Photo: Old car on Playa Ancón beach

A reconditioned 1951 Chevy ferries beachgoers to Playa Ancón, “one of the best beaches on Cuba’s south coast,” says author James Vlahos.

Photograph by Dmitri Alexander

By James Vlahos

Two dancers whirl onto the dance floor, materializing as if from the smoke of a genie’s lamp. The man whips through a triple turn, then drops to his knees. His partner’s skirt spins into a blur as her legs slice the air.

Behind them, a seven-piece salsa band blazes away. The keyboardist unspools a melodic loop; the conga player fires off a drumroll. Parked in the audience at Café Taberna, a nightclub in Havana, Cuba, I’m bursting with the urge to jump up and dance.

The trumpet player spears a final high note. The dancers twirl to a stop, acknowledge the applause, then slip off. After a few minutes I approach. “Where did you learn to dance like that?”

“At the Tropicana,” Asmara Núñez says, naming the legendary Havana nightclub where she honed her skills. Yoel Letan Pena shrugs and points to his upturned wrist. “Sangre,” he says. Dancing is in his blood.

Salsa is in my blood, too, though I have no known ancestors from south of the 35th parallel. I first experienced salsa’s electrifying charge in my 20s when I was a waiter at a Caribbean nightclub, and have dabbled with the dance ever since, taking lessons and hitting clubs. Salsa dancing makes me happier than almost anything else, so it followed that I should do it more, do it better—and do it in a place where the dance really comes alive.

Everything I had heard pointed to Cuba, where many of the music’s key stylistic ingredients developed in the first half of the 20th century, but the island’s frosty political relations with the United States had made a visit virtually impossible. Recently, though, relations between the U.S. and Cuba have been warming up—and Cuba’s experiments with socioeconomic reforms have arguably changed it more in the past few years than in decades. The time had arrived. This was my chance not only to take the next step in a love affair with salsa but to experience a nation that Americans alternately romanticize and vilify, but rarely get to appreciate up close.

The plan: My wife, Anne, and I would follow the music, take dance lessons, and hit the best clubs in the colonial cities of Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. Salsa, to be sure, is one facet of this complex land. But the music—intense, sorrowful, celebratory, laced with complex improvisations—is an ideal vehicle for helping newcomers begin to understand Cuba.

At Café Taberna, the band launches into its final set. Before I can say anything, Asmara Núñez pulls me onto the dance floor, where we’re joined by Yoel Letan and Anne. I listen for the intermittent pulse of the bass, felt more than heard beneath the blasting horns and clattering drums. The rhythm works its way up from my feet, loosening my hips, then my arms. I sweep Asmara past me, twirl her twice, then spin myself as the intoxicating grip of the music takes hold.

HORSE HOOVES clatter on cobblestones. A carriage veers to the curb. The driver draws the reins to his chest, and a well-dressed man and woman dismount. Smiling, they set off down an alley, into the velvety stillness of Habana Vieja—Old Havana—at night.

“They look like they know where they’re going,” Anne says. “Let’s follow them.” We enter the alley, threading between facades of colonial palaces—a legacy Cuba’s Communist rulers have downplayed. Havana has thousands of historically significant buildings, but only a hundred or so have been restored under a multimillion-dollar, public-private campaign. What we wander past are crumbling relics. Laughter reverberates from behind a splintered wooden door. A woman peers down from a wrought-iron balcony clinging to a pocked stone wall. Then the alley ends, and we emerge, astonished, onto a plaza filled with people: diners sitting at outdoor tables, laughing and talking; waiters ferrying trays of grilled pork and frosty glasses of mojitos, the island’s signature mix of white rum, mint, sugar, and lime. At the north end of the plaza, under the bell towers of a Gothic church, a salsa band plays away on a red-carpeted stage. Spotlights glint off trumpet bells. Hands blur over conga drums. On the stage beside the band two dancers twirl expertly. I turn to Anne. “Let’s get a table.”

Stumbling upon great live music, as we’ve done tonight at Plaza de la Catedral, is common in Cuba. With average monthly salaries of $20, few Cubans tote iPods. Instead, they produce their own daily sound track, with gusto. On the first hour of our first morning in Havana, we’d come across a trovador, or folksinger, strumming his guitar on a patio, and two trombonists exchanging snippets of song on a sidewalk. None of them were performing for an audience or putting out a tip jar. They seemed to be celebrating what it feels like to wake up on a sunny morning on a tropical island.

Cuban salsa sways with joy. It also burns with passion—an overheated music for an overheated island, from the sparkling white-sand beaches of Varadero to the monumental limestone bluffs of Viñales, from guajiros (farmers) crossing tobacco fields on horseback to Cubans who, in the absence of new construction, often live ten to a room behind those glorious colonial facades.

Passion certainly explodes from bands like Habana Soul. Though it’s not yet noon, Habana Soul’s players attack the first set of the day at a café with the frenzied glee of a 2 a.m. encore. The singer’s ponytail whips around as he spits out the lyrics, then jump-kicks to punctuate the melody. Bobbing my head, I’m charged with electricity too. One of the percussionists notices and steps out from his drums. Pushing my espresso aside, he hands me a pair of sticks called claves and gives me a quick lesson on the rhythm of son, a stylistic precursor to salsa. Soon I’m playing along with the band. Click-click. Click-click-click.

Havana, and Cuba, have calmer energies too. Late in the afternoon, Anne and I stroll with other couples along the Malecón, Havana’s seafront boulevard—mansions to our left, Caribbean Sea to our right. As the sun drops, the light becomes rose-colored, as if filtered through cotton candy. Fishermen cast lines. Lovers sit atop the seawall. Children play chicken with the waves breaking below.

The following day we explore Calle Mercaderes, one of countless stone lanes crisscrossing Old Havana. Past tree-shaded Plaza de Armas—one of the island’s first public squares—we come to a three-story mansion. I peer through the front door; a structure this stately must be a museum or hotel. Instead I glimpse a room crowded with furniture, people, and laundry. Frank Alpízar, a tour guide, later tells us it’s common to find such incongruities behind the majestic facades of Havana’s buildings—a set of apartments like this one, a supper club, a food cooperative, a sculptor’s studio.

To be Cuban, you could argue, is to be expert at living among incongruities. Cubans still line up for subsidized food rations, yet everyone has basic health care. The majority of citizens haven’t been allowed to buy real estate or cars, yet the mansions lining the Malecón, their paint peeling and timbers rotting, would be worth millions of dollars apiece almost anywhere else if renovated.

STEP FORWARD, THEN BACK. Left foot, right foot, left; right foot, left foot, right. Quick-quick-slow is the rhythm, and you don’t want to rush. ¡Más despacio, por favor! Rushing is ruinous.

Yoel Letan, the dancer from Café Taberna, stands inches from my right ear. It’s eleven in the morning and we’re squeezed into the loft above Café Taberna. No air-conditioning, mind-fogging heat. “1-2-3, 1-2-3,” he counts, the words sounding like a mantra—one I’m currently violating, apparently, though I’m not sure how. I learned the basic steps years ago, so my feet are moving the way they should. The problem is how I’m moving. “Suave, suave,” Yoel says. Soft, soft. “Loosen up, my North American friend.” I try to move more smoothly. Yoel grabs my shoulders again and gives them a little massage. “Suavemente,” he commands.

Anne is getting her own lesson from Asmara, and though neither of us is earning a gold star from the teachers, we feel lucky they agreed to instruct us. Havana is stuffed with brilliant salsa dancers, but they generally don’t have websites that allow arranging lessons from abroad; the handful of dance studios I found online were not so slyly marketing themselves to middle-aged women hoping to star in their own private versions of Dirty Dancing.

Ten minutes of instruction pass before I satisfy Yoel. He then pairs me with Asmara while he salsas with Anne. Singing his own danceable sound track, he teaches us the dile que no—“tell him no”—a passing move in which leader and partner swap places, followed by a succession of turns. The final move has us spin each other, our combined arms whirling like eggbeaters overhead, a move so complicated that I can pull it off only when I don’t think about what I’m doing. We finish the dance, and Yoel finally gives an encouraging little nod. “Impresivo,” he says.

"ARE YOU A MUSICIAN?" asks Lili Robinson. “My son is too! I’m so glad to meet you.” Petite and energetic, Robinson runs the casa particular—B&B—where we’re staying in Cienfuegos, a city on the south coast. She plops our bags in our bedroom. “Okay,” she says conspiratorially. “What are we going to do?”

I say I want to visit the village where Benny Moré, one of Cuba’s most famous singers, was born in 1919. Robinson dismisses the idea. “There’s nothing to see there,” she says. Then her eyes light up. She grabs my arm. Why waste time looking at the dusty relics of a long-dead singer, she asks, when I could hang out with a real Cuban musician today? “You have to meet my son,” she says.

Robinson scoots me out the front door. A few blocks away she pulls me over to a statue of Benny Moré and takes my picture. Minutes later we duck into an apartment where Lili’s son, Rajadel, has been rehearsing with his band. A guitarist, Rajadel looks like a Cuban version of the actor Jack Black. When I ask about Cuban music, he mentions danzón, a 19th-century folk music and dance that influenced salsa, then beats out drumming patterns on his thighs from religious Santería rituals introduced to Cuba by African slaves, explaining how they were incorporated into Cuban son. “We like to mix in rock and hip-hop and make it sound more modern. The style is called timba.”

Life in Cuba is a tug of war between modern and traditional, the pace of change slowed to a crawl by communist ideology and economic reality. The bus ride from Havana to Cienfuegos had taken Anne and me past abandoned farmlands with no signs of commerce. Billboards, lonely and few, depicted Cuba’s revered triumvirate of freedom fighters—José Martí, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro—accompanied by slogans like “¡Viva la revolución!” Traffic was almost nonexistent. I felt as if I were heading out on a road trip in the summer of 1959.

Cuba has changed since its 1959 communist revolution, of course, but in a city like Cienfuegos, which I wander around after visiting Rajadel, the evolution isn’t always obvious. Unlike the island’s other colonial towns, which feature heavy baroque Spanish-colonial architecture, the buildings in Cienfuegos—which was settled by French immigrants in the early 1800s—are airy and refined. I stroll past colonnaded mansions painted in pastels and reach the tranquil, crescent-shaped shore of Cienfuegos Bay. I now understood why singer Benny Moré proclaimed Cienfuegos “la ciudad que más me gusta a mí”—the city I like the most.

A day later and 50 miles east, I’m riding a horse in what some consider the prettiest small colonial town in Cuba, Trinidad, a place of palm-fronded squares and high, white church steeples bunched on a hillside overlooking the glittering Caribbean Sea. My riding guide, Julio Muñoz, wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, trots ahead on a cobblestone lane between colorfully painted residences. Salsa music blasts from a home on the town’s outskirts, reminding me that improvisation is what people need in Cuba, especially if they want to be entrepreneurs. Muñoz has done everything from engineering to wedding photography. He currently runs Casa Colonial Muñoz, a guesthouse in Trinidad, and recently started a horseback guiding business, for which he is wrangler, stableboy, and vet.

We follow a dirt road into farmland, then branch off onto a trail climbing a canyon into the Escambray Mountains. As the hilltops around us go golden with the setting sun, Muñoz talks politics. He tells me that, much as musicians like Rajadel are tweaking the conventions of salsa, Cuba’s current president, Raúl Castro, is experimenting with free-market reforms. The state is the largest employer in Cuba, but weeks before we’d arrived, the government announced plans to expand private employment. Muñoz could for the first time legally hire an employee to help him and his wife run their guesthouse; he could expand this new enterprise of guiding people on horseback.

“The greatest resource of Cuba is its people,” he says after we dismount and take a swim beneath a waterfall. “They just need the freedom to do what they want and realize their potential.”

SMOKE. SWEAT. Pink and green strobe lights slashing through fog-machine mist. Crushed between gyrating bodies, I’m trying to squeeze forward to a stage strung with sequined curtains. I smell spilled rum and feel hot skin. Club music pounds my chest like a mallet. On center stage, three women emerge from swirling white clouds, dancing in unison in wickedly short skirts.

Havana has many venues for listening politely to Cuban classics. Casa de la Música, the site of a final-night blowout for Anne and me, isn’t one of them. You come here to hear Cuba’s top salsa bands play loud music into the night. You come to dance, after many drinks, with a partner or a stranger. What we crave tonight is music that reflects modern Cuban life, passionate, colorful, sexy.

The dancers finish their number. A master of ceremonies steps forward with a microphone and announces the headlining act as if it were a goal in World Cup soccer. “Charangaaa Habaneraaa!” An army of musicians—singers, trumpeters, keyboard players, and more percussionists than I can count—pours onto the stage. All are dressed in white. And all, as soon as the first song kicks off, begin stepping side to side in a choreographed routine.

Sabor, the trait aficionados say defines great salsa, translates literally as “flavor,” or “spice.” The true definition is elusive, something felt rather than understood. I’m certainly feeling it tonight. Talking, drinking—suddenly none of these activities interest me. I want to try my new dance skills, now. With Anne’s blessing, I invite a Cuban woman to join me. She says her name and I say mine, but we can’t really hear each other over the pulsing sound system. I take her hand and we weave our way out to the dance floor.

Earlier in the day, Anne and I had taken another dance lesson, from a hectoring perfectionist named Grey Jorrín. “No,” she said, when I stepped forward to initiate a turn rather than stepping back to give room for Anne to spin in front of me. “No, no, no.” Now, even under the frontal musical assault of Charanga Habanera, Jorrín’s lecturing voice plays in my head. I take my partner’s right hand with my left and put my arm around the small of her back. I count carefully, remembering my lessons, and sweep her past me with a dile que no. “You dance salsa!” she exclaims.

A new song begins in the thumping, modern timba style. Trumpets sear my ears and conga drums reverberate in my gut. The air thickens with heat as bodies press in from all sides. Soon, I am no longer thinking. I’m just dancing, turning, as much a part of the music as the players on the stage. This, without a doubt, is sabor. It feels like a spray of lighter fluid on the fires of my soul.

California-based James Vlahos last wrote­ about night hiking in Yosemite in “Star Trek: Yosemite to the Moon” (July-August 2011).

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