The Ellegua Project
Dancing and Trancing in Cuba
It was with great excitement that I became aware, in the Spring of 1997, of an opportunity to participate in “The Ellegua Project,” a program sponsored by the University of Toronto which would explore Afro-Caribbean dance and culture. Dancers would travel to Santiago, Cuba to study with the Cutumba Dance Company, which is known internationally as one of the best Afro-Cuban folkloric companies in the world.
When I heard about The Ellegua Project (Ellegua is the “God of the Path” in the African religions with which I am familiar), I knew this was an opportunity to experience the traditions from this part of the world that I would not want to miss. My flight from Mexico into Cuba would be arranged by the University of Toronto. I also had some close friends who would be going on this adventure.
When it was finally assembled, our group consisted of ten dancers, mostly Canadian and American, although there was one Italian who had learned of the program on the Internet. There were two American drummers, a documentary film maker, and a photographer.
I should say that it was not easy to get into Cuba, even with all arrangements made ahead of time. I am not just referring to the blockade which the United States maintains against the island. It seems that almost everyone in our group had some story of missing a flight or almost not getting to the airport. In my own case, the car in which I was supposed to go stopped running on the way to the San Francisco airport. After returning to my house, thankful that I had left enough time to get my own car, I had a fender bender with a car in San Francisco when the driver ahead of me slammed on his brakes for no apparent reason. The delay could have caused me to miss my flight.
I was also detained by authorities and questioned extensively when I entered Cuba, because my last name is the same as that of the first president of Cuba. They asked me if I was from Florida. I guess they had a reason to be concerned, since terrorist bombs went off in the hotel next to the one where I stayed in Havana about a week after I left.
When I finally arrived in Santiago I was delighted to find a charming town with cobblestone streets, red tile roofs, lush tropical vegetation, and strong artistic traditions. I concluded that it had been well worth overcoming all the obstacles that had been thrown in my way to get there.
Once our routine was established, our days began at eight in the morning in Teatro Oriente. Our first class of the day consisted of a half hour of singing. We were taught songs connected to the folkloric dances we would be learning in our next class. The songs were taught by a member of the company, an excellent teacher with a voice that is penetrating, powerful and distinctive.
The next few hours were spent in a dance class conducted by another company member. The drummers played for us each day. There was a tremendous amount of individual attention given by the members of Cutumba, who moved about amongst us, giving additional instruction as needed. The company is highly trained, technique oriented, and immersed in Afro-Caribbean spirituality. It was a dancer’s dream.
The tropical heat, which was strong by nine, was not held off by the two or three ceiling fans in the theatre, and we generally took only one ten minute break between the time we started and the time we broke for lunch around noon. The restaurant we frequently chose for lunch was the patio of a hotel opposite Parque Cespedes, where a sextet played daily. The streets of Santiago were alive day and night, with musicians everywhere.
After returning from lunch, we always had a history lecture about the folkloric traditions that would give us the background to understand the following morning’s folkloric class. This was followed by a social dance class which included forms such as Changui, Son Urbano, Son Montuno, and Rhumba.
We usually finished around 4:30 or five in the afternoon and headed for the beach or the pool in the hotel where we were staying. We would go to dinner around eight, either in our hotel where again there were always musicians, or perhaps we would visit a paladar, one of the delightful small restaurants people have opened in their houses—one of Cuba’s first concessions to the idea of a mixed economy.
In the evening there was plenty to do. We were out almost every night in spite of our early morning classes at Teatro Oriente. The members of the dance company were often with us, and we were becoming like a big family.
There were several places that had excellent bands and many great dancers with which to dance. There was also “Casa de la Trova”, or house of verse, where musicians who carry on the troubadour tradition perform nightly to a packed house.
Cutumba performed several times while we were there. Their performances portrayed various folkloric traditions with spectacular choreography, elaborate costuming, and their own excellent group of musicians. Teatro Oriente was packed on these nights. Theater is free and open to all, since in Cuba the arts are fully funded by the government, including artists’ salaries. A dancer in Cuba does not need a “day job”!
As a group, we planned weekend trips together. One weekend we decided to visit a mutual aid society called Tumba Francesa, which is located in Guantanamo. They would be dancing their traditional dances Sunday afternoon. We had studied the history of the dances they would perform and had learned some of the steps and combinations in two of our folkloric classes. The membership of this society, descendants of people who migrated from Haiti to Cuba, has preserved some of the African traditions blended with French traditions.
We had learned that the first part they would dance, called La Maison, would imitate French colonial dancing as done by the slave masters. The second part is called El Yuba and blends African and French traditions. The final part, known as Frente, is completely African and, as we found out, involves a competition between a drummer and a dancer.
I got my video camera ready for what would most likely be a once in a lifetime experience, which I hoped I would be permitted to film.
Tumba Francesa meets on the second floor of a beautiful Spanish colonial building overlooking the main plaza in Guantanamo. The hall in which they meet has tile floors, tall ceilings with beautiful wooden beams, and several balconies.
When we entered the building there were women dressed in long dresses, some wearing white head wraps. The men were dressed simply, although I noticed some were wearing neck scarves. Most of the people were older, although all age groups were present.
A group of drummers and singers were assembled at one end of the room, and we were led to seats at the other end. To me, the array of drummers at the far end of the hall looked formidable, especially one man in the middle whose drum had a large black star stenciled on the front.
The drumming began and I started my camera. A lady in blue entered the room carrying a stick with different colored strips of fabric attached to the top of it, and began a slow dance, waving the stick around the room as though clearing or cleaning the energy in the space.
She was followed by a line of couples, the women’s arms resting on top of the men’s, who began La Maison. The dancers paraded in front of us, backs straight, heads held high, with double circle skirts draped over the free arm of the women. As the couples then faced each other to continue the dance, the always reliable battery on my video camera, which I had just charged that morning, quit. And my friend seated next to me who was taking photos had her battery stop at the same moment. Another member of our group told me later that one of the women in Tumba Francesa had touched her camera at about the same time and it had instantly rewound.
The tension built during the part of the dance called El Yuba when the woman who had begun the dance/ceremony led a young boy forward, and tied red scarves around his neck, arms, and legs. He stood fairly close but with his back to us, since he was facing the drummers which were twenty to twenty-five feet away. When the Frente started, the air was filled with electric intensity. The drummer, toward whom I had felt such resistance, pulled his drum forward and away from the rest of the group, and sat astride it. He began to play for, or perhaps I should say “at” the boy, as if he were angry or channeling a force that wanted to destroy him.
The boy danced powerfully to the strong, rapid rhythm as if responding to the challenge. He suddenly bent down and appeared to be miming the picking up of an object which he then threw at the drummer. The drummer mimed catching and throwing it back, and immediately advanced closer to the boy. This happened several times, each time the drummer advancing a little more. It was obvious that this was an exchange or throwing of energy, and reflected the competition between the two of them.
As the boy bent down to grab the energy, I saw an image of a small ball of light. He reached and grabbed exactly where I saw the ball land and threw it back at the drummer. I now began to focus on the ball of light I was seeing, as it raced around the room and through the air as it was thrown from drummer to dancer and back again. As I watched it, I went from being disturbed by the aggressive energy of the drummer, to being amused by it. It felt as though the energy I was watching was a neutral condensation of power, an energy used in the ritual traditions of this society and possibly others.
I was still reeling from what I had just seen when the Frente ended, and quite suddenly, the energy of the room completely changed. The members of Tumba Francesa relaxed as the drummers, singers, and dancers left their places and began to walk around and talk to each other like any other gathering of friends.
Someone put on some music, a tape of a Changui, which is the traditional social dance of Guantanamo. At that moment the drummer came over to me and asked me to dance. I had some misgivings, but the desire not to appear impolite, coupled with the urge to understand this energy was more than I could resist. So I accepted.
As we danced, I became aware of him beginning to playfully hit the ball of light that I had seen during the Frente, with his head and direct it with his eyes as it hung in the air. I had images of soccer or maybe beach volleyball. I thought, “I can do that,” and began to experiment with volleying it back, moving the energy with my head and eyes.
A small group of women from the Tumba Francesa were in back of the room, watching and giggling each time we sent the energy back and forth. As he tried some tricky maneuvers, I caught it, and experimented also with a few of my own, which generated howls of laughter from the women.
When we finished dancing, the members of Tumba Francesa were passing around a bottle of rum and they offered me some. Since it was only four in the afternoon and extremely hot, and I was somewhat out of balance from trying to integrate what I had just experienced, I thanked them but refused the rum.
Several asked me more than once where I was from as we joked, sang, and talked for a while. At one point we somehow ended up singing “Guantanamara”, and one of the women took a pair of earrings out of her ears and put them in my hand. I was deeply moved by that gesture and a little concerned by the solemnity of it.
I had other remarkable experiences while I was in Cuba—receiving a reading from a Nganga priest, having a spiritual healing, and attending a Bembé, which is a ceremony or party for the various gods honored in the pantheon of various African religions.
This trip was one of the most powerful I have ever had, rivaling even my experiences in Egypt. It helped to further awaken my profound fascination with the earth-centered traditions of spirituality that appear all over the planet and have their origins in a time when people were still connected to one another, the planet, and the cosmos. These traditions involve the body, mind and spirit while honoring the forces of nature as deities.
When I travel, I travel as a dancer and spiritual pilgrim, always open to the miraculous, and connecting deeply with cultural traditions, especially those that truly celebrate life through dance, rhythm, and movement.
Latifa began performing and teaching Middle Eastern Dance in the mid-1970s in Europe and San Francisco. In Spain she formed a dance troupe while working in nightclubs and restaurants in Southern Spain, Ibiza and the Canary Islands. She also did some work in commercials for British television. Upon returning to San Francisco, she danced in several clubs, including the Baghdad, The Greek Taverna, and The Mykonos. In 1991, after several years away from dance to pursue a graduate degree in Education at U.C. Berkeley, she began performing regularly at the Cairo Cafe in Mill Valley, and began teaching again in Sausalito. From this group the original Dancers of DeNile was formed, a group well-known for their work in restaurants and dance festivals in the Bay Area. She is currently a primary school teacher in the East Bay area. email@example.com; www.latifadancersofdenile.com/