In Cuba They're Still Dancing

In Cuba They're Still Dancing


Reviewed by: Chris

I am slightly lost for words to describe In Cuba They’re Still Dancing, though I do find it very enjoyable. As dance history, it’s rather messy, even though the main point comes across. Made for TV, it is heavy on storyline and audio hooks to deter channel hopping. Feisty Glaswegian Agnes McLean, travelling to Cuba to find the roots of her rumba, is thoroughly engaging. As an outsider’s guide to Cuba, it is also refreshingly factual. The film won a BAFTA.

Agnes made a life in politics, campaigning successfully on women’s rights and equal pay. But this senior citizen’s hobby was always social dance - especially rumba. (There are giggles from the audience as she digs out her ‘rumba dresses’ of old, and debates which one looks best for Cuba.) Her charisma grips us, though. She is, what in local slang we’d probably call, ‘a wee gem’.

Working-class old folk, for me, can fall into two categories. Firstly there’s those pensioners who sit behind me and talk in films. They suck boiled sweets on the bus with their mouths open. Chew the air. Natter endlessly about their illnesses. I am always polite, of course. I might be like that one day.

But then there’s old folk who are the real inspiration. Role models. And a key to unlocking the past. A few years ago, I joined a friend to do a dance performance for a large pensioners’ get-together. “You might have to stay for a cup of tea afterwards,” she says. That bit I dread! I choose the least scary-looking table, sitting down, huddled over my cuppa. But I get a big shock. “When we went out, there were so many big dance halls - packed! Hundreds of people, nearly every night of the week.” As they talked, I felt myself enter a time capsule. It was full of vivid pictures of social dancing in the Thirties and Forties.

Agnes is a time capsule. At 69, she still dances and she is passionate about new ways of looking at things, and standing up for women. Going to Cuba is her dream. Discovering why rumba is so different there, is the missing piece of her treasured jigsaw.

In a way, this is where the film all goes terribly ‘wrong’. But she is so engaging, I’m really not too bothered when she doesn’t have the neat-and-tidy Wicker’s World approach. She gallivants between a rumba party and the National School for Music and Dance. She talks of Carmen Miranda “giving it big lips”. The American re-engineering of dance via Hollywood. She doesn’t stand on ceremony when it comes to terminology and is she’s forever keen to show obliging Cuban hosts her new steps.

What we get is a colourful tour of Cuba. A piercingly accurate summary of its political history (which puts disingenuous American accounts, such as Charlize Theron’s notorious East Of Havana, to shame). Oh – and there’s lots of dancing!

It’s all very good fun. The film elicits a visceral sense of the roots of rumba. We soak it up with our senses rather than by way of academic discourse. A massive street parade towards the end is a beautiful spectacle and a great testament to the enduring Cuban spirit. It chimes well with Agnes’ fight and spit and great heart. For me, this is a film of a wonderful lady who found her dream before she died.

As far as I can work out, rumba comes from son (a dance belovéd by salseros, whose dance also derives from it). Rumba – though not as we know it – is also a generic term with a host of meanings and includes both son (think, Buena Vista Social Club) and the frantic Cuban rumba. Put these influences together, take something out of the melting pot, give it a name that will stick, and add enough rules to satisfy ballroom sticklers.

Another Latin dance emigrates from down-and-dirty roots to the posher climes of English-speaking dance halls. Except son was the ‘posh’, slowed-down version of Cuban rumba to begin with. Originally a dance of sexual aggression that has been sanitised, and to which exotic romantic overtones are then added. I didn’t quite get that easily from Agnes’ account, but I have to admit it is there somewhere when I think about it. If only she were still here, and you or I could ask her for a dance... some things are much better understood at a visceral level.

Perhaps part of her spirit will be with the friends she made in Cuba. It is still dancing there. And I hope it always will be.

Reviewed on: 26 May 2009
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A Glaswegian woman visits Havana and discovers shared creative and political passions.
Amazon link

Director: Richard Downes

Writer: Barbara Orton

Starring: Agnes McLean

Year: 1993

Runtime: 37 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


Dancefilm 2009

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