Dance Students Get a Taste of Cuban Culture

Posted: September 19, 2011 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: September 16, 2011 at 5:01 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Dance students in a Vodun dance class in Guantánamo with their instructor, Conjunto Babul. Photo courtesy of Jim Lepore

On the streets of American cities, it would be quite a sight to see a group of people dancing away to the sounds of a nearby band. In many parts of Cuba, where music and dance are one and the same, this is just a typical occurrence.

Several Mason students recently experienced this lively culture when they visited three eastern Cuban cities: Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo and Baracoa. Led by Jim Lepore, a professor in Mason’s School of Dance, 16 students — five Mason dance majors, seven Mason general education students and four students from other universities — participated.

The trip, which took place June 24 through July 5, was one of the first academic trips to Cuba since former President George W. Bush restricted certain types of travel to the country in 2004. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama lifted many of those travel restrictions.

“Cuba is one of the few places you can visit where music and dance are part of the people’s everyday lives,” says Lepore, an avid lover of Cuban culture. “Although they don’t have a lot of personal belongings, they see their culture as their inheritance and they make every effort to preserve it.”

During the 11-day trip, the students spent most of their time dancing, either in a formal classroom setting or informally on the city streets. It wasn’t uncommon, notes Lepore, to encounter either a large group of people or simply two or three people dancing in the streets at some point during the day.

“This experience was truly life changing,” says Rachel Klein, a junior dance major. “As a passionate dancer, for me the best part of the trip was learning different dances in the classroom and then having the opportunity to use the things we learned every night when we would go out dancing.”

<p>Dance students with some of their Cuban teachers. Photo courtesy of Jim Lepore</p>

To understand Cuban music and dance, however, one must understand the rich cultural traditions of this Caribbean country.

The Cuban music and dance that is prevalent throughout the country today dates back to the late 19th century when large numbers of African slaves and European immigrants brought their own diverse cultures to the island.

The fusion of these different traditions resulted in what is the dominant influence found in the country today — Afro-Cuban. In fact, Afro-Cuban traditions can be traced back to specific ethnic groups in Africa.

To learn more about the music and dance that reflects the Afro-Cuban heritage, the students worked with two dance companies during their visit: Ballet Folklórico Cutumba in Santiago de Cuba and Babul Folkloric Ballet in Guantánamo. Much of the musical-dance heritage of the country, they learned, is steeped in religious and folkloric traditions.

In daily lessons with the companies, students were introduced to popular dance, music and song ranging from gagá to rumba to son (also known as salsa). Choreography was filled with distinctive steps and rhythms, and sensuous movements.

According to Lepore, the Cuban dance style is very different from ballet and modern dance. There is more fluidity in the torso, movements are kept close to the body, and the music and rhythm go hand-in-hand.

“It’s intended to put you into a trance so you’re one with the music,” he says.

The students also worked with several Cuban musicians on call and response techniques, which are used extensively in religious Cuban music. A call and response is a succession of two distinct phrases, usually played by different musicians, where the second phrase is heard as a direct response to the first.

“Being in Cuba was like stepping into a brilliant story about a magical people living in a strange magical land,” says Lynn Poe, a junior dance major. “This trip excited me about taking future cultural expeditions where I can experience how music and dance are woven into the tapestry of our global cultural history.”

Lepore plans to take another group of students to Cuba in January 2012.





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