On the Utilitarian Value of Cuban Culture in the Canadian context.
It is common knowledge that in the large cities of affluent western societies, in terms of community, we find lower levels of social cohesion than in small towns. This phenomenon is manifested more acutely in individualistic societies (all of them are affluent), undermining the assumption that material wealth generates greater well-being. In fact, there is a lot of human disconnect in the so-called first world. The absence of organic communities ---where you have constant contact with immediate family, extended family, friends, engaging neighbours and neighborhood life--- can generate anxiety, loneliness and loss of social skills, because we are genetically programmed as social mammals to function and feel well when connecting with and belonging in groups, clans, tribes…communities. It is in the exercise of connecting and belonging where dancing comes into play, especially social dancing, to heal the issue of disconnect so present in today’s “developed” world. Based on my experience as a dance teacher in Canada, I can attest to the fact that two specific dance forms have been playing an important role in promoting social cohesion: Cuban Salsa, known in its native Cuba as Casino dance, and Rueda de Casino. In this article, I will explain at how many levels these traditional dances from Cuba are beneficial to our multi-ethnic Canadian society.
The urban world of these northern latitudes shows in different ways the levels of disconnection caused by the combination of unfavorable cultural traits and high technology. The latter eliminates important, direct human interactions, while this is considered development and efficiency. Paradoxically, Social Media, despite exploiting our elemental human instinct to want to be connected, contributes to the deterioration of people's social skills, making it difficult for us to solve interpersonal problems, limiting our ability to establish substantial intimate relationships, and thwarting the development of meaningful connections with others. At the same time, the cultural trait of being a non-collectivist society that also doesn’t consider dance as essential, plays into all of the aforementioned to generate a scenario of even greater disconnection, due to the less relevant value given to this ancestral activity that serves as a bridge for positive interactions and social skills. Yes, because dancing, and particularly partner dancing, is also a social skill. For centuries, it has been a main medium for connection and integration of the members of a given society. Coming from a Caribbean culture where dance still preserves that central, vital function, and where beyond entertainment dance is indeed a source of identity, I can assure you with certainty that in our Canadian society dance occupies a place in the relegation zone. And we’re missing out because of that.
Passion for dancing is not a trait of this society in general; it is rather an individual’s drive or a cultural minority’s trait. In addition to that, today's most popular American-Canadian dance music is not made to be danced holding hands. Technically, this would not be a problem if society actively promoted dancing, as it does in other parts of the world, but since that’s not the case here, the fact that the culture’s music industry has this characteristic works as an aggravating factor. In other words: in this region, today’s popular dance music manifestations do not act as that ancestral bridge that gets people to come together holding hands in partner dancing (or meaningful group dancing), which is why there’s no perceptible contribution to the development of social skills. Partner dancing does bring about these benefits because it implies a variety of interactions that go beyond the simple act of holding someone and busting moves.
In the world of social dancing we learn how to relate to each other, how to interact, connect, and feel comfortable in direct human contact with other people including the actions of speaking, touching, doing eye contact, exercising tact, etc . This is a skill that people in other societies start developing from their early teens. When I work with children and young teens teaching them how to social dance, the main obstacle I always encounter is their aversion to want to hold hands with other classmates they are not close to. Often times, teenagers panic at the thought of holding hands with someone of different sex. This is a manifestation of how learnt behaviour in individualistic societies can affect our ability to interact and relate to others. Specifically, the society’s appreciation for individual space, combined with the limited practice of affectionate touching is what I identify as the cause behind the initial refusal to hold hands. And I say “initial” because once kids are able to overcome that boundary, you can see how they become more confident and relaxed during the class. Unfortunately, hostile attitudes towards dancing also exist and persist. Many young people have told me that they don't dance because “that’s gay” (in the Afro-Caribbean culture I come from, dancing is among the manliest things you can do, so talk about symmetrical differences).
One place where the lack of social skills is clearly appreciated is any mainstream music club, such as those on Granville Street. The dynamics of the interactions I have witnessed in those places have led me to appreciate much more the opportunity of social dancing with Latin music. The club scene has also reinforced, in my view, the importance of the work of the social dance instructor. The strange and sketchy behaviors one sees in a mainstream club, where men do not know how to invite women to dance, coming from behind without prior invitation, without eye-to-eye communication, without an attempt to gain consent, displaying courage to interact only after being drunk is not the norm in the social dance community. Those nightclub behaviours signal a socialization problem. If these folks had a social dance as a link, the interactions would be healthier. Latin social dance halls and clubs, despite not being exempt from certain reprehensible behaviors by some individuals, are a haven of security and emotional health compared to conventional dance clubs.
Cuban (Salsa) Casino and the Rueda de Casino dance serve as a vital platform to create community through dance and generate healthy relationships among people. Salsa dancing is great, in general, but Cuban Casino and its Rueda variant in particular are able to play a much more profound, transformational and healing role in the sociocultural context where we currently live. Cuban Casino stands out for being very technically accessible to everyone, regardless of age and shape, as well as for containing a powerful, organic, community-creating component when it’s danced in Rueda de Casino style: a group dance done in circle format; something very unique. Cuban Casino is a dance whose beauty materializes not on a stage, but in the communication established by the dancers during the song. Being a dance that doesn’t scream for an audience, it is happily deprived of narcissistic elements. The dance experience is centered on the enjoyment as partners, favouring a focus on the "we".
The Rueda (“wheel”) is the maximum expression of Cuban Casino’s social function, by allowing for a collectively connected experience of dance enjoyment. The dance form’s ability to organically include as many couples as can fit in a given space to dance a song as a group, denotes the quality and inherently advantageous social benefit that the collectivist Rueda de Casino contributes. While narcissistic manifestations of Salsa perpetuate the human flaw that has become a symbol of social media networks, the Cuban Rueda de Casino corrects that by redefining the connection with the group as the desirable: the “us”, the healthy collective self-esteem and communal belonging as focus point. Sure, not everything is perfect. Occasionally, you will meet someone who wants to be a Rueda de Casino leader for narcissistic interests of being a people's guru (I've seen those in town), but that is not the norm. Cuban Casino and Rueda de Casino are capable of helping fill, anywhere in the world, a disconnection gap that exists. That’s why this is such a popular dance worldwide, even in cities unaffected by lack of communal connection, because it helps reinforce the existing ones: because the human being does not tire of looking for connection with others. The genius creation of the Rueda de Casino rescues the collective circular dance format that many societies have ancestrally owned. Today, we need less “me” and more “us”. Let’s promote social unity by encouraging this dance form in different spaces of society (not just a club) capitalizing in a positive way on the very principle that social media companies exploit: our desire for connection.
In conclusion, I just want to reiterate how valuable Cuban Casino and Rueda de Casino are to counteract the harmful effects of an increasingly disconnected world, especially if you live in a large urban setting that lacks traditions or cultural traits that promote dance as a vital activity. Something extremely positive to take into account is the fact that large cities, as cosmopolitan centers, tend to have communities of social dancers. Every great city has a Latin dance community. Cuban Casino and Rueda de Casino are social dances that despite coming from a small island, have conquered the world not only because of the contagious music with which they express themselves, but also because they offer an invaluable platform for human connection. You’re welcome!