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It is impossible to be part of the Cuban dance community and not know what “timba” is. By this, I do not mean know as in: to have a definition of it; rather: to just know what it is when you listen to it, in the same way that you know love when you feel it, even as you cannot define it.
Although NG La Banda’s leader José Luis “El Tosco” Cortés coined in the 90s the musical phenomenon we refer to today as “timba,” (Moore 2010), the word “timba” has been around for much longer. Indeed, rumberos used “timba” to indicate that a particular drumming section was going spectacularly well (i.e. ¡La timba está buena! or, “The timba is good!”). Furthermore, a derivative of timba, “timbero,” was also used as a way to praise a musician. And of course, every Cuban knows the famous pan con timba which is essentially bread with guava and cheese.
Etymology aside, the word “timba” is here to stay. For many, it broadly defines the plethora of popular dance music that is currently produced in the island. Yet despite the contemporary omnipresence of the word and its use, I would venture that the term has only been truly embraced in the past 15 years or so. Let’s take the decade of the 90s, for example, which many in retrospect claim to be the Golden Age of timba, a period of true creativity and musical pioneering. It turns out that during this decade, many of these musicians who we now see as standard bearers of the timba movement were more likely to use the word salsa instead to promote their music. The two most clear examples are, of course, Manolín, who was dubbed by the aforementioned José Luis Cortés “El médico de la salsa” (or “Salsa’s Doctor”), and Issac Delgado, who called himself “El chévere de la salsa” (or “Salsa’s Cool Guy”). Along with these examples, you can find many songs by other artists and bands of this decade, like Paulo FG, Manolito y su Trabuco, Charanga Habanera, even Los Van Van, referring to their music as “salsa” in their songs—the clearest example being Elio Revé’s “Mi salsa tiene sandunga.”
For the entirety of the 90s, and much of the early 2000s, musicians labeled their music “salsa.” There was, of course, much debate about this among the musicians themselves, but the salsa label was recognized internationally, and musicians needed to sell their music outside of Cuba. The best example of this dilemma is musicians’ own use of the word “salsa” in order to enter the international dance music market in the 90s coupled with Cuba’s official use of a much broader expression, música popular bailable (“popular dance music”), to describe the same music. You will find a more in-depth analysis of this issue in Vincenzo Perna’s Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis, which I recommend to anyone who wants to delve deeper into Cuba’s rich musical production following the Revolution of 1959.
But enough about music history. This entry is about dance.
So, how does this all relate to Cuban dance?
Well, it so happens that for a while now, and precisely because of the popularization and more widely-accepted use of “timba,” I have started to notice videos online showing workshops where people are learning how to dance “timba.” Mind you, dance timba, not dance to timba.
Meaning, there are people out there—many of them Cuban—teaching a Cuban dance called “timba.”
What’s more worrisome: there are people out there who take these classes who believe there is a Cuban dance called “timba.”
But here is the problem: there is no dance in Cuba called “timba.” It does not exist—at least not authentically.
What is happening is that instructors have found yet another marketing strategy to explain all of the fusions that they are selling to a public that is not well-informed about the realities of Cuban dancing in Cuba.
Allow me to explain, and it will all become clear.
To understand what it happening, we first have to go to Cuba, of course. If this so-called “timba” is a Cuban dance, it must have originated there. Regular people must be dancing it there. It must be a new craze, this new timba dance.
A perfunctory search on YouTube for “Cuban timba dance” yields what I, already knowing that there is no such thing as “timba dance” in Cuba, would have expected: videos of instructors dancing some kind of fusion. Videos like this one:
This video is clearly promotional. Click on its description, and you will find a link to the dancer’s webpage, along with lessons she provides, etc. It is noteworthy that her website never states that she teaches “timba.” In her own words, she teaches “salsa casino, rumba, son, afrocubano, reggaeton etc.” But hey, this is the first video that popped up, probably what people are going to see first when they search for “timba dance.” So I had to use it.
This video should also be watched with skepticism. These are clearly instructors trying to sell classes to foreigners who want to experience “Cuban dance.” This is a problem, as I have extensively written here and here. In summary: given that the idea is to sell, instructors will cater to what foreigners already think Cuban dancing is. For many foreigners, Cuban dancing is a mixture of what they call “Cuban salsa” (I call it casino), and Afro-Cuban body movement. This is what has been selling for a long time now, which I explain in more detail in the hyperlinked articled mentioned earlier in this paragraph.
(This is not to say that in the video the instructors should not have mixed dances. The song clearly had a rumba section. But even then, they were doing whatever they wanted. I mean, the rumba section of the song was clearly a rumba guaguancó, yet there were some steps from rumba columbia, a completely different dance. Like I said, it’s the idea of Afro-Cuban dancing mixed into the more traditional partner dancing, rather than the actual dance traditions, that sells.)
The more salient issue is the fact that precisely because the instructors are catering to the needs of foreigners, they are dancing a version of what foreigners think Cuban dancing looks like—because again, that is what sells. In other words, they are not representing what actual Cuban dancing looks like.
So what do Cubans look like when they dance? Here are a couple of examples.
Here is a video from 2004:
And here is a video from 2016:
What is great about comparing these two videos is that you can truly appreciate that dancing has not changed. They are still dancing casino. They are not mixing it with anything. (For those who have read other articles in this blog, you know that I am against fusions without the music asking for it.) Indeed, the latter videos stand is stark contrast to the first promotional video I linked. One can clearly see the difference between instructors and regular people dancing. And if you found that you preferred the first video, well, that is exactly my point: they know what you like, and they will dance–and teach–keeping in mind what sells to you. There is a whole business around it. After all, they want your business. On the other hand, the Cubans in the latter videos couldn’t have cared less what you thought. They were dancing and enjoying themselves in their own way.
That, to me, that is the definition of authentic: when the dance is created by Cubans living in the island without consideration for whether or not foreigners would like it.
So, Cubans are not really dancing “timba.” Regular Cubans are still dancing casino, while instructors in Cuba are dancing whatever they think foreigners who come to Cuba to experience Cuban dancing want to learn.
So is there a timba dance in Cuba? The answer is no. Clearly people are dancing the same way still. There is no new dance, no timba craze. People are still dancing casino.
Which begs the question, Why do some people think that there is a Cuban dance called “timba”?
Simple: some Cuban instructors outside of Cuba are calling what they sell “timba.” It is the new marketing fad, designed to sell people the same stuff they have always sold them, but packaged under a recognizable, fancier name with enough wiggle room to claim that it is different—and in turn sell more classes/workshops.
I went ahead and spent some time looking on YouTube for videos of this so-called timba dancing. During my research, I noticed that there is no clear consensus as to what timba dancing is, nor what it looks like. And this is very important, folks, because this is what tells you that you are being duped by yet another marketing strategy that seeks to create yet another Cuban dance fantasy for you, the non-Cuban aficionado of Cuban dancing, and ultimately circumvent actual authentic Cuban dancing.
No one can agree on what timba dancing is because, simply put, everybody is just trying to sell classes under this new label. What is important is the use of the label, not the consistency of the content—or whether the dance actually exists, for that matter.
So let us begin examining this new marketing fad, this so-called “timba dance.”
I would argue that a good starting place would be this video. In the following video of a “timba” workshop, we see the dancers do a combination of loose steps (what people would call “suelta”), coupled with Afro-Cuban movement, then some partnerwork.
The same format is followed in this workshop: loose steps coupled with Afro-Cuban movement, then partner dancing. Then they break off and do more Afro-Cuban movement in a part of the song that is no different than the part to which they were dancing together.
Another video. Same format, but this is a straight-up choreography. Don’t get me wrong, the other ones were, too (those loose steps at the beginning are clearly choreographed); but in the case of this video, it is almost as if the instructors are doing a performance. This is not representative of social dancing, which is the whole point of learning to dance a social dance. Yet classes like this one exist.
So far, what people are calling timba is more or less consistent: loose steps with Afro-Cuban body movement, then partnerwork. Repeat. Of course, all of this is choreographed and unsustainable on the social dance floor, but at least there is some agreement.
Except, instructors have already been doing this for a while—and they did not call it “timba,” then.
This from 10 years ago.
Another one, this one from a workshop called “applying rumba to salsa.”
This “salsa” workshop more or less follows the format explained above:
You get the idea. For years, instructors have been teaching the exact same thing some are now calling “timba.” Except back then, the word “salsa”, and not “timba,” was used. But I repeat: it is the exact same thing: a fusion of dances that may not have anything to do with the music, choreographed steps and solos that do not reflect the dancing that occurs socially. (This would be a great time to go back to the videos of the Cubans dancing in Cuba I showed early, and see the stark difference again.)
Pretty much everything has been repackaged under a new label to sell you the same thing, so that you keep taking those workshops.
But let’s continue with the videos, because like I said, there is no consensus as to the dance of “timba” is.
For instance, let’s look at this video. Here, the instructor is teaching Cuban salsa (which he feels the need to clarify is “timba”), but notice he is just teaching a regular turn pattern (I thought “timba” was a fusion?). There are no loose steps or Afro-Cuban dances mixed into this. Yet, according to this instructor, this is “timba.”
Conversely, another “timba” workshop video shows us no partner dancing at all. (Weren’t people calling that “suelta” already?).
And here is renowned instructor Roly Maden teaching a beginner’s timba class—with no partner. It’s essentially another footwork class.
Again, you get the idea. Instructors are doing whatever they want, and of course, calling it whatever they want. As long as it sells, as long as you buy it, these practices will continue.
I will finish the video compilation with this one. This one almost caps the bullsh*t meter. “Timba contratiempo with rumba.”
Go figure what this is. Certainly nothing Cuban–in the sense that you won’t see this danced in Cuba by regular people. Certainly yet another instructor creation, far away from the authenticity of actual Cuban dancing in the island.
Cubans in the island do not dance timba. They dance casino.
Instructors in the island who sell “timba” classes are piggybacking on the popularity of the term created by other instructors outside of Cuba.
Some instructors outside of Cuba have begun repackaging their “Cuban salsa” classes/workshops under the label of “timba.”
(And most importantly)
The dance of timba doesn’t exist as an authentic Cuban dance.
Now, I will admit that there is an argument to be made about timba describing the fusions that have been characteristic of the Cuban dance scene outside of Cuba for years. In that sense, should these fusions be called “timba?” Well, I would argue that they are already called “Cuban salsa.” But if you want to take on that terminology battle, it’s all yours—as long as you understand that these fusions are instructor-created and are not representative of the way in which regular Cubans—not instructors—dance in the island.
In other words, whatever label you decide to use for these unauthentic fusions, whether it is “timba” or “salsa,” or whatever else, know that you are using this label to describe something that does not come from Cuba, but rather from the dynamics of the market for Cuban dance outside of Cuba.
Be culturally responsible and do not call it a Cuban dance.
Moore, Kevin (2010: 11). Beyond Salsa Piano: The Cuban Timba Piano Revolution. v. 5 Introduction to Timba.