American Celebrities in Cuba

Cuba may be becoming a fashionable touristic destination for U.S. celebrities to hang out, to see and to be seen. Recent visits by American celebrities to the island had just been a trickle but they could turned into a deluge if the floodgates were to be opened by the lifting of the U.S. embargo against the Caribbean country. 

On Dec. 17 thousands of the Cuban Catholic faithful, some infused by rum, concluded a twenty-five mile pilgrimage from Havana to El Rincon to commemorate the resurrection of Saint Lazarus of Bethany, a parable narrated in the Bible (John 11:1-46). This date was full of symbolism when Cuban President Raul Castro chose it to announce the resurrection of relations with America while U.S. President Barack Obama made an analogous declaration at the White House.

The first American A-list celebrity to take advantage of the thaw between the two neighboring countries was National Basketball Association star Carmelo Anthony, who, between May 31 and June 3, visitedHavana, along with the New York Cosmos soccer club, whose players ended up dancing on the tables of a nightclub at an alcohol-soaked wild party, according to Rolling Stone magazine.

At this point, it’s not clear whether the nightclub attended by the Cosmos team members was the same one where celebrity power couple Beyonce and Jay Z danced until dawn on their stay in Cuba on April 3-5, 2013, to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. But it wasn’t all partying for Mr. and Mrs. Carter, their official names. They also swung by the University of the Arts in Cubanacan.

The topics of nightclubs and the University of the Arts came together in Central New York when Barbara Balbuena, one of the deans of this institute of higher learning, gave a talk on Feb. 6, 2014, in Syracuse University’s Shemin Auditorium. She told the audience that on Oct. 13, 1960, the Cuban government passed Law 890, which nationalized dance clubs and ballrooms and turned them over to workers’ social circles. “These became the principal recreation centers for youth throughout the country, holding matinee dances, or tea dances, serving no alcoholic beverages, only soft drinks or water,” she wrote in a book edited by Sydney Hutchinson. “On Saturdays and Sundays, people danced from two in the afternoon until late.”

Balbuena said that some Cuban dances of African origin are ritualistic activities associated with the Santeria religion, namely, babalu aye, yemaya, oñi oñi and olokun. She added that, in general, dances in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo are alike for they have the same roots, which is a mixture of African and Spanish sources. 

She went on to say that, although Cuba was a relative newcomer to the international salsa explosion, it has more than make up for the delay by achieving a dominance in the world, in terms of popularity, of its unique style of salsa. “The styles from other nations are just steps, footwork, whereas Cuban salsa, called casino, is more complex. Because of its African influence, it involves the use of the upper body, the torso, the ribcage,” she said. “Besides, in it the couples move around an ample space. These features, among others, give Cuban salsa a flash and flair that are more appealing to dancers worldwide than other styles.”

Hutchinson agreed with Balbuena. “This salsa style is popular even in places that you won’t expect, like India and Africa, specially in its West Coast, in countries like Nigeria,” she said.

Balbuena explained that casino dancing started in Cuba in the late ’50s, at least a decade before the formal inception of salsa music. She said, “Casino has historically been adapted to be danced with different kinds of music, including salsa.”

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).

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