CubaCaribe: The Bay’s Lively Celebration of Cuban Dance

by Jean Schiffman

The theme for this year’s festival—two weeks of Caribbean dance, music and theater celebrating the Afro-Cuban diaspora, at three venues—is “The Movement of Migrations.”

“They didn’t care about me when I left. I was nobody,” says choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo, the founder/artistic director of San Francisco’s CubaCaribe, the annual festival, now in its 14th year, that showcases Cuba’s diverse, African-influenced music and dance.

Alayo, who also runs Alayo Dance Company—which fuses Afro-Cuban modern, folkloric and popular Cuban dance and is one of the participating groups in this month’s CubaCaribe—is referring to the Cuban government. When he moved to the Bay Area in 1997, it was relatively easy for him, as an artist, to get a visa to leave, whereas if he’d been a doctor, a “somebody,” the Cuban government would have made it hard.

Also, in America back then, the “dry foot, wet foot” policy meant that if arriving Cubans touched American soil, they were granted refugee status. Obama rescinded that policy, but it’s hard to predict how things might change; both countries have new presidents. (The New York Times recently reported that with Trump shutting down some of the functions of the Havana embassy, it will be harder for Cubans to come here.)

Tall, high-energy, with long dreadlocks and earrings, very much a “somebody” in the local dance community, Alayo, now in his late 40s, says, “In Cuba, the government covers everything: the teachers, the bed you sleep in, your clothes. You train and train and train for years.” He was chosen at age 11 to study dance in Santiago and graduated from Havana’s National School of Art, specializing in folkloric and contemporary dance. “After school,” he says, “we dance in a company, or if you’re not selected, the government sends you to teach. It was all waiting [for the government to send me here or there].” He was a principal dancer with several companies there; here he was soon dancing with Robert Moses, Dance Brigade and others.

Three Cuban members of his company hang back at Dance Mission after a rehearsal to tell their stories; Alayo usually addresses them in Spanish.

Denmis Bain Savigne, tall, muscular, with earrings and a baseball cap, defected in 2004; he was one among a 54-member cast who requested and were granted asylum. With expertise in not only Afro-Cuban dance but also dance forms from tap to hip-hop, plus singing and choreography, Savigne had arrived in Las Vegas with a dance company, Havana Nights, to perform. The company had been wanting to come to the U.S. for a while, but every time Cuba said yes, the U.S. would say no, and vice versa. Finally with George H.W. Bush in power here, and Fidel there, the moment arrived. “I’m a dancer, not political,” sighs Savigne. He decided to stay in the U.S., along with the others. “My country is beautiful, but the politics are bad for the arts,” he says. He’d been warned of punishment: If you stay in the U.S., when you return, your life will be different. “If you dance for your life, if dance is your passion, and someone says, ‘You don’t dance [again],’ it’s like … is bad,” he says. He’d started out dancing in the streets before formal training. In Cuba, people dance all day, he says—rhumba, salsa: “This is the culture.” It was seven years before he went back to visit.

For two younger, more recently arrived company members, to stay here was a less freighted decision. Delvis Savigne Friñon and Adonis Damian Martin Quiñones were part of a Cuban troupe, Danza del Caribe, that Alayo had danced with in Cuba and brought here to perform in 2013; the young men were, respectively, 23 and 22 at the time, and they suddenly decided to stay (a third dancer went to New York). Friñon, who has a modified mohawk and is wearing tights, and Quiñones, in shorts and a backwards baseball cap, barefoot, had come up together in Cuba in a six-year training program, starting at age 11. Quiñones, who’d never given a thought to dancing, had auditioned for the school simply because he hated his then-teacher and wanted an escape route; Friñon had practiced judo and liked to do street dancing. Both were assigned to Danza del Caribe in Santiago after graduating; both were soloists with the company and toured to various countries. When the troupe was invited to the CubaCaribe festival, neither spoke English.

As Friñon explains, in Cuba, you generally stick with one company, and that company’s style of dance. Here the opportunities for learning various types of dance are vast—his current favorite is contemporary. Between them, since arriving, both men have worked with such local dancemakers as Joanna Haigood, Robert Moses’ Kin and others. Friñon says audiences for professional dance companies are much bigger here (“the U.S.A. is more everything,” he remarks) than in Santiago, where people prefer popular dancing. (In touristy Havana, says Alayo, it’s different; the national ballet is there, and Europeans are bringing in post-modern dance influences.) 

Quiñones was surprised when, as a kid, he arrived at dance school; he thought he’d be learning the cha cha cha, but, “Then they give me tights, and a schedule, and I see composition and repertory, Cuban modern technique, ballet, and I’m like, wait, what?” He discovered his legs could really move; he loves to jump. Quiñones and Friñon would be principal dancers by now if they’d stayed in Cuba (Danza del Caribe combined Martha Graham techniques with Afro-Cuban roots), their lives proscribed, whereas defecting meant starting over here, shaping their careers on their own without a clear, straight line to the top, working with many different companies in many different styles (such as Lines Ballet style). Quiñones confesses to missing the structure of working in Cuba, where all decisions, from daily schedule to the creative process, were handed down; here choreographers expect a more collaborative approach to dance-making. He loves the Bay Area, but he’ll go where the most enticing work is—maybe New York someday, maybe Europe.

Inevitably, all miss their country and their families. Friñon, who goes back to visit frequently, hopes to create his own dances here, the way Alayo does.

Alayo didn’t know that three of the Danza del Caribe dancers he’d invited here for the festival in 2013 would decide to stay, but he took them under his wing; they lived in his house in Oakland for almost a year. In fact, part of Alayo’s original mission, in creating the festival, was to unify the large Cuban arts community here in the Bay Area—“bringing the culture back—Caribbean dance, music and visual arts,” he says.

The theme for this year’s festival—which comprises two weeks of Caribbean dance, music and theater celebrating the Afro-Cuban diaspora, at three venues—is “The Movement of Migrations.” Alayo has written, “In the Caribbean diaspora, migrations were in response to slavery and gave birth to new cultures, customs and artistic expressions…” He challenges festival participating artists: “How is migration affecting your culture, your country? How can you represent it in your work, with song, with poetry, with visual arts?” He explains, “We all sing the same songs in different ways, in different languages, with different instruments—Puerto Rico, Brazil, República Dominicana, Venezuela, they all developed in different ways. [But] it’s all the same.”

In addition to the 10-dancer Alayo company presenting several premieres (“Calle” and “Manos de Mujeres,” plus “Goodbye” from 2016), festival groups include Nicaragua Danza, La Cali Dance and many more in a mixed program; special events range from excerpts of writer Paul Flores’ new work-in-progress to a lecture by Bill Martinez on Cuba/U.S. cultural exchange.

“When I was in Cuba I didn’t have dreams,” Alayo says. “We emigrate not because we don’t like the government, or the politics. I left Cuba because I couldn’t make my dreams come true there. Here there’s no waiting. You have to go for it. I have dreams here.”


June 15→ 17 (Alayo Dance Company)

Laney College, Oakland

June 22 & 23 (mixed dance program)

Brava Theatre, 2781 24th St., San Francisco

June 27 (lecture) & 28 (theatre, discussion)

Museum of the African Diaspora, 658 Mission St.,
San Francisco -- (415) 340-2340