If you were to do a background check on me, it would be obvious I’m not a dancer and perhaps this wouldn’t be my first choice of holiday. So it’s fair to say when I started working for Caledonia Worldwide, and went on my first ever Cuba Dance Holiday, I was a complete beginner!
There’s little use in sugar-coating it; my first few days were tough, and the humidity in Cuba is something to be reckoned with. Yet this was a holiday I will never forget. It was a unique experience, full of energy and I came away proud of how much I had learnt.
It kicked off the moment we landed in Holguin. Those of us who had arrived on the same flight began finding each other in the crowd once we’d landed. Our transfer driver arrived and we began the two-and half-hour journey through the luscious Cuban countryside to Santiago de Cuba, arriving in time for a hearty meal from our wonderful homestay hosts.
First dance class
The first morning of the Dance Holiday started as it would continue, with three hours of dance tuition. During this class we were introduced to our tour leaders, our dance teachers and partners, who are professional dancers from Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, and everyone else we hadn’t yet met. The dance studio venue is in the heart of the historic centre of Santiago de Cuba and really close to our homestays. It has one large beautifully tiled studio with floor length windows peering out onto bustling streets. There are also two smaller rooms that are used when the group is assessed and split into different levels. This happens during this first dance class and I was relieved to learn I was not the only beginner! There was no taking it easy, however, and we went straight into learning the different steps for both Son and Salsa. At the end of the class, my head was spinning, my feet were tired, and I don’t think I had ever been so sweaty in my life!
We then had an orientation walk, helping familiarise ourselves with our new surroundings. I began to feel like I was in Cuba! Our first night-out started with a welcome cocktail on the roof terrace of the Casa Granda Hotel right in the centre of the old town. We moved on to the La Claqueta club to meet up with our dance partners and experienced our first taste of fantastic live Cuban music and dancing.
Day two was breakdown day for me. I felt an expectation to pick it all up really fast which I initially found pretty stressful and full on. However, I soon realised this really wasn’t the case at all. It was just a matter of getting used to the directness of the Cuban teaching style. As soon as I understood that I began to relax into it and enjoy the classes.
In the afternoon we met our super friendly and helpful tour guide. He took us on a city tour showing us many of the important sites of the revolution, such as Moncada Barracks, as well as the impressive El Morro Castle at the entrance to the bay of Santiago de Cuba. In the evening we had the opportunity to see Maykel Blanco, one of Cuba’s top salsa artists, playing a free street concert, an unexpected treat.
The next few days passed in a blur of dancing and music, including a night-out at La Pachanga to see the twice grammy-nominated band Septeto Santiaguero as well as witnessing the colourful opening parade of the Festival del Caribe. At the weekend, on our full day excursion we visited Gran Piedra – one of the highest points in the Sierra Maestra with excellent views across the mountains and along the coast – and La Granjita Siboney, Fidel Castro’s hideout turned National Museum. Sunday came round and I enjoyed a well-earned rest by the pool at Hotel Santiago, albeit with a tropical thunderstorm! It was so great getting to know everyone, hearing their different stories, and by the end of the weekend I felt true friendships were forming.
The following week in the dance lessons, I could feel my confidence grow and grow. My feet started doing what I wanted them to and I could follow my dance partner without having to start and stop continuously. In addition to the heavy focus on Cuban Salsa and Son, we had the opportunity to learn different dance styles such as Merengue, Bachata, Pilon, Mambo, Chachacha and Kizomba. It was a challenge to absorb all this new information, but it was fantastic to learn about the different styles!
Feeling at home
Our afternoons were filled with extra dance classes, souvenir shopping, relaxing on the roof top terrace of our accommodation or by a hotel pool. Our evenings were either spent enjoying live music and a delicious rum-based cocktail or dancing the night away in the various well-known live music venues in the city with our dance partners, who never failed to make the night unforgettable. By the weekend it was a refreshing change to head out of the city again, and we headed to the impressive basilica, El Cobre, followed by a walk up Cimarron Hill which has strong associations with Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion. On the Sunday we organised, as a group, to go out to Caleton Blanco beach and spent the day sunbathing on Cuba’s more rugged coastline.
Last dance class
Our last dance class was a chance to show off what we had learnt and it was incredible to see how everyone had progressed. I’ll admit, I was reluctant at first to dance in front of everyone, having been in the beginners group in the other room most of the time. However, the moment I started to dance with my dance partner, who had supported me throughout the last 2 weeks, I was able to follow his lead and dance and enjoy it!
At the end, one of the teachers, who hadn’t seen me dance since the first day, came over and said to me ‘where did that come from?! You were so shy at the beginning, I was sure you wouldn’t be able to do it; but now look at you!’ This was such a great compliment for me. She was right, I had been very shy at the beginning and had struggled to build my confidence, learn the steps and relax into it. But… in less than 2 weeks being fully immersed in Cuban music and dancing, day and night, I really felt like I was getting it.
In the evening we went to the unique and intimate venue, Casa de las Tradiciones, for one last night out with our amazing dance partners and to soak up the last bit of live Cuban music. It was sad to think the dance holiday was almost over having all made some really great friends through our dance journey in Cuba together, but it’s an experience I will never forget – the dancing, the people and the place!