By David Villano
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Strange circumstances, but no more unusual than finding the Afro-Cuban dancer/choreographer/instructor Elena Garcia at the Mideastern Dance Exchange on Lincoln Road. An odd little place that, in fact, seems to feature every kind of East-West-Whatever ethnic dance form - from belly dance by Dallal to "funky club dancing" to samba/Afro-Brazilian dance - the Dance Exchange is the perfect setting for Garcia's version of the Latin beat.
Garcia, whose career has embraced a stint with the Cuban National Folkloric Company, the founding of the Yaroko Dance Company, and choreography work with Fernando Bujones ("I help him do a cha-cha-cha ballet version of the lambada. Why not? Dance is free, you do whatever you want"), has always studied the African influences on Cuban culture: "Here there is not enough attention to that. In Cuba it's different. The mambo, the rumba, popular dances - all came from Africa, and there is an awareness of the value of African culture. It is a cultural thing."
To watch Garcia at work on that cultural thing - her shoulders snapping back and forth in animal-like rhythms, her hips undulating in slow, steady tribal gyrations - is to be struck by the beauty and power of Afro-Cuban dance. And while putting the class through its paces, she manages to keep up a quiet patter: "We will learn the popular Santeria dances, mostly from three regions in Africa: Yoruba, from Nigeria, Arara and Dahomey from the Congo. Every dance for every saint has different movements. The Palo is the fighting dance, the hands stay straight. Forget that you are a woman; don't move the hips, just twist the shoulders.... This is for Eleggua, always playing, making jokes: you spin back and forth, representing the opposite sides of man, good and bad.... This is the dance for Ogun, the warrior, make your arms like a machete, cutting, cutting."
And as she illustrates the Chango-inspired rumba ("Just legs, no shoulders, move the hips...pa...pa...pa...you have to bounce, not just move back and forth") a bit of dance advice from the saints, perfectly suited to modern life, even club life, dangles in the air: "Take space. Go forward. Move.