That Sunday I heard about a public party in Havana’s El Centro district in an alley painted with murals by resident artist and sculptor Salvador González that sounded promising, with live musicians and dancing in the streets. A well-known Cuban guidebook-writer-friend of mine had just been mugged here the month before and warned me about thieving and dangers in this part of town, but I ignored him and shuffled into the shabby neighborhood, hoping to get down with the locals.
As I walked down evermore dilapidated streets, the air hazy with pollution, I was amazed to find that the edifices were stunning in their faded grandeur. Like Elizabeth Taylor’s or Bette Davis’s face after years of drinking—puffy and blotchy but still glamorous in a ruined way. El Centro looked like I imagined a war zone would—a bombed, crumbling mess watched over by hundred-year-old carved angels and Doric columns.
It was a muggy, hot afternoon, and a large crowd spilled out from the Callejón de Hamel alley, where the dance party was being held. Amid the dozens of tourists pointing cameras were drummers and pickpockets bumping into people with furtive glances and nimble fingers. Souvenir stands with plastic saints and ashtrays were jumbled together in doorways.
Despondent, I wandered down potholed streets. Aside from the more publicized-than-expected dance party, El Centro seemed deserted, but I talked to a man on his stoop wearing a wife-beater and boxers. He was missing an arm. “Angola” was all he said when I asked him what happened. Then he told me he’d been part of the Cuban revolutionary army brigade that went to Angola in Africa and fought for the leftist People’s Movement. The scar was a jaggedly done sew-job.
I wondered whether to turn left or right—or did it matter? Would I end up back in my room reading for another evening? Then, the sound of drumming arose in the distance.
I headed in the direction of the beat, which emanated from an open doorway in a private home. It was one of many small houses painted in faded pastel colors, crowded together along the empty street. All the doorways were open due to the heat and seemed deserted, but this one was a beehive of lively percussion. I leaned in. Before I could back away, thin arms pulled me into a crowded living room, and a chanting mass surrounded me—people reaching out to touch my bracelets. They were also wearing colorful beads around their wrists.
A dark, statuesque woman in a skin-tight red dress and towering yellow patent leather heels drew me further into the mayhem. A thick scar traveled from her chin to her mouth. A machete stroke to silence her, I wondered?
She beamed a gold-toothed smile and made space for me in the smoky parlor where young men danced beside middle-aged women wearing the ubiquitous hooker-style outfit—skimpy shorts and tops displaying super-sized thighs and bulging breasts. It appeared to be a pulsing room filled with tranced-out, dolled-up transvestites. Pressed into the corner were five drummers banging away in a sweaty frenzy, and a priest, who was leading the chanting and channeling Babaloo—the god of healing and strength.
The beat intensified. Dancers raised arms in the air and turned in circles until their eyes rolled back. I tried to keep up with the hip rotations and salsa-gone-dervish, which was quite a workout in the steamy, windowless room. It reminded me of being in the Amazon in the heat of summer with a high humidity factor. But I was so happy. Finally, dancing with abandon—with real Cubans! No gigolos or pickpockets.
The red-dress woman hooked her arm around my gyrating hips and led me down a narrow, paint-chipped hall into a room no larger than a pantry. Inside was an altar to an orisha clothed in yellow, and I touched the bracelet of the same-hued beads that the vendor had given me. Was this Oshún? The thought brought an even stronger sense of closeness to this group of dancers. Offerings of food, fruit, money—even toy trucks—were piled high across the floor and up the walls, surrounding a two-foot-tall doll in the corner. It looked like a Christmas present Uncle Stanley gave me when I was six years old—except this doll was chocolate-brown, not ivory-white.
A turbaned priestess lit votives arranged around the doll. The priestess was adorned in a frilly yellow dress that took up half the room and was a life-sized version of the one the doll was wearing. The woman turned to me and said, “Enter. You may say a prayer.” I squeezed in, pushed a plate of cookies aside, and knelt on the cement floor beside her. She handed me a long seedpod rattle and guided me to shake it wildly in the air toward the bulgy-eyed plastic doll in the yellow dress.
The priestess gently clasped my arm, pulled me toward her, and whispered in my ear, “You may pray out loud or internally. Who are you praying to help?”
“My mother?” I said tentatively. (Even though my mother had died four years ago.)
“Tu madre.” The priestess nodded knowingly.
I closed my eyes and shook the rattle noisily above my head, praying for the well-being of my mother in the afterlife or wherever she was.
“Tu madre está bien. Ella es feliz.” As she patted my back, the warm-palmed priestess assured me my mother was well and happy.
I kissed the ground and slipped a couple Cuban pesos into the offering basket after touching it to my forehead as instructed. I stood, bowed, and backed out of the tiny room.
In the parlor I joined the dancers in more enthusiastic rhumbaing and singing. I don’t usually sing in public, but I was fairly certain no one could hear me. The loud din of the percussion bounced off the walls of the boxy room that throbbed with 20 gyrating dancers.
The red-dress woman was back at my side. She encouraged me to shout and chant and groan, all while doing a funky-chicken-style salsa. She hypnotically whispered the words of the chants into my ear, then indicated with a ripple of her long fingers that if I felt goosebumps or chills I should dance harder and faster—so I did.
My guide’s eyes were rolling back. She swayed like a palm tree in a hurricane, holding onto me for support. It was quite cozy. I felt included and needed, and I danced protectively around her, afraid she might fall and hurt herself, and me.
The woman returned from her trance and whispered, “Everyone in this room is suffering. From death, lost love, ill health. The ceremony is the only place we have for solace and protection.” Her eyes rolled back again but then came back into focus as she stared hard at me. “We all have problems—everyone is here because life is hard. We all suffer.” She told me, “Shake it loose. Dance it out. Let it go. Give it to the orishas. Unload your suffering. We are all in the same manera (way).”
My humanness made me one of them. I, too, had suffered. It had been very hard for me when my mother died, and I still missed her with a hole in my heart that couldn’t fully heal. The bracelets were my membership card, and my shoes were really getting a workout. This is better than salsa dancing, I thought, letting the aching grief pour over me and then wash away, for a time, on the drumbeat. It’s spiritual. (copyright Lisa Alpine 2018)
I traveled in Cuba for a month at the end of 2015. This story is excerpted from my story “Sugar Granny in Her Dancing Shoes” which will be published in my next book Dance Life.
I collected an excellent reading list on all things Cuban. Here are some great books—gotta reads—if you are going or are curious.
Also here is a great story I wrote on where to stay: “Casa Particulars in Cuba: My ‘A’ List“.