Have you ever BEEN to Cuba?
It is a wild, hot, and SEXY place full of magic, sincerity, and wonder! The energy seems to writhe off of the pavement like waves of heat. Young girls, the age of 10, walk with more sass and sensuality than ANY grown woman in America and the streets are alive with young men playing football as if they were on center stage at the World Cup.
Passion, passion, and more passion.
I remember walking down Neptuno one sultry September evening, sunlight turning pink-orange in the sky, blues deepening, light hitting the deep black asphalt in skids of bright yellows and oranges. There was a workout gym across the street from where I stayed. As I sauntered past it that evening, feeling warm and relaxed, wearing a pink tube top and pink hued sarong, I heard a loud whistle, something Cubans are notorious for in seeking your attention. I looked over, hearing the hum of the large fans, which worked furiously to aerate the gym that was dark inside with years of sweat and hard work. People clanked on machines and women lifted their knees and legs in aerobic fervor dancing with weights in each hand.
Several people were standing outside the gym, taking a breath of fresh, 1950’s Cadillac filled air on this warm September evening. One man caught my eye. Huge, hulking, muscles bulging out of his skin. I had never seen a man quite like him, nor have men who looked like this paid much attention to me in America. However, Cuba is a different place I had come to discover.
As he caught my eye, he brought his right hand up to his mouth, fingers brought together at his pursed lips and he sent me a huge kiss as if I was the most delicious thing he had ever seen. “Wow,” I thought as a smile of gratitude and slight embarrassment at his public display of appreciation spread across my face. A feeling of warmth and gratitude, as well as some disbelief, expanded outwards from my center. “Is this guy talking to me?” I thought. Laughing to myself, I turned around and kept walking, feeling a sense of appreciation I had not experienced in a long time.
The first dance class I took in Cuba was a momentous occasion. I had NO IDEA what I was in for. As a Salsera (a salsa dancer) for over 11 years at the time, I thought, “Oh, I know this!”
Yulian was my first Cuban dance partner. Oh my gosh, he was more like my Soul Brother: tall, gorgeous, chocolate brown skin, so loving and treated me like his sister. He must have said, “Ahi nama” over 100 times while we danced together those first two weeks. I loved his sent: clean and fresh and he wore a towel around his neck to catch the sweat dripping off of his body. It was hot.
We danced around the floor, Yulian giving me slight instructions on the steps and movements. When I would really get the steps or the styling, he would say, (you guessed it) “Ahi nama,” which quickly became one of my favorite Cuban phrases as I found it to be so sexy and sweet, such a beautiful form of acknowledgment.
ahi-nama is cuban slang meaning “here it is/ this is it” – with the suggestion of having reached the best or ultimate, therefore you do not need to look anywhere else. Probably originally from spanish “aqui nada mas”.
When I first danced with the head instructor of our group, a Soul Twin brother to me, I remembered feeling SO alive. We were whirling around the dance floor and I felt like nothing could stop us. Everyone was watching us dance at the going away party for some travelers in our crew. I remember upon asking him to dance he replied, “This song is fast!” in his Cuban accented English. I looked at him like, “Yah, so let’s go!”
Whirling and twirling, he had me moving across the large, muted teal green and beige tiled floor. I was really putting on a show, feeling so good with an attitude of: “See, look, I can dance with the pro. I am good at this. Watch me now!”
When the dance was over, we were breathless. He gave me a smile and a light hug as we parted ways off of the dance floor.
Over a week later and a few days before we were to leave Cuba, another dancer was giving me some feedback during our class. He was speaking in Spanish and I didn’t completely understanding him. Feeling frustrated with still “not feeling like I was getting it right” and not understanding what I was doing “wrong”, I huffed and puffed, walking away to take a break.
At the end of class, the Soul Twin brother and I were sitting next to each other on the faux leather couch. I was asking him more questions trying to understand the feedback several leaders had given me over the past two weeks. He was doing his best to explain this honestly and respectfully. He said to me, “You look so good when you are dancing. People want to dance with you. But when they do, they will be disappointed because you are very difficult to dance with.”
I felt my heart drop.
“Did you feel this way when we danced together (that first night)?” I asked, both reluctant and wanting to know the truth.
“Yes I did,” he replied softly.
I leaned over to my right and looked away in disbelief. How could I have thought that dance was so much fun and he was experiencing something so different?
I sat back up and cover my face, tears streaming out of my eyes as I struggled to hold back the emotion of years of “trying” to do it “right”. I felt devastated.
“Look at me,” he said. “Sarah?”
Finally, I dropped my hands and looked him in the eye listening to what he had to say.
“You are like a wild stallion. You need to be tamed and I want to help tame you.”
I remembered a week before, he said some words to me that really broke through a barrier:
“Sarah, you look so good when you are dancing that everyone will want to dance with you, but when they do, they won’t want to dance with you again because they don’t feel that connection with you. We are Cuban men, we like to feel that connection.”
I got it. “You style too much,” was a familiar sentiment I had heard over the years. (Styling is adding flavor to the basic steps and body movement of dancing.) And you know what, I did. I styled so much, and the fact that this instructor had the guts to say something to be brought about one of the major breakthroughs I had while studying in Cuba:
I styled so much to prove myself: “See, look, I can do it.” Being the sexiest, biggest, cleanest, most creative, original dancer was a constant goal I strove to achieve. I completely lost touch with my own authentic, Soulful expression. I was trying so hard to prove myself and to be acknowledged as a great dancer that I was affecting how and who I danced with.
I got away from the purity of el baile (the dance) and got so into proving myself.
So here I was teaching my students to “feel it in your body” and “connect with yourself, your partner, the music and life around you on the dance floor,” and I was missing an integral part of this equation: to truly connect with your partner on the dance floor.
I had the self-connection part going and the connection with the music and the physical connection with my partner, but it was far and few between that I was REALLY connecting with my partner. I was scared. All the styling was like a smoke screen that ultimately put a wedge in between my true self and the person I was dancing with at the time. It also affected the way I danced and connected with others while dancing which brought me to this major breakthrough. It was hard for me to imagine that even some of the most amazing dances of my life were maybe not what they seemed to the other dancer. They were great to me, but how did the other person feel?
This brought me to some crucial questions: Who was I without all this styling? Who was the REAL SARAH on and off the dance floor.
Huge breakthrough for sure.
I remember standing in my friend’s room in the Casa Particular crying my eyes out as the realization of this awareness came through full throttle. It was like peeling back the layers of large colorful paper: each one revealing another layer of color and depth underneath it. I realized that I was using styling as a way to disconnect from my partners and a way to prove myself to the world. I felt sad. I felt embarrassed. I felt compassion for myself. I never realized why I had done this and now I started to see the light. It really was all about proving myself because when I had others approval, somehow this meant that I was loved.
On that third to last day of our trip, the Soul Twin brother showed me exactly what he was talking about when he said, “You need to completely relax so that you can feel the energy the leader is giving you so you can follow his lead.”
I got it.
As we danced basic steps around the floor, I started to feel the sensation that my relaxation offered him as the leader. When I relaxed, my arm became a receptacle to receive the energy he wanted and needed to give me so that I could follow his lead. In following his lead, I was giving him my energy, my presence, my gift so that we could both express ourselves fully, share our gifts with those around us and connect with each other in a way that felt good for the both of us.
Thank you Cuba.