Habibi Bellydance Festival in Havana offers stimulating classes and feminist theory to Cuban women

Flooded with sunlight, about fifty women form a circle on the roof terrace of Casa Gaia, in Old Havana, Cuba. Karen Rodríguez guides them through a series of improvisational movements. Sweet and radiant, Rodríguez encourages participants to roam freely, dancing and moving as they please. Some twirl wildly; others glide with elegant restraint. Pairs of dancers or small groups form for a few seconds, then separate into new formations. This cross section of Cuban women varies considerably in shape, size, age, and color, a diversity that is not uniquely Cuban, but still uniquely contrasts with the Western image of belly dancing as young and young women and skinny in skimpy suits.

Tiffany “Hanan” Madera chose Rodríguez’s Biodanza workshop as the “opening of the heart” of the first Habibi festival in Havana, three days of workshops and oriental dance performances in Havana. Biodanza, a system developed in Chile, uses music and movement to deepen self-awareness. “I wanted to go back to the roots and the heart of the project,” explains Madera, director of Hanan Arts and Mideastern Dance Exchange. “I’m really excited because I feel like we’ve reached that basic feeling. The festival is so steeped in all aspects of dance, but it’s also a way to weave the international belly dance community together to support what we’ve created here in Cuba.

The festival, co-founded and directed by Miami-born Madera and hosted by her Cuban counterpart, Gretel Sánchez Llabre, took place in December in Old Havana. After the death of Fidel Castro and the nine-day state-imposed mourning period that followed, the atmosphere in the workshops was hot. Likewise, the attitude in the street was not one of mourning. Plaza De La Catedral and the narrow, winding streets of Old Havana were teeming with tourists and Cubans going about their daily lives. A 27-year-old University of Havana graduate, who requested anonymity, briefly explained what several young people told me during the trip: “Fidel is dead. What a shame. Now what?”

Well, for one thing, dance. But not in the commercialized, eroticized stereotype of belly dancing. Madera’s approach to the genre is surprisingly different, focusing more on the restorative qualities of belly dancing. Through movement, she says, “our bodies, which are often sites of pain and violence, are also sites of healing both locally and personally. It can then become universal and community.

When Madera started traveling to Cuba in 2003 to give dance workshops, she discovered a group of women ready to embrace belly dancing as a healing modality and as a stimulating experience. Sánchez Llabre, one of these women, is the founder of the first professional oriental dance company in Cuba, Cuban Soho. She also runs a school that offers oriental dance lessons to girls and women aged 5 to 60. For her, the idea of ​​being a Cuban woman has always been to be “a luchadora”Or fighter, but this struggle was often limited to the daily concerns of family, food and survival. “Now I’m focusing on myself,” she explains, “because if my fight is to help other women move forward, it’s worth it. You feel like you are not fighting for yourself, you are fighting for other women because you are giving them the tools so that they can find happiness.

The art of dance, popular activism and its own personal history of identity are the driving forces of the documentary. Habibi from Havana, a collaboration between Madera and independent filmmaker Joshua Bee Alafia. The film documents Miami-born Madera’s travels to and from Cuba despite vocal disapproval from her Cuban family. One Friday evening last December, Habibi from Havana made its sold-out debut at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a trendy, mixed-use space in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood. The film received a standing ovation.

“Tiffany Madera’s story is a great story,” said Esmely Sarduy, a medical student at the University of Havana who was in the audience, “and in a way, it’s already ours because of the number of followers and souls who have been captivated by the magic of belly dancing.

The documentary also reveals Madera’s experience with sexual assault and trauma. “Habibi from Havana is a very personal film where I really put myself at the service of transformation and at the service of showing a model of healing, ”explains Madera. It was this experience that influenced her unique approach to oriental dance and her vision for the festival. She handpicked professional dance teachers across the United States who share her vision that oriental dance can be grounded in empowering women and can even become a healing tool.

Tamalyn Dallal, a New Orleans-based professional dancer who teaches dance workshops internationally, was the director of the Mideastern Dance Exchange in Miami Beach in the 90s where Madera took her first class. Dallal thinks that Habana Habibi is paving the way in Cuba for oriental dance to be practiced without objectifying or commodifying women: “I think that future dancers will not have to fight against stigma, which is really incredible because it is a form of dance that stigmatized around the world.

Havana Habibi’s dancers and lecturers also rebuffed the stereotype of the sultry Cuban dancer. The eroticization of Cuban women, and Métis women in particular, is deeply rooted in Cuban society, especially when it comes to practicing sexuality through dance. Rodríguez, whose Biodanza workshop inspired participants to swirl and hover, says she realized that this seeming Cuban sensuality is often superficial. “When you have to communicate from a deeper place, from who you really are, you realize that it is not so real, or for example when you go to communicate with your eyes which are the portals of the soul, you realize that most people may not hold your gaze. If it’s not something that they learned because they know how to dance so well, then they don’t. You realize that this is a society which is supposed to be very open, but which also has its limits and its repressions.

Havana Habibi also touched on cultural repression in Cuba, especially with regard to women. Lisette Vila, director of Proyecto Palomas, a Havana-based organization whose mission is to protect a number of at-risk populations such as members of the LGBT community, survivors of domestic violence, and others says: “That being sensual when walking or being sensual when baring part of your body does not mean that you are liberated and know your sexual rights. Vila, who brought a group of participants to the festival, goes on to stress that for Cubans, understanding their rights as sexual beings is fundamental to embracing and exercising their human rights.

Another workshop leader of the festival, professional dancer Myra Krien, has made it her mission to educate young women, by informing them of their rights as early as possible. Krien runs Pomegranate SEEDS (Self Esteem, Empowerment, and Education Through Dance), an after-school program in Santa Fe, New Mexico that offers belly dancing classes for teenage girls as well as financial literacy focus groups, sexuality and media awareness. “I train them with dancing. It’s my hook, “Krien jokes,” But once I get them they find out that what really makes a person beautiful is when they express themselves in a way that reveals who they really are. ”

As the Habibi Festival in Havana drew to a close and the panel discussion wrapped up, the same women who danced in circles on the first day of the festival took to the mike one by one to share their perceptions and experiences. Many told stories of mobilizing energy, resources and courage to temporarily put work, husbands and family on hold to participate in the festival. A woman cried, saying that originally she felt like she couldn’t dance due to weight and health issues, but ultimately the dancing brought her closer to ‘herself.

Many participants expressed their surprise and joy at having discovered this form of dance on the other side of the globe transported to them via an intrepid Cuban-American from Miami. “I was very shy,” says 19-year-old Yoralis Vicente Chaviano, “and thanks to Arabic dancing, I learned that when I dance, I can open up and give more beyond who I am. I dance and I feel like I am floating.

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