Famous Dances in Famous Places: When Feet Say More Than Words
In the sticky heat of Trinidad de Cuba, no woman is safe. Men prowl around the tables, searching for a salsa senorita to move with for the night…or just the next song. The music, fluid and catchy, swirls and snakes in a never-ending transition through palm trees and dusty streets to the rhythm of the island.
Destinations flavor dance – and vice versa – and in some places, the dance and place are so entwined, you simply cannot understand until you experience the dance in that particular place. Whether watching someone strut their stuff or banishing inhibitions and joining in, the right partner heightens the experience. And for some dances, that crucial partner is location. From Paris to Buenos Aires, here are several destinations that offer famous dances around the world.
Tango, Buenos Aires
Some dances are perfect for joining in right away, but the tango might be better just to watch at first – at least when taught in Argentina.
Fermented from the underworld of pimps and prostitutes, tango bares its soul in Buenos Aires. Shows range from glitzy to rustic – but for a real taste, stifle your pride and join a class.
The dance relies upon pression with your partner – a hip-grinding, pelvis grazing lock that does not flinch – and for women, a spine that can flex the wrong way on a moment’s notice. The man is in control, his partner an object to be thrown around with detached precision. Tango requires jack-knife footwork; despite the machismo, the most shameful thing a man can do is kick his woman.
For the ultimate example of control, however, head to the symbol of Russian ballet, the Bolshoi. Both a theatre and a dance company, the carved stone columns of the Bolshoi have showcased talent since 1825. Ballet itself may have taken its baby steps in 16th century France, but Moscow saved it from self-destructive teenage angst and propelled it to maturity and a worldwide reputation.
Bolshoi, suitably enough, translates to “grand” in Russian. Swan Lake – arguably the world’s most famous ballet– premiered here in 1877.
Ballet dancers train until their muscles harden, their feet bleed, and they weigh less than the netting on a tutu. Their discipline combines the focus of Olympic gymnasts with the groomed glamour of a Bond assassin. The pain, however, is real. So, if you’re over ten years old this might work better as a spectator sport.
To get your kicks in other ways, try the lace-knickered cancan chorus line. Designed for the showgirls of the Moulin Rouge in fin-de-siècle Paris and immortalized in Toulouse-Lautrec’s vibrant posters, this dance conjures up froth and fun.
Imagine the stucco elephant with a stage in one of its legs. Imagine sipping absinthe as artists, singers and literati rub together in Zidler’s notorious nightclub. In fact, imagine the entire experience since a visit today offers a different, more rehearsed atmosphere.
The windmill still glows in luscious crimson above the Moulin Rouge, but the neighborhood is seedy, the clientele are tourists and the elephant has gone.
Salsa, Trinidad de Cuba
Salsa – a word for spice, sauce and music – fills its beats with steps developed in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Lilting voices, guitars and sassy maracas spill into the Caribbean air, from the rooftops in Havana to the small square in Trinidad de Cuba.
For the price of a rum-based Mojito – or better yet a Cuba Libra – you can kick off your shoes and join in. Spin and turn and step and back up, safe in the knowledge that a skilled partner disguises many levels of incompetence. Relax and enjoy yourself – that’s the spirit of salsa.
In the wild heat of Andalusia, castanets click, feet stomp and hands clap to the music and dance of flamenco. Posters decorate Seville, projecting the scorching, traditional image of a woman alone. She wears a rippled scarlet skirt and a single flower in her slicked-back hair. She never smiles.
Real flamenco dancing is practiced by men, women, and families — in concerts and at weddings. The steps are highly skilled, but the performance is improvised to allow the dancer to express emotion. Men sing of great passions and sorrows as the women swish their skirts into blurring wheels of fabric, backed by menacing, brooding music. Flamenco ends with the woman alone, hands above her head, wrists snapped back.
Belly Dancing, Istanbul
Belly dancing also involves a lone woman with her arms above her head, although the atmosphere is more seductive than solitary. With an exposed and undulating midriff, she shimmies and floats beneath rainbow scarves, with zils – finger symbols – on her hands.
Men practice belly dancing too, albeit more often at private gatherings such as weddings and festivals. The loose strands of this dance’s history weave uncertainly through much of the Middle East. Yet the smoky-blue city of Istanbul adopted it, running concerts every night and lining its bazaars with dreamy costumes. Critics, however, complain that western fantasies have corrupted conservative Arabic dance.
Morris Dancing, Oxford
Leave controversy behind and witness morris dancing: the group formation performed in the damp early mornings of England by men and women armed with bells, sticks and puffy-white blouses. The dances are choreographed, but the moves are simple and what morris dancing lacks in glamour, it makes up for with enthusiasm and community spirit.
May Day celebrations open with the hushed hymns of Magdalen College Choir, before the festival erupts as morris dancers and jugglers roam across Oxford. Pubs open at 6am to refresh student revelers, who have already partied all night in ball gowns and black tie.
Everyone, in fact, seems underdressed for the cold, grey English weather and poised to catch a cold. Perhaps this explains why morris dancers wave handkerchiefs around, as another example of a dance finely in tune with its location.
Additional photo credits:
Ballet by rayparnova on Flickr,
Can Can by Axel Bührmann on Flickr,
Flamenco by Tierecke on Flickr,
Belly Dancing by Toast to Life on Flickr,
Salsa by hoyasmeg on Flickr ,
Morris Dancing by Manic Street Preacher on Flickr