallels with East Germany. Cuba is sometimes referred to as ‘the GDR with palm trees’, and the one place I was immediately reminded of in La Habana was Berlin. The city had a similar sense of political tension. This didn’t feel threatening, and acted more as a catalyst for debates and vibrant creative output, visible in visual arts (street art, but also publically available galleries and art shops), performance art, and of course the rhythms of rumba, son, and salsa. And, of course, on some level, both citizens of Havana and Berlin are or have been caught up in an ideological conflict fought by superpowers elsewhere, around the same tensions of communism vs capitalism.

While Havana’s cityscape does feature the characteristic postcard scenes of old derelict buildings and classic US cars, it is dominated by modern cars, especially that Soviet-era classic, the Lada. Cuba is a visual gem: not just for the picturesqueness of almost every angle, but also for the image-consumption habits of the Cubans. With access to information still highly restricted, there is a pocket of culture not yet over-saturated with advertising. Of course, there are TV channels with hyperreal MTV images; there is also a desire to emulate them – particularly the US-based hip-hop style – albeit with a Cuban twist. The modern youth are mostly interested in the heavy beats of the urban Reggaeton music, much more so than traditional salsa, and the older generation can be heard fearing that this is destroying their culture. It seems that kids will be kids.

For centuries, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of Cuba. It has, in some way, been protected from external influences of ‘progress’ through its oppression by the latest powers but the tourists, the eager salsa dancers, and the influence of other cultures are paving the way, and it is disconcerting to think who or what may follow. Perhaps we need to learn what Cuba can teach us about community, rhythm, and spirit, before it is too late.

Photography by Simone Gumtau.