The following post recounts an experience I had during my first of many trips to Cuba from 1999 – 2012.
“Quiero una cerveza,” I tell the bartender
“Crystal o Bucanero?” he asks.
The two main beers of Cuba, one on the lighter side, the other, slightly more dark. “Dame una Crystal,” I say with the pleasure that comes from being able to make a choice uncomplicated by having too many options.
Pouring the beer into a half-chilled glass, I suck it down. It’s a hot day in Havana. Just then an older gentleman approaches from a nearby table. “Quieres bailar?” he asks with subdued confidence.
“Gracias, pero no hay musica,” I tell him, looking around the bar then back at him for agreement.
“No importa. Venga,” the gentleman replies, his right arm reaching out towards me.
Josef is a tall slender man, who looks part African and part Asian. He has strong lines on either side of his mouth that deepen when he grins revealing yellow-stained front teeth rimmed with gold. Despite this and the slight reek of cigar smoke, he’s enchanting. “Bueno,” I nod in acceptance.
He takes my hand and escorts me to a spot several feet from the bar then gestures for me to stand beside him. “Mirame, mira mis pies” Josef says, pointing both fingers at my eyes, then back to his feet. Standing with his feet ten inches apart, he leans forward just enough for his arms to dangle free before him. He takes one step to his right then brings his foot back to its original position. Then he takes one step to his left and brings it back.
This is easy – I got this, I think. “Four steps…that’s it?” I say.
I bend my knees and step right, then back to center, left, then back to center, just like he showed me. After a few more attempts, I speed up, making me believe that I’m doing well. Turning back to Josef, in anticipation of his praise, his expression tells me otherwise. Scratching the back of his head with a perplexed look on his face, he taps his chest and tells me I have to listen to the rhythm from inside. Marking each step slowly, he claps out the rhythm, “Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco; Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco.”
I recognize it immediately from my Cuban dance class. It’s a rhythm of the clave – two smooth wooden sticks that when played together provide the foundational pattern for Afro-Cuban music.
Closing my eyes, I try to focus on his voice and the rhythm. Clap, clap, (pause) clap-clap- clap. How am I supposed to keep my belly relaxed and my knees bent at the same time? And my feet, it’s as if they have their own brain. (Now I know how men feel about that other body part of theirs.) This should be easy for me, but it’s not. It feels foreign. And what’s up with this should in my mind? No doubt it’s from my identity as a dancer. A dancer with twenty years of experience! But who cares about all that experience if in this moment, I can’t even follow a simple step.
I wish I could do the step the way Joseph’s doing it – on the beat and with total commitment.
Focus. Relax. Listen. I tell myself. Keep it simple. Breath. Move from the breath in sync with the rhythm. That’s the only task.
I look over at Josef, who looks back at me, bending his knees even more, as if to challenge me to do the same.
I focus on my feet; right, then back to the original position, then left, and then back to center. Breath, focus, sink into the rhythm. For a moment my hips, torso and shoulders seem to move in concert and with the least amount of effort.
Lowering myself even closer to the floor to match Josef, my thighs begin to hurt and my legs shake. I look down, lose focus and almost fall over myself. Josef’s elegant and precise movements are beyond reach for now. Our wordless dialogue continues for a moment before I have to stop and rest. Catching my breath, I ask him, “Que hace a un buen bailador?
With a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Tienes que escuchar a Dios,”
Note: While the man in this photo is not the actual Josef I danced with (unfortunately, I took no photo), this gentlemen exudes Josef’s joy and warmth.