I was surprised, therefore, when I came across a hand written sign on the back of a cardboard box saying "Viva International Women’s Day". (I translate, of course.) This was in a tiny village on the road from Cienfuego to Trinidad de Cuba. Trinidad is a lovely old Colonial City on the South Coast of Cuba famous for it’s music and dancing and we were going to be there for the obviously much-anticipated International Women’s Day Celebrations.
We were to have some salsa lessons there as part of our Cuban experience and in a miracle of serendipity we discovered that our dance class was taking place in the same building as the IWD party. The venue was part of ARTex, a countrywide organisation which supports Cuban Culture.
But before the party, we must have our salsa lesson. Everyone had been looking forward to this with varying degrees of excitement and fear. The older you are the more fearful you are of making a total tit of yourself.
We are herded into the centre and our “teachers” arrive and are introduced. They are all about 16 and fit. We are divided by gender and each is given a tutor. First, though, the stretching exercises. I managed the neck bit OK but when the hip movements start I just stand and stare at the Prima Ballerina, a blond girl with an exciting yellow costume which leaves little if anything to my already elevated imagination. She demonstrates some hip action. I had never been this close to a fully functional Cuban Dancer before and had never realised just how complex the hip movement is. Round and round, back and forth, up and down and side to side, at the same time doing a figure-of-8 with an intermittent shimmy and a flick. The mind boggled. It (I mean her pelvis) was moving in at least 4 dimensions and in terms of relativity maybe even more. But before I have time to appreciate the full complexity before me, two young black guys grab me, shouting "1,2,3, 1,2,3" I smile as amiably as possible and stare at their feet. They are flashing around in front of me in an artistic but incomprehensible manner. I am unable to follow them. Their shouts become louder, tinged with exasperation "1,2,3, 1,2,3."
The main Male dancer, driven beyond bearing, takes me in his arms and we have another go. Am I leading? Is he leading? Confusion. Now I know he is leading but from the woman’s position. Total Confusion. The Lead dancer throws up his hands in despair and walks away, leaving me shattered. I should explain here that, in my own part of the country, I am a well known and acclaimed waltzer of the old school with a much imitated gliding motion and very little upper body movement. And certainly no hips, ever, no matter what.
As I stand, crushed, I am saved by a lovely girl who comes into the frenzied class (everyone else is going through this crash course at the same time), recognises that I am special and decides to take the challenge. I am led away to a quiet corner. It is Salsa Class, Special Needs.
Out in the Class, Shirley is rolling her hips like a Habanera (I hope that doesn’t mean a cigar), and Laura from London, born to dance, is matching the locals. I am able to concentrate on my gentle teacher "123, 123. No, try again, 123 123. Almost there. Over confidence. No, back to basics." And so after a short time of this sympathetic care, I was beginning to get in the swing. Unfortunately, I was also sweating like a bull and becoming short of breath. So I have to stop but not before I have had a glimpse of what salsa can be and it was good.
The lesson was immediately followed by the International Women’s Day party. And if there is one thing Cubans know how to do it is party. The urge to use capitals is irresistible. They really know how to PARTY. The Artex building was closed to outsiders. A couple of illegal cigar dealers were ejected because: a) they hadn’t been invited and b) they were male and crooks. The Celebration had actually been organised by the Party — the Communist Party, that is. Lots of women in white shirts, red scarves and tight but becoming navy blue mini-skirts were in excited evidence, barely able to contain their enthusiasm for the Party or the party.
As it was, IWD and it was Cuba, there were a couple of speeches and readings by men who were congratulated by all the other men present. "Good job, Jose." Then the real party started. The Prima Ballerina gave her interpretation, to salsa music, of the importance of … well, women by dancing a sort of Cuban Swan Lake. Now changed from her mind-bending yellow costume into a white number with flowing wings of gauze, she swanned around beautifully and ended in a recumbent position. This was combined with the splits, which was received with tumultuous applause.
Then a pause while all the men in the Audience queued up to collect red roses and Valentine’s Day Cards. These they bore with great ceremony and a lot of good-humoured heckling to the lights of their lives. This being Cuba some went up for seconds for their girlfriends as well and one disgraceful old lad tried for 3 but was chased away rather rudely.
A 15-piece band with 3 superb singers and a rhythm section from heaven supplied the music. The standard of music in Cuba is phenomenal, no matter where you are in the country. Dancing erupted rather the started and all were out to impress. The women danced with independence and grace that was wondrous to behold while the boys, in a line, provided a vision of machismo and virile expertise that I fear would have the founders of the IWD spinning in their graves.
At this point, the Party Girls got going and showed that a grasp of the basics of dialectic materialism was no hindrance in getting on down and dirty. The dancing reached a crescendo (if dancing can be said to do such a thing) when an event called "Riding the Bull" was announced. Only the very fittest, in every sense of the word, were needed for this manoeuvre. The Party Girls refused point blank to have anything to do with it. Their position as Communists as well as the fact that their minis were too tight to allow them straddle their partners prohibited them from participating. But a couple of local girls as well as the fittest of the visitors were pressed into service and the fun began. Riding the Bull actually is a good descriptive term. The Boys support themselves on the legs and arms, offering their middle regions to the sky and their partners straddle them, grind their hips to force them to the ground, and think of England or Cuba or whatever they want to think of. It is all good clean fun accompanied by roars of approval as each dancer tries to out do the others in lasciviousness. Eventually, of course, the Bull collapses and the girls go away delighted.
The music and dancing continued, the rum flowed (each table had a full bottle to begin with), and hilarity increased. Then, as in all good parties, the food was brought in. Lashings of it and a big pink cake, which was a huge success. By this time, the band had played itself into an Orrissa-like groove, which was wonderful. People ate, danced, drank, flirted, fell down, laughed and clapped anything. There was even a Communist Party Conga line. Then 6.00 struck. There was a very short blast of a siren. The band stopped in mid-bar and started to pack their instruments. The dancing, at this stage general, took a little longer to stop. Everyone in the best of good humour took the food they hadn’t eaten and wrapped it up to take away with them and that was the end of IWD in Trinidad.
We travelled with Gap Adventure Holidays on their Colonial Cuba Tour which is an excellent way of seeing a lot of this fascinating country.