Break Dance in Cuba: An Illegitimate Child?

By Veronica Vega

Ivan the break dancer.

HAVANA TIMES — The suggestive and powerful dance which emerged in New York’s predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods, initially as a means of resolving conflicts between gangs, arrived in Cuba towards 1983, thanks to the music videos of such songs as Lionel Richie’s All Night Long and Herbie Hancock’s Rockit.

In the 90s, one of the places I frequented to escape from the long power cuts common at the time was La Piragua (near Havana’s ocean drive), where break dancers from different parts of the city performed. There, one felt a wave of joy and physical energy which colored the somewhat somber landscape, young people who escaped poverty, delinquency, prostitution and even worse tragedies through the mystery of bodily movement.

An expression of the violent struggle for supremacy, the tradition became richer and richer with time until achieving true style and virtuosity. It caught on, perhaps, because, like rap, it has a lot to do with the extroverted and conceited nature of Cubans. And, just like rap, the government still looks upon it with suspicion.

According to Ivan, an “old school” break dancer, the stars of that golden age, when no one had any means to record, document that chapter of our history, where “Miguelito La Peste”, “el Cochinilla”, “Felix el Bizco”, “el Johnny”, “el Mantilla”, “el Colorao” and others. Nearly all of them have left the country.

HT: When did you start dancing and why?

Ivan: It was around 1989. I was studying gymnastics and ballet when I discovered break dancing. I could say that I flunked out because of it, because I would skip classes to go practice.

HT: Did you have a professional goal or did you dance simply because you enjoyed it?

Ivan: Well, I was fifteen. What I liked about break dancing was that you could “hit the floor”, you know, do head-spins that were pretty rad…it’s a lot like gymnastics.

HT: Is it true the police bothered you?

Ivan: Yes, they would take you to the station and fine you 300 pesos.

HT: Why did they do that?

Ivan: They would say we were dancing for money.

HT: And was that true?

Ivan: Yes, people did that, I did it also. But most of the time we would dance simply because we liked it. Or, if you were at a party, for example, the person who danced the best got to take home the prettiest girl. We would also hold competitions in different municipalities, you know, the people from Cerro, Santos Suarez, Alamar…it was teenager stuff.

HT: Couldn’t it be that, because the dance came from the United States, they considered it ideologically incorrect?

Ivan: No, no, it was because of the money. It was also because some kids broke their necks doing the head spins, and their parents filed complaints with the police. That’s why the police wanted to put us away.

HT: Everyone who break danced was underage?

Ivan: Almost everyone. “Miguelito La Peste” was the oldest, he was already twenty at the time.

HT: Did you ever manage to organize a break dance event, or a festival or something like that?

Ivan: Never, never. They always denied us all o’ that.

HT: How have the new generations taken on this art?

Ivan How? Everyone dances the same way today. We, the old schoolers, we each had a distinctive style. We would dance to the beeps of Radio Reloj [a radio news show that announces the time every minute, with a distinctive beep]. This gave us the rhythm for our movements. We didn’t have videos or any o’ that, ‘twas all done from memory. And, on top of that, you have to be real good, because if the audience didn’t like you…they would give you hell.

HT: How did you discover break dancing?

Ivan: Through foreign TV channels, the ones that made it down here. To see a movie, like, say, “Breaking 1”, we had to go really far, because no one owned a VCR, only seafarers. There were so many of us, we could have filled up an entire movie theatre.

HT: Is there anything that would physically prevent women from doing this dance?

Ivan: No, there are women break dancers, but they tend to dance a bit higher, the floor can get complicated, you can get hurt. Women tend to do the marches, the kicking routines.

HT: Today, it doesn’t seem to bother the police…

Ivan: Like hell it doesn’t. If some of us get together and get a dance started, the cops come immediately. They cuff us and take us down to the station.

HT: Really? On what charges?

Iván: Public disturbance. Because of the loud music.

HT: Does break dancing lead to brawls, like reggaeton seems to do?

Ivan: Never. I’ve never seen a brawl while break dancing.

HT: What do you think would have to happen in Cuba for this art to become validated in Cuba?

Ivan: The point is that they’re not interested, the State isn’t interested in it. They see it as a kind of street dance, and they cut it down, they don’t want to rescue it.

HT: But you’ve managed to become something of a professional, right? Do you make a living out of dancing?

Ivan: Yes, now I’m part of the Los Flexibles duo. We dance in the Parisien cabaret, at Playa Hermosa. I’ve also danced on TV, in the shows A moverse and 23 y M. They don’t let us use American music, though.

HT: Can a break dancer take out a license for, say, teaching dance lessons?

Ivan: No, there are no licenses for that. There are some who do it under the table (illegally).

HT: What do you feel when you’re break dancing?

Ivan: I feel [his eyes water]…I feel free, like a little kid.