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Cuban Music Lesson: Zapateo


Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

When I was a kid I loved watching “The Cosby Show”. Maybe it was Cosby’s comic genius or perhaps it was the swirling hypnotic colors of his sweaters that drew me in. Either way, it was comedy gold. In one of my favorite episodes, Cosby is challenged to a tap dance-off by an old dude at Rudy’s dance school. The old dude does increasingly difficult moves and then challenges Cosby to top it, which of course he doesn’t. One time when I was watching this episode, my grandfather said to me, “Oh, we had that in Cuba. We called it a zapateo fight. I once saw a guy push another guy down a flight of stairs after losing a zapateo fight.” Damn.

The zapateo isn’t indigenous to Cuba. It comes from the Spanish flamenco. You know, those guys in super-tight pants that stomp around a lot at Spanish restaurants while you are trying to eat your paella. Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and lots of other places have their own traditional tap dances. They are usually called zapateados, but we Cubans are lazy so we dropped off a few letters to make zapateo. In Cuba, we added elements of African music and dance to make our own hybrid. The dance can be done with a girl, by yourself, or with another dude (Whatever works for you, man. We don’t judge). The aim of the dance is to stomp your feet in flourishes that accompany and elaborate on the music. In Cuba, the bottom of the zapateo shoes are wooden rather than metal like American tap shoes. When danced with a girl, the man holds his arms behind his back, dancing a counter-step to the woman. When danced with another dude things get real. Just like the episode of “The Cosby Show”, the point is to out dance the other dude. Once dancer does some elaborate toe tapping and then the other guy has to match or top it. The one who fails to do this loses. It’s exactly like the plot of all of those 80’s breakdancing movies, except with better hair.

Zapateo had fallen into decline by the 60’s in Cuba. The young people were too busy growing beards and being commies to want to stomp their feet. In the 90’s, an increased interest in preserving Cuba’s traditional dance styles led to the folkloric dance movement. Today, lots of Cuban and folkloric dance companies do zapateos as part of their repertoires. Some dancing schools also teach zapateo classes. I think I’m going to sign up for one. My downstairs neighbors are going to hate me.

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