By Jayne Cooperman
We’ve designated August PROJECT: Cuba month here at Salseek—31 days to enjoy and embrace the spirit, culture, music and, especially, the dance of this island nation. And what better way to celebrate than with a visit to Nydia Ocasio’s Afro-Cuban Rumba/Salsa y Son class? Nydia is a dancer, choreographer, instructor, singer, folklorist, historian, and general keeper of the flame. As a child, she watched wide-eyed as women in bell dresses and “suited-up” men streamed into her father’s home in Red Hook to play and dance to Latin music. At 16, she was “blown away” by Tito Puente at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights, and has “not left the clubs since.” As a young adult, she began her professional career by performing with the headliners of salsa: the Titos (Puente, Nieves, and Rodriguez, Jr.), Celia Cruz, and the Fania All-Stars, to name just a few. As a member of folkloric companies that focused on the dances of Cuba and Puerto Rico, she began to explore the Afro-Caribbean roots of modern Latin movement. Finally, as a teacher, she’s sharing her vast knowledge and limitless passion with a new generation of students.
In contrast to most of the beginning classes I’ve observed, I’m struck by the continuous soundtrack, the absence of counting, the lack of partnering, and the fact that I really have no idea what it is I’m seeing. Nydia picks up a maraca and shakes it rhythmically. “This is your timing. When the maraca goes, you step. Ladies, have you got your scarves?” The women proceed to tie swaths of fabric around their hips, holding the ends with their fingertips. They swirl and swoosh to the slow strains of the son montuno, with its roots in the Cuban danzón of the past and its branches in the salsa “on 2” of today. “Don’t look down,” Nydia counsels the students, many of whom are staring at their shoes. “It’s like dancing blindfolded. You’ll get dizzy.” She explains that, when the focus is “up” and the movement is in the torso, the body relaxes and moves naturally . “Dancing is here,” she says, tapping her heart. “Not in the feet.” Always, always, it goes back to the music. As she tells me later, “In order to dance flawlessly, you have to learn to make love to the music.” Or, to put it another way, “If you don’t get the music, your feet ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
As it turns out, what I was watching was Cuban Rumba, which has absolutely no relationship to the style you might catch at bal l room competitions or on Dancing with the Stars. According to Nydia, a Rumba is “an outdoor Cuban street music and dance gathering where three forms of Afro-Cuban folk dance are displayed: Yambú, Guaguancó and Columbia.” More importantly, rumba is “where the body movement styles in son and salsa originated.” In Nydia’s class, I saw examples of both the Yambú, the so-called “courtship of the elders,” with its slower, statelier rhythms, and the more provocative (and popular) Guaguancó. The latter derives from a secular dance of the Bantu. In it, the goal of the man (“the rooster”) is to make contact with the woman (“the hen”), sneaking up on her with a pelvic thrust called the “vacunao.” The woman espouses a flirtatious demeanor “while skillfully avoiding and blocking” these attempts with her skirt, for which the scarf served as stand-in.
So, how can learning these traditional Afro-Cuban dance forms help our salsa here in the 21st century? Well, for one thing, they get you to slow down. “At this tempo,” says Nydia, “You can connect with the emotion, the spirit of the music. You won’t need to count your steps; you will learn to feel where the moves belong by simply listening.” Yeah, about that… As someone more movement- than math-challenged, why must I give up the security of counting? “You don’t need to count,” Nydia answers. “Because, guess what? The musicians are doing the counting for you! And, just as they have to stay within the timing, we as dancers have to do the same thing.” Whether it’s the cowbell on the 1, or the clave and conga on the 2, what’s leading us is the rhythm—and it’s the rhythm that dictates how we move. “If you’re dancing ‘on 2,’ the arms relax so that the whole body is moving in angles, forward and back. If you’re dancing ‘on 1,’ the movement is more circular. The posture, the arms are literally night and day.”
Why aren’t the men and women pairing up in her class? Nydia is sensitive to the awkwardness and discomfort that new dancers can sometimes feel, and chooses to help them avoid, as she puts it, the calamity of “four left feet looking at each other.” “I teach them first to dance with themselves—to become creative, to become inspired, to do what the music tells them to, and to interpret that music through their dance.”
And what better way to do that than to return to salsa’s roots in Africa and Cuba, where it all began…
Okay, so I know that, last time, I promised that I’d be dancing in the very next (i.e., this) column. But I was forbidden. Feel free to blame my chiropractor.
To see Nydia perform next, join us on Friday, August 19th at Hudson Terrace as we celebrate PROJECT: Cuba!
EXCLUSIVE OFFER FOR OUR READERS: So, hens and roosters, would you like to explore Afro-Cuban dance with Nydia? Purchase a 4-class card for just $50 (reg. $75), or an 8-class card for just $100 (reg. $150). Each class is 90 minutes long and meets weekly; the next series begins August 13th. To register, simply call Nydia at 646/510-7607, and be sure to use promo code SALSEEK at the time of purchase. This offer is open to ALL students, but is limited to one card per student, though you may buy multiples to give as gifts.