It is half past five in the afternoon on a Friday in February 2020, just before the madness that has been this year and a half of confinement begins. It is my first and only time in “El Árabe”, as everyone calls it, although it is actually the headquarters of the Arab Union of Cuba. Excessive punctuality makes me spend part of the wait sitting on the iconic Paseo del Prado, in the shade of the laurel trees and contemplating the people who, little by little, begin to gather in the portal. He had heard about the place among several acquaintances, friends who showed off their dancing skills at parties, admired by the grace of the latest pirouettes learned in the casino clubs that take place there on Fridays and Sundays. However, and I still wonder why, I had never crossed that threshold.
I have to mark for 10 people, and the picket that arrives after me throws the number to bonche. People come here in groups after leaving their workplaces, others who meet by appointment or by chance. People also come alone, of all ages, that is one of the virtues of the place. In front of me in the queue, for example, there is a woman between 50 and 60 years old, short hair, jeans and tennis shoes. He doesn't wait for anyone in particular, he just wants to go upstairs and spend the night dancing. I feel a bit of desire, I confess, to reach that age and be able to continue enjoying places like this.
When you enter “El Árabe” the marble stairs lead you to the Jerusalem room, spacious, air-conditioned, with balconies that overlook the Prado. The tables are on the sides and in the center a large dance floor welcomes regular and occasional visitors, little by little and without distinction. The “punched out” music by Madrazo DJ makes people warm up and get up from the chairs that they will probably never see again (unless they run into someone who takes the air out of them and have to take “a 10 ”).
A night here is like a game, or like sex: there is a warm-up time, one of intensity and debauchery that precedes the climax, which finally ends with exhaustion and the happiness of having enjoyed it to the fullest. The first topics allow you to exchange words (or glances); inspect everything around while familiarizing myself with the environment. Those who know the dynamics best take the opportunity to catch up with members they haven't seen for a week. They also rejoice watching the place that has become grow — for months, even years— at his house on Fridays.
After a few songs, the cold of the first half hour gives way to the heat of the dancing bodies, sweat and heavy breathing. The music accompanies this staggered dramaturgy: the first songs are “slower”, traditional salsa, from the well-known group. People keep arriving, I go and order a beer, and another, while I watch the corridors of the dancers, how they move their feet, how they cross their arms, in front, behind, around backs and waists.
Everyone has their style, their favorite turns, their cadence. Always with courtesy, some ask others to dance. One of the things that impresses me the most is that people are not in the shark (harassment, direct or underhanded) or, at least, not like in other places. Here gallantry serves to comfortably accept anyone's invitation. After a couple of hours it's the kizomba's turn and one of my best friends grabs me and we start dancing. I try, very basically, to keep up with him and move my hips from side to side; but what's up!, although I delight in the dancers in the video that is running on the screen at that moment, that's not my thing. I keep the one, two, three that I learned in high school and was my ally in recreation nights in pre-university.
The main entertainer takes the microphone and begins to ask about the birthdays and anniversaries of the day; people also go there to celebrate them. To the shouts of "here!, me!, us!", the conga of congratulations sounds and I can't see anyone sitting down. The chairs are pure props, decoration, or support for handbags and jackets that will only warm their owners again when they go out to the Prado at night, because the steam exhaled by all the bodies makes the heat unbearable at this point.
The casino dance is back, I feel like a fish in water again. Los Van Van, Havana D'Primera, Adalberto Álvarez and his Son, El Niño and La Verdad, Maykel Blanco and his Salsa Mayor are heard. A circle is made, and people look for a partner to enter. It becomes bigger, bigger, immense, like those that didn't fit in the training plaza of the Lenin. As it is the dynamics of the wheels, there you dance with everyone. Give me!, give me two!, two with two!, seventy!, get complicated!, boot!
A boy comes and takes me to the track. He is one of the regulars, he dances which is wonderful. I, who am a bit shy, manage to keep up with him and enjoy the grace and courtesy with which he moves. At the end of the song, she thanks me and takes out another of my friends. Life takes turns that neither one imagines. In November of that year we met due to other circumstances, and I said to myself: “I know that little boy from somewhere”. Some time later he became my boyfriend, and I realized that he was the boy from “El Árabe”. So today I have the best dance partner, who enjoys every song, who has a repertoire of videos, photos and memories of every Friday for the last five years.
But let's go back to the count of that night because the Chinese who is in front of me at that moment, with his shorts and his wide shirt, has a few couples under his belt. Suda that is barbaric. It doesn't stop, it seems that they have wound it up. Other girls, presumably European, break stereotypes and dance in the center of the floor.
In this peña, an iconic place for dancers, if I had to miss something it would be the lack of live musicians. Of course, this would increase the cost of entry (30 pesos in national currency until it closed in March of last year) and it would no longer be the affordable place that it is for the city's dancers. Its atmosphere does not resemble that of the Salón Rosado or that of the Casa de la Música. Here everything is peaceful, calm, courteous, despite the intensity and rising temperature during the night.
It is almost 10 pm on a day in 2020; I am destroyed, but radiant. I want to continue dancing, but in a few minutes everything ends. We said goodbye and went down those stairs without anticipating that it would be the last place we would go before the city closed.
Juan Carlos, my boyfriend, tells me that, from 2015 to 2020, Fridays at "El Árabe" became "dance therapy." Leaving work, arriving at Prado, talking to the partners, greeting the doormen and going upstairs to give everything for four hours, has been the routine. Thus, invariably, they built almost a family. The most assiduous people have a beautiful sense of belonging to the place, which makes them remember with longing what they lived through and yearn for the reopening of the place in order to be whole again. This year and a half away has been nothing short of an ordeal, and although we dance at gatherings of friends and parties of a very small magnitude, he assures me that it is not the same.
It's early, but the trip home is long and I still have to get to Parque de la Fraternidad to hunt down a P-15. People leave there and continue the party, captivated by the four hours of enjoyment between dancing and alcohol. Possible destinations can be the Malecón —that urban sofa that few can live without; the sure end of almost any outing in Havana—, to the Industria 8 bar-restaurant, or the portal of the Hotel Inglaterra, where they tell me that one of the nights there was a wheel so big that it reached the street.
There are not a few friends who assure that the nights of "El Árabe" have something peculiar, a magic that distinguishes them from similar projects or spaces in the city. Like a kind of brotherhood, it adds followers who anxiously wait, almost on the verge of desperation, to be able to resume the Friday routine. Hopefully this pandemic will not last too long and above all, that the blue Prado building whose stairs lead, inevitably, to happiness will soon open its doors.
Place: Arab Union of Cuba, "El Arab"
Address: Prado # 256, 258, 260 between Animas and Trocadero, Old Havana
Telephone: (+53) 7861 4575
Management model: state
Entrance price: 30.00 CUP for nationals and 125 CUP for foreigners (pre-pandemic prices)
Regular hours: 6:00-11:00 pm