The author dancing with Anisley Serrano in Havana (credit: Robert Brohman); below, the rooftop of the Hotel Inglaterra

Havana heartbeat

How a stiff, gangly, middle-aged Englishman fell for the seductive rhythms of Cuba

It was the final song of the Friday matinée and about a dozen of us filled the narrow corridor between the stage and the cheap metal tables and chairs. Like a council-run function room that’s seen better days, the Casa de la Música would be no one’s tropical fantasy. But I must have been a hundred times. Even the toilet attendant gives me a hug.

That night I’d gone to the concert alone. The venue was quiet at first for a weekend, with none of the usual dance tourists. But there were a couple of Italians propping up the bar and one – a chef from Rimini – was soon assuring me over shots of rum that the coronavirus threat was exaggerated.

There are times during live shows when my natural reserve takes over and I stand back to watch the euphoria of others. But the band that night was one of Cuba’s best and by their last number, fired up on Havana Club, I — 6ft 3in, white-haired and 51 — found myself dancing right at the front with an exuberant group of women celebrating a birthday. An older lady nodded my way, approvingly. Tú sabes! she tells me. You know what you’re doing.

The song was addressed to Yemayá — owner of the seas in the Afro-Cuban Santería religion — and around me women began gathering imaginary skirts and sweeping their bodies in a circular motion, imitating the waves. The number then shifted. “Put your hands in the air if you want health!” the singer called into his mic, and arms shot up all around me. “If you want money!” he called, and there were even more. “What do you need?” he then asked the crowd and I responded, like the others: “Agua bendita!” (Holy water).

*     *     *

One afternoon I went wandering around the sleepy Havana neighbourhood where I’d once lived. My wife’s work as a journalist had taken us to communist-run Cuba and we stayed for three years until late 2014.

In those first years as a resident in Havana, I would never have believed I’d develop such a passion for Cuba and its music. I complained then in a diary that I was living in “a hot, dull country”. My unhappiness was not Havana’s fault: I was working on a memoir of youth. The book I was contracted to write had already taken longer to produce than the stretch of life it described. I ditched the memoir and became a middle-aged, sunburnt English loner, drinking too much in the tropics.

The change came almost two years into my stay. It was November 2013 when I joined a line of perspiring Europeans on the British ambassador’s patio, our individual teachers taking us through the basic steps of Cuban salsa. Tall, Yorkshire and inhibited, I wasn’t at all well set up for it. I was like a giant toddler learning to walk and angry when my feet refused to obey.

It was alien territory for me. Growing up, music was not something to dance to but something to enjoy alone in the bedroom: prized albums bought with my paper-round money, or the John Peel show on the radio. The indie pop I favoured was made for pale, skinny teenagers uncomfortable in their own skins. Some of my heroes, Morrissey and Ian Curtis, would perform almost anti-dances, as though battling with bodily shame.

In Cuba, dance is woven into the fabric of normal social life. There it can happen sober, early in the morning as well as late at night, and it stretches across generations. By contrast, the major English dance movements of my lifetime had a manic quality. From Northern Soul to Acid House, they were drug-driven flights from the codes of conventional life, whether industrial monotony and 1970s drabness or the moralism of the Thatcher years, and desperate attempts to shake off the Englishness.

I was untouched by these dance movements and never shed that stiff reserve. My dread of the dance floor lingered long after the passing of my emotionally-constipated adolescence. My wife and I had been together for 13 years before we danced, and it was the “first dance” at our wedding. High on champagne, it was less a meeting of bodies and souls than a Motown massacre.

So in those first months of dancing in Havana, deep-rooted anxieties drowned any sense of enjoyment. Anyone’s idea of salsa as a world of sensuality would have withered at the sight of my huge steps, like Peter Snow striding to his Swingometer on election night. When it came to dancing in pairs, where men have to lead, it was even worse. Is there any passion killer greater than a man muttering 1, 2, 3… 5, 6, 7, other than the female partner having to mark time for him?

I felt little connection to the music in those early days. Our teachers would often play non-Cuban pop salsa to make it easier for us to pick up the beat, but one day my dance-partner’s husband handed me a flashdrive loaded with his favourite tracks. It was funkier and harder-edged — Cubans call it timba — and rhythmically richer than anything I’d grown up listening to. For the first time since my teens I was excited about a very different kind music – a band might have 14 or 15 members, with conga drums and brass instruments prominent – though I wasn’t sure I understood what was going on.

At my first live timba concert, I saw Cubans really dancing for the first time — it could be aggressive and wild — and took my clunky beginner moves off to a dark corner. But what I’d heard and seen made me want to stick at it, to do the music justice.

Just as I was starting to make progress, we had to leave for a new posting to Moscow. Bereft, I would play Havana D’Primera, my favourite new band, on a loop. A jail door had been cracked open and I dreaded it slamming shut again.

*     *     *

These are hard times in Havana. When we left for Moscow five years ago, the mood was far more optimistic. The communist government had relaxed its restrictions on private business, relations with the US, the “imperialist” enemy, were improving and tourists were flocking in, desperate to see Havana before it got a Starbucks. Now, on my latest trip back, there’s talk of a new “special period”, as Cubans term the economic devastation of the 1990s. Vital oil aid from socialist ally Venezuela has shrunk and there are barely any Americans left in town, both the result of tough new policies by Donald Trump. Havana’s night life has also been hit by new shortages. The lack of fuel means limited transport. Live shows have been cut. Most nights there are just one or two venues in which to dance salsa.

Havana D’Primera : Arguably today’s best Cuban timba band

One evening I headed for one of those spots, the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra, with some Finnish dancer friends. It was once Havana’s grandest hotel: Winston Churchill stayed there in 1895 as a young reporter covering Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. Half a century later, the Inglaterra featured in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Less well known is that the first recordings of a son group — the Cuban genre given a new lease of life in the 1990s by the Buena Vista Social Club — were made there too, in 1918. Son was at its height in the early 1930s, and illustrious visitors to Cuba at the time such as George Gershwin and Federico García Lorca were enchanted by the sound. Remarkably, almost a century on, the same son clave — the pah-pah-pah . . . pah-pah rhythmic heartbeat — can be heard in today’s Cuban music.

In Cuba, dance is woven into the fabric of normal social life

With no entry fee, the Inglaterra’s terrace is busy. The Cuban men lined up along one side cast hopeful eyes towards my Finnish friends. In a sexy but broke country, dance offers a potential way of escape for those with good looks and good moves. For some female dance tourists, especially the middle-aged, it can be a heady experience: more than one has told me about the leap from feeling invisible and unappreciated at home to becoming sudden figures of desire. But on this night, I don’t get to observe the moves. The rain comes down and the music stops. We headed back to the bar we came from, leaving the beauty parade.

*     *     *

Taking up salsa as I did in my mid-forties screamed midlife crisis. I can divide my middle years clearly into the time before I danced, and the time since. In my new home of Moscow, the obsession only intensified. I felt a little less estranged from Havana when I discovered a surprisingly lively salsa scene and a big Cuban presence, thanks to old ideological ties. I even found a teacher, Anailys, who’d been trained at Havana’s top dance school.

My wife came home to find me glued to Cuban dance footage, or practising figures with an imaginary partner in the kitchen. She remembers this as my “aggressive bore stage”. I’d get angry at Strictly Come Dancing for presenting salsa as the hip-wiggling party dance, tropical shirt compulsory. My historian’s instinct had kicked in by this time and I was digging into the roots of the music. I listened to it constantly. “Can you turn it down?” my wife would shout.

She was convinced that the main driver of this obsession was to feel sexy and I’ll admit it has given me a boost at times. Cuban salsa requires the male to take a firm lead; you shouldn’t mince around the dancefloor. On my last trip to Havana I danced with a vibrant young woman called Rosita, well-known on the dance scene. I led whilst she added the Cuban style which drew the admiring eyes of watching tourists. I tried to look nonchalant as I left the floor, not like the cat that just got the cream.

But this “crisis” has also taken less cliched directions. In 2017, it was an older, bulky-built man dancing at an outdoor club who caught my eye. Angel’s style was less flashy than that of the younger dancers who performed for the tourist gaze, but he had great musicality. I complimented him and he invited me to a dance event.

The party was at a social club by the sea, a very socialist and simple institution. “Salsa” was not a word in use there; their dance was called “casino”. Members were aged up to their eighties, some old enough to remember when the dance was created around the time of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Though casino had some of the same figures that I’d learned in salsa classes, they were fewer and less intricate. There was more movement around the dancefloor — going for a walk, they call it — and their footwork on that bumpy outdoor floor was playful, with constant nifty switches in timing. “Why do you want to dance like my Dad?” a young Cuban teacher in Moscow laughed, when I showed him some of the videos I’d made. But for me, Dad-dancing Cuban-style sounded just fine.

*     *     *

Through dance, I’ve grown to see Havana with an affectionate eye: no longer bland and frustrating, as it had seemed in my pre-dancing days, but rather a place of unexpected friendships and curious street encounters.

This time back, out walking, I heard the sound of Los Van Van, one of Cuba’s most enduring bands, drifting from an apartment window. When a woman in her fifties or so looked out, I gave the music an appreciative thumbs-up. She promptly invited me up. She and her sister were celebrating their mother’s eighty-fifth birthday and I soon found myself dancing with all three in their living room. We only stopped for the older lady to adjust her vest-top, its strap slipping precariously as she turned.

There were amusing sights, too, like the group of schoolboys sweeping clear an appreciative path for a girl in a T-shirt that declared “I am a Pineapple”. As a boy got down on one knee, Pineapple girl glided on by, with that Cuban hip rotation which almost turns an ordinary walk into a dance, falling into the arms of another boy further down the road to the collective groans of her fan club. One night I chugged back from the Casa de la Música in a funereal 1949 Plymouth car, feeling like a mambo-dancing gangster.

*     *     *

Havana D’primera are to my mind the best Cuban timba band right now. Led by Alexander Abreu, (right) a giant man with enormous charisma, a virtuoso trumpet player as well as a singer, at his concerts you are in the presence of one of the greats.

At the Casa de la Música one night, they opened with “Me Dicen Cuba”, a number that’s almost become an alternative national anthem. Cubans are patriotic, their identity forged in a constant battle against ideological enemies. But somehow the jazzy feel of the song softens any nationalism:

To really know what it’s like to feel Cuban
You have to have been born in Cuba
You have to have lived in Cuba

I join in, too, as if I too belong, though I don’t think Abreu had privileged expats in mind with those lyrics. Still, I do like to think his music has brought me closer to the Cuban people.

I tend to swerve the taxis parked outside the Casa de la Música after concerts and walk the mile or so back to my flat. Cuba has long been a safe place for foreigners, but with the unlit streets almost deserted I felt a little less invulnerable, though the only people who bothered me were a couple of muscular transvestites in short, shimmery dresses. “My friend!” they shouted, then again louder still as I continued to walk away, quickly. “My friend! My friend! Come here.” Slipping from their sight, I took refuge in the Mr Mango snack bar, its logo a fruit-man in overalls with a big bulge in his crotch.

The plasma TV was showing reggaeton as usual and as I waited for my order the monotonous beat, warmth and alcohol all did their work. I don’t know how long I slept for, but when I woke another table applauded. On screen, an unattractive male singer was sprawled on a boat, girls in bikinis crawling all over him. But as I came around and the song took shape, I heard that Cuban son clave. I automatically began tapping my beer can with my wedding ring – pah-pah-pah . . . pah pah – and bit into my now limp, tepid burger.

*     *     *

My manic dancing has finally slowed down, perhaps a sign of my midlife escape entering a new phase. I’m more able to live in the moment, and perhaps be the person and dancer I wanted to be when I set out on the adventure. This time back I enjoyed spending time at the houses of Cuban friends: eating with them, watching El Clásico, and not dancing at all. I even found myself passing up a couple of concerts to look after a friend’s giant dog, Stella, spoiling her with pork and yuca dinners.

I have worried that this passion that has given shape and meaning to my life might fade. It would be like losing a religion. A Finnish woman I met thought that I should look at it another way: that I would always carry the music with me, and that dance would settle in the layers of my life, even as I moved on.

The last days of my trip proved that my enthusiasm for the music is undimmed. Maykel Blanco’s band blew away the blues, then Alain Pérez seemed to deliver the entire history of Cuban dance music — cha-cha-cha, then timba, bolero, then rumba — in one electrifying set.

I spent my penultimate night at a club called El Sauce at what they advertised as a “melancholic matinée”. It mixed classic Cuban salsa with older pop and rock songs from the 1970s and ’80s. At one point, “Sweet Child of Mine” blasted through the speakers, and as a woman cast her eyes towards my groin, flicking her tongue in and back quickly like a snake, I wondered what a “happy matinée” might be like.

I made it to another venue later that night. 1830 had just reopened on the waterfront with a new dance floor so smooth it feels out of place in Havana. I danced several numbers with a Norwegian woman who’d planted herself in the city for the entire winter. She complimented my dancing. “How did you get to be this . . . I don’t know the word, sexy person . . . you know, a tall English guy?” she wondered. I shrugged. “Well, maybe ‘sexy’ isn’t the word I’m looking for,” she faltered. “No, I think it is,” I said, but she went on. “Vibratious. Is that a word? Vibrant. That’s the word I’m looking for,” she concluded. “Sexy. That was the right word,” I assured her.

On my last day I finally made it to Old Havana, heading there with my first dance teacher, Daines, to hunt for vinyl. Many Cuban albums never made it onto CD, still less digital, and a few entrepreneurial sorts make good money buying up old discs from homes across the island and selling them on. As I squirrelled through the racks and found an album by some forgotten timba band, the woman I’d once danced around her shop with insisted she was giving me the best price, then winked as she took double from a man from Miami.

*     *     *

“So, what are your conclusions after this trip?” my taxi driver asked in English as we headed for the airport. I mulled over his question for a while. “Oh, I don’t know. Cuba is in great difficulty.” “Now tell me a conclusion I don’t already know,” he laughed. The first coronavirus cases had just been confirmed and he wondered whether his island could take any more blows. I had a few last cans of Cristal beer at the airport, the familiar smell of cheese toasties wafting through the departure lounge. As my flight back to Moscow was called, A-ha’s “Take On Me” was playing in the airport bar. I knew then that I would have to come back. That could not be the last song I heard in Havana.

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