Salsa with a smile in Cuba
“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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.