An Afro-Cuban technique class at Ailey Extension (Agnes Weiglosz, courtesy Noibis Licea)

The Rich Traditions of Afro-Cuban Dance

Why do you dance? Because you love it? To compete, to perform, to express yourself? In the Afro-Cuban folkloric tradition, dance is so deeply entwined with music, storytelling, and religion that almost everyone dances, and there's almost always a reason to be dancing.

"In life, there are so many celebrations to dance about," says Noibis Licea, an NYC-based dancer and choreographer from Bayamo, Cuba, who graduated from the National School of Arts in Havana. "Births, prayers for specific wishes like the health of someone going through surgery, protection from unexpected problems—there are dances for all those occasions and situations." And many of these dances are all still practiced today, in Cuba and in classes around the U.S.

Moved by the Spirits

Most movement in the Afro-Cuban dance tradition comes out of the African religion known as Yoruba, which West Africans continued to practice in Cuba after they were enslaved and forced to work on the island. Practitioners of Yoruba believe that there are many different expressions of God called orixás. Each orixá symbolizes a different part of life or the world around us, and each has a characteristic movement style and "implement," or tool.

"You use your body to indicate what's powerful about that orixá," explains Rosemarie Roberts, a professor of dance at Connecticut College who specializes in African diasporic dance. For example, Ochún is the deity of sweet waters, beauty, love, and destiny (among other virtues and ideas). Performing her dances, Roberts says, involves manipulating a flowing skirt while rippling the hands and upper body in the way water moves. Other main orixás to whom Yoruba believers pray by dancing are, as Licea recounts: Eleguá ("a young kid who oversees beginnings and endings"), Ogún ("a strong hunter whose arm movements suggest a machete"), Obatalá ("a knowledgeable old man who represents peace and wisdom"), and Oyá ("a female warrior who whips a horse's tail to bring about changes").

Licea teaching an Ailey Extension Afro-Cuban class (Joe Epstein, courtesy Licea)

Getting Technical

Because much of Afro-Cuban dance arose out of a shared West African heritage, it has a lot of qualities in common with other African diasporic danced rituals and traditions. When Roberts teaches Afro-Cuban dance to college students, she emphasizes Africanist aesthetics, like polyrhythm and polycentrism—moving different parts of the body to different drum rhythms at the same time. "You need to have a clear sense of the difference in what your feet versus upper body versus hips are doing," she explains. "There's also a sense of holding back or keeping your cool, even as you move freely."

Licea says that you'll probably recognize much of the tumbao—the proper alignment for Afro-Cuban—from modern classes you've already taken: "Contraction and release, translated to Afro-Cuban, is an undulation of the torso." In your first Afro-Cuban class, remember to bend your knees deeply in parallel and lean the torso forward, keeping your weight mostly on the balls of the feet. "I always tell students to think about when you're tying your shoes," Licea says. "Stop halfway through the roll up and that's the posture. Don't forget to engage your abdominal muscles to support your back!"

Dancers performing Licea's choreography at the 2016 World Dance Celebration Afro-Cuban performance (Christian Miles, courtesy Licea)

The Big Picture

Roberts says that traditional Afro-Cuban dance is just one square in a larger quilt of African diasporic dance—i.e., dances that began in Africa but have changed over centuries and across continents. "Each Caribbean island has its own arts, history, cultural and social norms, and language," she says, "and each island was also influenced by where its people originated." For example, many Haitians settled in eastern Cuba, so the dances of that region are different from those in Havana (the capital city).

In its turn, aspects of Afro-Cuban dance have influenced dance on the island and around the world. "Técnica de la danza cubana (Cuban modern dance technique), which was codified to be taught in Cuba's National School of the Arts starting in 1961, is derived in large part from Afro-Cuban dance and Afro-Cuban rhythms," Licea says. And it's not just modern: "Afro-Cuban's rapid transitions and the tumbao can be seen in all other forms of social dance: hip hop, rumba, mambo, cha-cha, et cetera," Roberts says.

Afro-Cuban dance is still relevant today. "Someone sent me a video recently of a popular song that talks about the different orixás," Roberts says. "There's a lot of fluidity between the dances and 'real life,' because these spiritual and religious traditions are so much a part of Cuban daily life—for men and women, the old and the young."

Latest Posts

Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search