A Jewel in the Dark
Excellent dance documentaries are few and far between. Not only it is difficult to raise the funds and find the time to make a film, but also audiences for dance are small and access to dance documentaries depends on if and when they are shown at festivals and smaller cinemas. So even though La Salsa Cubana is the best documentary I’ve seen recently, one of the very few to capture dance in Cuba, and the first to capture the history and evolution of a style called casino, it is unavailable to audiences in this area. For now.
It will be shown this week, on Saturday, in San Diego, California at Eveoke Dance Theatre, and its creators -- Eric Joseph Johnson (USA), Sarita Streng (USA), and Alvaro Rangel (Venezuela) -- are exploring the best way to expand access to the movie. It’s a gem of a film for anyone interested in dance, in cultural practices, in music, in televised competitions, and in the history of Cuba. Shot with exquisite delicacy and grace, the film offers glimpses in the dancers’ homes and lives, both on and off of the dance floor. One dancer sells meat to make money, another is a longshoreman. The views of Cuban beaches, architecture, and streets – full of buses, pedi-cabs, and pink cars – offer a rare picture of a place that is still difficult for most Americans to visit.
What is casino? It’s a partner dance that may look like salsa to American eyes, but as a Cuban woman says in the film “what we dance here is casino.” It has a basic 1-2-3 foot-pattern and in a group form -- called rueda de casino – multiple couples swirl, braid, and weave through one another. Rueda means wheel and the shapes and patterns created by the couples challenge any film by Busby Berkeley. Arms and hands become ropes and links that join and guide partners. Kaleidoscopic patterns are created, and captured beautifully from above in this film, as groups come together to practice in Havana.
La Salsa Cubana opens with the transformative possibilities of casino as dancers talk about how they feel like they are floating: “Dancing casino is like being in the clouds.” Another dancer says, “I truly feel Cuban because I’m a salsero.” And a third adds, “My religion is the dance.”
Then the film moves into the history and evolution of casino, from the 1950s to its current -- and distinct -- versions in different municipalities of Havana. As Johnson says, the film captures what made this style of dance magnetic, and what propelled rueda de casino from a small social club in the Playa district of Havana in the 1950s to the global phenomenon that it is today. Focusing specifically on a municipality called Guanabacoa, La Salsa Cubana shows how dancers from this neighborhood prepare for a competition on television. The film embraces more than a story about dance and Cuban history as it reveals the personal struggles and perseverance of these artists.
But this is not a fluffy documentary. The directors consider the economic and racial stratification in centers like the Sporting Casino in Havana where casino was danced, as well as the influences of African traditions on casino. One dancer speaks about the importance of the Yoruba religion in Guanabacoa, and this is a telling moment: the dancers’ dedication parallels a spiritual practice with relationships formed – and shattered – by their investment in improving their dancing. Scenes where the trophies, won by the dancers on television shows and at international festivals, are proudly displayed in their homes divulge the importance of casino in their lives.
Asked what inspired him to undertake this massive project involving more than 4,000 hours in production and editing, including seven production trips to Cuba between 2004 and 2011, Johnson replies “For me personally, when I first started learning about rueda, I noticed how little was written about its history, both in Cuba and outside. What little was written outside of Cuba was mostly incorrect. While studying dance at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 2003 and 2004, I considered writing a thesis or scholarly work about the history of casino. But I found out that somebody else had written a thesis there in 1993. A book followed in 2003 by the professor who supervised the thesis. But the book was rare, in Spanish, and impossible to find outside of Havana. Long story short, some part of the history still needed to be told outside of Cuba, and the film seemed like a good way to do it.”
As difficult as it is to see this film in America, audiences here may have a better chance of seeing La Salsa Cubana than people in Cuba where the government pulled it from the leading film festival. Johnson guesses this may be because it gives a realistic glimpse into Cuban struggles and dreams, and these may not coincide with the propaganda the government produces.
Personally, my favorite parts of the film are footage from Cuba in the 1960s and scenes where couples from this era come together – 50 years later – to continue dancing. Rueda de casino involves complex formations as couples split apart, form inner and outer circles, then rotate back to their partners. A caller announces the steps for the dancers – “figure eight,” “thread the needle” -- and a scene in the documentary where men and women in their 50s and 60s execute these patterns is gorgeous: the complexity of the designs in space is matched by the consistency of their feet stepping in rhythm.
One of the last scenes of the film shows younger generations of Cuban children learning and rehearsing rueda de casino. In spite of the difficulties in gaining access to La Salsa Cubana, this scene gives some hope to the possibility that the casino continues – and always will.
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