It was clear from the beginning: if I was going to learn to dance salsa, it would have to be in Havana, Cuba. Before jumping on that plane to take salsa classes for a month, it certainly would have helped if I had known the following 4 things.
Last edited: February 15, 2017
1. Internet is a bitch
I knew it wouldn’t be easy to get Internet access in Cuba, but being so used to having it everywhere I go, I guess, I couldn’t imagine it would be this bad.
There are only a handful of places in Havana where you can connect to the Internet. The “best” place is in Hotel Saratoga. Better than others, because Saratoga has a Wi-Fi connection, meaning that you can connect to your own laptop and as such use your own applications.
However, “best”, also entails that you’ll be paying 15CUC ($15,-) for 2 hours of Internet with a whooping speed of “impossible to open your Facebook page”.
So, what has Internet to do with taking salsa classes? Indirectly, quite a bit.
Without Internet, for example, you can’t hop onto Google to do research about salsa schools and instructors, party venues in Havana or other salsa escapes in the rest of Cuba.
You also can’t download salsa songs or watch YouTube videos when you might need them to improve your salsa moves. Nor, can you easily look up any other information, for that matter.
This is not to say that you can’t survive without the Internet. But it is an annoyance, so remember to do all of the above before leaving your 4000kBps+ connection.
Side note: make sure to download my video overview of 10 Cuban-style salsa lessons before going to Havana. It can be difficult to remember everything you learn in a one-hour salsa class. Having these videos available offline allows you to practice on your own until you have your next class.
2. Casino, Cuban-style salsa, is a style of its own
If you’re familiar with salsa but not with Casino, the Cuban-style salsa, you’ll have to start learning from the beginning. This is because Cuban salsa is different to other styles of salsa:
“Cuban-style salsa is most similar to the original form of salsa rooted in Cuba. It is characterized by Afro-Cuban-style body movement which includes body isolation and hip movement.
Cuban-style salsa does not have many fast spins. Instead the movement is very circular as opposed to linear and partners tend to travel around each other.
The hip movement is more noticeable in this style and stems from the pumping of the knees.
The footwork is quite simple – the complexity lies in the arm work which requires the follower to have limber, flexible arms.
Cuban-style salsa is considered ‘male dominated’ in the sense that the leader tends to be more showy and will create a greater push/pull feel for the follower than many other styles.”
“Cuban salsa doesn’t use much arm styling. Cubans move their hips, torso and shoulders constantly as they dance. That is where the ‘flavor’ comes from. Popping the arms up in the air on a cross body lead, etc, is only done during performance.”
“Cubans don’t do shines. When they split apart they generally dance ‘despelote’ or ‘tembleque’ or even Afro-Cuban rumba. This is because the percussion breaks in Cuban salsa music call for this.”
Obviously though, if you already dance salsa, whatever style it may be, you’ll be able to catch up with Cuban-style salsa quicker than a salsa beginner. This is because you’re already used to following instructions and to the typical salsa rhythm and because some steps, turns and combinations will be similar to the ones you already know.
3. Great salsa dancer does not equal great salsa instructor
After a couple of days of hardcore sightseeing and mojito tasting, I set out to find a salsa instructor. I started my search with the obvious selection of salsa schools and was quickly disappointed with what I found.
Most salsa schools were inconveniently located outside of Havana Vieja (the hub of the city and the hood in which I would be staying), the premises old and dirty and the charging prices, compared to the living standards of Cuba, too high–averaging around 12 CUC ($12,-) per hour per person.
Mr.G and I initially wanted to take 2 hours of salsa classes every day for a month. At a price of 12 CUC per hour per person this would amount to 1440 CUC (12 CUC x 2 hours x 2 persons x 30 days). Now, compare this cost to the average Cuban salary of 20 CUC per month and you’ll understand my conflict.
Looking to find a better deal, I decided to follow up on a recommendation from the casa particular where we were staying.
I was told that Erlan was a salsa dancer and teacher and that he was willing to teach both Mr.G and I for 10 CUC per hour. Though this is still a lot of money for Cubans, it was significantly less compared to the 24 CUC that other salsa instructors were asking.
Though Erlan proved to be a great salsa dancer, he was clearly no salsa teacher. Not only was he trying to teach us the complete salsa in 2 hours, it was also impossible to follow anything he was doing because he was unable to break down the steps for us.
We were doing all kinds of complicated moves and even trying to dance a contratiempo (offbeat), which is not only extremely difficult for those acquainted with salsa music, but quite impossible if you haven’t even learned yet how to dance salsa on beat first.
Erlan also got upset and impatient when Mr.G and I failed to follow up and it didn’t help either that he didn’t speak English.
My experiment turned out to be a disaster. At least, while I learned that a good salsa dancer does not equal a good salsa teacher, I was also reminded yet again of the following:
If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur. – Red Adair
I had to accept that I wasn’t going to get a local price on this. Salsa classes were obviously catered to tourists. Locals don’t need them: they learn to dance salsa before they learn to talk.
So, I decided to take salsa classes with the only salsa school that appealed to me: La Casa del Son. It turned out to be a great decision. (Related reading: Reviewing Salsa School La Casa del Son in Havana)
The instructors were able to break down the moves for us, to notice our mistakes, to explain what we were doing wrong, to correct it and to lead us through a step by step program adjusted to our level, class after class.
Budget wise things also turned out to be reasonable as our idea of 60 hours of classes was cut back to a way more realistic 10 hours. Plus, compared to the price of a (private!) salsa class in Europe, it was still a bargain.
4. Salsa is dead in Havana
Cubans, especially younger generations, don’t care about salsa much. This is reflected in the dance clubs where the audience rather dances to the beats of reggaeton than to salsa music.
You’ll notice the same when walking down the streets of Havana Vieja where most of the time reggaeton is pumping from people’s houses and speakers.
In restaurants and bars, salsa (house) bands will be playing for the tourists. Clubbing venues that do host salsa parties are also mostly visited by foreigners apart from the occasional salsa teacher and Casanovas who are more likely to be out for your dollars than for a genuine dance.
However, Cubans do still come out for big names. So, if you would like to see more locals than foreigners dancing salsa, then you should go to a concert of one of the greater names, like Los Van Van. (Related reading: Salsa Dancing in Havana – Review)
Wrapping it up
I would like to emphasise that there’s no big salsa scene in Havana. If you’re coming to Havana for social dancing, chances are that you’ll be highly disappointed with the salsa scene.
However, if you would like to learn Cuban-style salsa, I do recommend you to take salsa classes in Havana. Keeping the above points in mind, I have no doubt that with the right salsa school, like La Casa del Son, you’ll have a great time learning salsa in Havana.
Tell me what you think. Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (links match discussion pages for this post) and let me know: Are you planning to take Cuban-style salsa classes in Havana? Is there anything else that you would like to know about dancing salsa in Havana?
After having stayed for one intense month in Havana, I acquired an extensive overview of what is currently my favourite city in the world. On my online city guide, The Girl With The Blueprint, I share all my favourite spots in Havana.
Use this guide, so you can concentrate on dancing salsa without having to think about where to go or what to eat.
If you prefer a more personal recommendation, for example about where to stay and how to get the local experience, or if you have other concerns and questions about the salsa scene in Havana, you can book a Skype talk with me, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.