Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Salsa al Contratiempo en Santiago

Santiago de Cuba as seen from the balcony of Sandra's house. We had a similar view in a house where we were taught by one of the most wonderful dancers I've ever seen - a young Afro-Cuban called Yoannis (it IS his real name - he deserves to be famous, he is AMAZING!)

Here's a clip of Yoannis dancing his smooth, Santiago-style salsa.

We met him in the Casa de la Trova, where the world's best son cubano bands perform. This is where Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa and those Buena Vista old guys used to play. It's an old house just off Parque Cespedes, the main square in Santiago. On the second floor, with an open balcony which overlooks the nearby alleyway, wooden ceiling fans fail to cool the air. By the time theyve danced a few numbers, all non-Cubans are glistening with sweat. The Cubans, however, wear white, stay cool and glide effortlessly across the floor, dancing in their unique Santiago style. We watch, mesmerised as old couples take the floor to the music of 'Los Jubilados' (the Retirees). In the hall next door, Yulieski takes me for a spin. He dances beautifully, quite unlike the Habaneros. It's graceful, his left arm stays rigid in the ballroom hold and he guides me around the hall. Before long, I'm totally converted to the Santiago style.

We've told Yulieski that we want to learn to dance son, the old dance from which salsa takes many of its basic moves. He finds a guy he knows, a dance teacher - Yoannis - signalling to the young dancer that I'd like a dance. Yoannis looks me up and down very briefly. He stares at me archly. "Salsa or son?" "Son," I say. "The timing is different," and begins to move. "2,3,4...6,7,8. See? Not like salsa, on the 1." We begin to dance. He doesn't try anything fancy - dance teachers rarely show off with a dancer they don't know. And I asked him to I get the bored-but-dutiful act. Yulieski watches. He's from Santiago but he's never tried dancing son. "I think of it as for older people," he admits. "But it looks pretty good..."

Sandra and Odris, Yulieski's girlfriend, are there too, but only Pupa seems to be having a good time. Odris looks bored rigid. "There's a Casa de la Musica here in Santiago too," she hints. "They play reggaeton."

Reggaeton! The youngsters are all mad for it. No need for partners and no need to learn steps.

After the band finish, the DJ plays salsa and timba. People dance between the tables - the dance floor is too small. Yoannis takes a stick-thin Cuban woman by the hand as Adalberto Alvarez's homage to the orishas of the Santeria religion, "Y Que Tu Quiere Que Te Den" begins to play. They begin to dance - son mixed with salsa. It's a casual dance, improvised, but better than any performance I've seen, with the possible exception of Rafael di Busto and Janet Fuentes, the world champions of salsa. Once the chorus starts to salute the orishas - Yoannis and his partner break apart and begin to dance folkloric style - rumba and proper African dancing, laughing and joking, teasing each other. Our eyes are popping out at how amazing they are. The table next door is filled with European women. One of them leans over and tells us "He's our dance teacher. Why don't you get him to give you a private lesson?"

Later, trying to cool off on the balcony, I meet Yoannis and ask him for a private lesson. "How much do you charge?" "Have you got a thousand dollars?" he says. " much for two hours?" "Well...if you don't have a thousand dollars...then I charge ten dollars per hour per person."

We meet Yoannis the next afternoon and he walks us through the streets of Santiago, saluting pals on the way, to a house where he's borrowing the front room. There he spend an hour correcting some bad habits we've picked up in salsa, then we get down to the task in hand.

We've asked Yoannis to show us how to dance contratiempo - counter-time - the timing and movements of son, to the music of salsa. Proper Cuban salsa should mix son, mambo and rumba. But it isn't easy! He makes us find the countertime on a whole series of tracks.

Yulieski watches, and dances on his own. As we leave his eyes are gleaming. "Let's go out tonight and practice!"

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