Dancing, like sport and music, is a fabulous tool to connect with people across cultures. Just ask Mike and Simona, directors of the Cuban dance group that I’ve been apart of in Corvallis, Oregon, Rumbanana. Through rueda de casino, they have made friends throughout the world, and as an ambassador for the company, one of my missions in my travels is to seek out other rueda groups and extend the Rumbanana family.
Casino, salsa Cuban style, danced to Cuban timba music or son, is simply the best form of dance in the world. And the best part, is that it can be danced in a wheel (rueda de casino), with a caller and partner exchanges, so you get the chance to dance with every girl in the club. It’s as fun (and as hard) as it looks; fortunately I got to learn in Corvallis, the rueda capital of the world outside of Cuba.
The only sad part of casino, is that because Cuba has so successfully isolated itself, the dance is actually quite rare in most of Latin America, where Puerto Rican and Colombian styles dominate. Thus when another Spanish student told me that there was a rueda instructor in Xela, I ran over to the local studio to sign up for a class with my fellow casinero. Gladys was super friendly and in Xela style, she took me in for a class right away. We danced as a pair, laughed at our differences in style, and after realizing that I had some experience in casino, she asked me to join her performance group, La Guarija. Sweet, I had made my first casino connection.
For the next six weeks, I spent almost every evening with the Guajiros, dancing, rehearsing, laughing, and sharing and creating new rueda moves. Dancing in the studio for me was a much more enjoyable experience than going out to the club, and cheaper too.
My first weekend, we together did a road trip to Guatemala City to see an international salsa competition at the national theatre. It was more glitter and Latin flare than I had hoped for, but a funny time nonetheless, and seeing the local kids compete was priceless. After the competition, we went to McDonald’s (a special treat in Guatemala) with all the performers to fuel up for the formal after-party. And then things got confusing. It turned out that the club that was scheduled to host the party decided that they didn’t want to play salsa music that night, and our 12-dollar ticket, which included cocktails, instead gained us access to a makeshift dance party in someone’s garage in the barrio. Several hours of confusion, a punctured tire, and some fatigued Guajiros later, we stumbled into the house of my friend’s grandmother, and I didn’t seem to mind sleeping on tile that night. On our way home on Sunday, we stopped in Antigua, Guatemala’s picturesque colonial city, to dance to the tunes of a local Cuban band.
Keep in mind that I was just one week into Spanish school, and there was not a word of English spoken the entire time. The most memorable part of the trip for me was the confusion, and not knowing what was coming next. Although sometimes frustrating, I knew that this was the way to learn a language, experience a culture, and connect with the people. The Guajiros soon became my best friends in Xela.
At the studio three weeks later, Gladys asked me something which I couldn’t quite understand. I gave my usual confused response, an affirmative nod of the head with a smile. I soon learned that I was committing myself to a rueda performance just five days later at a convention center, and a choreography which we hadn’t even started. This meant committing ourselves to practicing the choreography for several hours each day. Just 48 hours before the event, I was told that I would be performing a cha-cha-cha with Gladys. Great, I didn’t even know the basic steps of cha cha cha. Fortunately, Gladys was a stronger lead than I, and I faked my way through the choreography, ala Apolo Ohno in Dancing with the Stars. Again ignorant of what we were getting into, we arrived at Xela Gardens in our all-white formal attire, soon to find out that we were the entertainment for a Kimberly Clark company meeting.
We continued to dance rueda performances in Xela both in clubs and festivals. Our routines became pretty popular because they differed so much from the more traditional Central American salsa. As a result, just three days before my scheduled departure, we were asked to dance for the local television program Buscando las Estrellas, but at that point I was committed to the Caribbean, and was ready to move on from Xela.
On my last night in Xela, the Guajiros threw a surprise going-away party for me at the studio and they surrounded me with hugs, cards, gifts, cake, and a celebratory bottle of Havana Club rum. We continued the party at the local club, and said our last farewells as they bid me luck dancing in the Caribbean. After just 6 weeks with the group, the Guajiros felt like family. I now had a home away from home in Central America, and a good reason to return to Xela, Guatemala.