Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso, Havana
With marble muses and winged angels on the baroque facade, the grande dame of Havana’s colonial-era theatres dominates this part of the old town. Inside, Anna Pavlova and Sarah Bernhardt once trod the boards, and it was lavishly restored between 2013 and 2015. The 1,000+ seat auditorium – beneath a half-tonne chandelier – hosts dance and theatre events, and witnessed President Obama’s epic speech to Cubans in 2016. Don’t miss classical ballet choreographed by Cuba National Ballet’s 97-year-old prima ballerina assoluta, Alicia Alonso, or performances by Carlos Acosta’s new Acosta Danza. Japan’s avant garde Karas dance company wowed audiences in spring 2018. Check billboards, too, for acclaimed Cuba troupe appearances by Danza Contemporánea.
• Tickets around £23. Buy in person at the box office (Tue-Sun 9am-5pm, box office reopens at 6pm for last-minute tickets on day of performance). Guided tours of the theatre (daily) £3.80. Havana’s biennial ballet festival runs 28 October-6 November, Paseo de Martí, +53 7861 3077, no website
Callejón de Hamel, Havana
Every Sunday at noon, a small alley in Centro Havana thunders into life with rumba, a rhythmic music and dance originating in the dockside homes of enslaved Africans in Matanzas and Havana. Fusing Afro-Cuban conga drums (tumbadora), claves (wooden percussion sticks) guagua (a drum, also known as a catá) and European call-and-response song, the fizzing midday party is a must. Hamel Alley is full of murals and sculptures by Salvador Gonzáles Escalona depicting rituals of African orishas (saints) of Santería: a Catholicism-fused-with-Yoruba religion.
• Free but donations welcome. Callejón de Hamel, between Calle Espada and Calle Aramburu, Centro Habana. Havana’s Rhythm and Dance Festival runs from 4-10 March 2019
Streets of Old Havana
Cobbled plazas, distressed walls and shaded courtyards are the stage for some of Cuba’s more curious dance performances. The annual Old Havana: City in Movement festival sees hundreds perform contemporary and folk dances, skilled maypole moves, children’s parades, costumed timba turns, as well as the confident strides of dancers on stilts (Los Gigantes). Every few years (lack of funding and natural disasters have prevented it being every two), the Havana Biennial (Bienal de la Habana) art fair features visual hits: in 2012, Conga Irreversible saw arts collective Los Carpinteros reverse the colourful Cuban conga, with dancers and musicians dressed in black, moving backwards, playing music back to front, and singing lyrics in reverse.
• Old Havana: City in Movement (Habana Vieja: Ciudad en Movimiento), 3-9 April 2019. Bienal de la Habana 12 April-12 May 2019
Fábrica de Arte Cubano, Havana
Brooklyn meets Berlin in Havana’s cultural powerhouse, which was developed out of an old peanut oil factory and hitched to the edge of the city’s art district. Opened in 2014, the Cuban Art Factory, brainchild of musician X-Alfonso, exhibits avant-garde photography and murals, and has auditoriums, bars, a patio, a cigar corner and a restaurant. It draws multi-generational crowds, travellers, and Cuban farándula (celebrities) to its movies, live music, dance and theatre – entertaining punters for just the £1.50 entry. Since the venue opened, there has been flamenco from Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, tango, and a modern dance interpretation set to Ravel’s Bolero by a trio of Cuban troupes (Acosta Danza, Danza-Teatro Retazos, and DanzaAbierta), along with classes from Cuban professionals in capoeira, Afrobeat, and contemporary dance.
• Calle 26 e/ 11 and 13 streets, Vedado, on Facebook
Jardines del 1830, Havana
Havana’s sultriest salsa venue is a patio on the seafront between a roadside restaurant and the kooky Japanese Gardens. It’s Gaudí meets 18th-century shellcraft – with coral- and shell-encrusted caves – and a tiny Moorish mosque. Arrive at weekends for spellbinding live bands, such as Habana d’Primera playing timba – salsa mixing in hip-hop, disco, nueva trova and jazz – under the stars. Drinks from a small bar help loosen feet. There’s no shortage of dancing partners, and for solo women the scene is less intense than in other haunts, such as La Gruta (Avenida 23, in the same district).
• Admission from £7.50 (depending on band); Malecón, corner of Calle 20, Vedado, +53 7838 3090; from 10pm
Casa de la Trova, Santiago de Cuba
The success of Buena Vista Social Club (started in 1996) helped to revive the careers of a number of Cuban crooners and launched Compay Segundo’s song Chan Chan into the living rooms of millions. This son music (predecessor to modern salsa) is rooted in colonial Spain and slave-era Africa, combining instruments of Africa such as the bongo and claves with Spanish song, and the tres, a three-string guitar from Spain. Walk into the balconied 19th-century Casa de la Trova’s street-level salon to groove to old-timers. Matinees are less intense affairs than evening grand-salon stormers (and a kinder environment for self-conscious foreign dancers). Check the billboard outside for bands. Los Jubilados are a favourite.
• Heredia 206 between San Felíx and San Pedro streets, Santiago, +53 2265 2689. Matinee from 1pm, evenings 6pm-1am, £3.80, promociones.egrem.co.cu. Look out for Festival Internacional Matamoros Son (2019 dates tbc) and contact cultural agency Paradiso (Heredia Street 302 between Carnicería and Calvario streets) for details, +53 2262 0214
Tumba Francesa in Santiago de Cuba
After the slave-led rebellion in Haiti in 1791, thousands of French coffee planters fled to eastern Cuba with their slaves. Along with the aromatic bean, and French china, they brought with them a taste for long frocks and genteel ballroom steps. In eastern Cuba this mixed-up music and dance plays out as a court dance set to African instruments and rhythm. Tumba Francesa survives in three places in Cuba but it’s most accessible to travellers in Santiago. Watch it in a city-centre home where dancers in pagoda sleeves and flouncy gowns promenade to tunes featuring three large tambores (drums).
• Tumba Francesa, Calle Carnicería 268 between Trinidad and Habana streets (no phone). Year-round Tuesdays and Thursdays practice nights at 9pm, are open to visitors. Donations welcome. Check the city’s cultural calendar for Tumba Francesa performances
Streets of Santiago de Cuba
Cuba’s African soul sparks up during summer carnivals when thousands, led by ancient mutual aid societies, come together to arrollar (do the conga) through the tight streets of this sweaty city. A Chinese cornet, with its penetrative wail, hails the conga and unleashes a monumental percussion fest: marchers hit car-brake drums, conga drums and cylindrical and Franco-Haitian drums in a constant percussive hymn as a river of grooving Santigueros flows through the city. To get swept along, go to Santiago in early July and a few days before carnival (2019 dates 18-27 July). Stay up for evening comparsas – choreographed costume parades accompanied by music – where up to 180 people in one cabildo (society) take part. If you spot posters for a theatre or street performance by stellar folkloric ballet group Cutumba, change your plans pronto.
• Festival del Caribe 2-9 July 2019, casadelcaribe.cult.cu, Santiago de Cuba events online (Spanish only)
Nengón and Kiribá, eastern Cuba
The village of El Güirito shot to fame earlier this year when it appeared on Cuba’s version of Strictly Come Dancing: Bailando en Cuba. The small community, outside Cuba’s original 16th-century capital, Baracoa, resurrects the simple musical rhythms of nengón and kiribá, which predate son. Slow nengón is danced in a circle; kiribá is a little faster and more freestyle. The appeal of El Güirito’s melody making is its snapshot of a 19th-century country dance with women in full skirts and men in traditional Cuban guayabera shirts accompanied by musicians in a rustic village setting. A feast of pre-Columbian Taíno dishes such as bacán – a tamale of crab meat, mashed banana, annatto and coconut milk – and spit-roast pork fuels the party.
• Dances with feasts can be organised by visitors with three days’ notice. Ask your B&B to contact Nancy Paz Pupo, Filial de la Música Baracoa, +53 5247 0279. It costs £11.50pp including food for lunch and a morning’s festival; minimum two people. A return taxi from Baracoa costs from £15
Streets of Matanzas
Matanzas, on the north coast, powered Cuba’s sugar boom, using slaves from Nigeria and Benin. The city’s music and dance reflect this deep African heart but Matanzas is often overlooked by travellers, who bypass it on the way to Varadero beach. Search out neighbourhood rumba, Callejón de Tradiciones – a street framed by colourful Yoruba sculpture – cultural events run by Project AfroAtenas, and the city’s August Timbalaye rumba festival. Seek out Matanzas’ new collective, El Almacén, part of the Callejón de Tradiciones project. El Almacén tracks down and records indie Afro-Cuban folk musicians. Its Sendero Music label released the award-winning Transmisión en la Eritá Meta, featuring one of the oldest sets of sacred batá drums in Matanzas. Listen out for the rumble of rumba in the Marina neighbourhood, just north-east of central Parque de la Libertad, and shimmy down to an impromptu rumba street party.
• Project AfroAtenas , San Ignacio Street between San Francisco and San Juan Bautista streets, organises music events, on the second and fourth weekends of the month. AfroAtenas will participate in the Bienal de la Habana art fair (see above) as, for the first time, events will be held in Matanzas and other cities outside Havana
The film of Carlos Acosta’s Cuban-rags-to-Royal-Ballet story, Yuli, will be screened on 14 December at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana (6-18 December)
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