Friday, July 14, 2017

Dissertation Digest — Timbeando en Nueva York: Cuban Dance Culture in Havana and New York City

By Sarah Town

New York's casineros come together in Central Park on a recent Saturday afternoon, their dance circle mirroring those of the Bethesda Fountain, which rises behind them.
June 30, 2014. Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. New York City. 
Tonight’s cantante, Fernando, is particularly playful in that role, regularly inventing new moves and combinations based on commonly held cultural vocabularies. His calls often elicit a combination of laughter and confusion, as dancers are forced to step out of the molds and movements they have learned [in class] in order to inhabit the communal dance moment. Now the sun is setting quickly, and the outdoor session is nearing its end. The rueda swells in size as the event’s organizers call for the last song of the evening. Midway through the song, Fernando calls “enchufla con vampiro” (“enchufla with vampire”) – it’s clearly a new move for people, yet comprised of parts that all recognize.[1] Some leads watch Fernando as he executes the move, attempting to imitate his vampiric strut. Others ad-lib their own version of the move, extending both arms as they teeter toward their new partners or fake-biting one or the other partner’s neck in time with the music. Many of the follows also extemporize, screaming or throwing their hands in the air in mock dismay. As night falls in the park, for a moment the rueda becomes a milling ring of zombies, vampires, and lost souls, peppered with screams and laughter, before righting itself again into a circle of pairs locked in guapea rhythm.[2]
This excerpt of an entry in my field notes written three years ago evokes many other similar moments from my fieldwork in New York City’s Cuban dance community. A diverse, everyday group of New Yorkers in Central Park on a summer evening, locked in vampiric step to the rhythm of contemporary Cuban dance music, using the structures and vocabularies of a popular dance style born on the eve of the Cuban revolution… how did we get here? And what does it mean? This is the core query that drives and shapes my dissertation and related research. Every step of the way, this seed interrogatory engenders new research questions and directions, resulting in a project that embraces and intertwines ethnography, archival and oral historical research, and music and dance analysis, focusing on two main sites of popular dance culture production and exchange: Havana and New York City. The historic intellectual, cultural, and affective relationship between these two international cities is well-known and lives on today through the work and diversion of local musicians and dancers, who both preserve and innovate the music and dance elements – timba and casino – of what I call “Cuban dance culture.”

Casino – short for rueda de casino – is a social dance style that encompasses solo, partner, and group modalities. Often called “Cuban salsa” by dancers off the island, its circular pathways on the dance floor and angular accents in dancers’ bodies distinguish it from the globally more widespread in-line styles of salsa. Timba is a musical genre and a music culture that blends elements of Cuban son and rumba with those of jazz, funk, and international pop. During the genre’s heyday, its lyrics often expressed the realities of Cuba’s Special Period, and the dance associated with it developed particular forms of personal sensual expression. Together, musicians and dancing audience sought to produce moments of communally-experienced sensual enjoyment, la gozadera.

Pursuing a deeply interdisciplinary approach, I rely in my research on an array of archives and media including articles and advertisements from periodicals, album art, documentary film, and live performance footage; interactive oral historical and analytical interviews with musicians and dancers; and my own embodied and transcribed observations and experiences in the field. Beyond its methodological contributions, my project augments and critiques the existing literature on Cuban revolutionary history and New York’s Latinx cultures, as well as on the history and analysis of casino and timba in particular. Analyzing the complex and evolving relationship between a popular dance culture and its diverse environments, I propose a focus on form, practice, and culture that destabilizes national identities in favor of diasporic cosmopolitanisms.

In three large sections, I address first casino, then timba, and finally their present-day practice in New York City. I argue that despite its scant historical record, social dance, and casino in particular, became an important aspect of the Cuban revolutionary project. Enacting social cohesion and affective resilience in the midst of stress and shortage, casino performed productive labor for the revolution. Emerging decades later, Cuban timba is a musical hybrid that manipulates rhythm, timbre, and form to produce tension, release, and gozadera. Although casino was originally developed to the music of the late 1950s, new generations of dancers adapted its basic steps and structures to the island’s latest dance music, forcing the dance to evolve over time. Cuba’s economic crisis of the early 1990s led the revolutionary island to reopen its economy to international markets, and as in pre-revolutionary years, culturally oriented tourism and exports soon became key elements of that strategy. In this process, the relationship between timba and casino became cemented, particularly for non-Cuban dancers.

Operating within a context very different from the one in which the dance originally emerged, New Yorkers today adapt casino to their own needs, producing an itinerant practice through which they celebrate community and diversity, while laying claim to the city. Meanwhile, New York’s timba musicians exploit the genre’s hybridity and flexibility, expanding the use of improvisation and dialogue, yet maintaining a dance prerogative, producing a unique sonic-kinetic space. The Afro-diasporic aesthetics and practices that imbue Cuban dance culture and the contestation and transformation of gendered aesthetics and dance roles over time are further narrative threads that are developed over the length of the work. These become important lenses through which to consider social change, musical evolution, and Cuban artists’ interactions with broader markets.

Fernando calls a playful "silent rueda," in which hand gestures instead of verbal cues are used to signal group moves.

What does a musicologist gain by studying popular dance culture? One might ask conversely what the discipline of musicology has to offer to the study of popular dance cultures. Certainly my desire to treat both the aesthetic elements and the evolving socio-economic contexts of a popular music-dance culture with seriousness and depth has forced me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Yet as a musician and musicologist, the music – its sounds and structures, their logics and meanings – is the touchstone from which I began and to which I repeatedly return. Even the “simplest” folk music has layers of meaning to unpack, once we pay close attention to its basic sonic elements - rhythm, timbre, form, and pitch, for example - and consider the ways in which these produce meaning within their “home” context. In the case of popular dance cultures, scholars of African, Cuban, and even North American dance genres have shown that the intimate relationship between music and dance requires a detailed examination of the dance within the context of a rigorous musical analysis.[3]

Cuba’s conservatory-trained post-revolutionary musicians produce particularly spectacular performances of popular music, with intricate yet digestible rhythmic and melodic elements, and flexible forms and practices that allow for spontaneity in performance. And Cuba’s popular music is dance music. Long focused on a limited corpus, the discipline of musicology does not always have adequate tools to address non-canonical musical examples such as the ones with which my research engages. Yet I would argue that as “the” discipline dedicated to the study of musical objects, it is the place from which to begin such an inquiry, and that non-canonical musical cultures are precisely the direction in which the discipline needs to move. New kinds of musical questions and examples force us as a community of scholars to refine existing tools and develop new ones, an ongoing process that ultimately serves the study of all music.

The crisis of the 1990s had subsided by the time I made my first trip to Cuba in 2000, and the island’s market-oriented transformations were underway. On those first trips, made under the auspices of the existing general license, I used U.S. dollars freely on the street, alongside the Cuban peso (CUP). I defended my dissertation proposal more than a decade later, in the spring of 2014, and that summer returned to Havana for the first time in some years. The Cuban economy still ran on the CUP, but relied more than ever on the recently created “convertible” peso or CUC, pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. That December, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a much-anticipated rapprochement between the two nations – one that in turn has been undercut by the current U.S. president.

In many ways, change and uncertainty are more palpable than ever at this writing, both on the island and off. Yet official postures and policies aside, musicians and dancers in Havana, New York, and elsewhere yearn to reenact the cultural connections that keep Cuban dance culture alive, and continue to do so through new projects and partnerships. Forms like timba and casino exist precisely because of those resistant acts. They are proof of and inspiration for further acts of mingling and sharing, reminding us of our humanity, resilience, and need for communal moments of pleasure and release. Understanding these deep-rooted connections – between musical sound, embodied listener, and socio-economic space – is the goal of my project and the work of today’s musicologist.

Sarah Town defended her dissertation, entitled “Timbeando en Nueva York: Cuban Dance Culture in Havana and New York City,” in March of 2017, thus completing her Ph.D. Musicology at Princeton University. Her research examines the histories, aesthetics, and circulation of Cuban timba and casino specifically, and Cuban dance cultures more generally. Sarah has presented papers before the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Congress on Research in Dance and Society for Dance History Scholars, and the Latin American Studies Association, among other bodies. She has received awards from the Latin American and Caribbean Studies section of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Díaz Ayala Collection at Florida International University, Princeton University, and City College of New York. Sarah has an article forthcoming on the role of social dance in the Cuban revolution as depicted through the lens of Cuban documentary film, and two others in the works: one on the rhythmic and compositional experimentations of New York-based timba musicians, and a second exploring Afro-Cuban aesthetics, affect, and the music-dance relationship in Cuban dance culture through the lens of the fundamental muelleo motion.

[1] In the lingo of the Cuban social dance called rueda de casino, “enchufla” is a basic inside turn, usually followed by a partner exchange. By adding “con vampiro” or “with vampire,” the caller asks dancers to mime vampiric actions, such as neck biting and blood sucking. Interpretations tend to be loose.
[2] Guapea is one of two basic steps and partnering relationships in Cuban casino, in which lead and follow move apart and together over a single eight-count.
[3] See respectively, e.g. John Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibilities: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) and Kofi Agawu, African Rhythm: A Northern Ewe Perspective, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Yvonne Daniel, Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) and Vincenzo Perna, Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); Mark Butler, Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).