Salsa with a smile in Cuba

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ALI­SON MOSS

“Let the man lead, wait for the man,” Paulo says, in an ex­as­per­ated tone.

The hour’s pri­vate salsa tu­ition in Ha­vana is al­most over and I am still grap­pling with this ba­sic prin­ci­ple. I stop for a mo­ment to see how my hus­band is far­ing. His dance part­ner, Benita, is a pe­tite, ath­letic, young woman and she is equally frus­trated with his ef­forts. “Show us again how it is done,’’ I sug­gest. With­out fur­ther prompt­ing, our teach­ers treat us to a mes­meris­ing dis­play. They step and turn to the eight-beat rhythm, gy­rat­ing their hips while mov­ing their arms and shoul­ders with a slight shimmy. All the while, they main­tain eye con­tact as Paulo com­mu­ni­cates the next move with gen­tle hand pres­sure on Benita’s back.

Like most Cubans, Paulo be­gan danc­ing salsa when he was a young child. Thanks to free ed­u­ca­tion, he is trained as a chem­i­cal engi­neer, but there is no work in his cho­sen field. In­stead, he has taught salsa for the past eight years.

The les­son is held on the out­side ter­race of a top-floor apart­ment oc­cu­pied by an old lady. She greets us and ush­ers us to the makeshift dance floor. There is a small com­mo­tion when she re­alises her wash­ing is still strewn around. Paulo gath­ers it up and then pro­duces a lap­top and speak­ers from his back­pack for the mu­sic.

Af­ter many false starts and stum­bles, we be­gin to string to­gether steps and turns with­out stop­ping. Salsa mu­sic has a lay­ered rhythm and the chal­lenge is to re­spond to the rhythm, not the melody. Through­out the ex­pe­ri­ence, it is im­pos­si­ble not to smile; danc­ing the salsa is so much fun. On our last rou­tine, Paulo flings me back­wards in a dra­matic fi­nale. Like all good teach­ers, he makes me feel I have the mak­ings of suc­cess.

While we are wait­ing for Paulo to push the fur­ni­ture back into place, we stand at the edge of the ter­race and watch peo­ple in the apart­ments op­po­site. In one, a man is shav­ing; in another, a woman is hav­ing her eye­brows shaped. Wit­ness­ing do­mes­tic­ity gen­er­ates in­stant hu­man con­nec­tion — and so does danc­ing. For a few mo­ments, this part of Ha­vana feels like our neigh­bour­hood. Min­utes ear­lier, the peo­ple in the apart­ments may have been hang­ing out of their win­dows to watch two mid­dleaged for­eign­ers try­ing to master the Cuban salsa. I hope they were smil­ing too. Send your 400-word con­tri­bu­tion to Fol­low the Reader: travel@theaus­tralian.com.au. Colum­nists re­ceive a Cather­ine Manuell lap­top com­pen­dium suit­able to hold a por­ta­ble com­puter or tablet plus mo­bile phone, A4 pa­per­work and ac­ces­sories. Avail­able in a range of prints. $89.95. More: cather­ine­manuellde­sign.com.

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