By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
The difference between the two memoirs is not just a matter of writerly skill (Burdsall is more than competent, but certainly not in Guillermoprieto's class), but of who the women are and what they choose to say or leave out. Burdsall occasionally speaks of being angry or grief-stricken, but emotion rarely colors her prose. After she accidentally, and with amazing naïveté, betrayed some revolutionaries to men who turned out to be Batista's agents, she was given the code message that "the party was a rough one and everybody ended up drunk," meaning they'd been "tortured and imprisoned, but fortunately not killed." She felt "very stupid and disgusted with myself," but relieved that she and her husband were okay and didn't portray herself as plunged into guilt over images of beatings and fingernails torn out.
She accepts the adversities that arose as post-revolutionary Cuba struggled to define itself and its mandates. She reveals anger but not outrage at being fired from the dance company because she didn't bother, while on a tour in France, to hide the affair she was having with one of the musicians, even though she and her important, not-very-faithful husband had amicably agreed to a divorce. She tolerated resourcefully the shortages of water, electricity, and iffy telephone connections. She learned to make oatmeal cookies without flour or butter. The plastic barrels she bought for hauling water to her apartment prodded her creativity, and, using flashlights held by dancers in the semi-translucent barrels, she created a work for the little company of her ex students, Así Somos (That's the Way We Are), that she founded in 1981.
Guillermoprieto, on the other hand, is a sensualist and a dramatist in prose. Of Haydée Santamaría, one of the heroines of the revolution, Burdsall says only that Santamaría, learning of the birth of her child, reassured her that the revolutionary Movimiento 26 de Julio would pay the hospital costs. Guillermoprieto tells us that, in the wake of the tragically botched 1953 raid by Castro's guerrillas, Batista's soldiers brought Santamaría her brother's eyes and told her she could expect shortly to see her lover's genitals.
Dancing With Cuba seethes with confusion, passion, and anger. It's as much a novel in the first person as a memoir. To protect the students' privacy, she gives them pseudonyms, and the book includes a great many passages of pungent dialogue, which, she acknowledges, could hardly be rendered verbatim after over 30 years, even though Dancing With Cuba was written in Spanish (excellently translated by Esther Allen), the better to transport the author back to those fevered months in 1970. She makes us see the fifth-year students she was assigned to teachGraham technique three days a week, Cunningham technique two. We feel her appreciation of their beauty and sweetness (and her submerged lust for one of them), and her despair over the sorry state of their technique and the limitations of her teaching. (Her knowledge of Graham may not have been very deep: Had she known that the floor exercise she calls "pleatings" are actually named "pleadings," she might have been able to get the quality she wanted out of her pupils more quickly.)
She received her first lessons about the revolution from offbeat sources. A group of men she palled around with (who had apparently limitless supplies of good humor and affection for their clueless new friend) were gay in a society that frowns on homosexuality, yet they believed in Castroin his vision for Cuba and in what he had been able to accomplish despite all odds. They were even cheerful about a 1965 campaign that sent them and other "antisocial elements" to be healed by labor in an "agricultural center." It wasn't "that bad," they tell her; the program only lasted two years, "and we all came out tanned and with physiques to die for." They weren't happy about the lot of artists in Cuba, yet they stayed, says one, "because if I were to abandon this process, then for the rest of my life I'd have to live with the consciousness of being nothing but a comemierde, a shit-eater. This Revolution is the only thing that has given my life any meaning."
Guillermoprieto didn't want to be a comemierde. While laboring to help her students not to see the Cunningham classwork as dry and arbitrary, and trying to endure the heat and the discomforts, she devoured books and articles about Cuba's political history. Many pages are devoted to the "10 Million Ton Harvest". A heroic, foolhardy venture that occurred during her stay, it mobilized almost the entire population in a futile effort to reap and process more sugarcane than ever before in order to pay off Cuba's massive debt to the Soviet Union and free the country from its dependence on Russia.
However, while she admires Castro as a charismatic romantic and a visionary with a fine command of statistics, and applauds what he has accomplished, some things happening in Latin America in the name of revolution disturb her deeply. She's moved and impressed by Che Guevara's diary (which Burdsall helped to translate), but she knows herself better than she thinks she does. "I feel that if I were to transform into a revolutionary like Che, I would cease completely to be myself, and I can't help being scared of that," she wrote to her friend in Mexico.