In the 1960s, Tiffany Madera’s parents fled Cuba during the revolution. Like many other refugees, they landed in Miami and started a family. Madera and her bother were born here and grew up in Coconut Grove. But when she was a child, her family returned to Cuba to visit relatives. The trip was life-changing.
“I was 8 years old, but it impacted me. It was something about returning to the homeland,” she says. “We were only there maybe one or two weeks, but I still have these stark, clear memories.”
Like many other Miami-born Cuban-Americans, Madera was frustrated with the divide between her nationality as an American and her heritage as a Cuban. She longed for more compelling ways to relate to her culture aside from the stereotypical cafecitos and croquetas. An avid dancer since she was a toddler, Madera eventually segued into belly dancing and became an instructor, teaching as far away as Argentina and New York. But in 2003, Madera traveled to Havana for what she considers her “true calling.” Over the next 13 years, she taught belly dancing to eight girls. Her project eventually expanded to form the communist country’s first belly-dancing troupe and a school that now teaches more than 100 girls and women between the ages of 3 and 60.
Madera is considered the matriarch of belly dancing in Cuba.
“I’m their belly-dancing mom,” she says. “Some of these girls were timid and excited but over time became very organized and powerful leaders. Belly dancing gave them the path and language to do it.”
Growing up, Madera was always dancing. After graduating from Coral Gables Senior High, she went on to study comparative literature in Paris. She lived in an Arabic neighborhood and immersed herself in the culture. She began taking belly-dancing classes five days a week. The hobby quickly turned into lifestyle; when she returned to Miami, she began teaching her own classes.
“Belly-dancing was about knowing myself better, reaching deeper, past the entertainment of it. It became my catalyst for change, and I knew I wanted my work to be a service to others.”
Madera has taught distressed youth and survivors of sexual abuse. She concentrated on the therapeutic nature of the dance and how the slight internal gyrations could chip away at personal and psychological obstacles. In 2003, the belly dancer traveled with the Miami Light Project to Cuba. There, she met a crew of eight young women who wanted to learn how to dance. They had been teaching themselves by watching Shakira and Bollywood videos. Madera agreed to be their mentor and started lessons on the front porch of the community center in Havana.
“It was like I had a calling to turn belly dance into this bridge that connects people in difficult spaces,” she says.
She was constantly traveling back and forth between Havana and Miami. With each trip, she’d bring the young women costumes, CDs, DVDs, and other belly-dance props. Her students learned quickly, but advancing this group’s popularity on the island was difficult. Madera explains that Cuban regulations prevented the women from performing without an agent, but the process to obtain one required government approval, which was tricky at first.
“That impeded us for quite some time,” Madera recalls. “The girls would talk about how hard and frustrating it was.”
It wasn’t just the Cuban government. Back in Miami, Madera’s family was worried about her safety. After all, it was during the George W. Bush presidency when Cubans were especially wary of Americans. “It was a stressful time. I was met with so much suspicion and resistance. But I had to do it. I had this spiritual and aesthetic calling to do it.”
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Between 2006 and 2012, Madera didn’t travel to Cuba as frequently. Yet her disciples carried on, calling themselves Aisha-al-Hanan. In 2007, the troupe began performing more often and slowly gained recognition. Eventually, the demand to learn belly dancing was so high that one of Madera’s first students, Gretel Sancez Llabre, started a school. It’s now called Cuban Soho, and more than 100 students of all ages attend.
When Madera visited the island again in 2015 to witness a recital at the school, she was blown away by their progress. “I don’t have children, but they were all my children and my legacy,” she says. “So much of my work is about connecting to my ancestors and this motherhood is about healing those ruptures in Cuba and creating something with it.”
Throughout her 13 years in Cuba, a director shot footage of Madera’s journey. Brooklyn-based Joshua Bee Alafia filmed most of it, and the dancer herself edited it to create the documentary that tells her story: Havana Habibi.
6 p.m. Thursday, June 9, at O Cinema Wynwood; 305-571-9970; o-cinema.org. Tickets cost $12.