Forget Zumba. There's nothing like the energy, passion and rhythm of Afro-Cuban dance to get a good workout.
But there's a lot more to the practice than breaking a sweat. There's profound history, going all the way back to the painful days when slaves were brought from West and Central Africa to the New World. And there's religion, with dance at times manifested as a sacred expression of the belief in orishas, or Yoruba deities, that became Santería in Cuba.
All this is what the Havana-born Neri Torres has promulgated since 1994 through her Ifé-Ilé Afro-Cuban Dance Company: for people to discover Afro-Cuban music and dance traditions, not only sacred, but folkloric and popular as well. Torres, who teaches dance at the New World School of the Arts, and at the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies, chatted with us about the 14th annual celebration of the Ifé-Ilé Dance Festival, which kicks off on Thursday at Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus.
Cultist: For those who don't know about Afro-Cuban dance, music, and traditions, what can they expect at the Festival?
Torres: People are going to discover the identity of Cubans, share in the joy of life that this culture has, as well as appreciate its contribution to the world. Because hip hop has influences from all this Afro-Cuban music, salsa too -- besides, it will be a great workout.
Who attends the workshops?
We have all kinds of people, and they come from all over the United States. Also, we have people from the Santería tradition. And a lot of cultural tourism. In the past, we have even had guests such as [the late, black-dance queen] Katherine Dunham, the African American Dance Ensemble, and the Cepeda family [from Puerto Rico].
Why do people, even those with two left feet, move when they hear the beat of the drums?
Drums were the first instrument of communication that we had, and they are in total alignment with our body's chakras. This vibration enters your body and synchronizes itself with your heartbeat, with your pulse. And even if you don't like to dance, I think that, if you hear the drums, if you hear this music, you will want to dance. Because the rhythm is there, and that's what we are: rhythm.
Is there some sort of tribal communion going on nowadays?
Just think of today's discos. For me, they are a new ritual, where people fall in a trance and connect with those primitive rhythms.
What does it mean if I'm dancing and I feel like I'm leaving my body? Am I just passing out from too much effort?
The purpose of music, of rhythm, is for the person to let himself or herself go, and reach other states of consciousness. You fall into a trance and express yourself freely. You connect with the universe. And that's the beauty of dance. As Martha Graham used to say, "dancers are the messengers of the gods."
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Kick-off for the 14th annual Ifé-Ilé Dance Festival, will be held Thursday at Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave., Bldg. 6, Room 6100, from 7 to 10 p.m.. The event is free and open to the public. Activities begin at 7 p.m. with a panel discussion, a documentary, and a live performance by the company's dancers.
The fest continues Saturday with a full day of drum and dance workshops, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Little Haiti Cultural Arts Center. At 11 p.m., the dancers and musicians close the festival with a dance party at the Cubaocho Art & Research Center. Tickets for the classes/workshops and other events start at $15. Visit www.ife-ile.org.
--Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie, artburstmiami.com