‘My footwork got slicker, my hips found attitude’
e’s stood me up,” I thought, standing on the sidelines without my partner, eyeing the salsaing couples jealously. Memories of a school disco when nobody asked me to dance on account of my bifocals and choice of dress flooded my mind. I shuddered at the memory, then started fidgeting in my present attire: a black, puffy frock over the knees, sensible rather than suggestive for meeting a stranger in a bar abroad. As the fabric stuck in the heat, the evening was starting to feel like a fail.
Then my phone buzzed. My date for the evening – Andrés – was waiting outside.
It was an awkward, shifty greeting among the potted palms in the lobby of the Hotel Florida: “You’re a little late,” I laugh-snapped.
“I was waiting outside the whole time,” Andrés breezed. “Plus you said you’d be wearing red so I’d recognise you. You’re in black.”
“Hmmph. Well, OK.” I looked around shiftily, then unzipped my handbag. “Shall I pay you now?”
Andrés was unfazed by my awkwardness. “Yes, splendid. I hope you’re ready to dance!”
I was in Havana to learn salsa. Like many solo travellers, I was in need of a partner, and had hired a “taxi dancer” through a local dance school, Salsabor a Cuba, to teach me moves at a salsa haunt. Andrés pulled me on to the dance floor before I had time to be nervous. I tried to remember the basic moves, mouthing them to myself silently with every exaggerated step. Just when I was in danger of morphing to a mash-up of Ed Balls and one of those people who lip-read novels on the tube, Andrés jiggled my shoulders.
“You know the steps, but right now you move like a crab. Think to yourself: I am a confident Cuban muchacha. And stop trying to lead. In salsa the woman follows the man.”
So there I was, trying to melt away my rigor mortis muscles and bossy feminist instincts with each one-twothree step, while concealing my struggle with a demented grin. But then my footwork became sprier; my hips found their attitude. It was just how I’d imagined it, all furious exuberance and fireball energy.
Disclaimer: for a school disco reject, I’m seriously into dancing. I’ve been doing ballet since I can remember. There’s a rhapsodic state that I can only reach through moving to music. It’s why I’ve found solace in it through difficult times. I have an inkling it’s also why thousands of Cubans do too.
I had an hour’s lesson with Jose every afternoon at La Casa del Son salsa school over the space of four days. He was a great teacher and one move we practised over and over was Dile Que Si and Dile Que No – impressive-looking salsa steps where partners swap sides with each other while displaying elegant effortlessness. Again and again, we’d land on the same spot with such mechanical precision that I feared my heels would wear holes into the antique tiles of the classroom floor. Now armed with a solid portfolio of salsa moves, I felt ready to take on the Cuban music scene properly.
A night at the ballet at the Gran Teatro de La Habana in all its gilded splendour was inevitable. So was a trip to the trendy suburb of Vedado to listen to Cuban jazz until the early hours. One Sunday morning, I headed to the street-art-muralled Callejon de Hamel, for its weekly outdoor rumba festival, all dreadlocked hair flicking and quick-paced drums. I even witnessed a spot of reggaeton – which is fast supplanting salsa in the cool stakes among the Cuban youth – at Café Cantante. The club in the basement of the National Theatre was stuffed with twentysomethings in hipster glasses and hip-hop video attire.
Exploring the city between all my dance classes and concert hopping was thrilling. There was music everywhere, from the taxis blaring Latin pop to the locals practising the saxophone on their balconies. It seemed like on most street corners there were guitar crooners scratching at their battered strings.
I also fell in love with Havana’s architecture. If the city was a woman she’d be an ageing Hollywood starlet who spurned the knife, or a Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham, with all her baroqueness and decay. I rode in candy-coloured Chevrolets with broken doors; I walked through wide boulevards punctuated by untouched 1930s theatres, I stared up in marvel at towering neoclassical buildings corniced with Grecian faces.
My second stop was Santiago, Cuba’s most “Afro-Caribbean” outpost. Oh, the rumours: Haitian street dances, glitter-smeared Caribbean festivals and Yoruba-infused religious bembés in the homes of Orishas, all herbal healing, warrior spirits and blood sacrifice. But arriving in the middle of summer, two months before the city’s biggest carnival, at first I wondered if I’d made a big mistake. The streets were choked with dirty petrol from exhaust pipes of rusting Ladas. The sun burned ferociously all day. Frankly, I felt like an asthmatic who had just walked into a smoky bar.
I consoled myself with a conga-sonsalsa fusion lesson at the Casa del Caribe cultural institute – a head-spinning but hilarious session of hip swaying, partner dipping and stepping against the rhythm to pounding percussive tunes. It was wickedly fun.
Evenings in Santiago were exceptional. I clinked beers with the locals at the Casa de La Trova while listening to guitar-clutching poets sing about doomed love. In the bar next door, I gawped as a 70-year-old woman dragged her husband by his wrists in a circle across the floor during a mambo number – before he sprang up and started busting moves like Bojangles.
Peering through an open window on Pío Rosado street, I spied a group practising tumba francesa, a genteel dance that dates back to the 1790s. A man and a boy slammed on drums with thundering abandon. But the dance was all gentle bows and handsome strides with marionettestraight posture, the women coyly sashaying in ruffled frocks.
My final stop was Baracoa on the eastern tip of Cuba. It was like walking into a Gabriel García Márquez novel: a town square painted in psychedelic colours, horses and carts slipping down mud-slicked roads, and locals having fist-shaking arguments across shocking pink art deco porches.
The main attraction for dance seekers is the weekly party in the nearby village of Guirito – where, among the corrugated houses and cacao trees and over a feast of boiled pork in banana leaves, the indigenous Taino practice 200-year-old dances that have been almost lost: namely loose and quick kiribá, a precursor to salsa, and dragging, foot-stomping nengón, which mimics the traditional way to grind coffee beans.
But I’d also come to Baracoa because I’d heard it had one of the most welcoming small-town dance halls in Cuba. As an enthusiastic foreigner, I was in demand on the dance floor. With the help of everyone from the Converse-wearing cool kids to old señor mayors with dog-tooth waistcoats and a spring in their step, I worked on my rock steps, shoulder struts, and pelvic sass. Far from limiting myself to salsa, I dabbled in rumba, mambo, and even cha-cha. Bouncing from a mojito-fuelled sugar high. I left in the early hours.
Journey Latin America (020 8622 1881; journeylatinamerica. co.uk) offers a 15-day holiday to Cuba from £2,699 per person B&B, including domestic flights, transfers and excursions. Air France (020 7660 0337; airfrance.co.uk) has flights from London to Havana, via Paris, from £398 return. A three-night Vienna Ball Season Package costs from £1,095 per person, including flights, accommodation, private waltz lesson and ticket to the Johann Strauss Ball (01242 386465; abercrombiekent. co.uk). Historians are flummoxed about whether flamenco has Ancient Indian, Dorian, Moorish, or Jewish roots, but Andalucia – with its heaving tablaos and gipsy haunts – is its
Havana, above; Sherelle Jacobs with dancer Jose, below