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Dancing the Hora in Cumanayagua

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IMG_0776 copyThe theatre company TEATRO DE LOS ELEMENTOS lives, creates and thrives on a pristine working farm nestled in the gentle foothills of The Escambray Mountains on the South side of Cuba. I had enjoyed workshops with the talented actors who call this paradise home, so when I was planning a tour for fifteen Israeli members of the dance company Ethnic Experience I thought a meeting of the two companies would make a strange and wonderful cultural exchange.


IMG_1084 copyI warned the Israelis that there would be few creature comforts but that the experience and interaction with the people would more than make up for the lack of air conditioning, even in July, the only month the Israelis were free to travel here.


As we rolled along the smooth highway from Havana towards Cienfuegos and the turnoff to Cumanayagua the Israelis danced and sang in the aisles, practicing their moves, bangles and ankle bracelets jangling, in anticipation of the show they would present when we arrived. High on a wave of music and anticipation we forgot all about the paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles that had led up to this moment. This promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for both groups of artists: for the small Cuban community it would be a first taste of Israeli culture and music and for the Israelis it was an amazing opportunity to experience not just the talent but the life of some of Cuba’s best theatrical artists.


What could go wrong?


IMG_1686 copyThe bus pulled up to a patient row of smiling actors, who exploded with hugs and kisses as they welcomed the Israelis in typical Cuban fashion. The hills stretched out as far as the eye could see and the air was fresh with the scent of tropical blooms. It was idyllic—and very hot.


Lolo Castillo Torres, actor and member of Teatro Elemento, Jobero, Cuba.

Lolo Castillo Torres, actor and member of Teatro Elemento, Jobero, Cuba.

Israelis have a lot in common with Cubans. Both groups are gregarious, loud, and expressive, and although the countries they come from are small each has a big world presence. Nevertheless, as we set about allocating housing and getting everyone settled the language barrier kept me, and my hard working assistant Maria Rose, busy translating between the two groups.


Lolo, one of the actors in the Cuban troupe, lived in a Bohio, a traditional wooden farmhouse with a thatched roof and wood burning cook stove. It is a charming and practical home constructed so that the back door and front door align to allow the breeze to blow through. Convinced they were luckiest of their dance group to be assigned to sleep there I proudly led three women towards Lolo’s home. Some of the other housing was more comfortable, but this was the real thing, rustic but full of character and charm. Lolo met us on his porch with his typical wry smile, ushered us in and explained the lay of the land. There was no running water, for example, but there was a shower area behind a screen and plenty of fresh agua in buckets. It was perfect for hot weather—bathing al fresco without the cost of a high end spa. And, it had a postcard view.


As I explained the al fresco bathing arrangements the women looked increasingly anxious and a rush of Hebrew filled the air. My attempts to calm them were drowned out in the no-man’s-land between two languages. Finally I switched houses and the three women got their indoor shower. Everyone seemed relieved.

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Later that evening as we sat around Lolo’s dining table the girls walked in with heads hanging low and said something in Hebrew to Eilat, the leader. They were sorry for being so hasty. Now that they’d calmed down they wished they had stayed in the picturesque bohio, Cuban style! But no matter. Rested up, everyone began to relax and enjoy themselves.


The next three days passed in a warm haze of sharing theatre and music from opposite sides of the world. We drove up to El Nicho waterfalls with our Cuban compatriots where we swam in turquoise pools. We laughed together despite the language barrier. Our cultural exchange culminated under the thatched roof of the pavilion when Ethnic Experience gave a performance of Middle Eastern Dance and song for their Cuban hosts and the surrounding community. By the finale the audience was on its feet, dancing the hora and singing Hava Nagila. That this magical moment was the culmination of a lot of work made it all the more special. Two of my worlds came together in one perfect moment where East met South. Viva la hora. And for many of the Israelis travellers it really was the most memorable part of a never-to-be forgotten trip.


This article was originally published in visitcuba.com