What Dancing in Cuba Taught Me About Listening

The following post recounts an experience I had during my first of many trips to Cuba from 1999 – 2012.
Dancing Man in Havana“Quiero una cerveza,” I tell the bartender

“Crystal o Bucanero?” he asks.

The two main beers of Cuba, one on the lighter side, the other, slightly more dark. Dame una Crystal,” I say with the pleasure that comes from being able to make a choice uncomplicated by having too many options.

Pouring the beer into a half-chilled glass, I suck it down. It’s a hot day in Havana. Just then an older gentleman approaches from a nearby table. Quieres bailar?” he asks with subdued confidence.

“Gracias, pero no hay musica,” I tell him, looking around the bar then back at him for agreement.

“No importa. Venga,” the gentleman replies, his right arm reaching out towards me.

Josef is a tall slender man, who looks part African and part Asian. He has strong lines on either side of his mouth that deepen when he grins revealing yellow-stained front teeth rimmed with gold. Despite this and the slight reek of cigar smoke, he’s enchanting. “Bueno,” I nod in acceptance.

He takes my hand and escorts me to a spot several feet from the bar then gestures for me to stand beside him. “Mirame, mira mis pies” Josef says, pointing both fingers at my eyes, then back to his feet. Standing with his feet ten inches apart, he leans forward just enough for his arms to dangle free before him. He takes one step to his right then brings his foot back to its original position. Then he takes one step to his left and brings it back.

This is easy – I got this, I think. “Four steps…that’s it?” I say.

I bend my knees and step right, then back to center, left, then back to center, just like he showed me. After a few more attempts, I speed up, making me believe that I’m doing well. Turning back to Josef, in anticipation of his praise, his expression tells me otherwise. Scratching the back of his head with a perplexed look on his face, he taps his chest and tells me I have to listen to the rhythm from inside. Marking each step slowly, he claps out the rhythm, “Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco; Uno, dos….(y)…tres-cuatro-cinco.”

I recognize it immediately from my Cuban dance class. It’s a rhythm of the clave – two smooth wooden sticks that when played together provide the foundational pattern for Afro-Cuban music.

Closing my eyes, I try to focus on his voice and the rhythm. Clap, clap, (pause) clap-clap- clap. How am I supposed to keep my belly relaxed and my knees bent at the same time? And my feet, it’s as if they have their own brain. (Now I know how men feel about that other body part of theirs.) This should be easy for me, but it’s not. It feels foreign. And what’s up with this should in my mind? No doubt it’s from my identity as a dancer. A dancer with twenty years of experience! But who cares about all that experience if in this moment, I can’t even follow a simple step.

I wish I could do the step the way Joseph’s doing it – on the beat and with total commitment.

Focus. Relax. Listen. I tell myself. Keep it simple. Breath. Move from the breath in sync with the rhythm. That’s the only task.

I look over at Josef, who looks back at me, bending his knees even more, as if to challenge me to do the same.

I focus on my feet; right, then back to the original position, then left, and then back to center. Breath, focus, sink into the rhythm. For a moment my hips, torso and shoulders seem to move in concert and with the least amount of effort.

Lowering myself even closer to the floor to match Josef, my thighs begin to hurt and my legs shake. I look down, lose focus and almost fall over myself. Josef’s elegant and precise movements are beyond reach for now. Our wordless dialogue continues for a moment before I have to stop and rest. Catching my breath, I ask him, “Que hace a un buen bailador?

With a glint of mischief in his eyes, he says, “Tienes que escuchar a Dios,”


Note: While the man in this photo is not the actual Josef I danced with (unfortunately, I took no photo), this gentlemen exudes Josef’s joy and warmth.

Forts: Nature Tells Us How to Build

I grew up in Los Gatos, a small town just South of what’s now Silicon Valley. Our one story house at the end of Jones Road was perfect for my brother and I because it was located on a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by nature. There was a wild, partially contained hundred-acre park that began where the street ended. Here, we could hike for hours, and discover new things like black widow spiders, gopher snakes and blue belly lizards.

Our very own back yard was a much smaller version of this natural wonderland, with ample trees and bushes surrounding a grass-covered hill, perfect for tobogganing down in the summers, after Dad cut down the dry stalks.

By the time I was eight my brother and I had built a fort in and around almost every tree and bush in our backyDSC_7580.JPGard, including he towering Eucalyptus, so high it swayed with the weight of our little bodies, the Acacia, with its buxom branches strong enough to support hours of intense play, and the Manzanita tree with it’s bush-like shape and super smooth branches that poked in every direction.

Each one offered a different challenge to overcome and with it, a unique opportunity to experience something new. We didn’t know, for example, that the Acacia tree was perfect for climbing and building on until we reached across its gigantic trunk to grasp a protruding knot in exactly the location we needed it to be to be able to scale its width. The fort we built within its branches ended up being the most stable of all the forts we built, partly due to our skill, but just as much a result of what the tree gave us – super climbable trunks and a strong girth upon which we could position wood planks for our fort’s floor.

We learned that to build a fort – it was as much about what we wanted to create as it was what the tree wanted to give. It was a relationship of sorts, unique not only to its nature, but to our interaction with it’s nature.

I gained an understanding of our back yard by experiencing it first hand. The only exception to this for both my brother and I was the rambling Blackberry hedge that lined the border between our house and our neighbors’.

There was something about this hedge that was both intriguing and a bit scary. It gave us fruit and the young leaves were a beautiful, translucent green. But if you didn’t position your hand in just the right way and time your selection of the berry you wanted in sync with its readiness to be picked, then chances were high you’d be stuck with a thorn or get one of those nasty little cuts you can’t see, but that hurts every time you use your hand.

None of this changed the fact that we didn’t know what was deep inside its thicket. We could conjecture that it was just layer upon layer of prickly vegetation, and therefore, inhospitable, but we hadn’t actually experienced it. And this fact made the notion of building a fort there, irresistible.

So one Saturday morning, after breakfast and chores, John and I focused our minds on the serious work of planning our fort in the Blackberry hedge. We brought every tool we had in our combined arsenal, driven by a single question – what if you could make a fort inside this bush?

My brother, who was especially skilled at architecting a vision, knew intuitively to start cutting around the area with the visibly largest branches. I followed behind, using dad’s thick cowhide gloves to remove broken limbs in John’s path. Two hours in and we’d made a hole deep enough to almost completely obscure my brother’s frame from mom’s viewpoint in the kitchen.

It wasn’t until we sat down to lunch that I noticed scratches on both of us, head-to-toe. Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we resolved that if we wanted to reach our goal, we’d have to go deeper, and if we wanted to go deeper, we’d have to dig smarter.

So right after lunch, back at the hedge (now with a noticeable gape, that we dubbed the front door, over lunch), we bore full gear, complete with hiking boots, overalls, long sleeved shirts and ski masks.

By days end, we reached our goal – an area big enough to allow us to sit side by side and ponder our next fort. We created instant walls by draping old blankets on the interior sides. Even so, we couldn’t lean back like we could on the Acacia tree.

Still, it was dark inside and there was a feeling of being protected from the world outside. And this was something we didn’t know before we started.