One of the main questions I get from people from all over the world after they've seen Season 1 of Follow My Lead in Havana is: "How did you do that?! And how can I?"
You want to know who I studied with, where I lived, where I went out dancing - all the details of immersing yourself in the dance scene of Havana. So here you go!
Where to study dance
I spent most of my time taking classes at Casa del Son, located at Empredrado and Aguacate in the Habana Vieja neighborhood.
The school offers a ton of teachers who teach all different levels of salsa, son, rumba and more. The best part is the social atmosphere - it's easy to connect with the teachers and other international students. I feel like it's my home base when I'm in Havana and I can't really imagine having studied anywhere else.
The common practice in Havana is to take private classes - group classes are rare unless you're part of an organized tour package. Classes range from $10-$20/hour depending on the teacher and the studio. You can often buy packages that bring the price down. (At Casa del Son, they're about $13/hr if you buy a 10-class package.)
I personally like to take classes with a few different teachers when I start at a new school, until I find the ones that I vibe with. If you have time to do that, I'd recommend it. Take a few different classes, see whose teaching style resonates with you, and then focus in on just one or two teachers for the long term.
When you're scheduling your classes, be very clear about what your goals are. Do you just want to play and have fun? Are you very serious and focused and have specific outcomes that you're trying to reach? Some teachers have more of a lighthearted personality and approach, and some will kick your butt. Know what you want and then ask for a teacher that matches your learning style and goals.
How to study even more dance
I loved having Casa del Son as my "home" studio, but I also took private classes with many other teachers during my time in Cuba.
Here are some tips on finding other teachers:
Think about what you want to focus on and start asking around to try out different teachers - ask other ex-pats who dance a lot, ask other students you meet when going out.
Look around when you're out dancing - do you see anyone whose style you really admire? Or who seems to be at the top of their game? They probably teach. Now, there's no guarantee that a great dancer will be a great teacher, but there are many opportunities to learn from the best dancers in the world - don't be afraid to ask them.
Ask where they teach - are they in a studio, will they come to your house, or will you go to theirs? Scope it out to see what you feel most comfortable with. Generally speaking, Cuba is very safe and it's quite common to take privates in your home or theirs. With that said, use your common sense and follow your gut feelings when arranging classes.
Where to go out salsa dancing
I wrote a blog post on this already, but it doesn't hurt to add a few more recommendations about HOW to get into the salsa scene in Havana.
The best thing to do is ask, ask, ask - ask your teachers at Casa del Son, ask other dance students. Find out who's playing when on a daily basis - because things change quickly and without notice in Havana.
Don't get too caught up in trying to find the "authentic experience" or going where no tourists go. First of all, you are a tourist, get over it. Second of all, a lot of really good Cuban dancers go to where the tourists are going. That's how they can potentially make money. The popular spots are popular for a reason.
I'm not talking about the popular spots on the package tours for non-dancers - that's cabaret, jinetero land. I'm talking about the popular spots where the dance teachers go. That's where you want to go.
(And don't forget to read my tips on the essentials you need to bring with you when you head out dancing for the night!)
Where to live
For first-time visitors, i usually recommend finding a place on Airbnb in Habana Vieja. This neighborhood has the highest density of tourist-friendly restaurants and cultural destinations, all easily walkable. To get to many dance spots, you will need to take either private taxis or colectivos and you can catch them at Vieja's Parque Central.
For repeat visitors, very experienced travelers and/or Spanish speakers, I love Centro Habana. You can also use Airbnb to rent a place here, and at its farthest border it's only a 20-25 minute walk to Vieja. You can also easily catch taxis. It is less touristy, which means less hassling on the streets, but less higher-end options for dining out. For living there long term, I loved it.
As for cost, well, that can vary based on the season, the neighborhood, and political/economic factors. It's best to budget based on a minimum of at least $20/night.
If you're going to stay for more than a month and have a tight budget (i.e. $20/night sounds like a lot), then I'd recommend setting up an Airbnb for the first week and then pounding the pavement to find a better deal for the rest of your time (if you speak Spanish). You literally walk around the streets you like, looking for the rental license symbol, and ask what's available. If they don't have anything, or you don't like it, you ask for recommendations for other places.
If you don't speak Spanish and/or you have a shorter period of time to stay, just save up the money and book it all on Airbnb.
What else would you like to know about traveling, living and dancing in Cuba?
(And if you're American and need tips on US-Cuba travel, check out my blog post on the topic.)
Happy traveling and dancing!
PS: If you do wind up studying at Casa del Son, please tell them I sent you and that I said hi! <3