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Salsa: You’re doing it wrong!

29 Apr

“If you don’t have African or at least Latino roots you will NEVER dance Salsa well”.
Did you know that?

Or did you know that “Studio Salsa (whatever that is) is watered-down Salsa that has lost its sabor”?

Or that “Puerto Rican street Salsa is the only real Salsa there is”?

Were you aware that “for Salsa to be good it has to have a multitude of turn patterns, acrobatics and footwork”?

No? Well, neither did I… but according to some of the angry comments that I received on last weeks hugely popular article, this is what some “Salseros” actually think (and very adamantly at that). All those ridiculous statements you’ve just read above were the opinions of people who wrote some rather unpleasant comments on my blog or Facebook page last week.

They were either deleted or never allowed past moderation (my house, my rules 😛 ).

Controversy
Last week’s article did exactly what I had hoped, just on a MUCH larger scale. It went viral and created one of the biggest international dialogues in Salsa that I’ve ever seen (although, in fairness, my Salsa history is pretty short).

People from the entire Salsa sphere gave their two cents; social dancers (like myself), performers, instructors, promoters, club owners… the whole shebang! It was like an international Salsa focus group 😀 . A massive array of opinions and ideas were shared and I couldn’t care less if people agreed with the article’s content or not. The simple fact was: It got people talking and that kind of dialogue is great for the salsa community and I really am proud that this blog was part of it.

The Killers Within
Unfortunately, there were some particularly vocal individuals (and I call them individuals because I’m certain they don’t represent the views of the groups they claim to speak for) who made me aware of the unfortunate way some people think of Salsa. The people who seem to be fighting to keep Salsa segregated.

Salsa-Factionists
Some people got REALLY upset at the article. After reading their comments I realized that the vast majority of them completely misunderstood what I was getting at. The title was intentionally misleading, most people got that, but some people decided to carry their anger from reading the title with them through the rest of the article (assuming they actually read it :/  ) and then took the wrong meaning from virtually everything I said. Also a lot of people completely misunderstood what I meant by a Bah! dancer (someone who, after years, doesn’t even manage the basics well but has no desire to even get their rhythm in order… it’s all about a Bah! attitude i.e. they don’t care about salsa!). People seemed to think I was demanding everyone train to be a performance level, fancy footworked, acrobatic Salsa wonderkid! Nothing could be further from the truth.Some people made some seriously inaccurate ASSUMPTIONS and that unfortunately led to the misunderstanding.

How I felt reading some of the comments! (that guy's almost as white as me!)

How I felt reading some of the comments! (that guy’s almost as white as me!)



Anyway, anger at the article turned into anger at me and that’s when I realized how segregated our Salsa community is. Some nasty comments directed at me opened my eyes wide open. There were even some people who were supporting my views but who had some completely ridiculous (elitist) ideas too which I would never be in favor of.

Our salsa is best
Basically, the gist of everyone’s blame throwing was this: Everyone considered their particular faction to be the best!

I had people telling me that the only way to dance Salsa is studio style (?) with as many crazy combos as possible. Nope, can’t agree with that!

Some said too many Latinos in clubs were the cause of Salsa’s decline. Really? The people who brought us Salsa? I didn’t know where to begin with that one!

Others said that people who “learned” Salsa in a classes couldn’t hold a candle to those on the street. A universal untruth in my experience.

Some told me that Cuban Salsa was the only authentic way to dance with sabor. Funny that I’ve seen people dancing every other style of Salsa with sabor too.

Some people told me that white people like me (I really am as white as you can get :/ ) would never be able to dance well. I know a lot of dancing albinos like myself who’d take offense to that lie.

Some commentors even suggested I should start refusing people dances based on their style or level. Can you believe that? I, for better or worse, just don’t say “No” to a dance. It’s one of my most important rules of Salsa etiquette.

Some people misinterpreted my comment about Cali (which I’ll gladly admit wasn’t worded well enough). Just to be clear, Salsa in cali is “Rica” but if you don’t know what that means look it up because, according to one angry commentor, if you don’t speak Spanish and understand Latin culture you will never dance with real sabor (I know, seriously, so many salseros are doomed).

Apparently we've all been completely mistaken about Salsa!

Apparently we’ve all been completely mistaken about Salsa!

 

***You know what, don’t even worry about what I said last week, these might be the attitudes that are actually damaging Salsa!***

And there I was worried about peoples skill level when there’s a whole heap of people spreading hate like that in the community!

I’ll stick with what works
After all those wonderfully “inclusive” suggestions I received I think I’m just gonna ignore them completely and keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing up until now:

  • I’ll continue dancing with everyone regardless of style or level (good thing I never suggested such an extremist approach in my article. I guess I’m a monster for wanting to encourage beginners 😛 )
  • I’ll continue dancing as many styles of Salsa as I can (there’s a reason I’ve traveled around the world dancing as much as I have {LA, Colombian, Cuban, NY} it allows me to dance with almost anyone I meet on the dance floor. Puerto Rico is on my list too, I’ll get there eventually 😀 )
  • I’ll continue trying to learn and improve whenever I can because I’m still convinced I’ll be able to shake this bright white booty with as much sabor as anyone with adequate melanin levels).
  • And you know what? I think I’ll continue encouraging people to do the same.

I‘m sorry for having such monstrous views. Clearly I’m an awful person

Be different
You know, people will always prefer and dance different styles of Salsa and that’s beautiful. It means we’ll always have the beauty of variety in the Salsa community.

It’s just not cool when people start promoting the idea that one style is better than the others and then ridiculing those who dance those different styles. That is most definitely NOT what I wrote about in my last article.

Thanks for everyone’s opinion
To those of you who wrote ridiculously angry comments to make your point, I’m sorry you’re so angry, the internet seems to bring that out in people. At least you provided the inspiration for everything I’ve written here. And to those of you who gave well rounded, mature comments with genuinely insightful suggestions I want to say thank you for contributing to our Salsa community… And it most certainly is “our” community (see my article on why), no matter what the angry comments say, no matter if your style is Cuban or Puerto Rican, NY, LA or Colombian… no matter if you’re African, Latino, European or Asian… or if you dance street or studio, technical or simple… We are all part of one big Salsa community. I’ll see you all on the dance floor.

Keep dancing folks.

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What to do when you’re S#!T at Dancing (or anything else for that matter)

7 Jan

I wrote this article last month, less than a week before I left New York. I’ve waited until now to publish it because January is a time of many, new (usually self-imposed) challenges for lots of people and I genuinely think that this could help a lot of people to break through their limitations and succeed where otherwise they might have given up. I got a little worked up writing it so please excuse the profanity. I hope you find it useful (the article, not the profanity).

Why they hell do I even bother? I’m just useless. Why have I been wasting my time for all these years? I have absolutely nothing to show for it.
I’m still an awful dancer. I should just give up already!

Things like this have been running through my head a lot lately. Some nights when I’m dancing I even let them get the better of me. Those are pretty shi##y nights.

Almost two and a half years ago I left Ireland, moved to Colombia and started learning Cali-style salsa. While it’s not the most technical type of salsa (at least in the form that it’s danced in the clubs there) I wanted to learn to loosen myself up when I dance, to dance more naturally and relaxed, to dance more “like a Latino”.

Many times I just wanted to give up. Who was I to think that I, an Irishman, could ever dance naturally… with “sabor”?

But I didn’t give up. I just kept going, as much as I kept telling myself to do otherwise.

Eventually, I loosened up. Now I dance salsa caleña.

About 3 and a half months ago I left Cali and landed in Cuba. I got straight into learning Cuban-style salsa, pretty intensively. I progressed quickly in the classes but as we all know, when it comes to dance, learning something in class is one thing, applying it on the dance floor is another.

On some of my first nights out dancing in La Habana I couldn’t remember any of what I had learned that very day and kept giving up and just reverting back to LA style. I kept a journal while in Cuba and I remember one particularly bad night at a club where I just slipped into a complete state of self loathing and wrote this while sitting outside the club:

“I’m just getting so pissed off with dancing.
I can barely remember the moves I learn let alone put them all together in fluid combinations. And then my body movement is awful, there is no sabor to my dance. I see other people dancing so well, making the dance their own doing incredible styling and I can’t go up and share the same dance floor with them. I feel too embarrassed to do it. I don’t know how I can have such highs and lows as this. Sometimes I feel like I wasted the last 2 years of my life in Cali…”

That night, the bad thoughts got the better of me and I left angry and disillusioned. However, the very next day I went right back into class and practiced again and again and again.

At the end of my 3 weeks there, I could dance salsa cubana and hold my own on the dance floor.

Sometimes it can seem easier just to give up.  Nothing was ever achieved that way!

Sometimes it can seem easier just to give up.
Nothing was ever achieved that way!

A little over a month and a half ago I found myself in New York city and about 2 weeks ago I started learning to dance On2. My first ever dance On2 was actually a three minute long shine as I didn’t even hold hands with my  partner. It wasn’t completely On2 but it was a start.

I’m writing this post, one week later, on the train ride home after another night of dancing in the same club where I danced that first “dance” On2. I had promised myself that I was going to try to dance On2 as much as possible.

I started off awfully. I was stopping and starting, messing up my timing, just making a general mess of things. I wanted to stop right there. I looked at the other dancers, at how well they danced, at how well they maintained their timing, at how much better they were then me.

I danced with someone else. Not much better. I was so close to just walking out, right there and then… But I didn’t. I danced with someone else. Terrible; I kept slipping off time and ended up apologizing to each of my partners at the end of each song.

Some of them were so nice, even saying they didn’t even realize I had slipped into On1 during the dance. I doubt that’s true but I appreciated the fallacy.

I would walk away, mentally face-palming myself, praying that no one had watched my pathetic attempt at New York style.

Then came the last dance. With pretty much the only girl remaining with whom I hadn’t already danced. I let her know in advance what she was in for, just as I had done with all the others, out of courtesy.

It was a relatively slow song, smooth… nice. I stepped back and started leading, frantically counting “1,2,3…5,6,7” in my head, applying the moves I knew from LA-style. 3 minutes later, the song was over, we were both still standing… and smiling. I had danced the entire song On2…

Tonight I won.

She thanked me and told me she had no idea why I warned her at the start of the song. I thanked her back.

Tonight, I didn’t let the voices in my head get the better of me. Tonight I ignored them. Tonight I won.

Learning to ignore the voices
Whenever we try something new, something that requires skill, we inevitably get to a point where we feel that we’re only wasting our time. The voices that tell us that we’re no good, that we’ll never be any good, get louder.

I’ve heard them many times with so many things that I’ve dedicated time to: dance, karate, surfing, cooking, languages etc. Sometimes I listen and that’s it for me with that endeavor… for that day!!! However, I come back the next, with a clear mind and I get right back to it.

And that’s how we win.

No matter what we do in life, the voices will always be there, we can either listen to them and give up or we can just get better at ignoring them.

We will have days when the voices win. Days when we concede defeat and go home, with our egos bruised and our heads hung low. It’s ok, everyone has days like that at times but the only way we will ever savor the sweet taste of victory, the only way way will enjoy the fruits of our labor is if we keep those days to a minimum.

And how do we do that? We stop listening to the voices. We will always hear them but we don’t have to listen. They might scream out “You Suck” but you can hit ’em right back with a “F@#K OFF!” and get back to what you were doing… winning.

At the end of the day it’s all in our heads. Seriously, in the VAST majority of cases the culprit behind our failures in life is that stupid part of our brains filled with self-doubt. That’s where the voices come from.

To enjoy victory, it’s just a matter of ignoring those voices and saying “You’re wrong, I can do this. Just watch me.”

I did just that tonight and it was hard. I wanted to throw in the towel after every awkward dance… but I didn’t. Tonight I won and victory, my friends, is sweet!

Success comes when you scream louder than the defeatist voices.

Success comes when you scream louder than the voices.

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Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 2)

18 Dec

Happy Wednesday folks, some of you may have already noticed that The Dancing Irishman is now back on Irish soil for the first time in two and a half years. I arrived in Ireland in secret (and incognito) last Friday and surprised my old salsa crew and later my family.

I have a whole post about that little adventure coming up but this week I’m going to continue with my travel post on what to do in Havana, Cuba and how to do it without breaking the bank. You can find the first part of this post right here.

Little annoyances
Just like any city with a thriving tourist industry, in Havana you will encounter MANY people who are out to take advantage of tourists.

These folks will appear in many forms but by far the biggest annoyances are the people who approach you randomly on the street. These guys are masters and have refined what they do to an art.

The three most common “openers” you will hear are:
Do you have a light?
Do you have the time? (even if you’re not wearing a watch)
Happy Holiday

The only function of these lines is to catch you off guard and get you into a conversation. I particularly disliked the last one, “Happy Holiday” (I was bombarded with this multiple times every day for 3 weeks so I had time to build up a grudge against it!). The phrase is only used in the U.S. where’s it basically means Merry Christmas. I explained this to one guy who approached me with this opener and he was astounded when he found out this was not a common phrase in English (especially since it’s so commonly used in Havana). It’s just a direct translation of “feliz vacaciones” which literally means “happy vacation”.

Anyway, once these guys have you in conversation they’ll start asking you where you’re from and then they’ll tell you that they have family there and they may even know the name of some lesser city (these guys are pros afterall). I must have met 50 cubans, by pure chance, who had family in Ireland. Amazing!

Eventually the offers will start. You’ll get invited to go and get a drink as they show you the local sites and tell you about the country. Your new friend may order multiple drinks while telling you how difficult life is for Cubans. The bill will come and your jaw will drop but you still have to pay it. He will get his cut from the bar later and you’ve been had.

Ashamedly folks, I’m speaking from experience. I’m overly trusting and friendly with people and always like to give them the benefit of the doubt and it bit me in the ass in Cuba. Be warned!

Your best bet, when approached with these lines is to give a quick one word answer and keep moving. Honestly it’s very difficult for me to be that blunt but you’ll have to do it in Cuba. Some people might say that you’re rude or that you don’t like talking to Cuban people but you’ll have to deal with that. Just tell them that you’re running late or  something and keep moving.

Mojitos, one of Cuba's signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Mojitos, one of Cuba’s signature drinks getting ready to receive their rum.

Cigarros? Chicas?
You will also constantly encounter people on the street trying to “recommend” you something be it cigars, restaurants  or women. If you look remotely like a foreigner you are a target for this and you will be approached. A common scam is for someone to tell you that today is the last day of a particular sale on cigars at the “cooperative” (what luck to meet this guy on the last day of the sale). They’ll be really friendly and even offer to take you. My advice is to not buy anything off the streets from random people who approach you, especially cigars.

Why? Well one thing is that they can often sell you fake cigars. The most famous brands of cigars in Cuba are Cohiba and Monte Cristo which can cost a pretty penny. In the local tiendas (stores) you can pick up a cheap, run of the mill Cuban cigar for a grand total of 1MN. Yes that’s 5¢(US). The only difference, to the untrained eye, between these and the more expensive cigars is their little paper wrapper which is very easily changed. If you must waste money on cigars please bare in mind that if you’re passing through the US after Cuba, there is a chance that they’ll be confiscated (especially if you’re a US citizen).

As a man traveling in Cuba, you will also be bombarded with propositions for sex… constantly. Before I got there I wasn’t aware of Cuba’s (unfortunate) reputation as a “sex-tourism” hot-spot and I was astounded by how many times I was either directly approached by girls or by men asking me if I was interested in “chicas”. The fact that I was travelling alone and walked around alone for the majority of my stay there only made matters worse. Actually, the most pleasant walks I had were those I took with some of the female dance instructors from my school. Everyone left us alone because they thought I was already taken.

You will also notice a lot of girls that will “accompany” male travelers, kind of like a temporary girlfriend with the expectation of getting something in return. I also found it very interesting that it wasn’t just foreign men taking out Cuban girls. You will also a huge amount of older foreign women “accompanied” by strapping young Cuban men. People do what they have to do to get by in Cuba.

Anyway, when you are approached (and you will be approached, be you man or woman), just excuse yourself with a “No thank you” (best not to let them know you speak Spanish if you do) and keep moving. I should also mention that I was told that going to “matinee” salsa evenings (starting at around 5pm until 9) was a good way to dance with regular Cubans and to avoid the Jineteros (“escorts”) as the prices are lower so regular Cubans can afford it.

A note on safety
Before I went to Cuba I had lived for two years in Cali, Colombia and this has made me rather “cautious” when navigating cities. However, Havana surprised me by being incredibly safe to walk around not only during the day but at night too.

That’s not to say that it’s the kind of place you want to walk around without a care in the world. Be smart and always ask someone (in a hotel or your casa) if a certain part of town is ok to walk around. Also don’t walk around non-tourist areas flashing your wealth with fancy jewelry or expensive cameras. Havana is safe but if the opportunity arises anything is possible. Be smart and be safe.

Food
Just like any tourist town, in Havana you can find places that cater specifically to tourists (with nicely elevated tourist prices) and you can find places where the locals eat.

However, let me get something clear, you can find some excellent restaurants that provide delicious Cuban food for lunch at prices from 3 to 4 CUC (without drinks). This will usually include a soup and then a main dish of rice, beans, meat and vegetables. You may even find a place that includes a small dessert in the price. Many restaurant in Habana Vieja will even offer main courses for dinner from 4 to 5 CUC. I highly recommend trying out 2 restaurants located in the same building across from the “Capitolio” building in the old town called “Los Nardos” and “Asturianitos”. Great food and very reasonable prices (although not strictly low budget). If you visit the “Vedado” neighbourhood in Havana, try out a restaurant called “La Roca” for lunch.

However, as I have been one myself, I realize there are some super low-budget travelers out there that will want some super low-budget options for food and Havana is full of them. Street food is everywhere and while it won’t blow your mind gastronomically it definitely won’t blow your budget.

You will regularly see small windows with lines of people selling snacks, the three most popular being burgers, sandwiches and fried rice. You should be able to get any one of these for around 10MN (about 50¢ US) (and it’s really important that you have a supply of MN in your wallet to pay for such expenses. While they may accept CUC, they may not give you a great exchange rate). I have tried all of these foods and they’re quick, relatively tasty and in my experience safe; in 3 weeks in Cuba I didn’t once suffer any stomach upsets which is unusual when traveling in developing countries.

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

A Media Noche sandwich, filled with ham and cheese and some salsa, is a common sight on the streets of Havana

I really recommend only buying street food from places that already have the prices displayed out front, this way, if someone tries to cheat you on the price you can just point to the price they have displayed. I remember one morning after exercising in my casa I wanted something quick and I saw a guy making and selling omelette sandwiches from window. I asked him how much and he told me, without a twitch, “2 CUC” ($2 US). I knew something was up straight awayn (the eyes of one of his workmates nearly popped out of his head when he heard it)  so I called him on it. He repeated that the price was 2 CUC and I said no thank you. I moved to the side and was able to hear the next customer, a little old lady ask the same thing I had. The guy looked ashamedly at me and then back to the old lady and told in a very low voice “5 pesos” (5MN or 25¢  US).

So remember, a price display is a pocket saver.

If you want to go even more low-budget (and healthier in my opinion) you can visit some of the produce markets that you will find scattered randomly around the city (although I recommend visiting the market at the corner of 17 and K in Vedado, if just to do some people watching and see real Cubans going about their shopping). At the markets you won’t find a huge selection of fruit and veg (plantains, bananas, mango, guava, limes, avocado, tomato, scallions, onions, squash, cabbage, bell peppers, chili peppers, garlic and some herbs and spices) but they are very cheap. You can also usually find eggs (but I’ve been told their availability varies). If you have cooking facilities at your casa you can do what I did and make omelettes and eat them with some fruit at lunch time for a very healthy and very cheap meal.

Just so you get a little idea of the prices I paid:
30 Eggs cost 33MN
1 banana cost 1MN
1 large Mango cost 6MN

Another possible lunch option is to find the restaurants that the locals eat their lunch in. In these places (virtually always in someones house and without signs outside) you can get a meal which will consist of meat, beans, rice and some vegetables for just 24MN or 1CUC. It’s a great price to pay for such a substantial meal.

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

A typical Cuban lunch; pork. moneditas de platano, avocado and beans on the side (I asked them to hold the rice that day)

And if you ever do feel like splurging, you can’t really go wrong with the Buffet Breakfasts in either the Hotel Nacional (13CUC) or the Hotel Parque Central (15CUC). Fill up on some spectacular food for breakfast and you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

A note on the black stuff: Cuban Coffee
As I am now a coffee drinker (honestly, never saw that one coming) I did my best to find cheap sources of the black stuff while in Cuba. 

Now, you can go into the many hotels or tourist cafes and buy yourself a cup of “Americano” starting at $1.50 US a cup or you can do what the locals do. You will regularly see windows on the street lined with tiny little cups next to a thermos. At these windows you can get a shot of seriously strong Cuban coffee for 1MN. You can also usually chat with whoever is selling it nice a freely if there isn’t a line forming behind you. Be warned however that this thermos coffee is usually very sweet so if you take your coffee unsweetened like me you’ll have to ask if they have coffee “sin azucar”. Most places don’t but you can find it, just look for windows that have a small sugar pot next to the coffee thermos, this means that you can sweeten the coffee yourself.

How to have and instant group of friends
My time in Havana was really made so much better by the group of people I hung out with, namely the dance teachers from the school I attended. They were a great bunch of people to hang out and dance with but not only that, they also gave me a huge amount of “Local” advice on Havana too. This was invaluable because once you are in Havana you will find it very difficult to get information on things to do and when you do get information it will be heavily motivated by the financial gain of whoever is giving it to you.

The people at the salsa school were able to give me advice on where to eat, what to visit, where to go dance, how to get transport, how to find anything I needed around the city and how to do it all on the cheap.

It was also through knowing the the people at the dance school that I got to do certain things that regular tourists would never get the chance to do like attending a Cuban wedding party, joining a Santeria religious ceremony and going to load of dance parties and venues where there were very few other foreigners to be seen.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

Thanks to my friends at the dance school I got to attend a Cuban wedding party. And yes, I do scrub up pretty well.

When you arrive in Havana, make sure you start taking classes in a dance school ASAP so that you can get to know the teachers and start hanging out with them in the evenings. You can find my recommendations for dance schools in Havana here.

Internet in Havana
Here’s the good news, if you ever wanted to take a vacation and completely disconnect from social media, Cuba is a great place to do it.

The bad news is that once you’re in Cuba, staying in contact with the outside world by internet is not cheap.

You can connect to the internet in some of the larger hotels like the Hotel Nacional but it will cost you about 5CUC an hour although you can also purchase a weeks pass that allows you to use their Wifi but that only helps if you’re staying in that hotel and let’s be honest, if you’re going to stay in that hotel, you will not be reading this “Budget” guide.

A few little recommendations for Havana
I want to finish this (overly long) post off with a few things to do around the city, to fill that time when you’re not dancing. Honestly, there are a huge amount of sites and things to do in Havana but here are just a few of the things that I particularly enjoyed.

  • Walk along the Malecon (the promenade) from Habana Vieja to La Rampa in El Vedado. Do it around sunset to get some great pictures (and to avoid the heat of the day). You can then people watch as the locals hang out chatting and drinking on the wall.

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

    A great sunset caught walking along the famous Malecon in Havana

  • Visit the Plaza Vieja and people watch from the shaded comfort of El Escorial cafe.
  • Enjoy the thickest Hot Chocolate ever and breath the heavily chocolate scented air of the Museo del Chocolate.

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

    The thickest hot chocolate ever in Museo de Chocolate

  • On Sundays from 12pm check out the Rumba show at the Callejon de Hamel. It’s a total toursit trap and you will be bothered by numerous people asking for money and donations but once the show starts they quiten down. It’s a cool look at Cuban dance and culture but keep your wits about you and watch out for pickpockets.
  • See the most beautiful stained-glass windows ever in la Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus.
  • Dance in Club 1830, it’s open-air, right on the waterfront and one of the coolest places I’ve ever danced and watched people dancing. I think it only costs 3CUC to get in on Thrusday nights.
  • Visit El Barrio Chino (China Town) if you feel like a break from Cuban food. Tien Tan (天壇) is particularly good and boasts a native Chinese chef.
  • Escape the city and hit the beautiful white sand beaches of Playa del Este (20 minutes). You can grab a return ticket by bus for only 5CUC. The buses leave from infront of Hotel Inglaterra in Habana Vieja every 30 minutes. Just check the weather forecast and make sure you don’t go on a day like I did.

I hope you all enjoyed the post, if you have any more questions, feel free to drop me an email and ask.

Right, that’s it for me today folks. I’m off to enjoy some down time here at home in Ireland, after two and a half years away, I think I’ve earned it.

Keep dancing folks.

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Havana: Travel in Cuba on a Budget (Part 1)

11 Dec

So it’s cold old winter here in the Northern Hemisphere (ugh, I haven’t said anything like that in a few years) and people are occupying themselves with which flavor of lip-balm they’re going to use, what scarf best matches their jacket, what seasonal coffee they’re going to buy next and just protecting themselves from the cold in general.

There are also some people who just don’t want to deal with the winter and the chapped lips it inevitably brings, so they’re planning holidays away for some fun in the sun. Who can blame them?

If you’ve been following the blog (please tell me someone besides my mam reads it) you’ll know that I spent 3 weeks in Havana, Cuba in August/September on a quest to learn Cuban-style salsa and rumba. Winters in Cuba,I’ve been told, are apparently heavenly for those of us from the northern latitudes (although the locals will complain that it gets a little chilly… I personally don’t trust such comments from people who have never seen snow before!)

At this time of year everyone could do with a little bit of "Tropical Paradise". The cigar is just for added effect!

At this time of year everyone could do with a little bit of “Tropical Paradise”. The cigar is just for added effect!

I’m foreign, take my money
Now almost everyone I’d met who had gone to Cuba told me that, as a tourist, I was going to be financially fleeced by everything from accommodation to food. The impression that I got was that Cuba was an expensive holiday destination FULL STOP!

That was, at least, until I spoke with my lovely friend Sita (my partner in crime in this video here) who had been to Cuba and fallen in love with salsa there. She let me know that it definitely was possible to do Cuba on a budget and she gave me a few tips on how to do so. Thanks love 😉

I spent 3 full weeks in the beautiful city of La Habana, in private accommodation, ate well, took about 25 hours of PRIVATE dance classes, went out regularly to dance clubs and travelled extensively around the city… all for a little over $1000.

Now, to some budget travelers that may seem pricey but bear in mind the quantity of private classes I took and the fact that I like to have a very nice meal every now and then. I should also mention that I don’t drink so you should factor that in if you do.

Anyway, today’s post is going to be a very practical guide on how to have a great salsa vacation in Cuba without going broke.

I’ve tried to cover as much essential information as possible so I’ve broken this into 2 seperate posts (Part 2 will be published next week)  and if you are going to Cuba and want to do it on the cheap I recommend you read them both fully.

A few things to know
To enter Cuba you need to pay a US$25 entry/visa fee either at your departure airport or upon landing in Cuba. You only pay it once so don’t let anyone fool you into paying it more than that.
You will also need to pay a 25CUC exit fee at the airport when you leave so remember to keep that much Cuban currency with you for your return voyage.

Cuba uses a dual currency system
The C.U.C (pronounced “cook”) is the currency one receives when they change foreign currency for Cuban.

Remember that you can really only exchange the large international currencies in Cuba so make sure you bring your cash in Euro, Pound Sterling, Swiss Franc etc as you can’t change less internationally accepted currencies (like Colombian Pesos, which I found out much to my distaste upon arrival). I’ve had been told not to bring US dollars as there is apparently an additional charge for converting from them. Don’t change your money at the airport, the rate is pretty poor (read on to find out where you should change it). You should also be able to use your banks ATM card (provided it’s not an American bank) to take out money but remember you’ll have to pay a transaction fee.

1 CUC is equivalent to US$1 and is used in most tourist transactions which has led some people to mistakenly believe that it’s the only currency tourists are permitted to use. These people are idiots.

The other currency is the Moneda Nacional (MN) which is used by the vast majority of the population for day to day expenses like groceries, food, transport etc. The exchange rate is set at 1CUC = 24MN. You may change your CUC for MN at any “Casa de Cambio” around the city, just ask at a hotel where the nearest one is. The exchange isn’t free (nothing in Cuba is) so expect to get an exchange rate of about 21/22MN per CUC.

Transport
So, when you arrive at the airport and get through the tediously slow customs the first thing your going to want to do is get into the city itself. Outside the airport you will be greeted by your first amazing site in Cuba; an entire parking lot filled with the most beautiful selection of classic cars you will likely ever see. All of these beauties are taxis that will take you into the city center for a set fee of 25CUC. Do not pay more than this but don’t think you will be able to get lower by haggling… not gonna happen!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

I really recommend that you ask your driver to stop along the way at a Casa de Cambio so you can change your money before you arrive at your hotel. Believe me, this will make things much easier for you and you want your first day to be easy. You can get him to go in with you if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your luggage with him.

When it comes to traveling around the city I really recommend that you use the coches (the big American classic cars). They can be used in 2 ways; you can get in by yourself and tell the driver exactly where you want to go and your fare will start at 5CUC. I recommend against this as it gets expensive.

The best way to use the coches is to use the ones that already have passengers inside. These operate on fixed routes around the city and cost only 10MN (so about 50¢ US) kind of like a public bus service, just in a car. You can ask the driver where he’s going and if it’s close to your destination you can hop on in. Speaking Spanish will help a lot so get studying.

The golden rule in Cuba
Here is one piece of advice that I highly recommend you follow while in Cuba: ALWAYS ASK THE PRICE FIRST!
If you don’t, less than honest people (and you well meet many who deal with tourists) will overcharge you at whatever chance they get. If you don’t ask the price before hand then you’ll have to pay whatever price they tell you at the end.
This goes for drinks, taxis, food, entrance fees… whatever. Always ask first.

Accommodation
Whatever you do, please book your accommodation in La Habana Vieja, the old town. Why? It’s by far the most interesting part of the city with the most things to see and do. The old town is relatively compact and makes for some great days of walking around aimlessly looking at all the old buildings and amazing architecture (much in disrepair) that Havana has to offer.

If you want to see spectacular architecture and history than you really should stay in the Old Town of Havana.

If you want to see spectacular architecture and history than you really should stay in the Old Town of Havana.

If you’re visiting Cuba to learn salsa, many of the dance schools are found in the old town so it really helps cut down on your transportation costs if you don’t need to travel from one part of the city to the other every day.

Another very practical point is that it is very, very humid in Cuba (at least it was in September) and air-conditioning is not as common as many North Americans are used to. In short you are going to sweat and it is nice to have a centrally located hotel or room so you can go home during the day to freshen up. Seriously, I was showering three times a day while I was in Havana so a close place to shower is a godsend.

To make life really easy for yourself (and to enjoy a little bit of luxury) you could book your first night or 2 in one of the many beautiful hotels in the the old town. They’re expensive but you can easily book them online and this will reduce stress on your first day or two.

However, to keep costs low you’re going to want to stay in a Casa Particular. These are “private houses” which have a license for renting accommodation to tourists. You can recognize them as they will have a sign, similar to that in the photo below, outside. You will see them everywhere.

This symbol indicates that the house is licensed to rent accommodation. You will see them all over Havana.

This symbol indicates that the house is licensed to rent accommodation. You will see them all over Havana.

Now, you could search for one online before you come or you could do what I think is even better: find one that you like that is near where you want to be in town. I’ll explain: you will see casas everywhere and you just ring on the doorbell, ask if they have a vacancy and see the room straight away. If you like it you can haggle over the price. The reason I recommend this method is because, if you know where your dance school is (or whatever particular area of town you want to be near), you can look in that immediate area for accommodation which will mean you have much more time to do other things as you won’t be wasting your time walking all over the city to get around. It also means you can haggle the prices in person which gives you a better chance of getting a lower price.

For a private, one person room with your own bathroom and air-conditioner in the center of town you should only have to pay 15CUC per night. For 5CUC extra you should get breakfast and maybe even dinner included. Talk to your host and see what kind of deal you can work out with them. (Please bear in mind that I was able to get these deals in September which is off-season so you may not be able to get such deals in during peak season).

Remember that if you’re planning on staying a week or more you might be able to ask for even more of a discount. Ask them if the can provide you a laundry service too (if you’ll be there long enough to need it).

One little deal you can also try on negotiating into the price of your accommodation is a few bottles of water daily. Every Cuban household boils and filters their own water for drinking so they’ll definitely have plenty for you. Otherwise you’ll be buying a lot of bottled water.

So you’ll have a hotel for your first night or two and then you can move into your much cheaper (and conveniently located ) casa for the rest of your stay. This will help cut cost significantly.

I’ll leave the rest for Part 2
There’s a whole lot more to cover when talking about Havana but I’ll leave this as a start and I’ve covered the rest in Part 2 (which is online now). Stay tuned.

Until then take care and if you’re up in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment, like me, stay warm.

Keep dancing folks.

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My Cuban Salsa Adventure: 3 Weeks of Casino, Rumba & Sabor

24 Sep

In this article I’ll be giving some recommendations of salsa schools in Havana and also on places to go dancing. Next week I should have an article on general traveling tips for Havana, a city you should definitely consider visiting.

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

The car that was waiting for me at the airport. I knew this was going to be a good vacation!

 

 I’m currently in the U.S. of A folks, I arrived in Miami last week after 3 weeks in the Mecca of salsa; Cuba. Here’s the article I started writing over there.

It’s been a few weeks of highs and lows.

I started writing this article in El Escorial, a beautiful café in the equally beautiful Plaza Vieja in Havana’s old town, one of the most architecturally stunning neighborhoods I have ever visited in my life. This is one of the highs.

However, I started writing this article because I physically can’t do anything else… I injured my neck this morning and can barely move without wincing in pain so it’s either sulk in the air-conditioned comfort of my “casa particular”… or write. I chose the more constructive latter. This is one of the lows.

We’ll get to my neck injury later.

In my last article, almost a month ago, I wrote about my challenge to learn Cuban-style salsa, casino, as well as learning as much about this country (or at least Havana) as I could in my short stay here.

Let’s be terribly unoriginal and summarize some of the more interesting points from this little adventure:

  • I took 27 hours of private lessons of salsa, rumba and a little reggaeton
  • I went out dancing a total of about 14 nights
  • I walked aimlessly around the streets of Havana enough to wear holes in my sandals
  • I discovered it’s actually possible to sweat more water than one consumes in a day  (some additional water may have been lost as tears)
  • I received countless offers of taxis, cigars and chicas
  • I went to a Cuban wedding party
  • I met some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered
  • I got to see a traditional Santería (Cuban religion of African origin) party in someone’s home
  • I learned that Cuba has some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen

Cuban Salsa from scratch (almost)
Let’s get down and dirty and talk about what people most want to hear about from that list (this site is, after all, mostly about dancing (or at least my attempts at it)).

My previous experience with casino had been a few sporadic classes in Miyazaki, Japan when I first started dancing salsa. I ended up forgetting most of what I had learned as I stuck with LA-style salsa but I regularly used one or two Cuban turns even when I danced LA and this helped me a lot when I started dancing Cali-style salsa.

To give you an idea of my “transformation”, I’ll explain things like this:

On my first night out (Friday) in Havana (before I had taken any classes here) I sat on a sofa in the bar of “Hotel Florida” with my jaw hanging somewhere around my ankles, staring in awe at some of the most intricate dancing I had seen in years.

I psyched myself up (this took a while) and finally worked up the courage to ask one of the local girls for a dance. Before we started I told her clearly that I didn’t know how to dance salsa cubana. The look of discomfort that I saw flashing in her eyes caused the flock of butterflies in my stomach to go on a rampage.

What happened next… was not pretty. I managed to pull off some basic turns from salsa caleña but in general things were sloppy. Let’s just leave it at that. I sat down disheartened after only one dance and thought to myself: I need to start classes soon.

Fast forward to the night before writing this article (Sunday, 16 days after that first night) and I danced Casino… all… night… long. I filled my dances with “dile que no”, “corona”, “habana loco”, “America”, “setenta y tres” and a whole host of other moves who’s names escape me. Now, it may not have been the most finely choreographed display of salsa cubana ever performed but I can definitely say that I now dance casino… and I love it.

How to dance Casino in under 3 weeks
First things first, I owe my progress entirely to the fantastic teachers in the school recommended to me by my friend Tanja from The Cuban Food Blog, who was my initial contact for all things Cuban (thanks for everything Tanja 😉 ).

The formula that worked for me was the following (and in my opinion it’s the best way to learn any social dance):

  • regular classes with good teachers
  • recording new movements learned
  • regular social dancing

I took about 25 hours of private classes with “La Casa del Son” (it would have been more had it not been for my neck injury calling a halt to everything that required… you know… movement!). The majority of the classes were of Cuban salsa but I also spent a good amount of time learning rumba (a traditional Cuban dance of African origin that heavily influenced salsa). Rumba is not easy, especially with my teacher Adrián the perfectionist but I think it can really enrich one’s salsa and especially one’s body movements (although don’t expect to see results quickly, the road to rumba is a long one).

At the end of every salsa class I took I a video of myself and the teacher dancing the combinations we had learned. This is vital for remembering not only the sequence required for each movement but also for just remembering the sheer volume of moves that you can learn in a couple of intensive weeks of salsa classes. Even on nights out dancing socially, if I couldn’t remember a particular move I would just take a quick look at the video on my phone to remind myself.

Finally I went out dancing very regularly. The great thing about the school is that the teachers go out as a group quite regularly so I was able to go out and practice what I had learned frequently and with great dancers. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times “You learn the moves in class, you learn to dance on the floor!”. The more frequently one dances socially and with the greater the variety of partners the better one commits new moves and combinations to muscle memory, making them far easier to execute in the future.

Picking a Salsa School in Havana
If you go to a popular salsa club in Havana you’ll probably meet a whole host of amazing dancers who will offer you private classes. However, being a good dancer does not necessarily translate into being a good teacher so bear that in mind.

Luckily my school was recommended to me and I can gladly recommend it to you too. I took the grand majority of my classes at “La Casa del Son” and I was very happy that I did.

The school has 4 separate, mirrored practice-rooms and is located in the center of old Havana (the heart of the tourist area). The school has a team of 6 male and 7 female instructors who are not only great dancers and teachers but they are also one of the most fun groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. They really take you under their wing at the school and make you feel like one of the family. Going out dancing with these guys is an experience and a half.

They offer classes in Salsa, Son, Rumba, Afrocuban folkloric dances, Tango, Kizomba, Bachata and Reggaeton so I really recommend taking the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can with them.

The school’s details are as follows:

  • Address: Empedrado No. 411 entre Aguacate and Compostela
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8671537  or  (53 6)2641047
  • Email: lacasadelson@bailarencuba.com

Ask for Ray when you visit or email them and tell him that Richie (the dancing Irishman with the beard) sent you. I hope to get a few favors out of sending them a little business (just so we’re clear).

To be honest you’re best off visiting the school as soon as you arrive in Havana so you can organize your class’ and so you can get information on where to go dancing every night of the week (they really helped me out with this). It’s also great because the teachers can become your social circle while you’re visiting the city and it’s always more fun going dancing with a group of friends than going solo (especially in a new city).

I also took classes with Maria Elena Hernandez, a teacher at the well know Marisuri Escuela de Bailes Cubanos. They classes I took were mostly on body movement but she also teaches Folklore, Rumba, Casino and Son.

  • Telephone: (05 2) 760194
  • Email: marielenala@carpusmail.com

I also can recommend a newly opened school called Salsabor a Cuba, which has a group of fantastic dancers teaching salsa, son, cha cha cha, rumba, folklore, and reueda del casino.

  • Address: Calle Oficio No. 18 (First floor, Apartment 5) entre Obispo and Obrapia
  • Telephone: (53 7) 8608982  or  (53 5) 3027501
  • Internet: www.salsaborcuba.com

Where to dance in Havana
You can only enjoy the salsa in any city if you actually know where to find it. This can be issue when you first arrive in Cuba. Luckily I just had to ask my teachers at the end of the day where they were going to go that night and I had an instant destination and a group of dance partners.

I’ve included a very basic night by night list here that can “help” you decide where to go. I’ve left out a huge amount of places that will no doubt enrage other Habana experts but I’ve decided to just include the safe bets that I visited myself. You will be able to find the directions to each venue by asking at any large hotel in Havana (i.e. I’m too lazy to look up the address/contact details).

  • Monday: Hotel Florida
  • Tuesday: Casa de la Musica (Miramar) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Wednesday: Casa de la Musica (Galiano) for the matinee (5-9pm)
  • Thursday: 1830 (pronounced “mil ochocientos treinta”) until 12pm (I loved dancing here)
  • Friday: Hotel Florida
  • Saturday: Hotel Florida or Casa de la Musica (either)
  • Sunday: 1830 and the secret club full of locals that I’m not going to reveal for fear of ruining it 😛

Remember this, when all else fails, Hotel Florida is a safe bet for dancing every night of the week all though I  didn’t really like the atmosphere in the place. It’s full of tourists and people trying to take advantage of them. That said, if you go anywhere with a group of friends you’ll have a good night.

I recommend the matinees in La Casa de la Musica because it’s cheaper and you tend to get more regular locals there dancing. The later shows tend to be frequented by people on the prowl for foreigners.

Feeling like a beginner again
The interesting thing about learning a new style of salsa is that it makes you feel like a complete dance beginner all over again… which really sucks.

I went from being totally confident in my environment in Cali where I know I dance well to a new environment with new rules and new standards that made me feel like I knew nothing. And you know what, that’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.

I think it’s great to feel like a beginner again, out of one’s depth. Obviously it sucks at the time as you lose confidence and you feel overly self-conscious about your dancing but you overcome it because you’re reminded of how you were when you started out with other styles. Then all you have to do is remember how much progress you made with those styles and it actually encourages you to drive forward.

On this trip to Cuba I experienced many moments where I felt like I didn’t want to dance in public because I felt I would look ridiculous around the people who had been dancing for years. My confidence hit a low and I would get frustrated (as I regularly do). However, all I had to do to get over it was remember that I’ve done it all before, with LA style salsa and salsa caleña. And thinking of that got me right back in the game.

With dance, the initial learning curve tends to be uncomfortable but just remember that all great dancers most likely had to go through a brief period where they “probably” sucked. That’s the price to pay to dance well and honestly it’s a bargain.

Loads more for another time
This article already is way too long and there’s a lot more that I want to write about dancing in Cuba but I’m going to have to save it for another article.

Note to self: when taking pictures of sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

Note to self: when taking pictures of Cuban sunsets, ensure iPhone is pointing at the sun!

My adventure in North America is just starting so I’ve got lots to keep me occupied for the next few weeks. Remember, if you have any recommendations for dancing or places to visit along the east coast of the U.S. drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Keep dancing folks.

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