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Written by Christina Benson, Element Dance, U.K.
During our time in Cuba we were lucky enough to work with various companies specialising in different aspects of Cuban dance. I enjoyed learning from all of them, but I can’t deny that one of my favourites was ‘Raices Profundas’. The group, founded by Juan de Dios Ramos in 1975 is considered by many as Cuba’s foremost folkloric dance company. With its 55 members of dancers, singers and musicians they are known internationally having travelled worldwide performing ensembles of the Yoruba traditions.
Our first encounter with them was at a Dance Festival in Old Havana where they were performing the finale piece in a line-up of shows. The power of the live drumming and vocals created a wall to wall sound that matched the strength and passion of the dancers leaving me totally blown away.
Two days later we arrived at their rehearsal space in Central Havana. We stepped through the door, underneath a small company name sign into their studio and possibly everyone in the group looked around the building in awe. It almost had the sense of being ‘inside out’ with the concrete uneven floor, balconies in the walls, and light streaming in from the windows and partial roof. As a professional dancer in the Western world I am used to modern studios with sprung wooden floors, air conditioning and floor to ceiling mirrors; but none of that welcomes you like the warmth and inspiration that we were greeted with as we joined in with their company class.
We had the great honour of being taught by Juan de Dios Ramos, still the director of the company and during our two days with them we learnt movements of the orisha’s Eleggua, Babalu Aye, Ogun, and Yemayá. The company members were so interactive and engaging giving us individual feedback and working with us one on one. They passionately wanted us to do it and ‘do it correctly’, including facial expressions where necessary!
Because we were working with them as part of a cultural exchange they also performed for us before it was our turn to teach and perform for them. Once again, I was amazed by their incredible talents, demonstrating head to toe movement, making the moves we had just learnt look unbelievably effortless.
That evening we met them again at a Rumba party, hosted for us at a Cuban home. Personally this was my Cuban highlight, experiencing the real Cuba amongst generations of friends and family enjoying their music, their dance and their rum! Some of the dancers from Raices Profundas were there and once again they did nothing but make us feel welcome, teaching us moves, practising steps we had taught them and forming circles for us to dance in. As a dancer there are few better things than dancing to live music and this was such a magical thing to be surrounded by in Cuba whether it’s in a studio or at a party; it’s part of life.
Perhaps an element of what made the experience with Raices Profundas so special was that we were able to meet with them on a few occasions, however something stood out to me. In the UK, most successful dance companies have grand reception areas, studios stories high and technical sound equipment. But does any of that make a difference to what really matters; the art, the dance, the music and the passion which are all the reasons people love dance. In that almost derelict building in Central Havana amazing work is created by people with such talent that goes on to be performed to thousands of people around the globe. It really made me reconsider how important all the artificial stuff is.