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Afro-Cuban Dance Instructor Promises Students Happy Feet — and Happy Hips

"Why is it so delicious when Cubans dance salsa?” asks Marisol Blanco, a former member of the National Folkloric Troupe of Cuba, who has been teaching dance in Miami since 2008. Her answer: “Because of this African movement that comes from rumba and son.

Plenty of books will tell you that today’s Latin dances have African roots. But why bother reading when you can learn that history on the dance floor? This weekend, Blanco will teach workshops in Afro-Cuban dance at both the Miami Salsa Congress in South Beach and at the African Diaspora Dance and Drum Festival in Little Haiti. Blanco is eager to show how salsa developed from folkloric, Afro-Cuban dances that, in turn, reveal traces of earlier West African dances.

According to Blanco, rumba, a dance invented more than a hundred years ago by black dockworkers in Cuban ports, retains “many elements of Yoruba and Bantu dance” from the western and southern regions of Africa. Flashes of rumba still show up in salsa. “The side-to-side sway of the hips and the isolation of body parts,” she observes, “come from our African roots.”

But too often, Blanco claims, salsa dancers suffer because they are not familiar with that dance’s African roots. “If you don’t know why you are moving in a certain way, then you are moving like a robot,” she warns. “A problem I see with some salseros is that they move without joy.”

To inspire more joy, Blanco will offer a simplified version of her palo workshop at the Miami Salsa Congress. “I’m going to try to get the salseros to express happiness with their movement,” she promises. “To keep an audience interested, they need to be able to tell a story with their bodies.”

At the African Diaspora Dance & Drum Festival, Blanco will demonstrate the similarities between the Afro-Cuban dances known as palo and the other traditions from Haiti, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast being taught at the festival. “All the dances that come from Mama Africa share the same foundation and the same technique,” she explains. “If you have a background in one African-style dance, then your body is ready to adapt to the movement of any other African dance.” 

Njeri Plato, director of Delou Africa, the organization that presents the festival, regularly invites Blanco to participate because she believes Blanco’s commitment to preserving African culture fits with the festival theme, “Bridging Cultural Gaps.” As Plato explains, “We keep tradition alive.”

Yet, Plato continues, there is more at stake in staying connected to African roots than simply looking or feeling good on the dance floor. This year, in addition to a full schedule of drumming and dancing, the festival will host a community symposium called “It Takes a Village — Keeping Our Community in Unity.” Featuring inspirational speakers, representatives from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and community members, the symposium will address efforts to end violence among young black men in Miami — particularly in the neighborhoods surrounding Little Haiti. For Plato, the effort to unite the African diaspora through culture has immediate implications for the community. “It’s like a call to action,” she says.

At the festival, Delou also will kick off the Drums Over Guns campaign, a county-funded effort aimed at keeping youth off the streets and in the studio, learning acrobatics and drumming. True to the spirit of the festival, the use of drums to counter violence also has African roots. “The djembe was created 900 years ago for peace and communication,” Plato points out. “Our drums represent peace.”

— Celeste Fraser Delgado,

Marisol Blanco will teach a workshop in Afro-Cuban dance from 1 to 1:45 p.m. Friday during the Miami Salsa Congress at the Deauville Beach Resort, 6701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. All-day passes cost $90. Visit

Blanco will also teach Cuban folklore dance from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday during the African Diaspora Dance & Drum Festival, which takes place from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59th Ter., Miami. Tickets cost $18. Visit

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