Tango in Cuba

Stephen H. Hoffman, M.D.

Note: This article was posted by Stephen H. Hoffman, M.D. to TANGO-L on December 2nd, 1999 and is reproduced here with his kind permisson.
Authors's note: I hope this essay is being sent to the right list (Tango-L), as it concerns the broad subject of tango in Cuba, with musical, historical, and social perspectives, - and is not an advertisement for any particular place or activity in Cuba.

Dear Listeros,

I asked a month or so ago about the possibility of finding tango in Cuba, and now, after a two-week trip, and some research, I can answer my own question, if any members are curious. As usual, there is some Good News, and there is some Bad News:

First, the Good News (for the guys out there): There are approximately 3 times as many female dancers as male tango dancers in Cuba.

Now, the Bad News: There are (maybe) three female dancers, and only one known male dancer (but he is already partnered up with his sister, the only known teacher).

So, the short Version of this story is this:

  1. There is no tango dancing in Cuba.
  2. There IS one locale for very delightful and authentic tango singing and musicianship, in Habana Vieja, two days a week, in the early evenings. It's as simple, and as limited, as that.

A somewhat more detailed description of the current situation with tango in Cuba is this:

As I was trying to plan my trip, and had information provided to me from a number a people who were using the internet to find their information, the same names and locations kept coming up. It turns out that some of this information was valid, and some is not. (For example, the names Wilki and Adelaide kept getting repeated and handed off from one informant to another. These two are a swell couple who are Afto-Cuban and salsa dancers, not tango dancers.) I can clarify more details for those that are interested:

There are two locations concerned with tango in Havana, and their names turn out to be confusingly similar, although they are completely unrelated:

The first is the Caserón del Tango in Habana Vieja (the old city). Is is located at Jústiz, No. 21, just a block and a half from the Plaza de Armas, and Hemmingway's regular hotel while in the city, Ambos Mundos. This place is a quaint, attractive, open-air, courtyard bar and sitting area. On Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 pm., 20-25 people who like tango music (generally older folks) gather to have coffee or a mojito (rum, lime juice and mint leaves) and listen to what I believe may be the only active tango conjunto in the city.

This group is wonderful. You can totally imagine yourself in the Buenos Aires of the 40s. The musicians (two guitars, string bass, and accordeon) are old gents who play beautifully. They sit on a little wooden stage and the guests ($1 each, for tourists; EVERY price is government regulated) sit alongside the bar or in the patio to listen and chat with their friends (it's sort of an "after work" kind of atmosphere). What really makes this event is the heartfelt and talented singing of an always-changing series of Cuban senior citizens who take the micorphone by turns, and deliver, with true passion, the dear tangos that they undoubtedly heard and loved in their youths, before the Revolution.

There is no dancing... although, on my very first visit there, when I had been in Cuba 2 days, and a total of a half-hour in their establishment, when the master of ceremonies heard that a visiting gringo dancer was in the audience, I was introduced, everyone applauded, and within minutes, having been invited to "be in the show", I danced two tangos up front with the "teacher", a classy young fair-haired lady by the name of Sujyra. She and her brother Carlos are the only dancers I was able to discover who actually can dance tango. They have several students (young women), who are beginners. These few persons occasionally get together for a casual tango lesson on Mondays at 5 pm and Sat. at 1 pm, given by Sujyra.

The other location is the Casa del Tango, now located at Neptuna #309 (the previous address was #305, but they had to change premises). This spacious but rather worn two-room establishment is 3 blocks off the Parque Central, where you find the elegant Hotel Englaterra and other nice venues. The Casa del Tango is a private establishment, as opposed to the vast majority of cultural/social entities, which are government controlled.

It was started almost 4O years ago by a Sr. Edmund Daubar Baena, as a repository of tango history and culture from the pre-Revolution era, when tango was beloved and regularly sung by many (now older) persons from many Latin nations. Many gringos would be surprised to find out how many older persons from countries like Chile, Uruguay, Columbia, Cuba, and even Mexico, grew up listening to the Argentine tangos that were played on the ancient monaural phonographs and radio stations of that era. For the most part, they did not dance tango, which explains why in Cuba, as in many South American coutries, they know and love tango, but don't dance it.

Sr. Dauber died two years ago, but his widow Claribel and his grandson Rubén Alberto Diaz Dauber (President of the Asociación Cubana Amigos del Tango have tried to maintain the tradition, adorning the simple walls of the place with many scores of examples of original photos and commercial artwork from the Golden Age of tango. Everything is original to that era, including the only music the Daubers can provide: ancient phonograph records of the legends of tango, and some music on cassette. Rubén estimates that only 40% of the archival material they have is being shown; the rest is in storage. They cannot afford a CD player, so appropriate gifts for them would be recently recorded tango music on cassette.

As for dancing there, apparently there occasionally may be a beginner's class for a few students, given by "a mulatta who learned from an Italian, who learned from an Argentine" - but, as Claribel said, "Sometimes there is nobody", and she couldn't remember the mulatta's name.

Just a few words about Cuba, if the list monitor allows:

Yes, it is a beautiful, tropical, extremely musical, Latin country, where the people are friendly and very decent. There is wonderful music, and great dance, everywhere (from the spectacular National Ballet Company, to the salsa clubs). But, it is a dictatorship and a police state, and if you forget this, you could end up outside the law very quickly, and a Cuban could pay for it with jail time, or, at the minimum, an intense, street-level review of documents, with radio call-in for previous police contacts or a "record." Cuba can be very deceiving in this. Be careful. There is essentially nothing in which the government doesn't have complete control and either overt or undercover surveillance.

For tourists who would like to meet and spend some time with Cubans, there are realities that the newspaper travel-section articles don't quite explain:

First, the hustle, the scams, and non-stop approaches by Cuban males trying to access the U.S. dollar (from tourist men) is practically universal in Havana. This gets old real fast. (It's far less of a problem, however, in the countryside, away from the cities.) For tourist women (alone or in pairs), the options are the usual third-world ones: the interpersonal transaction is based on combinations of: curiosity, sex, maybe money, alcohol, free "tours of the city", ?marriage?, a.k.a., "take me off this island", "friendship", and....more sex.... etc. Sometimes, it's one-stop shopping.

Second, understand that prostitution is massive in Cuba, due to the extreme poverty in which Castro maintains the population. Cuba has joined Thailand, the Phillipines, and Brazil as a major destination for what is called by the WHO and other entities, "sexual tourism." In Cuba, as in Jamaica and Brazil for example, sexual tourism includes American and European women looking for action, but the big problem, as far as the Cuban government is concerned, is the interaction between tourist males and Cuban females.

Since about 1996, the Cuban government has attempted to control some of the most widespread abuses, by controlling the streets, and the nightclubs and discos. This basically means, that in most public places, tourist men cannot walk with, be with, or talk to, Cuban women without a signicant risk that the women will face police harrassment. The risk is not any less for "nice girls" either, like professionals and government employees. Believe it. I know several American men who broke off their educational and research plans in Cuba, and came home early, simply because they realized that they could not have quality friendships with Cubans (esp. in Havana), -in most cases, because the Cuban men were hustling their dollars, and the women either were prostitutes, or were "nice girls" who simply would not, or could not, take the risk, shame, and frustration of being stopped and questioned by the police, and refused entry into dining and entertainment spots.

Personally, I would recommend travel to Cuba for couples, and single women (it is extremely safe, and you can write your own ticket, socially). For men, unless you are into prostitution, it is MUCH harder to have decent interactions with educated or interesting Cubans. If you are a couple (male-female), you will be treated well, no problems with police; you can go anywhere you want; and you will not be approached by hustlers or prostitutes, for the most part.

If you want to go to see Cuba before Fidel dies, for the sociological, musical and cultural experience, then do it - it is not hard at all. As I was invited by the Cuban government, I was fortunate to have lots of fascinating professional, offical, and social contacts, but also traveled on my own around the country on my own, staying in "casas particulares" and such. Everything was great in most ways, although I had several extremely frightening, Kafka-esque experiences. Just realize that the tropical paradise can be an illusion, in some ways, and that there are terrible distortions, dislocations, ironic reversals in fortune and opportunity, as well as corruption, due to the two concurrent Cuban economies (peso and dollar). Realize, too, that there is an significant police presence directed primarily against tourist men hanging out with Cuban women, although it can work the other way too.

Steve Hoffman