Episode 2: The Joy and Pain of Salsa in Havana

Salsa dancing in Havana is a dream come true – and a big challenge if you want to keep up with the sexiest salsa dancers in the world – Cubanos!

Join me as I navigate the ups and downs of improving my salsa styling and my following skills – in the classroom and at the hottest dance spots in Havana.

(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.

Dreams Don’t Have Deadlines

Follow My Lead dreams don't have deadlines

For years I dreamed of studying dance in Cuba.

And not just on vacation. But really settling in and IMMERSING myself.

It was a lot harder than I thought it would be – physically and emotionally.

But I gave myself the gift of living this dream. Not because I’m 25 and “this is the time to do it”. But because I’m NOT 25 anymore and THIS is the time to do it!

I didn’t want to wait anymore. I didn’t want to do what I thought I “should” do.

I wanted to do what I desired more than anything in the world.


And now I’m sharing my experience with you – in the hopes that it will inspire you to follow your own sense of adventure, wherever it may take you and no matter where you are in your life (and it looks different for all of us!)

Join me on this journey: Episode 1 of the Follow My Lead: Havana web series is live on Facebook (/melissadances).

AND you can subscribe to my YouTube channel (/FollowMyLeadTV).


IT’S HERE! * Episode 1 of Follow My Lead: Havana *

Follow My Lead: Havana is HERE!

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!

View it right here or click this link to watch it on YouTube.


Hurricane in Havana: Recovery (Part 3)

It’s been over a week since the storm hit, and as with most natural disasters, recovery is happening, but in fits and starts.

We wound up being without electricity from Saturday afternoon to Monday early evening. At that point, our fridge was a hot box and we were running out of fresh food. On Sunday afternoon, we lost water. That came back with the electricity Monday night, once the pump had power again.

In Vedada - a huge tree was plucked up during the storm, concrete and all, and crashed into the nearby house. Luckily it looked like the building wasn't damaged and no one was hurt.

In Vedado – a huge tree was plucked up during the storm, concrete and all, and crashed into the nearby house. Luckily it looked like the building wasn’t damaged and no one was hurt.

On Sunday and Monday, I went to Hotel Habana Libre, about a 5-minute walk away to see if they had power, so I could charge my phones and laptop. They did! And a hundred other people had the same idea. It was challenging finding a spot to plug in and I noticed that people had brought in power strips to make the most out of each outlet. I tried that approach the next day – it was much less stressful and it felt good to help other people out.

The cool thing about Habana Libre was despite feeling dirty and sweaty and gross and having no idea when life would return to normal, everyone else was in the same boat, and I had some really good conversations – with three Venezuelan doctors who were returning to their country after two years working here, with a Cuban ex-model who lives in Houston now, and with a Peruvian-Italian artist/singer/songwriter who has been traveling to Havana to record his second album. This helped pass the time and I got to practice my Spanish a lot!

Every day that I go out, more things seem to be returning to normal. The hotels aren’t packed with desperate tourists and Cubans charging their cellphones. Stores and cafes are re-opening. More and more people are getting their power restored (although some friends have been without it for close to a week now). Fallen trees are slowly but surely getting sawed and collected.

A popular restaurant in my neighborhood – Biky's – gets its sign rehung a few days after Irma.

A popular restaurant in my neighborhood – Biky’s – gets its sign rehung a few days after Irma.

As far as dancing goes? That’s the big question right now. I was heartbroken to hear that Mil Ocho, one of the most iconic salsa dancing venues in Havana, was destroyed. It was located right at the end of the Malecón in Vedado. I plan to visit to see the damage for myself, but haven’t been able to get there yet.

I’m hopeful that this coming week, the rest of the popular spots will have power and the resources necessary to re-open. Until then, I’m just happy and grateful that I’m safe, and have working utilities and food.


Hurricane Irma in Havana (Part 1)

Hurricane in Havana Part 2: Irma & the Aftermath

Hurricane in Havana Part 2: Irma & the Aftermath

By Saturday afternoon, I was feeling as prepared as I could get. At that point I knew from messages from home and asking around that Irma was likely to skirt Havana after hitting regions of Cuba east of us and along the north coast. I knew we wouldn’t get a direct hit, but we would still feel the impact.

At dusk, the winds were getting strong and the rains came in, and we had already lost electricity. I was a little nervous keeping my windows open but I really needed the airflow without air conditioning or fans. I knew once I went to bed, I’d have to close everything, but I wanted air for as long as possible.

I was exhausted from the day so I got a cold shower in, ate my pizza, and retreated to my room. People were still walking around in the streets in the early evening, which I was really surprised by. The winds were strong enough that I would have been scared of getting hit by some kind of flying debris.

I let Jason Statham calm my nerves in his role as an assassin in the Mechanic (I know, that’s his role in every movie), and then watched one of the worst 80s-homages I have ever seen – Rock of Ages.

Then I shut the windows, grabbed my eyemask and earplugs, took some melatonin and settled in on top of my sheets, ready for a hot, uncomfortable, possibly frightening, and sleeples night.

I managed to sleep solidly for most of the night! I didn’t even hear the storm. The only thing I did hear was the vague din of a party in the neighborhood. They sounded drunk and I swore I heard chanting. The sounds started getting incorporated into my dreams. It was a little surreal.

The winds from Hurricane Irma were strong enough to take down many large trees, like this one in Centro Habana.

The winds from Hurricane Irma were strong enough to take down many large trees, like this one in Centro Habana.

The next day we still had gas and water, but no electricity. I ventured out to assess the damage. There were trees down, and branches and debris in the streets of my neighborhood. And I was shocked – the panaderia was open and they had bread! (I ran back to my place for a bag and some money and bought my pan suave! Happy day.) Then I wandered towards the Malecon.

I walked down Calle O, then back to Infanta, then crossed over to Hotel Nacional. Each spot had a different vantage point of the Malecon completely flooded as well as one to two blocks inland. It was an incredible sight.

Huge, mesmerizing waves were still crashing against the sea walls and flowing into the street. People were swimming in the water! It seemed like extremely dirty and dangerous water to play in, but they didn’t appear to care. And of course many didn’t have a choice but to move through the water – their first floor apartments were submerged.

Crowds gathered to watch the waves as they continued to cascade from the flooded Malecón.

Crowds gathered to watch the waves as they continued to cascade from the flooded Malecón.

The famous Hotel Nacional was open - inside - but the grounds were a mess from the storm. They offered a good view of the Malecón though.

The famous Hotel Nacional was open to guests and visitors – at least indoors – the grounds were a mess from the storm. I managed to sneak out to get a good look at the Malecón though. You can see the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista on the far left, which of course, is right in front of the American Embassy.

We had survived the worst of the storm itself, but we didn’t know what was next – when would things get back to normal?

Blocked access to the flooded Malecón.

Blocked access to the flooded Malecón.

Previously: Part 1: Preparing for Hurricane Irma

Next: Recovery

Hurricane Irma in Havana (Part 1)

I was first alerted to Hurricane Irma heading for Havana by my mom. Without a TV and constant online access, I hadn’t heard a thing. After she called me, I went online to download some articles and I started asking around.

Over the course of the next few days, I realized how serious the storm was – a Category 5 is no joke – and I started to get prepared.

Cubans didn’t seem too worried. I casually asked everyone – the concierge at Hotel Habana Libre, the cutie at the counter of my favorite ice cream shop, the shelf stocker at the grocery store, my friends out dancing, and my dance teachers – are you prepared? What do you think will happen? Most seemed generally unconcerned (they’ve been through hurricane seasons every year on this tropical island of course), even by a Category 5, but they agreed it was smart to stock up on water and food.

Two days before Irma, the view from my living room. I never would have guessed a hurricane was on its way.

Two days before Irma, the view from my living room. I never would have guessed a hurricane was on its way.

It was clear when I went out shopping that Cubans were definitely getting prepared, despite the unruffled reactions I got. Lines were abnormally long at grocery stores, panaderías (bakeries), and gas stations.

I was very relieved to learn that the Cuban government is known for being excellent at hurricane preparedness. This surprised me and reassured me. My experiences with Cuban bureacracy range from being…ahem…fairly inefficient and inconvenient to “I want to gauge my eyes out”. I was impressed that when it comes to down to life or death, they’ve got their sh** together.

One day before Irma, the clouds started getting more dramatic hitting at what was to come.

One day before Irma, the clouds started getting more dramatic, hinting at what was to come.

So for about four days leading up to the ETA of Irma on Saturday night, I ran around the city getting prepped, while still trying to go about my normal business – dance classes and rehearsal, a doctor’s appointment, even going out dancing at Hotel Florida the night before.

I wanted to make sure I had basic supplies if we lost electricity, gas and/or water – all of which seemed likely.

This proved, unsurprisingly, to be completely exhausting. First of all, it’s HOT. It’s always so damn HOT here! So “running around” means walking through the city in the blazing sun and taking shared taxis with very little air flow, and usually not finding what you need easily.

I tried to go to Epoca, a big supermarket/mall-type store in Centro Habana on Galiano. The lines were CRAZY. And besides a big bottle of water and some juice boxes, there was really nothing to help this vegetarian survive. Typical offerings: one aisle of just vinegar, one aisle of just canned sausages, one aisle of “refresco” (soda), one aisle of ridiculously expensive jam. I gave up and decided to try my luck somewhere else.

I finally found a store in Habana Vieja that had water (yes!! I was really worried about that) and some good staples – e.g. canned tomatoes, reasonably priced jam, juice. As is typical in many stores in Cuba, there are separate counters with these offerings so you have to wait on two to three different lines to get what you want. It is…frustrating. So, I waited 20 minutes on one line for my water and juice. And then 20 on another for cooking staples. In the end, I was relieved though – it didn’t take THAT long and I felt prepared.

An unusually long line at my local bakery.

Hours before the storm, hardly any cars on the streets and an unusually long line at my local bakery.

I also went to the market to get fruits and vegetables that I thought would last without cooking or refrigeration – avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers. And I had big plans to pre-cook a bunch of other stuff the day the storm was coming. That didn’t happen. I bought a pizza instead.

Luckily, I currently have two housemates so we were able to join forces in prepping. The biggest priority was water: boiling liters and liters of water, filtering it (there’s a lot of sediment in the tap water here), and refrigerating it. We also had some water for bathing and washing. And luckily for me, they cooked up some rice and beans.

On Saturday afternoon (the storm was supposed to hit that night), I made my way to the Meliá Cohiba, a huge hotel on the Malecón (the iconic 8 km stretch of roadway along the coast of Havana), in the hopes of picking up a prescription at the international pharmcy across the street. That turned out to be a pointless trip because, of course, the pharmacy was closed! It was right on the Malecón, the street was blocked off and the winds were already really, really strong. Like, you can barely walk strong.

I headed back to Centro to go to my favorite media store – where you can buy all sorts of TV shows and movies for about 50 cents each. I had already started charging up my phones and other devices. I figured if I was going to be trapped in the dark for a while, I’d run down my laptop battery entertaining myself. I felt very proud of myself for being so smart to think ahead like this!

Then I went to the neighborhood panadería to get some bread (soft rolls called “pan suave” that I love and are only one peso each). Apparently EVERYONE else in Havana had the same idea, go figure. There was no way I was waiting on that line. I felt very disappointed in myself for not thinking ahead!

In the face of Hurricane Irma, I had Wonder Woman dubbed in Spanish and Season 3 of Orphan Black – but no bread.

I gave up on getting bread after seeing this line at my bakery.

I gave up on getting bread after seeing this line at my bakery.

And, with that, I was done. There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to shop. It was time to go home and hunker down. And the power was already out.

Part 2 – Irma & the Aftermath
Part 3 – Recovery

Travel Tips for Americans Who Want to Visit Cuba

Now that I’m living in Havana studying dance, I’m getting A LOT of questions from Americans who want to travel here. I’ve put together some advice that I think will help you if you’re considering a visit to Cuba.San Ignacio

First steps:

1. Do your research before: 1) booking your trip and 2) asking friends who live in Havana for advice. There is a LOT to do here – think of it like New York or London. Buy a guidebook (I just discovered that Amazon Prime members can download Lonely Planet guidebooks for free) and read online articles and forums to get a sense of the possibilities.

Think about what you like to do – wander through museums, relax with drinks and listen to live music, go dancing and hit the best nightspots, explore beautiful natural settings, study music, dance or Spanish, go to the beach? You can do all of this from Havana, so if you only have a week, figure out your priorities for the time you have.

2. AMERICANS CANNOT ACCESS MONEY IN CUBA. That means no credit cards, no debit cards, no traveler’s cheques. You must bring the money you will need in cash. Most Americans either bring USD (but be prepared to get charged 10% when exchanging) or Euros (no 10% fee, but you lose money when you change from US to Euros in the US). For a short trip, I’d recommend USD. You’ll be exchanging for one of the Cuban currencies, called CUCs.

3. Prepare to be off the grid. You will likely not find up-to-date information on many websites anyway – it’s better to ask around or call to get current info – and wifi is only available in hotspots. Hotspots are located in parks and plazas throughout the city, and inside and outside many hotels. Parque Central is a good place to go online – either in the park or in one of the surrounding hotels. Once you get to Havana, you’ll need to buy a wifi card. Your best bet will be to go to the Etecsa office early on Obsispo for the best price (the hotels sell them for 3x as much) – 1.50cuc/hour – and wait on line.

4. There are two main requirements for traveling to Cuba that people often get confused about. Cuba requires that you purchase a 30-day tourist visa. Most airlines offer you the option to buy this at a kiosk at the airport where you’re flying out – you’ll need to check with your airline. From the US, it costs between $75-100. The other requirement is from the US side and has nothing to do with Cuban policy – it is to identify which category of licensed travel you fit under. In starting to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama opened up these categories to individuals – so you can state which category you fit into, without going through a ton of paperwork to get a license. Most US tourists are now using the educational category (also known as “people-to-people”) – you select this when you buy your flight. **

** I will update this post or publish a new post once Trump announces the revised US-Cuba travel policies this Friday, as I expect regulations will be tightened for individual travel.

Parque Central from Hotel Rooftop

Some ideas for your time in Havana:

Once you’ve researched and prepared yourself a bit for a trip to Cuba, start asking more specific questions based on what you’d like to do. Here’s what I recommend in Havana when friends ask me for general advice (not dance-related – that’s another post):

  • Splurge on a classic car tour – 35-40 CUC per car – you get a tour of the city in a convertible, hitting some of the most famous spots. Yes, it’s touristy and a bit cheesy, but it’s a great way to get a visual tour of the city. So bust out that selfie stick and have fun.
  • Spend some time on the Malecón – take a walk in the early morning or around sunset when it’s cooler. If you’re feeling social, buy a bottle of rum and refresco (soda) and find a spot to hang out at night (try where Galiano or 23rd intersect at Malecón) and be ready to make friends.
  • Give yourself time to wander Habana Vieja to take pictures, stop for a mojito or limonada, and catch some live music in the afternoons or evenings. Obispo or Plaza Vieja are good spots to start from.
  • Pick one or two museums that sound the most interesting to you, and definitely go to Plaza de la Revolucion.
  • I’m the worst at buying souvenirs for friends and family on my trips; I’m lucky they keep me around. If you’re better at that type of thoughtful stuff, you’ll like San Jose artisan market as a one-stop shop. Don’t get excited about it as a cultural spot though – just buy your T-shirts, claves and bottles of rum and get on with your life.
  • The terraza on the rooftop of Hotel Inglaterra has horrible mojitos, but a great ambiance, lovely view and live music.
  • You can also easily do a day trip to nearby beaches or spend a day or two in Vinales or Trinidad. Both are interesting and beautiful, which is why they’re so popular with tourists.

Quick Tips:

  • Buy combination luggage locks for all bags – especially anything that will be checked. If it is not locked, expect to have a much lighter bag when you pick it up at baggage claim.
  • Keep your money on you in all transportation – airports, taxis, buses, etc. Lock it up in your suitcase in you’re room when you’re out.
  • Take a picture of your passport. You’ll need it for buying wifi cards and exchanging money.
  • Speaking of changing money, banks give slightly better rates, but are slower. Cadecas are generally quicker.
  • Download an offline map before you get here – I like “Map of Cuba offline”.
  • You can’t drink the tap water, but you can brush your teeth with it. For a short trip, you can buy bottled water. I have a Lifestraw water bottle with a filter that I use with tap water, and haven’t had any problems.
  • Stay in a casa particular – you can find them on sites like Airbnb – either renting a room in an apartment or house, or renting your own apartment.
  • You will usually have a phone in your casa that you can make local calls from, just ask the landlord.
  • Bring comfortable shoes. Havana is a very walkable city, so you’ll likely walk a lot. You can wear heels, but stick with wedges over stilettos. The streets and sidewalks are not even, and I don’t want you to break an ankle.
  • Bring a fan. It’s hot here. Really. Hot. Here. (Cubans and foreigners use umbrellas as shade from the sun – that’s an option too.)
  • When you get on line for anything – changing money, for example – ask, “who is the last?” by saying “Quien es el ultimo?”. Remember that person. People do not queue up in perfect formation here, so you need to remember where you are in line and let the next person know you’re last when they ask.
  • This should go without saying, but: learn the Spanish words for hello, how are you, please, thank you, bathroom, the check, water, and the United States (people will ask where you’re from) – and use them as appropriate with all of the Cubans you meet.

Of course, there is much more to share about enjoying Havana, but this should get you started! More information to come in future posts…stay tuned…and feel free to comment or ask questions below.