It’s early December, 2016 and I’m sitting outside Restaurante 1830, a legendary Latin dance club overlooking the ocean on Havana’s Malecon. It’s been about four weeks since Trump’s election shook the international community at large and just a few weeks since Castro’s death in Cuba. The combination of these two events charged Havana with a mix of mourning (not only for Castro’s death, but for Trump’s election), high emotion and for some, heated politics among Habaneros, Americans and the international community there.
Sitting next to me at 1830 are Boston-based Latin dance company Director of MetaMovements, Anara Frank and Juan Gomez Barranco-or “Juanito el Abuelo,” as he is known in Havana. Gomez is one of the Founders of Casino–the Cuban style of Salsa invented in the 1950’s, and front man behind a core group of events that make up Havana’s iconic Latin dance scene.
Frank and Gomez are friends who have collaborated for years on various international cross- cultural dance exchanges between Cuban and American dancers and artists. Their work has engendered a solid faith in the power of dance to bring American and Cuban people together, building relations between the two countries and achieving international solidarity for Cuba in a way that, both Frank and Gomez maintain, politics and policy hasn’t been able to achieve. Their work may be particularly relevant at the present moment, given Trump’s upcoming plan to reverse the progressive work the Obama administration achieved in liberalizing travel and tourism between the two countries and helping to heal U.S.-Cuba relations.
Below Masacote Correspondent Micaela Kimball delves deeper into these issues in a translated interview from Spanish to English with Gomez and English with Frank.
Historically, the U.S. and Cuba have had rocky relations–economic embargos, ideological battles over capitalism versus communism, and, until recently, decades of isolation from one another (despite being near neighbors). How do you see dance play a role in confronting these issues, if any?
AF: Juanito thinks that through dance we have more of a chance to build meaningful and lasting relationships than through politics– where we are at a block. With dance and music, our mentality was that we could surpass that obstacle and be able to communicate and have friendships. This has been very important to both of us; it’s the biggest thing that ties us together. With the opening of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba [under Obama], there have been more ways to collaborate. Juanito wants me to experiment more with bringing dancers here for more collaboration.
MK: Anara, you have mentioned before that Cuban and American artists have faced political and legal restrictions that have created barriers for artistic collaboration and cultural exchanges to take place. What sort of collaborations have you been a part of here and in what unique ways have you seen Cuban and American artists come together despite these restrictions?
AF: There was a period of time when the legal advice available stated it was illegal to collaborate with Cubans on a work of art. (A Cuban CD, for instance, could be sold in the U.S., by a U.S. distributor, but it had to be fully produced in Cuba without an American producer or musicians involved in any way in the creation).
Now, since Obama, it’s possible for U.S. and Cuban artists to collaborate on works of art and Cubans and Americans are doing a lot of art together. Still, there are so many laws about these collaborations and what we can and cannot do. I consistently check in with a lawyer about this and Juanito does the same.
Ever since Obama’s changes happened, we’ve focused on building more opportunities for artistic connection between U.S. and Cuban dancers.We bring U.S. dancers here who perform, teach and exchange with Cuban dancers– and musicians too. Everyone learns from each other; everyone creates together. Juanito has been very supportive of this effort. We also strive to do the same in the other direction, but it is more challenging due to the immigration and visa regulations.
JB: There’s a mutual respect and interest that flows between Anara and I because we are both interested in [Casino and Salsa] history and support the exchanges that take place between Cubans and the people, dancers and artists she brings and vice versa.
I run a program called Proyecto Rueda de Casino that involves twenty-four young, professional dancers, who all have educational degrees in performing arts, who train and perform nearly nightly at 1830 as well as at other community, arts and social spaces here in Havana. In a single week we have six social dancing nights with live music and Latin d.j.’s where they perform. We have a big collective following with both foreigners and Cubans at these nights with about 1,500 people walking through door, or 2,000 at the high tour season. [Many of the dancers Anara brings perform, learn, teach and social dance at these events.]
We also have another connected program called Los Fundadores, (or The Founders), which we started in 2003, presenting the original “Rueda” with older dancers who were part of the creation of Casino and Rueda de Casino in the 1950’s and 60’s, and a few who started later, but are really dedicated to the historical preservation of the original style. They are the ones who are going to keep it alive after the first generation passes on.
Anara and I are also trying to help Casino be acknowledged by UNESCO, as part of the official “intangible cultural heritage list,” which would give it national and international recognition and protection.
MK: Juanito goes on to note that these collaborations are further important for spreading accurate knowledge about the history and origins of Casino. He notes that there is a lot of confusion about the origins of Casino online and emphasizes the importance of collaborating with Americans and internationals who can speak honestly and truthfully about Casino and salsa history not just in writing and on the web, but via word of mouth back in their home countries:
JB: “There’s a lot of confusion especially online about the true origins of Casino: where, when, how, and specific dates. So we are interested in having people like Anara work with us. We have lots of friends around the world who do this and with whom we have good relations. [I feel] Anara has occupied a space that is important for this more so than any other person in acknowledging and telling the story of the Founders [of Casino].”
MK: The arts in Cuba are considered on par with other major social goods such as, medicine, law or education, which is quite different in the U.S., where artists consistently fight for validation and social support. Is this Cuban cultural trait something you feel has influenced your work in the U.S. and in Boston? What might Americans take or learn from this value that Cuba places on its arts and culture?
AF: It’s hard to separate what I do in Boston versus in Havana, and vice versa. I have visited Cuba since I was a kid, because I have first degree relatives here. In 11tth grade I lived here, which in the long term, really sparked my interest in dance and music and my ability to see both as amazing tools for transformation (i.e. for social services, education and health intervention). Ultimately, I brought these values and visions into my work in Boston. Everything I understood about [those tools] when I started, I got from Cuba.
So I think it’s been amazing to see American after American coming to this conclusion [about the arts in Cuba]. It’s not like Americans don’t value the arts and Cubans do, but in the U.S. there is something missing. What is different is that when a kid says, for instance, that they want to be a dancer here in the States, they will be told they need a backup plan, or a way to earn money. Being a dancer isn’t necessarily considered a sensible career path, whereas in Cuba it is a very respectable career path.
It’s also very common in Havana for dance, music and performing, to be considered a useful and pertinent health and public health solution. So [in Boston, in my early days of teaching dance and gymnastics] I worked with kids with behavior issues. I was being sent a lot of kids they were calling “hyperactive” and I spent time talking to parents, and listening to their stories. They were telling me that the fact that they were participating with me, was changing their lives. They were no longer being medicated; they were sleeping at night; the intensity [of dance] was changing something for them. I was aware of this at the time, but I saw no way to demonstrate this on a national level. So to come to Cuba and have [this mentality] be common practice; to have your child struggling in school and the response is, “Have you considered music? Dance? Theatre?” It’s so interesting, when it becomes this commonly accepted thing. The mentality is, “of course you need dance and music.”It’s considered an integral part of a health and education plan that’s so important that universal access [to it] is considered an essential part of daily life, and must be made available to everyone who wants to participate. Those concepts have guided me in my life’s work.
So to come to Cuba and have [this mentality] be common practice; to have your child struggling in school and the response is, “Have you considered music? dance? theater?” It’s so interesting, when it becomes this commonly accepted thing. The mentality is, “of course you need dance and music.”
Photo Credit: Melissa Mansfield; http://follow-my-lead.com/
In her career, Anara Frank has been the Director and Founder of two performing arts organizations: Jam’nastics Inc & MetaMovements. She continues to teach, choreograph, perform and speak about the history of the dances she loves and their power to transform our lives in positive ways. Read more about her work online.
Juan Gomez Barranco (“Juanito el Abuelo”) was one of the original participants in the creation of Casino & Rueda de Casino in the late 1950’s at the Casino Deportivo de La Habana. Read more about him online..
Micaela Kimball is a Boston-based arts and culture journalist, writer and sociologist. She also works in the multicultural center at Middlesex Community College. When she’s not working or reporting, you can usually find her on a dance floor or talking about her newfound passion for Cuba. For more work, follow her blog.