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Cuban Salsa - Dance and Santeria?

Let's talk about the Cuban Saint - Elegua

Perhaps you didn't know - but religion and the Cuban Saints had a huge impact in the CREATION OF SALSA!

Who is Elegua and which why is it so important to understand the background behind the moves you’re learning?

What moves and steps do we take from Elegua that we use even in modern day?

The Saints - Explained

Four Centuries ago, more than a million African slaves were brought to Cuba by the Spanish as part of the Spanish slave trade. They were forbidden to practice their religion, instead they fused their African deities with the characteristics of the Catholic saints and this way they were still able to honour their religion, and over time became inseparable.

Who is Elegua?

Elegua is known in Cuba and Puerto Rico as the “owner” of crossroad, gates and pathways (caminos), especially between the earth and the divine realms. All ceremonies and rituals must first have his approval before taking place. He is a very powerful saint, one of the warriors, but still keeping his “child-like” nature. When he dances he is playful and wants attention.

Elegua (Yoruba: Èṣù-Ẹlẹ́gbára, also spelled Eleggua; known as Eleguá in Latin America and Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands) is an Orisha, a deity of roads in the religions of Santeria (Santería), Umbanda, Quimbanda, Candomblé and in Palo Mayombe. He is syncretized with either Saint Michael, Saint Anthony of Padua, or the Holy Child of Atocha.

 
Elegua saint dance cuban salsa
Havana People - Article - Elegua - Cuban Salsa & the Saints

Costume & Colours

Each Saint is represented by a different coloured costume – you can notice the bright RED & BLACK costume the dancer is wearing representing Elegua, and the cigar in the mouth (another Cuban symbol) representing Elegua’s attitude to life – the prankster, the joker and life of the party. He is usually depicted with a straw hat and a shepherd’s crook, don’t forget that cheeky facial expression!

The Saints Music

Each saint actually has it’s own music and sound – the music is drum based with many syncopations and complex rhythms which change throughout the performance. It can be very tricky to a Western audience to find the beat and understand the African polyrhythms, but don’t worry that – and the body movement is something that can be learnt (practice is the secret!)

You can see in the demonstration below by current “King of Salsa” Maykel Fonts – lots of jumps showing his playfulness and high energy. Dancing these orishas requires a lot of body isolation ability and energy, you can see his posture bent over from the torso, lots of undulating movements from the pelvis all the way up the spine to the head, free flowing arms and shoulder movements. 

Saints Influence on Cuban Salsa Today

Today, you can see all these unique movements from the saints inside the greats of salsa and in all their students. Learning about the history and learning the body movements gives every dancer an in-depth and complete understanding and interpretation of modern Cuban salsa music, which often draws from those complicated rhythms of their heritage. There are classes dedicated to just Afro-body movement classes, or check with your teachers to take private lessons of Afro-Rumba and the Orishas, once mastered look very impressive and feel great on the dance floor.

You will find influence from the Cuban saints incorporated into our regular partnered dancing with “chest pops” and hip movements, you can understand the feminine wrist movements and arm flourishes that come from Oshun and Yemaya, and the strong masculine styling and footwork inspired by the warrior saints and carried out by the leaders.

 

With this knowledge, try to keep an eye out on the dance floor (and in videos) dancers during their freestyle moments. You can also see the influence from Rumba as well. Afro-contemporary dance is also featured in many of the salsa shows and festival, combining aspects from the afro roots, salsa and contemporary dance.

 

The African influence combined with the Spanish flourishing Flamenco style is what makes Cuban Salsa so exciting and interesting to watch and dance today! More articles coming soon on Rumba and other Saints.

Article written by Rhian Saunders (Havana People)

Check out more articles & news by Havana People here.

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