Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A SALSA SECRET FOR MEN

I’ll be researching my next salsa review later this week. Meanwhile I couldn’t resist posting this superb video from Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera. It was Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba who drew my attention to it, on Facebook.

 

Alexander Abreu and his band are one of the very finest Cuban bands, but another reason for posting this video is that a lot of the dancing is by MEN. And it’s a great demonstration of something they never teach male students at UK salsa classes: HOW TO MOVE THE UPPER BODY.

Watch a bunch of British men dancing salsa and you’ll mostly see them with slightly-hunched shoulders and flat chests. There’s no dynamism in the upper body.

When I say ‘flat chests’, I’m not advocating that men develop boobs. What I mean is that when dancing salsa, a man needs to expand the chest slightly up and forwards, and push the shoulder blades a little bit back. If you do that, the chest suddenly becomes positive; you look and feel confident, alert, ready for anything: to charm a woman, to handle a fight, to compete and win. (Maybe you don’t need to do any of these things, but when you dance salsa you want to look and feel as if you could!) And the upper body takes a positive part in the dance. Your style will immediately improve. Check it out with a mirror and practise!

Watch the guys in this video and you’ll see what I mean. And when I call this a secret, it’s because you won’t usually learn this in the UK. I had to visit Cuba four times before I was taught this. (And yes, thanks, you can pay me later if you insist!)

Amazingly, I have a photo of the very same domino table that appears in the video, taken in Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana in 2005 – I think some of the same players are there, only a bit younger! Here it is:

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Domino Players, Calle San Miguel, Centro Habana, 2005

Anyway, enjoy the video. And if you’ve always dreamed of visiting Cuba, go now and go with Key2Cuba, who will give you the most authentic experience. And in the meantime, you can join me on my first visit to Cuba, and come with me exploring salsa across Latin America and the Caribbean, in my book Travels on the Dance Floor. Just click on this link to get 30% off:

http://www.carltonbooks.co.uk/books/products/travels-on-the-dance-floor-one-mans-journey-to-the-heart-of-salsa-1

 

 

 

REAL CUBAN SALSA WITH KERRY RIBCHESTER

When I first went to Cuba and took private dance lessons in Havana, I thought I knew something about salsa. So I was amazed when the teacher totally disregarded what I thought I knew, and simply started showing me how to move my own body. As I wrote in Travels on the Dance Floor,

 ‘We work for two hours, and at the end of it I haven’t actually taken a dance step. Instead I’ve started to develop a new sense of my own body, a new kind of internal map…. Gradually it started to come. My centre of gravity changes. I begin to find that it’s possible to loosen up and let the different parts of the body flow, or float, to the music almost independently. I realise I’ve had a habit of holding my body tightly together, as if afraid the bits of me would somehow come apart if I didn’t keep them together in one tense mass.’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0233002987?tag=grelinpoewrit-21&camp=1406&creative=6394&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=0233002987&adid=1XFFFVTR08ZQK9V2VTFT&&ref-refURL=http%3A%2F%2Fgrevel.co.uk%2F

In the UK, salsa is too often taught as if it’s a matter of footwork and moves – arms and legs.  What I learned in Cuba is that the movement inside the body is far more important than the movement outside it. Once you’re dancing from your heart, your kidneys, your hips, the soles of your feet, and the earth, then the ‘moves’ can be added. But with just the moves, you’re not dancing Cuban salsa, your’re just prancing about.

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It’s hard to find that kind of teaching outside Cuba. One of the few who really does teach it is Kerry Ribchester, and it was great to have her back in Manchester this past week taking some workshops in all the things that go together to make a really great dance experience: body movement, attitude, really feeling and using the music, and relating in a warm and living way to your partner – the most important person in the world for the five minutes of that particular dance.

Kerry has huge experience of dance, having danced professionally in Brazil, coached Madonna and Kylie in onstage movement and – most importantly – visited Cuba to work with Cuban dancers several times a year for the past fifteen years. She has produced award-winning music videos in Cuba, and she communicates a depth of knowledge about dance I haven’t seen anywhere else, and she makes it really fun. Amanda and I never miss a chance to go to one of her workshops.

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We took her class with Solar Salsa at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton on Wednesday, and Amanda was also able to go to Kerry’s Saturday workshop at Sunshine Studios where they worked on the four ‘layers’ that make up the rich ‘cake’ of salsa: the Orisha dances of the Afro-Cuban gods; the Rumba (the competitive Afro-Cuban street dance which is all about attitude and maleness and femaleness); the Son – elegant social dance of the 1940s and 50s – and salsa itself, the spicy sauce that mixes them all.

Kerry’s workshops are highly recommended:

She also heads Key2Cuba, http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html which provides the best and most authentic Cuba trips for people who want to sample the culture and meet the people as well as enjoy the dancing. When I go to Cuba alone I usually do it independently because I’m good at handling the many hassles you always have to go through contending with that complex culture; but Amanda and I have been twice with Key2Cuba – most recently in March 2013 – and I recommend the trips strongly. No other dance tours have anything like the level of authenticity and local contact that you get with Key2Cuba.

 

Cuba is changing fast and if you’ve dreamed of going there, you should do it soon. And if you want to go with a group, Key2Cuba is the one to check out. http://www.key2cuba.com/kerry.html

VIVA ADALBERTO ÁLVAREZ: HIS SUSANNA IS ALL OF US

One of the highlights of my visit to Havana in November was going to see Adalberto Álvarez and his band live at the Casa de la Música in Galeano. Adalberto is a mainstay of Cuban dance music and one of its finest songwriters. If you’ve danced salsa at all you probably know several of his tracks even if you don’t know that they’re his.

Adalberto’s roots are in Cuban Son music – he keeps this prominent by calling his orchestra ‘Adalberto Álvarez y su Son’ – but he has merged this with Timba and what we think of as Salsa.
But he also has roots that go deeper than that. Like many Cuban musicians his spiritual source is in Santería. The night I went to hear him he started off with internationally popular dance music including his wonderful and witty song about Rueda – Para Bailar Casino – but later in the set he embarked on a long, long song in Rumba style that went through passages about all the main Santería gods and goddesses in turn – Elegguá, Yemayá, Changó, Ochún and so on with the appropriate drumming and invocations.

This is the superb thing about Cuban music, that it has all the attack and fun quality of pop and at the same time it can be deeply religious. Even American Gospel to me doesn’t quite manage to do this so completely and with such spontaneity.
But for the dancers, as so often recently, the climax of the set was – appropriately – Gazando en la Habana, where Adalberto sings about someone who has done what so many of us did – got hooked on salsa, dreamed about going to Havana, and finally got there, learned the real Cuban style and danced the night away.
What’s fascinating to me is that the song isn’t really written from a Cuban point of view. It’s written to speak for its international audience, the countless people around the world who go to Cuba to dance. The nearest parallel I can think of is the way Chuck Berry in the 1950s wrote rock’n’roll songs to speak for white teenagers. His songs broke through because he wrote about the experiences which as a black teenager he hadn’t had – driving his girlfriend in a car, for example.
Adalberto has done the same. A young Cuban can’t easily travel the world, and their experience of Havana will be a much harder and less affluent one than Susanna’s. Despite the nod to Cuban youth at the end of the song, they can’t afford to go to the Casa de la Musica every night because it costs ten dollars – more than a week’s wages. Yet I don’t think either Berry or Adalberto writes with condescension, cynicism or exploitiveness. Of course they want to appeal to an audience and they want to make their dollars. Good luck to them. But there’s also a generosity of spirit, an imagination that crosses racial and political boundaries. And Adalberto like so many Cubans is very proud that his country, whatever its problems and restrictions, leads the world in dance music and is loved by millions of people for its wonderful culture – of which he’s an important part.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the video clip above of Gozando en la Habana. Especially the little boy at the front, who even has his own microphone! And now I’ve talked about it so much, I’ll translate the words here:
Susanna is a modern girl
she might live anywhere
she could be from Paris, Rome or Milan
from New York, Switzerland or Panama.
Susanna’s dream is to be in Havana
where she always wanted to dance:
a lover of Cuban music,
now her dream has become reality.
She’s only been a short time in Havana
and already she’s dancing like the Cubans
at the Casa de la Musica in Galeano or Miramar
dancing all night, the dawn surprises her
And everyone in her neighbourhood’s looking for Susanna
because they can’t imagine that she’s partying in Havana.
They say that over there in her district they’re looking for Susanna
but Susanna, gentlemen, is partying in Havana!
The girl’s disappeared, no one knows where she is.
Look for her in Galeano, or if not, over there in Miramar,
and you’ll see…
Look how everyone enjoys themselves, dancing to Cuban music
But I assure you the one who’s enjoying herself most is Susanna,
she’s doing the whole thing in Havana.
Lots of people ask, where’s Susanna –
She always goes out at night and comes back in the morning?
Look! she goes to the school every day to learn how to dance:
And she’s always keen, Oh Susanna’s not wasting her time in Havana!
Oh my God! Look for her! (And I’m gonna look for her, with the mambo…)
How do you like Havana, Susanna? Susanna the most beautiful,
the one who dances, the one who parties!
She goes to the Macumba, she goes to the Tropicana,
and if you want to find her, look for her at the Tropical!…
I don’t know if she’s Argentine, Cuban or Venezuelan,
In every part of Cuba you’ll find a Susanna
When she arrived in Havana she hardly knew how to dance
and now she moves so that no one can equal her!
She’s really got into Cuban music.
Hey Susanna, how do you like Havana?

Salsa Travels in Paperback!

At last I’m in paperback. My book Travels on the Dance Floor has just appeared in the new format – and at half the price! – from publishers Andre Deutsch.

I’m pleased that they’ve kept the same funky, deeply colourful, slightly gritty look for the cover design (a bit pale in this jpeg – the one at right is more accurate!) – I wanted it to reflect the look of the beautiful, battered buildings of Cuba and other Latin American cities, where nothing is pristine, but the used-and-abused look only adds to the charm of the cityscape.

But they have added a corner-flash saying that Travels was listed as Authors’ Club Dolman Best Travel Book 2009 – something I’m very proud of, even though the actual prize was won by a more scholarly tome. It was a very short short list, believe me.

What has delighted me even more than the listing has been the wonderful response I’ve had from readers – and by no means only from people who dance. People still come up to me in the street, at parties, at literary events, or they email me, to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Typical comments have been ‘I tried to read slowly because I couldn’t bear it to finish.’ ‘It was written so beautifully that I could see everything in my head like a movie in full colour.’

Hector - Panama City bus artist

Am I boasting? Of course. But I’m also full of gratitude that I’ve been able to give readers so much enjoyment. A matter of sharing the delight I myself took in the adventure.

Travels sometimes gets referred to as my ‘salsa book’, but the truth is that I used dance as a way into Latin American and Caribbean culture generally: a way to get close to people, to learn from them, to explore the sides of these countries that the tourists don’t get to see.

I travelled through Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and ended up in Miami, Fla. I took lessons in the local dance styles in each country, and I explored the clubs and dance halls. I met magicians and pagan priests, policement and prostitutes, poets and musicians. I met a guy who made a living painting pictures on the sides of buses, an haute couture designer, and several lunatics. All of them were fascinating. And I met them pretty much on equal terms. I got robbed, I got arrested, I got lost, and I had the most wonderful time – better than I could ever have imagined.

Aïda: her Colombian smile brightened stressed-out Caracas!

Aïda: her Colombian smile brightened stressed-out Caracas!

I fell in love with these countries, their music, their culture and their people. And since I wrote the book with total honesty – and absolutely no regard for political correctness – I have to say that I fell in love above all with Latin American women, surely some of the most beautiful in the entire world. You will meet many of them in the book, and I hope you’ll be as enchanted by them as I was.

Whether or not you dance salsa, tango or anything else, enjoy!

Talking about Salsa

1950s cars are still common in Cuba but they're disappearing fast

1950s cars are still common in Cuba but they're disappearing fast

Salsa isn’t something you talk about, surely? it’s something you do. But tonight I’m going to break that rule, because I’m off to speak to the Marple Arts Group about what it’s like to dance salsa in Latin America.

In 2007 I travelled through seven countries (Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, the Domnican Republic and the USA – well, Miami Fla. to be precise) learning the local styles and dancing in the local clubs. And there are people out there – in Marple and many other places – who may never dance, but who want to get a little of the flavour of what it was like.

It’s made a bit easier by the fact that I can play some of the music, and show some pictures – Latin America and the Caribbean are a gift to anyone with a camera because the light’s so good and the colours so rich.

And when I wrote my book about the journey – Travels on the Dance Floor – I put a lot of care into making the words as vivid as possible. A lot of people who’ve heard me read from the book say that it creates mental pictures which are like a movie in their heads.

Sharing the colours and textures of an experience like that with others is a great delight. And maybe it’s possible to share some of the romance as well. In salsa every dance can be a little three- or four-minute love affair with your partner. It opens your heart up.

Every person you meet, in any country, is a whole new world. And when they’re the opposite sex as well, then they might as well come from another (friendly) planet. Mars, Venus, wherever. To hold that lovely alien in your arms for a few minutes and dance is an amazing experience.

Telling people about an experience like this is a privilege, and the magic communicates itself. I enjoy these talks, and the audiences seem to find them great fun and respond warmly. Maybe some of them have already been inspired to pack their bags and jet off to Cuba or Colombia: places that need tourists and truly appreciate the kind of visitor who makes an effort to get into the local culture.

So Marple here I come, just pausing to choose a good salsa track to play in the car on the way!