As a casinero (Spanish for “male casino dancer”), over the years I have found that misconceptions abound in the Latin dance community when it comes to the Cuban dance of casino. In fact, it may very well be the case that when you read the phrase “male casino dancer”, if you had never heard of the existence of casino dancing, you thought I was a male dancer who worked in a casino and danced for the entertainment of the crowd who went there to gamble away their savings.
On the other hand, if you are more acquainted with Latin dances, it may be the case that you read “casino” and thought: Cuban salsa.
And yet a third subset of readers may have probably thought: Rueda.
All of these interpretations of “casino” could not be farther away from what casino actually is.
Allow me to explain.
First, there is the homonym, which we must understand. “Casino” has a very specific connotation in most parts of the world. It’s the place with the coin slot machines, Poker games, roulette, dice rolling—and also part of the title of one of the James Bond movies. When most people think of “casino,” they think of these things. But in Cuba it is a little bit different. In Cuba, when people mention “casino,” since there are no actual casinos in the island (and because you can only watch the James Bond movie so many times before it gets old), chances are they are referring to a dance that has been very popular there since the 1950s: the dance of casino.
The reason the dance is called “casino” is still contested. People have different stories, but the one which seems to be more widely accepted—and the one I am sticking to, because it seems to make a bit more sense than the others—is the one which traces casino’s gestation to a place in Havana called “Casino Deportivo.” Casinos in Cuba were recreational hotspots, where people went to socialize and dance. Around 1957, people in the Casino Deportivo began mixing bits of different dances as they came together in a circle. Later—so the story goes—when these dancers would meet up outside of the Casino Deportivo—say, at a house party—and wanted to dance with each other in a group, they would tell each other, “Hey, let’s dance like in the Casino.” With time, the name stuck, and the dance that was developed at the Casino Deportivo came to be known as “casino.”
This bit of history becomes extremely important when trying to explain why casino is not “Cuban salsa,” as many would have you believe (including Wikipedia). If you belong to that subset of readers who saw the title of this piece and thought, “Cuban salsa”, your thinking is not unfounded. Indeed, many dance academies/groups which teach casino nowadays market the dance as some form of salsa dancing. It is not uncommon to see a flyer or Facebook post from a dance group trying to promote their lessons which reads something like this: “Casino (Cuban salsa) class tonight!” Other names which are commonly used are “salsa casino,” “casino salsa,” casino-style salsa”; and then there is also “Cuban-style salsa” and “Cuban salsa”, which omit “casino” altogether. The dance of casino has come to have so many labels that, if it were a person, you could say it was going through a pretty serious mid-life crisis.
With so many labels, which one would be the actual name of the dance?
None, actually. You see, all these labels which people have found for the dance of casino share one thing in common—a common denominator, if you will: salsa. Salsa is what gets people interested, because “salsa” is what people know and have come to associate with a dance, beyond the “salsa” that you eat. In short, calling the dance of casino “Cuban salsa,” or a variation thereof, is a marketing strategy, a bait designed to spark your interest in dancing while avoiding connotations to the casinos where you actually gamble.
But the dance of casino is not salsa.
The reason why it is not salsa was, in a way, explained when I narrated the story of how casino was developed. Notice the date of casino’s inception into the Cuban dance scene: 1957. Now think about when salsa music came about: the late 60s, early 70s (these are the dates that most historians use). So how can casino be salsa, if casino, as a dance, already existed before there was even such a thing as “salsa music,” let alone a dance for it?
Now, some of you may be reading this and saying, “But I have Cuban friends. And they call it salsa.”
I guess I could respond, “Well, I’m Cuban, too. And I don’t.” But that sort of logic won’t go anywhere. So let me try to give you another response:
While I don’t seek to speak for every Cuban, I can nonetheless attempt to provide a couple of reasons as to why this happens. First: some Cubans are actually misinformed about the dance of casino. They don’t know the history of the dance. They don’t even know why it is called casino. Some of them—and this was the case with one of my cousins—actually think casino is a musical genre. “Salsa”, on the other hand, is a word that is widely used in the island to refer to music, and because casino can be danced to what we call “salsa,” many make that connection. Then there are others who, knowing the dance is called casino, will call it “salsa” in order to make it easier for you (the outsider who will think they are otherwise referring to gambling) to understand what it is that they mean—especially if they are trying to sell casino dance lessons to you, or find some sort of common ground on which to establish a friendship.
But even if some Cubans refer to what they dance as “salsa,” this should not be grounds to call casino “salsa.” In fact, the biggest dance show produced in Cuban television history, which ran from 2004 to 2006, was called Para Bailar Casino (“In Order to Dance Casino”), not Para Bailar Salsa. The name of the dance has always been casino. Anything else is a misinformed label—or a marketing strategy.
Now let’s get into the third biggest misconception when it comes to casino: Rueda.
You’ve probably heard the term. In fact, nowadays it’s hard not to, given the number of rueda flash mobs that people are doing around the world. If you were part of that subset of readers which read “casino” and thought rueda, there is also a reason for that. Remember how casino got started, back in 1957, with the people coming together in a circle formation, combining different moves? Well, that’s the rueda part. “Rueda” is Spanish for “wheel”, and in the context of the dance of casino it refers to the formation dancers get into when dancing casino as a group. When this happens, this is known as “rueda de casino”, or “wheel of casino.” Here is a rueda de casino video, from the show Para bailar casino:
Do notice that I keep using the word formation when I refer to rueda. The reason for this is that that is what rueda actually is: a formation in which you can dance casino with other people. However, what has happened over the years is that people outside of Cuba, when marketing their “rueda de casino” lessons, have begun referring to casino danced in a rueda formation as just rueda. (The sample flyer above provides a perfect example.) And I get it: “rueda de casino” is sort of a mouthful.
But rueda is not a dance. What people are actually dancing when they are in the rueda formation is casino.
You may ask, “But what’s the big deal if it’s just rueda? After all, it is easier on the tongue.”
Well, I don’t know how much easier it could be. After all, rueda is not an English word, as Microsoft Word keeps reminding me by underlining it in red every time I write it. But more to the point: the big problem with this marketing strategy of oversimplification is that, in the process, the eager young minds who go to dance classes to learn a dance called “rueda”:
- Will mistakenly call it “rueda,” as if it were a dance (it’s not; it’s a dance formation);
- Could likely consider the dancing that they do in this format as a group-centered dance which does not translate to dancing with another person individually; and
- Could never learn that the name of the actual dance that is being done in the rueda formation is casino (this is the saddest one to me).
(These three reasons as to why shortening “rueda de casino” to just rueda is quite harmful are my reasons, based on my own experience—that is, I have seen all of this happen. But I’m sure there are more.)
If saying “rueda de casino” is too much of a mouthful, try “casino rueda.” Maybe that will solve it. If saying “casino rueda” still feels like too much, and you’d still just call it “rueda”—well, though I’d rather you not, there is nothing I can do about that, other than repeat what I have already said.
But at least now you’ll do so knowing that rueda is not a dance; that rueda is a dance formation.
That the dance done in the rueda is actually called “casino,” which in this context does not refer to the place where people gamble, but rather to a Cuban dance.
And that casino is not “Cuban salsa.”