Dancing Casino to non-Timba would be like having sex with a condom: it can still be fun, but it just doesn’t feel as good. While it’s widely accepted to use the term “Salsa” to describe Casino (the dance) and Timba (the music), I like to keep those terms separate. “Salsa” is used to describe Casino and Timba so their artists can market themselves to dancers and musicians, respectively, and that’s it. Can a Casino dancer dance with a salsa dancer who isn’t familiar with Casino? Yes; however, there must be excellent communication between the leader and follower for it to work. The lead must be able to read what the follower is familiar with, while the follower must be more focused to be able to tell what is a turn, what is (or is not) an arm lock, or be able to execute two or three (or more) spins.
Additionally, Casino gets a bad rap in general. Is it as popular as LA- or New York-style salsa? In the United States, it is not; it is grossly in the minority. One reason why is because the quality of teaching is not as high as it should be. There are some teachers in the past and present who were/are not qualified whatsoever to teach Casino; they haven’t had the extensive time to train; they were not taught by the right people; or quite simply, they think they can teach, but they just can’t cut the mustard. The other reason? Public lack of knowledge of the dance and its music.
The common misconceptions about Casino (Cuban-style dance) and Timba (the music you generally dance Casino to) is what I’d like to help clarify. While this dance is usually associated with salsa, Casino is not quite salsa.
With the above established, let’s go into a bit more detail:
1. Casino started in the late 1940s-early 1950s in Havana.
The dance was first done in ballrooms which were called Casinos (hence the name of the dance), the most notable being Casino Deportivo. Casino is not a style of Salsa, since salsa dancing and salsa music wasn’t called “salsa” to begin with until approximately the mid-1970s in New York. In reality, “Salsa” is a widely-recognized marketing term created to be able to market Cuban music and dance to non-Cubans. To the uninitiated, saying, “I dance Casino” can be confusing; the natural reaction is to look for a deck of cards and some poker chips. When a new student sees classes advertised as “Salsa Casino” or “Cuban Salsa,” it will be easier to understand what is being offered, and to know that it is different from other forms of the dance.
2. The dance was originally danced as a group, i.e., Rueda de Casino. Later, it became more common to do it as an independent partner dance (Gutieres, 2008, p. 34). (NOTE: There are conflicting accounts to this; some say both were developed simultaneously.)
Think of Rueda de Casino as a form of square dancing, where one person in the circle of dancers calls out the moves for each couple in the Rueda to perform. There are universal calls common throughout all regions of the globe that form the foundation of Casino; after that, many calls vary by region. There’s been some efforts to standardize all the calls for the Rueda, but doing that would ruin the flavor of Ruedas you find yourself dancing in from region to region. FOR THE BEGINNER: When first starting to learn Rueda de Casino, don’t get caught up in the sheer number of calls you may be shown; instead, think of the fundamental movements behind them (namely the footwork), and relate each call within the context of those fundamental movements.
Some like to think of Rueda calls in different regions as different accents of the same language. Ask a native Texan to say the words “Car” and “You all,” then ask a native Bostonian to say the same words. The same concept applies to Rueda calls of the same name being slightly different between regions, as well. The common calls in the Rueda form the parameters or foundation of how you can dance Casino as a partner dance. A Casinero/Casinera will interpret the dance within the parameters/foundations set.
Go to any Casino-specific dancing event, and you’ll see maybe one or two Ruedas called that night. For many Casino dancers, they were introduced to the dance via Rueda de Casino. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with learning to dance first in the Rueda (it’s how I and millions of others started learning). I like to think of the Rueda as your training wheels. You’re guided through a song and are told what turns to execute; eventually, those training wheels will have to come off. Does this mean you don’t need to know how to dance in the Rueda? Of course not. Rueda de Casino is another excellent way of socializing and learning Casino. Additionally, high-level Rueda de Casino is still alive and well; here’s one example.
3. Casino is fundamentally different from salsa.
Time to expand on point #1 (Casino is not a style of Salsa). Casino is a descendant of and most updated version of Son (pronounced with a long “O” sound), a formal ballroom dance which started in the early 1900s (going into the finer details of Son is another rabbit hole to go down that is beyond the scope of this post). In general, there is specific footwork that is unique to the Casino style. Additionally, spinning is not very common in Casino; its circular movements and promenades characteristic to Casino (i.e., the lead and follow circling each other) come from Son. I’ve received feedback that Casino and Rueda de Casino is “too easy.” This is a load of B.S.! While you can call Casino “basic” in the beginning stages, Casino in its most advanced stages includes some of the most complex pretzels/arm locks you’ll ever see. The pretzels and arm locks in Casino didn’t become more common until (relatively) more recently; my personal estimation is the late 1990s-early 2000s. I’ll add an addendum to this when I find out for sure.
It’s important to mention the importance of folkloric dances – Guaguanco Rumba, in particular - in Casino, as well. It’s a recent trend to incorporate Guaguanco into Casino. Is it necessary to know Guaguanco in order to dance Casino? No, but when done correctly, Guagaunco can add even more flavor to Casino. Here’s an example of Guanguanco incorporated during a Casino dance (starts around the 0:08 mark; Daybert goes back into Casino at the 0:52 mark). Want to learn more about Guaguanco (which is actually only one of three forms of Rumba)? Ned Sublette’s Cuba and its Music is a good place to start (Chapter 17).
4. Timba music is fundamentally different from salsa music.
FOR CLARIFICATION: Casino is the name of the style of dance; Timba is the genre of music Casino is usually danced to. Don’t get caught saying, “I dance Timba." The word “Timba,” according to Ned Sublette’s Cuba and its Music, “is an old word that, in the Spanish army, meant a group of gamblers, and for decades in the city of Matanzas would mean a rumba party.” (Sublette, 2004, p. 272). Based off of Cuban Son (there is Son the dance, as mentioned above; and Cuban Son, the style of music as mentioned here), Timba started around the late-1980s or early-1990s; some make the argument that some music from the 1970s or early 1980s might fit the label of Timba, as well. Timba is known for its musical complexity, and can consist of many layers which can be unnerving at first. While salsa music usually consists of the congas, timbales, and bongo, Timba will also include a full drum set and eliminate the bongo; it can vary from band to band. Additionally, some rhythms will drop and/or change during the song. All this said, its influences from funk, R&B, Hip Hop, and Afro-Cuban arrangements leads to very energetic and hard-hitting music!
Examples of Salsa vs. Timba
La vida es un Carnaval
Social influences: As with other genres of music, many would sing about their overall quality of life, which often included the lack of food, transportation, and so on. It was a way of getting things off their chests; in other words, singing about the everyday hardships and playing the music with high energy helped Cuban citizens process what they were going through at the time. It was a cathartic process for many. Two good examples of this are Los Van Van’s “Agua,” which talked about the lack of water in some areas of Cuba, and NG La Banda’s “Picadillo de Soya,” which talked about new types of food introduced into Cuban cuisine.
It should be obvious we’re just scratching the surface here. There are many rabbit holes to go down.
Want to listen to more Timba? Here’s a list of artists to look up on Spotify/Apple Music/etc.:
DJs who specialize in Timba:
Interested in getting into Casino dance? Here are some classes to try out:
Interested in the folkloric/Afro-Cuban dances? Donna “DonnaMation” Oefinger is one of the true gems of the Pacific Northwest. She is also well-versed in Hustle, Popping, House, and many other dance forms.
A big thank you to everyone who’s helped me with getting this info put together, Ryan Mead and Tony Gonzalez, in particular.
DISCLAIMER: In all seriousness, by no means am I bashing LA- or NY-style salsa. It's popular for a reason, and I realize and respect that. Additionally, this is not the definitive description of what Casino is. I’m recounting what I’ve researched through literature, one-on-one lessons, interviews, and personal experience to help the new student and/or those unfamiliar with Casino dance and its music. In addition, this is meant to be an introductory piece, rather than a complete article.
Written by Rob Hilario
Sublette, N. (2004). Cuba and its Music. Chicago, IL. Chicago Review Press.
Gutieres, B. (2008). El Casino y la Salsa en Cuba. Norderstedt, Germany. Books on Demand GmbH.
Diaz, Daybert Linares. (2014, July 20). Dissipating Misconceptions: Is Casino a “Style” of Salsa Dancing? [Web log post]. Retrieved March 28, 2019, from https://sonycasino.com/2014/07/20/dissipating-misconceptions-is-casino-a-style-of-salsa-dancing/
Diaz, Daybert Linares (2016, March 30). Musicality: When to Incorporate Rumba Guaguanco During a Casino Dance. [Web log post]. Retrieved April 14, 2019, from https://sonycasino.com/2016/03/30/musicality-when-to-incorporate-guaguanco-during-a-casino-dance/
Mead, R. (2018, February 16). Personal Interview.
Gonzalez, T. (2019, March 18). Personal Interview.