The Untold Story by Juan G. Gomez Barranco, President of the Founders Circle of Casino and Rueda
By Natalie J. Maniscalco & photo by Chasi Annexy
It’s the 1950’s. Americans are glued to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Show for the latest dance and music trends. Sockhops were all the rage and rock ‘n’ roll dances like the Jitterbug, Lindy hop, and Foxtrot become the new craze all across the United States. At the same time, American trend-setters including Hollywood celebrities, executives and top-tiered Italian Mafia, mark Cuba as the hotspot destination and American pop culture begins to seep its way into the tiny island. “Rock ‘n’ roll became a phenomenon,” says Juan “Juanito” G. Gomez Barranco, President of the Founders Circle of Casino and Rueda in Havana, Cuba, an organization dedicated to preserving the Cuban dance of Casino and Rueda. “We were very focused on what was happening in the United States especially what we saw on television. Cubans flocked to the United States while bringing back what they experienced to Cuba.”
Being such an intricate part of Cuban culture, music and dance began to evolve into a new sound and style as rock ‘n’ roll infused with traditional Cuban dance music. “During this time period, nobody said, ‘let’s make up a new dance’, everyone just danced,” says Juanito. Cubans began to add their own style to the dance. Social clubs, like Casino Deportivo, that were once attended only by high-class Cubans, were now attracting a new group of intellectual and educated people who also lived to breathe the richness of dance and music. At 12 years old, Juanito made his mark at Casino Deportivo, and became a part of this group. “It was here that a new way of dancing was started. As Cubans added their style playing off of the influences of rock ‘n’ roll, this word ‘Casino’ caught on and then even more so, when everyone started dancing Rueda (in a circle or wheel). People would go to different clubs and even cities and would say ‘look at how the people from THE CASINO are dancing,’ not saying that it’s a dance CALLED Casino."
As this Cuban innovation on rock ‘n’ roll quickly caught on as a new style of dance, it became fashionable and popular among the youth in Havana’s social clubs, who enjoyed not only the social aspect of dancing, but truly had a passion and love for it. What is most interesting about the considerations of how Casino evolved into Rueda de Casino is that it also mirrored what was going on in the country on a political level and the idea of collectivism. “Three things were happening,” says Juanito. “First, the infusion of rock ‘n’ roll, then the Cuban way of dancing it and then this idea of putting it into a collective group.”
In 1959, the Revolution lead by Fidel Castro exploded throughout the island. As the ideologies of The Revolution took rise, Rueda de Casino really started to develop by those who were intellectually in tuned with what was going on both politically and socially within Cuba. Everything started to relate to each other and thoughts were now being portrayed through dance. “This idea of being part of a collective group and making something bigger became quite visible,” Juanito continues. “The time of the Revolution is very important in this dance. I really believe that if the Revolution had not been happening there wouldn’t have been a revolution of the dance. The literacy campaign started it by encouraging people to move throughout the island. Students from the city went to the country-side to teach people to read and write. The Revolution said to the people in the country, ‘Come study in Havana, and we’ll give you a scholarship’ so there was constant mobility among the people from the farms to the city and vice versa. All social clubs, like the Casino Deportivo, became public (in the past you couldn’t enter unless you were white and could pay the monthly fee.) Once public, people from all over came to dance at the Casino, including all the new university students from the countryside, and black people who had previously been excluded. Then they brought the dance back to their neighborhoods and towns, and within five to six years everyone is dancing this style and calling it Casino!”
A few years following the Revolution, political ties between the United States and Cuba were severed, cutting off the cultural exchange. “There wasn’t any more connection between the two countries. We had separated our ways and no longer received the influences from both countries,” says Juanito. “Salsa became Salsa in New York and Casino became Casino in Cuba.” As Casino grew in Cuba, Jerry Masucci, a New York businessman who had lived and worked in Cuba, and Johnny Pacheco, a Dominican flute player, founded Fania Records in New York in 1964 and took the music to another level. “Cuba didn’t have the funds to launch anything commercial, so Casino stayed and became a phenomenon here in Cuba. This is one small dance like any small dance within any point of time, but the difference is that we’re still talking about it today. 50 years later and it’s still the most popular Cuban dance on the island and now being danced around the world,” says Juanito with a smile. “It was truly a grass roots effort because there were so many people moving around the country, teaching each other how to dance. It was truly a movement of the people. It didn’t become a popular craze nor promoted commercially through advertising to make money but transferred throughout the entire country solely by the efforts of the people, which is why as the President of the Founder’s Circle and one of the first dancers, would I never say I was the inventor of Casino. The people invented the dance. It would be pretentious or whatever word you would want to use for someone to claim being the inventor of it. No one should dare claim it and if you meet someone in Cuba who says this let me know because I’d like to meet them!”
“There are a few people who have tried to tell the story but didn’t quite succeed and I’m not upset. It’s just part of the evolution and it all helps to grow it and that’s what is so beautiful. I have been thinking before I die it’s so important to get this information out because I want people to know the story,” says Juanito, who, along with his brother Jorge Gomez, wrote an award-winning fictional screen play based on historical facts depicting the true portrayal of Casino’s creation and was recently granted permission by the Ministry of Cuban Culture to build a museum dedicated to Casino and Rueda in Havana.
To many, Rueda de Casino became a part of an untold, almost underground political demonstration, molded through the mentality of working as a group. It was a reflection on what was going on in the lives of every day Cubans and the process of political change. But to others, like Juanito who explains it on all sides it was also a means of entertainment. “Sometimes there is no other way to explain it,” he says. “It was really just to have fun.”
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Additional Article Sources:
sixtiescity.com-Sixties Dance and Dance Crazes
R. Aquila, That old-time rock & roll: a chronicle of an era, 1954-1963 (University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 10.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Masucci - Jerry Masucci