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The Casino That I Dance

Updated: Feb 2

A Personal Story.


I learned how to dance Casino when I was 15 years old. At that time (1991), I had just started grade 10 at the Instituto Pre-universitario Vocacional en Ciencias Exactas (I.P.V.C.E.) “Antonio Maceo” in Santiago de Cuba. This was a boarding school for advanced students where you received intensive academic training during 3 years, prior to moving onto university level. In order to be accepted there, you had to submit yourself to a rigorous exam on one of four subjects: math, chemistry, physics or biology. My intention at the time was to study medicine. Each province of Cuba had an IPVCE, which was part of a larger plan inspired in the soviet model of mass creation of super nerds who would advance the socialist nations into a communist future through scientific knowledge. That was the utopia at the time.

 

Logically, I expected the kids in that school to be a crowd of book-hugging, eye-glass-wearing mini Einsteins who did nothing but read and study. I couldn’t be more wrong. To be fair, yes, it’s true, the nerds abounded, but most kids there were just regular kids who aspired to get in university, and there was also a significant number of them whom I at first thought were brought straight out of a gangsta-forming institute, because they behaved in every way like future criminals: they bullied, they liked getting in fights, were always ready to do the forbidden... The collection of personalities at the IPVCE was something worthy of a full book.

 

The thing I loved the most about that school was the passion for dancing that prevailed amongst us. Every Wednesday night it was “Recreación” at a huge open space where we all would gather to dance to the latest hits of the moment. Everything from European techno, Jamaican dancehall, Honduran punta, merengue, the incipient reggaetón (which was called “meneíto” by then) and of course, our Cuban music, which happened to be going through a blossoming period with the arrival of Timba. I soon realized how popular Casino dancing was, and that was a most unexpected thing for me. In fact, being a casinero in that environment meant that you were cool. Dancing Casino in boarding school (beca) is part of the whole identity mentality in that system, and a useful means for peer connection, besides the obvious fact that it is great way of having a good time while there.

 

I learned Casino the way every single Cuban learns it: on the spot, no formal lessons, following the just-do-it, copy-me-as-I-show-you style that characterizes empiric learning. An unorthodox method impossible to apply outside of Cuba, especially when people are paying you to learn. Back to the story, I performed in my first Rueda de Casino when I was in great 11. My school unit (Unit # 1) was hosting a gala for the entire school. That massive IPVCE institution consisted of 4 units. Think of them as 4 individual schools, each with 6 classrooms for each grade 10, 11, 12 students. In total, there were around 2500 students living in the IPVCE! We were told that if we did not do a Rueda de Casino at the gala, we’d be blacklisted as not having the proper “ideological affinities”, so we had to perform. I was shitting in my pants, as there were strong rivalries between the different Rueda teams of each unit, but in the end we got a nice round of applause. I was very happy about that, and relieved that we succeeded at properly showing our allegiance to the system!

 

In Cuba, you don’t learn how to dance with people who are at your same level. You acquire the skill from seasoned dancers in an ideal setting that expedites the learning experience. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by many kids who had already learned before they were 15. Also, there were awesome casineras in my classroom. Some of them, like Iris, Tatiana, Liudmila, and Sirlinda had really cool personal styles. We danced in every bit of free time we had, be it between classes, during recess, in the evening during study session, and obviously in the recreación. Most of the times, though, we danced to no music, just counting the beat vocally, as we didn’t have stereos or other music devices.

 

When I became casinero at age 15, I never thought the dance landscape would change so much over time. I never imagined non-Cubans dancing Casino. I never even mustered the thought of Casino congresses happening. I never suspected the whole world would be dancing Casino one day, and of all the things my mind could not foresee, myself teaching Casino was definitely #1 in the list.

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