Episode 5: Mixing it Up with Rueda

I couldn’t leave Cuba without an adventure in rueda! The first time I ever danced in a rueda was in Havana many years ago – and it came as a complete surprise. At the time, I had no idea this whirling, exhilarating, joyful formation existed!

On this trip, I joined an advanced group of dancers and we performed for the crowd at Mil Ocho (the site of my big challenge in Episode 3). This experience was ALL about laughter, fun and NO pressure!

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There are six episodes total – come with me on this journey! Join the conversation on Facebook AND subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Episode 4: The Seduction of Rumba

A dance journey in Cuba is not complete without an exploration of RUMBA! This Afro-Cuban dance is rhythmic and complex, and actually has three distinct styles.

Episode 4 of Follow My Lead: Havana focuses on the sensual, flirtatious and bold “guaguancó” style.

I wanted to learn it because:

1)  If you really want to dance salsa with the best in Cuba – you HAVE to know guaguancó. Many salsa songs mix in rumba rhythms and very often leaders like to add it to their partner dancing in various ways. If your partner starts doing guaguancó, you can’t just continue with salsa steps. (Well, not if you want to be any good.)

2) As much as I’m passionate about mastering salsa dancing in Cuba in all its forms, it’s equally important to me that I gain more knowledge and appreciation of the powerful influence of the island’s African roots on its dance and music culture. Rumba is an essential part of that educational pursuit.

I’m at the beginning of my journey studying rumba. And as you’ll see in the episode, it was quite complicated for me for many reasons! But I hope to give you a sense of my learning experience in order to spark YOUR curiosity and passion to learn more 🙂

(Can’t see the images or video? Click here to watch it on YouTube)


There are six episodes total – come with me on this journey! Join the conversation on Facebook AND subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Where and When to Go Salsa Dancing in Havana

I’ve just completed a year spent studying dance in Cuba, and one of the most important parts of my learning process was going out salsa dancing in Havana. You can’t learn everything in the studio. You have to get out and practice!

However, it’s not that easy to figure out the scene when you first get there. There is rarely any advertising. Website information (if there is any) is not reliable. If you only have a week or two for your dance journey, you could easily miss out.

No worries – I’m here to help!

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This is the general schedule that I followed to hit up the most popular and well-known salsa spots on the right nights. (Keep in mind that ANYTHING can change suddenly, but these were my standbys for a year.) I’ve included the name of the venue, whether there is a DJ or live music, the neighborhood, and the cover charge. Most venues get going between 10 and 11 pm.

  • Monday: Hotel Florida (DJ), Vieja – 5 cuc, includes one drink
  • Tuesday: Mil Ocho (DJ) or Cafe Cantante (live band), both in Vedado – 5 cuc, 10 cuc respectively
  • Wednesday: La Gruta (DJ), Vedado – 3 cuc
  • Thursday: Hotel Capri (live band) or Mil Ocho, Vedado – 8 cuc, 5 cuc respectively
  • Friday: Hotel Florida (DJ), Vieja – 5 cuc, includes one drink
  • Saturday: up for grabs
  • Sunday: Mil Ocho (live band), Vedado – 5 cuc
  • Any night: Asturias (DJ) after hours for salsa/reggaeton, Vieja – 5 cuc Mon-Thurs includes two drinks, 10 cuc Sat-Sun includes four drinks

I would definitely recommend mixing it up with some live salsa concerts as well. Check out the schedules at the following venues each week. Note that it’s best to call the day of to confirm.

  • Casa de la Musica (Miramar) – this legendary location offers matinee and evening shows every day. When they’re not on tour, beloved acts like Maykel Blanco and Havana d’ Primera play every Monday and Tuesday – these are don’t-miss shows for sure!
  • Habana Cafe
  • Salon Rojo at Hotel Capri
  • Mil Ocho (Fridays and Saturdays)
  • Salón Rosado de la Tropical Benny Moré
  • Don Cangrejo

You can find the exact addresses in your offline map or in your guidebook, and you can also ask your casa duena, the concierge at a hotel, or taxi drivers – these are all well-known spots that people can direct you to easily.

New events are always popping up, so the longer you stay, the more you’ll hear about – but definitely be pro-active and ask your salsa teachers and other dancers for the latest news! Rest assured, if you’re only in Havana for a week to dance, you can follow this schedule and you will have a blast.


If you’re still in the dreaming and planning stages for your trip, check out my other posts on (travel tips) + (salsa dancing essentials).

Questions? Let me know in the comments! Or hit me up on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at @melissadances

And check out the Follow My Lead: Havana web series! Travel with me through the world of dance, starting with Havana, Cuba! The streets are alive with music and dance, and I’ve got some big goals while I’m here. This is a dream come true and the challenge of a lifetime!

Photo credit: Melissa Mansfield

My First Salsa Performance! Lessons Learned + Video

The women of Hot Timba: Mellissa (l), me, and Tola (r)

In February, I did something I’ve never done before! It took three months of rehearsals and was over in 3 1/2 minutes. Even though I was really nervous leading up to it, when the time came, it was so much FUN and the crowd seemed to really love it. Also, I didn’t fall on my face in my 3″ heels …. victory!

It was my FIRST salsa performance!

Here are a few things I learned leading up to it:

  • I can’t control everything and it’s OK if it’s not perfect. In the last few weeks before our performance, I was getting really nervous. After months of practice, we had finally finished the choreography, but we were a long way from having it nailed down. I wanted to try to use my project management and strategy skills to organize the process so I would feel more secure about our progress, but that was a level of control I didn’t have. It wasn’t my group, it was my teacher’s. I finally let go of my perfectionist expectations and realized that I was just going to do the best I could do and it would be what it would be.
  • In my longing to be a better dancer, I sometimes forget how far I’ve come. As I dealt with my nerves about the performance, I realized I was focusing a lot on the negative: what we hadn’t learned yet, what we hadn’t perfected, where I thought we’d fall short during the performance. But I made a mental shift to look at what we had accomplished and I realized there was a lot. We were learning all new choreography, some of which was pretty complicated. We had come a long way from our first rehearsal together and so much of our dancing was looking really tight.
  • The men of Hot Timba: Hebert, Miguel and James

    The process is exhausting and also fun and inspiring. Due to our conflicting work schedules, we practiced 2-3 times per week for months, from about 9:30-11:30 pm. Before we started, I had been practicing for another performance and caught a cold. Once salsa rehearsals picked up speed, the cold kept coming back to haunt me – it was very difficult to fully heal with our late-night practices and a demanding full-time job. But once I was in rehearsal, if I could shut out the outside world, there was no other place I’d rather be. I loved everyone in my group – we got along great and all shared a sense of fun and humor while being conscientious about doing our best. I feel like we really bonded and I truly miss seeing them every week.

  • I need to perform more so it will scare me a little bit less each time. Did I mention I was nervous about this performance? I was REALLY nervous. I think performing in an official salsa festival put more pressure on me because I felt that I had a bigger obligation to deliver something terrific for the organizers, teachers and students. I know that if I perform more often, those nerves will be less nauseating.
  • I’m inspired to organize my own performance. I think I have a pretty even split of creativity and strategic/organizational thinking. I’d like to put my theory to the test – that I could choreograph and collaborate in a creative way, while also being organized and goal-oriented so that the process of preparing for a performance isn’t so chaotic and stressful.

All in all, it was an amazing experience. When we performed, the energy of the crowd was fantastic and I had my husband and a few close friends in the audience who encouraged and inspired me so much. Once I walked onto the floor, I just went into performer mode – I felt confident, I stayed calm, and I just focused on having fun with the crowd. It was a blast!

So, here it is, Hot Timba’s performance at the 2015 Salsa Rueda Festival with the amazing Miguel A Vazquez (our teacher and choreographer), Tola Williams, James Wiester, Hebert Aguilar and Mellissa Katarina! I’m very proud of what we accomplished together. (Special shout out to Diana Manning, a fellow dancer who helped us with almost all of our rehearsals while she recovered from an injury, and recorded this video!)

(E-mail subscribers – please click above on the title of this post to view the video.)