CUBAN SALSA VS CASINO – a dilemma of word choice

Updated: Apr 28

The subject of whether the Cuban dance casino should or should not be called salsa or Cuban salsa has generated plenty of heated debate in recent years. Advocates for using the term casino, which is actually the real name and how the dance is referred to in its native Cuba, argue that it is incorrect to say salsa, or even Cuban salsa, as it strips the dance of its original roots, labeling it with a name that is a commercial invention. They also argue that the word casino predates the word salsa, which renders the use of the latter rather illogical. To a great extent, all this is true, but I would like to offer a different perspective on the issue, so that we can better assess what constitutes proper term use, considering the complexity of this lexical issue.

Cuban salsa is, linguistically speaking, some sort of an exonym: it is the term used by an external group of people to refer to something that has already a word assigned in its place of origin. Typically, exonyms are applied to geographic places, peoples and ethnicities. For example, in English language we say Germany, but they themselves refer to their country as Deutschland. Exonyms can be problematic when referring to peoples, especially when they are rooted in words that imply degradation or possess a pejorative connotation. That is how, for example, the word Gypsy in the anglophone world is being rejected in favour of Roma, to refer to the ethnic group (it appears, though, that the Roma people of Spain have no issue referring to themselves as gitanos). I equate Cuban salsa to the definition of exonym because it fits it perfectly in the sense that deep down, exonyms are simply an attempt of a foreign group of people to make linguistic sense of something that is alien to them.

Furthermore, I assert that so long as this exonym (Cuban Salsa) does not convey a pejorative or destructive implication, its use outside of Cuba should be OK, because dancing Cuban Salsa does not imply changing the way the dance is performed. For instance, I find “Casino en Línea” to be truly damaging to Cuban culture, as it implies the destruction of the choreographic traits of the dance, in favour of imported, commercial models, that don’t even match Casino in beauty, originality and social practicality. As a person who has studied languages and linguistics in a good deal of depth, seeing people fighting over words (which are, by essence and definition, ARBITRARY constructions of meaning) makes me scratch my head. Granted, I’m aware of the power of words, but we should also remember that a parallel universe of meaninglessness coexists right next to the assigned definition of every word of our dictionaries (in this line of thought: synonyms are probably the most glaring example of the absurdity of “word meaning” rigidity, for they prove one word can mean several things at a time).

Blindly holding on to the term Casino outside its native Cuba can also prove counterproductive and limiting in some case scenarios. Forcefully applying the term casino can be controversial and confusing. In certain cultural contexts, using the term salsa, or preferably Cuban salsa, is the most reasonable way to go about promoting the dance. For example, one uncomfortable obstacle I find when promoting my Cuban dance in the Anglophone world (Canada) is the unfortunate fact that “casino” is already an established word. It is a word that no one would associate with a dance. Here, casino is a word linked to a place for gambling and vice. While some people have a positive outlook on casinos, others see it as a place of moral degradation, ruin and addiction. A casino is the place where some people waste away their financial resources, bringing problems and misery to themselves and their families. Naturally, to avoid confusion, I choose the term Cuban Salsa when I advertise the dance form I teach, especially if I want to attract absolute beginners, and also because the line “Learn how to Casino” would probably attract the wrong crowd, and “Learn how to dance Casino” could even give the idea of gambling an attractive metaphoric twist with a sexy touch. I figured that even “Cuban Casino” could be controversial, given the notoriety in popular culture of Cuban mafia characters like Scarface. In this side of the world, anything promoting a Cuban Casino is more likely to bring the attention of the police department, than that of potential dancers. Salsa is the established term out here. Salsa is what everyone thinks of when they imagine Cuba and its dances. Cuban Salsa is THE exonym, and it's been that way since the Salsa dance boom in the 90's.

I don’t really think that most Cubans using the term Salsa are doing it because they gave thought to the implications of using “casino” as an advertising term, in relationship to a venue for gambling. They just see the world using the word “salsa” for dance forms very similar to theirs (including theirs) and adopt the term because deep in their minds they are conscious that using “casino” simply won’t have the same impact. It won’t convey the same message. In addition to the existence of an already established term (Salsa), Cuban dance teachers around the world face the essential problem contained in the word casino: this is not a word created to sell a dance. The casino dance was not even created to be sold!!! If it had been created as a commercial dance product, it would have been given a very different name; something catchy and tropical sounding. Thinking from the logic of commercial advertising, everything conspires against the term casino in its quest to attain recognition outside Cuba as the name of a Cuban dance. Everything except one thing: it can be easily pronounced by anyone in the world.

What can we do to effectively raise awareness about the correct historic name of the Cuban casino dance? Succumbing to the power of the word “salsa” can be easily countered by adding an educational component to our work as teachers. We can advertise our classes as Cuban Salsa, but once our students are registered, we can (1) make them aware of the fact that the dance is called casino. In addition to that, (2) we must use the term regularly in class and among people who are practising the dance. (3) Wherever possible, include the term casino. For example, in the description of your courses you can include a line explaining that the dance is actually called casino in its native Cuba. (4) Special festivals and events catered to people who are already immersed in the Cuban dance community, especially where these communities of dancers are large, don’t need to be referred to as “Cuban Salsa” festivals. These events should refer to the dances by their real names, as they’re supposed to be an oasis of genuine Cuban cultural manifestations. In general, though, use common sense. It is OK to use the commercial term Cuban salsa on certain contexts, as opposed to rigidly holding on to a word that could paradoxically defeat your goals. As the community you want to create grows, provided you also do your part educating your students in the correct terminology, you will see how casino will be able to create a space for itself and will be recognized in connection to the dance, but it requires that gradual work.

In conclusion, Cuban Salsa is a fine term, but remember to find a balance. Denial and deliberate omission of the word casino when we teach is an act whereby we negate our culture. It defeats the whole purpose of popularizing our Cuban legacy, as we deprive people from learning about its original elements. Assess your cultural context to determine what are the implications of using the word casino when you advertise your courses and your work, but whatever you do, bear in mind that once you hit the studio, you’ll be doing a great service to your island, your students and yourself by acknowledging the word you always used back home when inviting someone to dance. Remember you never invited them to dance salsa. You always said: “¿Quieres bailar casino?

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