The first thing I noticed about Andrés as he led me out to dance in a small café in Santa Clara, Cuba were his hands. Their heavy, rough calluses betrayed his daytime job as a car mechanic. The small hunch at his nape marks a bulge in his spine from afternoons spent carting a sack of bread to sell for extra money. But Andrés’s feet, and most of all his sense of rhythm, tell a different story.
Andrés spends his nights at a corner café in this small, provincial capital’s square teaching tourists how to salsa. He knows how to say “one, two, three, four” – the backbone of any salsa rhythm – in five languages: English, Spanish, French, German, and Japanese. He has never left Santa Clara, where he was born to a music teacher and a music director, but he has danced with women from all over the world. One of these women, French, recently fell in love with Andrés. And he has spent the past few months paying people to use a few minutes of their mobile devices to send her love poems. He used to compose these love poems on a friend’s typewriter, the locals told me, until the two had a falling out. Now he pays what little extra money he has to write to her from an internet café. Referring to Cuba’s most beloved poet, a friend calls him his generation’s José Martí.
Out of a salary not much greater than $20 a month, Andrés pays the Cuban government $10 monthly for a license that lists him as a “dance teacher.” “Why?” I ask the man who tells me the story. “Because otherwise he could be fined by the government for interacting with tourists,” he responds, “He does it for his love of dance.” A few steps away I hear Andrés whispering eins, zwei, drei, vier. He is teaching a German woman how to dance.
Written by Ariadne Ellsworth