Dancing in Cuba, Dancing With Cuba: Two Women's Experiences

Performers and choreographers proudly ballyhoo the notion that dance is a universal language. It's true that a dancer can walk into a ballet class anywhere in the Western world (and in many places beyond ) and feel at home. Modern dance and traditional forms, however, have their own individual and regional languages, and cultural nuances as to how dance is taught and what dance may mean in a particular society vary dramatically.

Alma Guillermoprieto's recent Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution and More Than Just a Footnote: Dancing From Connecticut to Revolutionary Cuba, self-published by Lorna Burdsall in 2001 (but only came into my hands last year), make fascinating comparative reading. Burdsall arrived in Cuba in April 1955 and is still performing and choreographing there; Guillermoprieto went in May 1970, planned to stay a year, left after six mind-blowing months, stopped dancing, and became a reporter and then a writer of consequence (her article on a political scandal in Mexico appeared in The New York Review of Books August 12). Burdsall lived through Castro's revolution—very close, in fact, to its epicenter; Guillermoprieto, puzzled and fascinated, underwent a personal revolution while trying to fathom the complex links between those brave days in Cuba's past and the Cuba she encountered.

A career wasn't what brought Burdsall to Cuba. She'd studied modern dance during summers at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College and at Juilliard with Doris Humphrey and Louis Horst, and had taken classes at the studios of Martha Graham and José Limón, but she was in love and flying blind when she left New York for Cuba to join her new husband, Manuel Pineiro. Then just 25, she couldn't have divined that the 20-year-old charmer whose mambo caught her eye at an International House party—the socially conscious guy who was studying business administration at Columbia University preparatory to joining his brothers in the family business in Matanzas—would instead join Fidel Castro's guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra and later become his chief of intelligence.


Dancing With Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution
By Alma Guillermoprieto
Pantheon, 290 pp., $25
Buy this book

More Than Just a Footnote: Dancing From Connecticut to Revolutionary Cuba
By Lorna Burdsall
Self-published, 228 pp., $25
For more info, e-mail slrcamera@aol.com or call 859.266.2928

In 1970, the 21-year-old Guillermoprieto accepted an invitation to teach at the Escuela Nacional de Danza (where Burdsall had been on the faculty for three years) because nothing she really wanted to do in dance was working out. Mexican-born, she'd studied in New York with Graham, but moved on to Merce Cunningham's studio, where "all of us saw him as a flame flickering in a dark chapel. We spoke his name as if it were written entirely in capital letters, and we laid siege to him with our eyes. In return, he almost never said a word to any of us." Some of the few words he addressed to Alma were news of two teaching jobs—one in Caracas, one in Havana; she took his remarks as a rejection of her as company material. Twyla Tharp, in whose Medley Guillermoprieto performed in Central Park, told her that she might as well take one of the jobs: "You're not going to get anything hanging around here."

Both travelers arrived in Cuba burdened not just with baggage (a customs inspector threw in the towel over Guillermoprieto's mountain of supplies), but with considerable ignorance of the country. Burdsall, however, writes as if the life she fell into were a difficult, quite entertaining game to be mastered. As the years went by, the girlish naïveté that marked her letters (quoted in full) to her parents in Connecticut never quite left her prose, but neither did her pluck and down-to-earth good sense.

Before long, she was helping her husband and his friends deliver incendiary pamphlets to workers and peasants (the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista got wind of this and shelled Matanzas). After Castro landed in Cuba and holed up in the Sierra Maestra, she took an evening stroll with her husband in a touristy section of Havana carrying a small bomb hidden in her handbag; the plan was to set if off in a hotel garden to alert visitors that a revolution was in progress (the attempt was temporarily foiled and she was sent home). When she was pregnant and three weeks away from delivering her son Kahlil, Pineiro took off to join Fidel in the mountains, leaving her with a closet full of ammunition wrapped like gifts from a baby shower. After Castro's forces triumphed and Batista fled, Burdsall adjusted to living in Havana with Raul Castro and his wife in Batista's former mansion, her now bushy-bearded husband, their son, a couple of nannies, and numerous former rebels coming and going for meetings. When she went back to dancing as a member of the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna, headed by Ramiro Guerra (for whom she subsequently took over), she not only performed in Guerra's works and staged Doris Humphrey's Water Study and Life of the Bee (starring herself as the Old Queen), but began to create dances in the spirit of revolution.

Burdsall has very little to say about the experience of teaching at the Escuela Nacional de Danza, although she lists faculty and prominent graduates. Guillermo has plenty to say about this wing of the ambitious Escuelas Nacionales de Arte. Built on the grounds of a former country club where sugar barons once played, it had apparently fallen on hard times by the time she arrived—not just because of the privations caused by the U.S. embargo, but due to bureaucratic ineptness, the primacy of Alicia Alonso's Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and Castro's wavering mistrust of artists in general. There were no mirrors in the studios, no accompanist, and terrible food in the cafeteria. She had to control tears when, as a special dispensation for visiting faculty, a lunchroom attendant poured over her rice half a ladle of cooking oil in which he'd been boiling eggs. She disliked Elfriede Mahler, the school's director, sensing a perpetual pent-up rage. Burdsall, she writes, was kind to her and used her political clout to get her better accommodations and other perks; but, while admitting to snobbery, Guillermoprieto dismisses her colleague's talent: "I generally found very little merit in dance people who did not know how to dance."

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