RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Que Bola Cuban dance class meets Friday nights from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Atherton YWCA's dance studio.
Cultivator of Cuban dance comes to town
Like other fans of the local Latin dance scene, Ruby Menon has patronized salsa nights and class offerings as often as her day job would permit. She had always loved the vibrant partner-style choreography of the Latin repertoire, but its true source lay far away in Cuba.
12th Annual Hispanic Heritage Festival
» When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
» Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
» Admission: Free
» Call: 398-3084, 941-5216 or 285-0072
So, really, how serious could a salsera be when she is stepping on to dance floors in Honolulu and not Havana?
Menon ended up being serious enough to journey to Havana for an intensive two-week dance workshop. She has returned twice since her initial trip, a step, she describes, as leading to Cuban dance's deeper meaning.
"I realized the history, the spirituality, the daily life of Cuba are all expressed in the dance in a way that is so fulfilling," she said.
She's also succeeded in the past to have Ramon Ramos, a dance master she had met in Havana, to come to Hawaii twice and teach classes. Several years lapsed afterward when Menon found it necessary to pass on setting up yet another trip for Ramos, though she never ceased hoping she could help cultivate Cuba's soulful dance-ocracy closer to home.
This, she explains, is why she let out a "scream of joy" the day she came across the Web site of a fellow Honolulu resident who studied extensively with Ramos and also journeyed to Cuba for dance studies -- and that this resident, Gene Horita, had even begun teaching Cuban dance at the Atherton YWCA's dance studio.
Menon began taking Horita's classes, and in no time they arranged to set up Ramos' third visit to Honolulu. It begins this weekend, just in time to coincide with the 12th Annual Hispanic Heritage Festival at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand. Ramos will headline an event already filled with live Latin music and dance.
Menon says that Ramos will preview some of the mesmerizing moves he plans to teach, exercises in rhythm like the cha-cha, mambo, son and suelta.
"Each style of Latin dance is unique," said Horita, "but we feel that Cuban dance is at the root of Latin dance and it can be appreciated on so many levels as more than just a hobby and much more than just a fad."
SPEAKING by phone from San Francisco on the eve of his departure for Hawaii, the object of Horita's and Menon's Cubanophile affections says any praise he gets for his dance mastery should really go to his ancestors.
"We have to thank all the people who came from Africa," Ramos, 35, said. "They brought their rhythms to us," referring to the legacy of those who were imported as slaves to work the plantations of the New World.
Ramos notes that they were wise to not leave behind the drum beats and dance steps that, to them, embodied spirits and a way to connect to the time-honored pantheon of an ancient African religion.
Since this was not the kind of connection slave masters would tolerate, the African religion was practiced under the guise of Christian imagery. The accompanying dances were passed off as social dances, and no one suspected their power until a few slave uprisings later.
Thereafter, African culture in its purest religious expression, Santeria, became persecuted in Cuba even while the nation's fusing of African and Spanish musical and dance influences became lauded the world over in its many sensual forms, ranging from bomba to the beguine to the great Dizzy Gillespie's jazz stylings.
But under Fidel Castro, Ramos says the ban on Santeria has been lifted, and it is the policy of the staunchly communist leader to promote Cuban folk culture.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Students at the Que Bola Cuban dance class learn new dance steps from instructors Gene Horita and Kana Taniguchi at their Friday night classes.
THIS EXPLAINS the picture that Gene Horita saw during his Havana trip, from the moment he got in a taxi with a radio that blared rumba.
"In my first class, the live drumming started (and) we moved and sweated for seven hours straight," he says. "The teachers were from a national Cuban group. They were very serious and even appeared to feel a little hurt if we didn't catch on. ... But I knew I had stumbled onto something very profound."
From a previous study of African dance, Menon immediately recognized the African hallmarks of dizzyingly complex choreography that greeted her in Havana, not only in class, but in people's homes. What surprised her was how everyone did it with such ease. "From toddlers on up to elders, everyone is so grounded in the culture and so proud of it," she says, noting that salsa, the widely popular urban variant of Latin dance, is not the subject of formal teaching like other name dances in Cuba because everyone just does it right.
The Havana dance workshops Menon and Horita attended are regularly scheduled events that operate with Castro's stamp of approval and are meant to showcase a nation that is using what it has to get through hard times.
At 11, Ramos was fast-tracked to study at Havana's prestigious government-supported dance school, where he eventually received a master's degree in the study of his culture's dance and music folkloric traditions.
He took up residency in the Bay Area eight years ago after marrying an American and recently added Cuban cultural promotion on American soil to his repertoire. In addition to cultivating a popular following for his classes in a San Francisco studio, he has founded his own dance company that recently won critical acclaim.
Permitted under Cuban law to return only every three years to his native island, he says he misses the 24/7 availability of dance, in many forms. "You want salsa? You go out and it is there. Same with bolero, same with any Cuban dance. You don't have to waste time looking for it in Cuba."
ONE CUBAN dance that more local fans are hoping to master is rueda de casino. Menon and Horita were thrilled to experience it in Cuba and in Ramos' classes. The dance has also become a staple in Horita's Friday night classes. The name translates to mean "casino wheel," perhaps a wry reference to the Vegas-style gambling found in Havana before Castro's reign.
"Think of it as a square dance with a leader who calls out steps that run the gamut of whole Latin repertoire," says Horita, "only it's not done in a square but in a circle. And as in other Latin dances, it helps to have a certain attitude."
Just what kind of attitude? For the men, Horita reels off a few English words: tough, classy, cool, before settling on "guaperia," a Spanish term that encompasses all of the aforementioned. But some things about Rueda de Casino downright defy translation.
"Everyday life is reflected in the unexpected changes of the rueda circle. That's hard to explain but a lot of fun to just dive in and do it," he says with a smile.
Menon says her immersion in the fast-moving rueda de casino circle has taught her lessons that go beyond dance: "As Americans, we want to express our individuality. But suddenly (in rueda) you must be mindful of your neighbors, pay attention to people around you and enhance your peripheral vision. ... Latin dance inspires a feeling of community."