Casino, cuban salsa

Why dance salsa in the Cuban style?

Why not “regular salsa”?

Click on these, one look should show you… more flavour… more natural… more fun!

Couples dancing Casino style

Cuban dance lesson

TV Rueda competition

Rueda de Casino in Cuba (with English)

( to see dance clips from Cuba today, keep an eye on MuchoSwing and YouTube )

You might spot differences… “Don’t they even know how to dip and spin??”

But… on the other hand… there’s this sensuousness, playfulness, spontaneity.

In a catch-phrase, cuban style is rock ‘n roll… and the salsa of the mainstream dance school business is — ballroom.  To understand, let’s begin by understanding a bit more about Cuba.


Casino dance began In the late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s while a new exciting music was evolving in Cuba. By the 70’s, bands in New York were playing this music. New York marketers started calling it “salsa”.

Within a few years, young dancers at Havana social clubs called “Casinos” worked up the first versions of “casino” dancing, perfect for the new music.

The word “casino” was associated with high-life and leisure classes … before the revolution. In fact, these clubs were typical upper and middle class social clubs. Some of the nicest were along the waterfront in Miramar, and offered docks for yachts, sandy beaches, luxurious pools and bars, fancy dining rooms, tennis courts etc.

One of the most exclusive clubs was Casino Deportivo (Sports Club)… at the downtown end of 1st Avenue, beside the Karl Marx theatre (before the revolution, Teatro Blanquita Amaro). Here was one of the most active and original groups of “casineros” … as the dancers were soon called. Teenage children of club members quickly became completely fanatical about the new dance, and are today considered the founders of “rueda de casino”.

After the revolution, most upper-class “casinos” became social clubs for worker groups. The Casino Deportivo is now Círculo Social Cristino Naranjo. It is now a club for employees of MININT, the ministry of the interior… with security to match. Even taking a picture is forbidden!

Club Naútico, now Circulo Social Patricio Lumumba

But other clubs, like Naútico (map) with the wave-like blue arches, can be visited. Have someone with you to speak Spanish and explain your interest in culture and history… and you should have no trouble getting in.

You will see the Naútico bandstand, not too flashy… but immortalized lately on the cover of Adalberto Alvarez’s Para Bailar Casino CD. (And while you are in Havana, here’s where to find out what else to do: see “The timba geek’s guide to Havana” on this blog of an Australian Cuba fan, Yemaya’s Verse.)

Here’s the definitive book by the dean of the ‘Bailes Populares y Folklore’ faculty of the world famous ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) in Havana, respected authority Bárbara Balbuena.CasinoSalsaBalbuena

Another article about the origin of salsa and casino dancing is here in La Jiribilla in Spanish. Example translated, “It’s not so strange that the young people in the Casino clubs were good dancers of rock and roll, with all those arm movements, turns, and the repetitive separation and joining of the couples.”

It’s really unimportant which casino was the original. It took decades of synergy of music and dancers across Havana and Cuba to arrive at Casino dancing today!

At first, the dance spread to other kids in these social clubs along the Miramar waterfront … only later to those less privileged. As they developed this new dance, the Cuban kids used all the ideas at hand: mambo, cha-cha-cha, rumba, son dances of Cuba, afro-dancing. In fact, the first ruedas de casino were done to cha-cha-cha rhythms.

And yes, some of those turns, with the trademark open and close with a hand-push, come from U.S. jivers visiting Cuba.

The dance propagated among dancers directly (there are no salsa dance schools for Cubans!). That’s why you see a great deal more individuality and spontaneity in Cuba. And a subtle… but essential… difference in “what they think they are doing”. Maybe they seem more into the moment with partner and music, less concerned with the effect they might be having on an audience.

But it was a simpler Casino in those days.

Each generation needs to have something of their own. They respond in new ways to the new music that inspires them.


Since the mid-late 1990’s, Casino in Cuba is danced with a new passion, a new edge, a new liveliness. All because of a new kind of music … “Timba”.

The country was desperate in the 1990’s… with the loss of support of the USSR. Music and dance became more important than ever… “luxuries” that could be enjoyed without wealth. And a way to forget the problems.

Fabulous musicians were graduating from the state music schools by the hundreds… when bread was scarce, there was still good free education. They began watching each other like hawks to see who would come up with a new sound first.

Jose Luis Cortez formed his group NG La Banda and showed some ideas. The dancers went nuts, the rest is history …

He combined Cuban salsa and Cuban rumba, harmonic progression from the Russian classical composers, with Cuban son and mambo, American jazz and funk, .. into a new craze… A sophisticated, complex, varied, flexible format. A music that very likely, no other public in the world could have understood and embraced the way Cuba did.

People put a lot of thought into analyzing this music. The grandfather in English is, in French fiestacubana, follow links from these sites to many more. But Daisuke Hinata, Japanese director of Cubamania DVD says it plain and simple: “The difference between Cuban salsa, and other salsa, is that… the Cubans make it more musical!”.


Timba music was “made in Cuba” for one purpose… and one purpose only: to inspire and excite dancers.

Everything else is secondary: the singers, the musicians, the chorus, must all serve this need.

The new bands were valued not only for their music, but how inventive they were at dancing. In effect, the audiences and bands showed each other how to dance to it.

The bands looked into the crowd and saw people from poor areas, many of them black, doing rumba variations to the music. They adapted them and fed them back to the audience and they spread quickly to all the fans. Couples started to let go of each other, break apart, come together, break apart… doing “despelote” and other solo moves. To match this energy, the old casino moves were danced with new variations and new intensity.

In the new century, the influence of North America comes full circle again. Hip Hop morphs to Reggaeton in Latin America where it becomes the most popular music. In Cuba, it is even more integrated with mainstream. And of course, the timba bands include the reggaeton section now… and the dancers respond.

Each timba song is broken into sections, that build excitement level after level, and challenge the dancer to respond. Dancers tune in to this… the best can always surprise and delight their partner as they work with the changes.

Today’s Casino dancing and Timba music are joined at the hip.

So when you pick a place to learn Cuban dance… make sure you get the full package.

Trying to dance modern energetic Casino, to bland salsa music… that’s like buying the car without the motor. If Timba seems demanding after a bland diet of night-club salsa… don’t worry, it passes! Learn to love the music by dancing to it… just the way they do in Cuba.


In the group dance, Rueda de Casino, couples dance in a circle synchronized to the calls of a leader. Some of the moves involve changing partners, which leads to a dance that can be very dynamic and enjoyable. It might even be thoroughly rehearsed, if there’s a competition.

Probably the biggest factor in Rueda de Casino’s rapid spread were the boarding schools across Cuba.

Young students from the city are all sent to country boarding schools (and vice-versa)… as educational policy, to broaden their social opinions.

In the evenings, a favorite activity was of course self-organized dancing. At many schools, students danced in ruedas every night of the week. They invented new steps, difficult steps, funny steps, with good imaginations; and visitors between schools spread the best ideas. It wasn’t TAUGHT BY the schools; but it was tolerated ;-)… it was better than a lot of other things the kids could have been doing!

Typically it was, “el que pierde sale“: if you screw up a move, you are out of the circle. That encourages better dancing, and careful watching … steps are sometimes a little different in different schools. But also, it allows rotation of the dancers.

After getting back from boarding school, it became of course a favorite party activity, dancing rueda de casino, just like it was done back at school.


Dance culture is quite different in countries where people have very little money to spend… especially in Cuba. There is no money to pay for dance schools… so there are no salsa dance schools for Cubans!

They make it up themselves… to provide relaxation, satisfaction, to share good times with family and peers. It works much like conversation. It encourages spontaneity… cleverness… responsiveness… humour. It’s learned as you learn conversation, from the same people: your family and peers.

In a nutshell… Cubans use dance to express themselves and enjoy life… without money.

Here in the consumer society, we DO have money. So we buy… instead of doing ourselves. But… what we buy… is not necessarily the same thing as it replaces. In terms of dance, we often see:

  • “Canned athletic moves” are easier to teach and evaluate. So “feeling the music” is hardly mentioned. Or, it is just a slogan without practical effect.
  • Students pay the same amount for the class. They often expect to “get” the same result as everybody else. Individualism only causes problems, so it’s weeded out.

Already, how can dancing with a partner be a conversation? What can you “say” without showing individuality/spontaneity/ or how you feel the music?

All that’s left, is for dancing to be an assertion of your skills. No wonder Latin-born dancers often say it looks like showiness without feeling for the music!

If that’s not for you, find your own way. See the list here, there are teachers who really teach Cuban style dancing, right here in Toronto.

Some work without much “dance school business” structure. Some have a class and level structure… but they make sure that doesn’t stop you learning to be a good “dance conversationalist”, in the Cuban style.

An interesting article (2005, Argentina) in Spanish about the state of cuban-style dance is at A quote:” I always tell my students there’s no use to know 200 moves if you have no feel for the music. Once you can actually move your body to the music, and you really begin to understand and enjoy it, dance moves are not important. ” You might easily get the impression that most of the dance school industry is based on the opposite idea: to package and sell moves, and that’s all!

Cuban style dance teachers in Toronto

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Cuban culture in Toronto, Canada