Today, I woke up and took a look at our itinerary, which showed that we’d be attending a class about Cuban music. As I’ll explain, this wasn’t a particularly normal lecture. The bus dropped us off as usual and we met Ruben, our guest instructor, at the front door, and he took us upstairs to a dark room with a small stage and some chairs, which we made into a circle. The room seemed, frankly, dead, and I wasn’t sure why we were there for class. There was an array of different instruments around the guitar on the floor. As soon as Ruben started talking to us, I forgot we were even in a “lecture,” and honestly forgot it was a lecture until I wrote this.
Ruben explained to us in this interactive class the history of music in Cuba, which is extremely diverse in style. Cuba had been such a hub of different cultures during its peak years of tourism and trade, and all of these different cultures circulating through the region had an impact on the music that still exists today. The different styles of Cuban music all had distinct beats, most of which came from the Afro-Cuban culture that was largely due to the origin of slaves in the 1800s. Ruben then began to teach these beats to us.
He handed out a few instruments and the room just came to life. We clearly weren’t the most musically inclined group in the world, but he was happy enough to try and keep us on beat. He gave us all our own beat to keep up, and we started to make what almost sounded like music. This type of music was very foreign to all of us but was so interesting to learn the history of. We played the instruments as best as we could and shared a few laughs. Ruben showed us the beats, talked about the music, its history, and where in Cuba it originated from, and then told us to get on our feet. It was time to dance.
Once we started to dance, it became extremely apparent how much less rhythmic we were than all of the locals. Ruben showed us some of the moves for each dance, and then we would try to do it with music. We all looked like deer in headlights with four left hooves, but we tried our best. Ruben, Ana and Diana demonstrated some of the dances for us, which included la cha-cha-cha, la contradanza, la mamba, and la conga. They all moved very naturally, like they had been dancing like this as a second nature. We, however, never really learned how to dance as a part of our culture. Dance is a very selective art in the United States and is not as widespread as it is in Cuba; dancing is seen as a feminine activity that only some people can do, whereas in Cuba, most of each gender are able to dance. It even gives men a better chance of attracting girls’ attention if they’re good dancers. Hearing this and witnessing it firsthand was a bit of a culture shock, because our boys certainly weren’t innately suave on the dancefloor (sorry, boys, you are all wonderful people). Ruben and the others sure had a laugh, but they didn’t totally judge us for our lack of skills. We all had fun with it, and it was a good time even while we fell over each other.
After our life-changing dance lecture, the physical activity didn’t come to an end. The bus dropped us off at a different school, where we walked up the stairs to a small matted room for a kickboxing class! Boxing is a widely respected and practiced sport in Cuba and has a pretty big importance among its people. In 2012, a Cuban boxer beat his American opponent for the gold, which is definitely remembered among everyone (we even saw an art exhibit depicting the win at the Cuban MFA!).
Emily introduced us to our teacher Evelio, who is a bodyguard for celebrities visiting Cuba and has biceps bigger than my head. We kicked off our shoes and got ready for the next hour or so of huffing and puffing. Evelio was a bit intimidating and I believe I caught him calling me a chicken in Spanish. I understood most of what he was saying to us to help us box, but Scott and Julian were definitely necessary translators. Evelio pushed us really hard as he taught us how to throw punches at the air and at his hands and it was such a good workout, especially once he had us spar. I would say we held our own and did a good job in Evelio’s eyes. Ilene even said we were the best group she had seen so far! We definitely kickboxed some butt.
Overall, it was a pretty physical day between the dancing and the boxing. Although we were technically “in class” for most of the day, both of the classes were such a good time and we got to have fun with it. It showed us even more that our trip was an immersive experience, and not just school. We learned a lot about Cuban culture through their music and through one of their best fighters, and we weren’t just sitting in a classroom listening. We were learning by active participation! The day left us sweaty and strong, and surely some sore days to follow, but it was well worth it.