How Salsa and Cuba Changed My Life

Guest post by Paul Van Ross

I fell in love with Cuban dance and culture in Melbourne while attending classes at the Cuban Dance Academy. The director, Christina Monneron, shed the light on this wonderful culture. I was particularly interested in the communal aspects of Rueda dancing, which is like a complicated Salsa version of the barn dance. It resonated with me. I felt the need to connect with people; I was missing being involved with the community on other levels than music.

Paul Van Ross, Rued a Dancing | image supplied by Paul
Paul Van Ross, rueda dancing | image supplied by Paul

When the dance school closed, I continued to lead a group of rueda lovers to practise every weekend. I’ve been dancing Rueda de Casino for over 8 years. Fundamentals in music training and improvisation enabled me to explore salsa dancing in a creative way and provided the discipline to improve quickly. Rueda can be as simple or as complicated as you desire, offers an enormous amount of creativity and improvisation, and requires the caller to react to the changes in the music. It’s dynamic. In many ways it’s very similar to playing jazz; constantly creative and interactive. My rueda friends and I have created many original moves over recent years. The dancing puts me in the “zone” and always puts a smile on face.

My interest in Cuban culture extends to Afro-Cuban elements of the music and dance, polyrhythmic elements and its earthly roots. I found the development of the music and dance particularly interesting. I travelled to Cuba in 2009 as part of a dance school, studying salsa, son, and Afro-Cuban dances. I even managed to get a few flute lessons in too.

I really enjoyed Cuba, on so many levels. While I was there, my camera was stolen, and as part of filing the police report in Havana, I had to ride in the standard issue police car (a Russian Lada – imagine 1950’s). I thought it was so ironic, because I needed the camera more than ever to take a photo of this slice of Cuba.

I felt particularly privileged to be able to see what ‘real’ Cubans are like, and not be influenced by what the media reports. After that first trip, I knew I would be back someday with a more musical focus.

Being a musician has helped build a stronger connection between the dancers and the musicians on stage at Latin gigs. People overseas are often surprised when I jump off stage at a Latin gig and bust out a few moves on the dance floor. I managed to convince a few dancers to visit jazz clubs and have new musical experiences.

Melbourne musicians have had a strong affiliation with Cuban musicians over the last few decades. My recent recording in Cuba is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my music career and I hope that it inspires other musicians to discover and experiment with Cuban music.


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