Sunday 13 June 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

How old was I at the time? Maybe sixteen or seventeen. Although, taking into account that the event happened during my final year in college (year 12), I was probably seventeen. The age is irrelevant, however, because what has lingered in my mind for the two decades since is my memory of that night.

The Grand Theatre of Havana is an impressive building. Architecturally speaking, it's probably one of my favourite constructions in my hometown. But I don't recall having set a foot inside it before my teens. What led me to it on that occasion?

A ballet show.

Up until then this art form had eluded me. In fact, despite having performed in primary school when I was a child (dance, theatre, poetry, singing), dance was not a genre with which I wanted to get acquainted in my early to mid teens. There were many reasons for that, but one of them stands out the most when I look back on those years: it was the fear of being thought a 'softie' (although others would probably use a stronger and more offensive term like 'poof', not a word that, luckily, graces my vocabulary). Yes, I read, but that was a pleasure in which I engaged in private. My piano years were well behind me by then and theatre was not still the attractive option that became in later years. Cinema was my other leisure activity but that was mainly action flicks and the odd art-house movie (which, by the way, I rarely talked about in public).

But in 198_? I made my way to one of the oldest, colonial buildings in Havana to enjoy a performance by none other than Loipa Araújo, who at the time, was prima ballerina of the Cuban National Ballet Company. Of course, I didn't know who she was. The inspiration to go to see her came from one of the programmes on which I was very keen in those years: 'De la Gran Escena' (loosely translated as 'Grand Stage'). A clip of a performance of the 'Swan Lake' awakened my curiosity. And so I made my way to the Gran Teatro de la Habana.

I remember arriving at the theatre on my own and checking all around me to make sure that there was no one who could recognise me. I don't recall the clothes I was wearing, but compared with the other spectators, who were dressed to the nines, I probably came across quite scruffy. What I do remember clearly was the reaction from my fellow attendees.

I bought a ticket for the orchestra seating section (although the piece was performed to recorded music) and the minute I came into the well-lit auditorium all eyes fixed on me. No, I wasn't being paranoid. People were staring at me. And their gazes seemed to say: You don't belong here. I took my seat and slid down on it, until my shoulder blades touched the lower back of it.

At this point you're probably wondering why I'm writing about such a personal experience on a public platform. The reason is that I recently read an excellent article by the artist Grayson Perry (I used to have a quote by him on my blog: The best view is from the mountain you've climbed) about the same feeling that overcame me that night: that of not belonging. Not belonging to a particular setting, not belonging to a particular group, not belonging to a particular class. Not belonging. You can read Perry's column here. In my case it was also not belonging to a particular race.

In order to understand why the audience reacted so strongly to my presence at that theatre that night I have to provide you, my fellow bloggers and followers with a few details of Cuban society circa the mid-to-late 80s when I was an adolescent.

Like in any other country around the world, there were tribes in Cuba, more specifically amongst the Cuban youth. And without being too dense or deep about it there were many reasons for their existence, government policy being one of them. I could say, at the risk of being corrected by a fellow countryman or woman, that there were four distinct tribes in the Havana of 1988-9: the pepillos (mainly into pop music, think of the New Romantics in terms of look, but please, please, bear in mind the big differences between the UK post-punk Spandau Ballet-devotees and Cuban Miami Sound Machine-enthusiasts ), the guapos (literally 'tough guys', mainly into salsa [or casino as we call it], funk, disco and Michael Jackson), the friquis or friqui-friquis (rockers, with their own subdivisions: punks, heavy metal fans) and trovas (the name comes from Nueva Trova, or New Song Movement). Except for the 'guapos', I alternated between the other three groups. Those who were into ballet, jazz and any other art form were a tribe apart.

And that was the main reason why I was given such an unwelcome reception at the Grand Theatre of Havana that night. I had trespassed, strayed into a land that was off-limits to the likes of me, a young, black, scruffy lad from a rough part of town. I was a persona non grata. As Grayson says in his article (à propos de the film 'Precious') in relation to his upbringing 'I felt echoes of a sentiment perhaps never even voiced in my family of origin but which I have inherited. The message said: "Not for the likes of us."'

Not for the likes of us. How many of you have had the same feeling? Especially as some of you, readers and fellow bloggers, are also writers and artists in your own right and it is that world on which Grayson focuses in his column. In my case, unlike Perry, I did have a cultured background. My dad, a professional pianist, always instilled in me the urge to go and find out, ask questions, visit galleries, listen to music, see plays. My mum, on the other hand, taught me how to read and write in a hospital bed when I was five. And yet, when I made my way into that theatre that night, and all eyes were on me, I felt like a charlatan. Who did I think I was, coming to see the great Loipa?

You're probably thinking that a situation like mine in a country like Cuba, with its reputation for fairness and egalitarianism, was a one-off. To which my reply is: It was anything but. It's true that after Alicia Alonso was given the green light by Fidel Castro and co. to carry on expanding and developing Cuba's National Ballet Company, access became less of a problem for people who wouldn't so much get a look-in years before, namely, blacks and the great unwashed. The effect, nevertheless, was similar to papering the cracks of a big, marble tower. What the Cuban government did not solve and has never been able to sort out is the deep-seated racial and class divisions that preceded Fidel and his bevy of merry, bearded men. The mother who hides the expensive crockery when her daughter's black boyfriend comes to visit. The Communist Party member whose arm is around the older, sun-kissed, humble farmer but who shuns him the minute the cameras are switched off. The university lecturer who favours and gives higher grades to those students from wealthier backgrounds. Likewise, audiences at ballet shows remained pretty much the same in the intervening decades (and the few black faces in the public that night belonged mainly to gay men who were wondering, too, what I was doing there) until the 90s when the economic crisis forced the closures of many nightclubs and cabarets in Havana, driving their regulars to other spots where they could find their much sought-after entertainment, for example, ballet shows.

To my credit, I didn't pack it in that night and carried on attending the Cuban National Ballet Company's seasons after that initial traumatic evening. However, it was a few years before I got rid of what Perry calls in his article 'impostor syndrome'. It's strange and ironic, too, that when I began my own dancing career with the Havana University Folkloric Ensemble in the mid 90s, the friends and acquaintances I had by then made in the ballet world turned their noses up at my choice of genre: too black, too primitive, too... uncouth. There were a few exceptions, for instance, Lorna Feijóo, a very versatile and nimble ballet dancer, with whom I discussed Afro-Cuban dance and who happened to be a student of mine when I used to teach English.

Perry also writes about the dichotomy that affects those of us who come from working-class backgrounds (although even that word, 'working class' is debatable in some contexts) once we get over our first-hand experience of social snobbery. Some go on to become socials snobs themselves, whilst others are caught in the middle of an uncomfortable axis: you feel like an exotic rara avis amongst the posh, whilst not being totally at ease with hoi polloi.

At almost forty now, I feel comfortable with who I am but I can't stop thinking of those kids I run into (for instance my son's friends) and proclaim that they don't like this or that activity, which eventually translates as this activity is not for the likes of them. I'm not supposed to like ballet, or classical music, or abstract art, they seem to say. I realise that this attitude is as dependent on socio-economic factors as it is on parental guidance. Ultimately, though, and it's always been my advice to the younger generations (including my children), it's about you and what you want to do, not what people tell you to do. After all, that first time at the ballet didn't deter me from coming back every season. And if the others wanted to stare, let them stare, they were the ones missing out on the great spectacle before their eyes.

Pandora's World Cup Box

Now that the World Cup is well and truly underway, it's time to bring back to life Hephaestus's creation to regale us with tales of the zeniths or nadirs the beautiful game has reached. Which one is which is entirely up to you, my dear readers.

And so, first we have the most sought-after cuddly toy in stores now: a replica, not of Rooney, or Ronaldo, not even Messi, but the ah!-so affable and bubbly Adrian Chiles, a man so watered-down that he was, apocryphally mind, banned from the BBC's Blue Peter garden for misusing the hose. Adrian's amorphous shape is ideal for goal celebrations or penalty shoot-outs angst.

Afraid that your team might lose? 5-0 down and two minutes of added time to go and playing with only eight men on the pitch? Fear not, for Matrix Cool Chair is here to help. All you need to do is take the blue pill. And everything will be different. Your team will recover and in less than thirty seconds (that's the official allocated time for Wayne Rooney at press conferences) they will overcome the deficit and win. Oh, I forgot to mention that the Matrix comes with an automatic channel flicker in case the tablet doesn't work.

Did you know that refs will be equipped with swearword detectors in various languages? Alas, North Korea did not submit its list of profanities. They allegedly said that they were too pure to indulge in foul language. They also added that if the South African authorities kept going on about it they were going to nuke the living s**t out of their World Cup facilities. At which point South African president Jacob Zuma enquired about the marrying age for North Korean women and what the alimony requirements involved. It's believed that a kit containing the most popular swearwords from the northern part of the Korean peninsula is on its way to Jo'burg.

Ornette Coleman Award of the Tournament so far: the vuvuzela.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs', to be published on Tuesday 15th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. This is so revelatory! Yes, those feelings are universal and no amount of rationalization will erase them. They do form us, though; they either cut our legs, or help us grow long nails, meaning we accept the truth of the feeling, or we question it, fight it with our long nails, our bravado, our self-determination.

    Happy Sunday to you.

  2. I have sometimes felt that others saw me as exceptionally out of place, but doubt I could express it so well as you did. Another great insight into your history.

  3. Oh, yes, I have certainly felt that sick I-don't-belong-here feeling more times than I care to admit. But, if you face it head on, and sort out your fears, it will make you you have.

  4. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  5. love that bit about the refs and profanities - fascinating!! Mexico is gripped by World Cup Fever right now as you can imagine...

  6. Thank you, Cuban, for sharing this poignant story. Though it may have stretched your willingness to share such personal memories, I am deeply grateful that you did. As for “How many of you have had the same feeling?” I’ll raise my hand, but I will also add the following. I have had the privilege/burden of crossing over ethnic, economic, gender etc boundaries and have discovered that the “imposter syndrome” exists in the most surprising quarters. It is, or was in the earlier days of feminism, rampant among women of all races tackling careers in previously male-dominated professions. It has certainly been present among those of us from “minority” backgrounds who entered previously predominantly Anglo professions, academic institutions, and social circles. But here was the shocker for me. Among those coming from highly privileged white backgrounds, I also discovered frequently the imposter syndrome, both in males and females. This is not to diminish the particularly onerous circumstances/rejections that people of color and lower socioeconomic classes have suffered. I, too, know about that first hand, and it will be interesting to track what impact, if any, the election of a black man as US President will have on this. But my point is that I think the feeling of being an imposter is a more universal feeling than one might expect, though it may, however, be a more ready response for those of us who came less-than-privileged conditions, whether due to color or economics or both.

  7. I salute you dear Cuban, border-crosser, and at such a young age!

    Kind regards from criss-crossing Mim

  8. I encountered the you-don't-belong-here feeling quite often. During my childhood, my family would frequently draw long stares followed by cocked heads. My short Chinese father, and tall blond Dutch/German mother, with my two sisters and me somewhere in between made us irresistible to gawkers, especially here in America when we would all converse in Dutch. I've gotten quite used to the stares but we are no longer the novelty we were decades ago.

    You won't believe it, but by coincidence I was showing the same video clip of Christopher Walken to my daughter and husband last night. They had no idea that he was a dancer. It's one of my favorite videos.

  9. This is certainly an interesting read.
    Don't we all go through some form of 'impostor syndrome' as we wade through the early years of finding our feet and who we are and finally coming into the confidence of our own being.
    Some of imposed by society and some are well just.. self-imposed. Thank you for sharing.

    World Cup ! - first there is this problem about the 'roundest' ball giving our goalies cause for swearing and now a kit for profanities in every lingo ?..mmm.
    I learn more about Football all the time..
    What next..:)

  10. I think everyone has felt that they didn't belong at some point but it affects some more than others. I know I've felt it much of my life and it shaped me into a person that doesn't look to please any group but simply to do what I feel is right. I like myself better for it.


  11. really interesting essay....
    I find it hard to imagine that anyone thought Castro could erase the complex barrier of colors (degrees of) and class (pretend that it doesn't exist...)
    Most Americans also pretend these barriers don't exist, at least those who are on the safe side of them...
    thank you...

  12. I know exactly what you felt for my mother and myself have felt it too. I am always impressed with your bravery even at a young age. It speaks volumes of the man you have become.

  13. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  14. London, I read your story with a great pleasure.

    I have also felt out of place many times. But I am (like you) near the 40s now, and I have a different way of seeing things: si no les gusta, jodanse.

    The other people are the ones who miss knowing you, recognizing your value.

    To judge someone based on the looks is to limit your experience of this world and its people, and many times those who are in a situation like the one you describe are the ones that are really worthy of knowing.

    That's why I say to them all: Jodanse. You don't know what you are missing with your narrow mind.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...