Rumba Cultural: Cuba and Tampa-Ybor City


By guest blogger, Marlowe Fairbanks

Over the summer I traveled to Cuba for 16 days to study popular and folkloric dance. It was an extraordinary opportunity as an American artist, but especially as a dancer living in Tampa, given the status of dance in Cuba and the deep roots that bind Tampa and the island. Not many people know that the orders to incite the War for Cuban Independence (a.k.a. the Spanish-American War) were rolled into a cigar on Feb. 21, 1895, at a West Tampa cigar factory only 1.8 miles from where the Straz Center is today. That cigar traveled to Havana, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For anyone new to dance or just beginning your appreciation of the language, let me first explain that Cuban dance is el espiritu, a sense of national identity, a force all on its own: dance is life, it means everything — whether that dance is classical ballet or guanguanco (a form of rumba). In other words, a Cuban modern dancer is not interchangeable with an American modern dancer or a European modern dancer. There are technical differences like spinal articulation and a slight forward tilt in the neutral position, but the real difference is in the Cuban dancer’s sense of the music and projection of that power of the spirit outside of herself.

Dance and music are, of course, inextricable in Cuba, where the influences of the Spanish, African slaves, and court dances of Europe intermingled into a distinctly Cuban sound and movement. In Cuba, it’s knowing the steps as well as sensing the movement, expressing the needs of el espiritu moving within the music. Frankly, it’s incredible to experience dance there, as an observer and as a participant, and I found myself in constant company with working Cuban artists whose technical training matched an impeccable standard of pure artistry. “We have nothing,” one dancer said to me, “and yet we can make everything.”

As a Tampan, one of my favorite things to do is head over to Ybor City, where the cigar industry started with Vincente Martinez Ybor, a Spanish-born Cuban, in the mid-1880’s. It’s a short bike ride from The Straz, maybe two miles. I enjoy walking through the old immigrant neighborhoods, now renewed and full of bars, tattoo parlors and boutiques, and imagine what life was like on the corner where Jose Marti gave his famous speeches to the thousands of Cubans and Afro-Cubans in Ybor City who helped support that revolution. There are still a few shops left where Cubans and Afro-Cubans hand roll cigars. I feel the history as very much alive, and I felt it, too, from the other side of the Florida Straits when I toured the streets of Old Havana. Our part of Florida and Cuba belong together — the real Cuban sandwich exists because of Cubans in Ybor City, for goodness sakes — and I gained unexpected, deeper appreciations of our historical connections and of being a dancer because of the time that I spent in Santiago and Havana.

Cuba, culturally, occupies such a special place in artistic history. And so do Tampa and Ybor City. The beauty of a true cultural exchange lies in the appreciation of a culture’s artistic contributions to humanity and our contributions to each other right now. This giving-and-receiving occurs for both artists and audiences, and dance and rhythm are some of our oldest methods for communicating with each other.

Within the realm of the performing arts, we share the intersecting paths of el espiritu and experience that ineffable quality called “the human spirit.” I was distressed in Havana knowing that most Americans would never be able to see Cuban life the way I had, or see Cuba at all. But, we are fortunate to have opportunities to experience great Cuban musicians in our area, and I recently had a delightful conversation with Ivonne Lemus, the ballet mistress for the Patel Conservatory, who is Cuban and is passing along her traditions in classical Cuban ballet to our dancers here. We are all fortunate to have her keeping the legacy alive for the next generation.

Would I go back to Cuba? Yes. Today. Right now. When my longing gets painful enough, I’ll go to Ybor City and visit the marble bust of Jose Marti on the Avenida Republica de Cuba and hope for the sounds of bata drums. Ah, el espiritu.

Marlowe Moore Fairbanks is a writer, dancer, choreographer and naturalist. She is currently working on a full-length dance/film collaboration, Gods of Florida, inspired by her study of sacred Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban dances. She works part-time as the copywriter for the Straz Center. She chronicles her experiences in art and nature on her blog,

Photo above: Dance company in Santiago de Cuba. Photo credit: Prakash Math

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