Havana’s Beauty and Cuban Culture Pageant

Irina Echarry  (Photos: Elio Delgado Valdes)

HAVANA TIMES — “Good evening everyone. My name is Jorge Landa, and this is the second Beauty and Cuban Culture Pageant, a personal project of mine. It is an honor to be able to welcome you to our show tonight (…).”

Thus began the evening at Havana’s Teatro America on the last Saturday of 2013. Days before, Landa had appeared on Cuba’s midday news and explained that the aim of his project was to broaden beauty cannons and strengthen ethical values among the young.

To reach this theatre stage, Landa had to do a lot of legwork: look for institutional support, select 16 participants (of both genders) from a total of 200 applicants, put together a jury and promote the event every which way he could.

A few of us (the ones closest to the row Landa was sitting in) overhear the complaints of one of the members of the jury that was to select the winner of the competition. “(…) they’re so uncomfortable. I can’t wait for these things to go out of style, you never have good footing with them, I don’t like them (…)”

It isn’t hard to picture the girl who said that dancing. We often see her on television doing just that. From now on, we’ll have to pay close attention and see whether she is dancing in shoes like the ones that bothered her that night. If so, we can start admiring her endurance and willpower.

The theater is packed. Young and old, alone or in the company of relatives, no one wants to miss a single detail of what a handful of people regard as a “monument to bad taste” and the majority considers delightful.

Let us get back to the show. The music is already starting!

As we know, every Cuban must know how to dance, and dance well. The competitors have no problems in this department: they come out on stage and regale the audience with a dynamic, well-synchronized choreography. The audience feels they are enjoying the performance and this encourages them.

The same cannot be said about a scene staged later, to the music of La Batea, where we see less dancing and plenty of clichés: the rough tenement building, heated arguments among neighbors, drunkenness, Santeria rituals and exaggerated hip movements.

Arlenys, a singer now in vogue in Cuba, is among the more noteworthy guest performers. She makes the audience sing along with her: “You’ve driven me mad, you’ve made me feel like a woman, only you inspire me, make me live, filling every corner of my soul.” Mayquel Blanco and his band also appealed to the audience, saying: “All women out there with pretty faces and hair and a killer of a look, put up your hands!”

The Fashion Show

Can a woman be beautiful without using high-heels? One has to make some sacrifices in order to be beautiful, which is why they all wear high – very high – heels, not unlike the ones that trouble the jury member so.

In shorts, leotards, short or long skirts, no matter whether they stumble as they walk or a heel breaks on them, the young girls stand there on their stilts, smiling. Can a woman who doesn’t smile, who doesn’t swing her hips and look mischievously, almost maliciously at you out of the corner of her eye be beautiful? What about those who make no sexual innuendos?

The men can be more relaxed and comfortable – they can even go barefoot. As long as they have good muscles, everything is perfect. Well, almost perfect, because these strapping young lads who recall ancient Greek sculptures also have to show they are “real men.” Their half-smiles and discrete pelvic movements must get a message out: “Come and enjoy me.”

There are only two requirements to apply for the competition. You must be between the age of 16 and 25 and offer proof of employment or studies. The selection of the young women was not apparently based on international measurement standards. One notices a certain degree of variety. In contrast, all of the young men have the same physique.

People are overcome with delight. They applaud frenetically every time their favorite contestant comes on stage. It matters little whether, after ten months of arduous work, someone forgets their line at the Period Show (one or two paragraphs about the clothes they are wearing), or that, of the 32 participants, only three are black (two girls, one of whom was dressed like a colonial house servant, and a young man, who sported the clothes of a coach driver).

It is less important for the audience that some should be unable to answer basic questions about Cuban culture (about composers and their works, visual artists and other figures), or that others should make fools of themselves trying to answer more complicated queries, such as: “What is more important to you, physical or inner beauty?”

The hosts said it at the beginning of the show: “We want to give physical beauty true meaning, that is, to couple it with spiritual content. We want to go beyond a simple, aesthetic judgement, to defend our artistic, architectural, cultural and human heritage, and to encourage good taste among the public in their everyday life, in their love for their roots.” But, in the end, there are young people, dance and smiles – do we really need anything else?

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One thought on “Havana’s Beauty and Cuban Culture Pageant

  • Given that the Castros banned beauty contests, it is telling that this event was officially approved. First, pro baseball players, now beauty contests. There may be a WalMart or a Starbuck’s in Habana Vieja sooner than we think. I only hope Fidel lives long enough to see everything he screwed up come around full circle. Viva Fidel!

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