‘My foot­work got slicker, my hips found at­ti­tude’

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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

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