Learning the “Ola” in Cuba

By Courtney Brooks

It is nice to know that some of the most ridiculous dances and tradition are universal, or at least have crossed the border between the United States and Cuba.

I discovered this while having a random afternoon in the area of the capital known as Playa. That morning in class a speaker who came to talk to us about architecture had focused on one of the national art schools.

A few of us decided to go to and walk around the campus that afternoon. A guard at the gate, however, told us that international students needed to set up a special guided tour. We were disappointed and proceeded to walk around the neighborhood, looking for something else to do with our afternoon since we had already taken a cab there.

A young Cuban man was calling over to us to take a ride on an ancient Cuban bus. Normally we ignore the constant advances by men on the street. Today, however, there was the prospect of a bus ride with Cubans. This seemed like it could be fun.

So we walked over, much to his surprise. He quickly apologized and said he had just been kidding, and that the bus was already full. We had finally responded to a random person talking to us in the street and he was just kidding.

He could see that we were disappointed, so he hopped on board to ask the driver if he could take us to Vedado on their way back to school. The driver said yes, for the equivalent of just over one US dollar (1 CUC) a person. So we climbed aboard and the students squished in to fit us.

The bus was full of culinary students in black and white outfits. Suddenly a battered guitar case was passed from the back of the bus up to the front.

The student that had originally invited us on the bus whipped it out of the case, paused to note that the bottom string had broken, and burst into a very impressive rendition of a popular Reggaeton song. At this point the girl sitting next to me began doing the “ola,” similar to the American “wave” but with some variation.

Instead of waving their arms straight up and down in our spectacularly awkward way, the students moved their hands in a circle. All the way from as high as they could reach down almost to the floor, moving their arms and hands to the beat.

It really was much cooler than the American wave. The girl sitting next to me tried several times to teach me how to do it the right way but my dance was still a strange and off-beat combo of the two.

The bus dropped us off at our building and we left amid offers of telephone numbers and promises to meet again on the Malecon to hang out another time. My days in Cuba often do not even resemble what I set out to do, but they are always interesting. If nothing else, Cuba is full of surprises.

Courtney Brooks

Courtney Brooks: I am a 21-year-old American student living in Havana for three months. I am studying Cuban culture, history, film and music at Casa de las Americas. In Boston, where I attend Northeastern University, I study journalism and international affairs. I grew up in Vermont with my parents, two brothers and sister. My goal is to be an international journalist, and in the last few years I have traveled to Costa Rica, Ireland, Spain, and South Africa. I have also worked at newspapers in Vermont, Boston and Cape Town, South Africa. This summer I am going to be working in Dublin, Ireland and Johannesburg, South Africa.

One thought on “Learning the “Ola” in Cuba

  • I remember this salsa festival where a Danish girl made the audience stand up and scream out of surprise and approval 🙂 Good black dancers are not news, but when a northern girl synchronizes with our tropical rhythm, the entire universe smiles 🙂 So keep trying C 🙂

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