Portrait of the artist

The 20-year-old dance instructor from America entered her new studio, introduced herself to a group of eager students and began teaching a first lesson. She noticed something was missing. “When will they put back the mirrors?” she asked the school’s director.

“Never,” was the abrupt reply.

Welcome to Cuba circa 1970, where revolutionary leaders launched a state-run dance academy but considered mirrors—one of the most valuable tools in a dance teacher’s arsenal—a capitalist symbol of vanity and decadence.

It’s one such paradox after another in Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, her story of personal transformation as brought on by both the idealism and inadequacies of the Cuban revolution.

The book is a refreshingly rhetoric-free, coming-of-age tale about the six months the author spent teaching dance in Cuba three decades ago. Born in Mexico and raised in New York, Guillermoprieto danced at a young age with such notables as Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham. Dancing with Cuba provides an explanation of why Guillermoprieto eventually left dance to become, arguably, the most respected journalist today on the Latin American beat. She now writes regularly for The New Yorker and is the author of Samba, Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America and The Heart that Bleeds: Latin America Now.

In addition to its appeal as a memoir, Dancing with Cuba provides a keen look at how artists and their de facto individualist natures often clash purposes with the teachings of revolution, where the good of the many supposedly outweighs the good of the one. The Cuban government officials the author met during her stay there uniformly considered artists to be arrogant and self-involved. Strange that the very individualism considered undesirable by the revolution seems to be the chief reason for that revolution’s success and longevity. The country’s maverick leader, Fidel Castro, always has been as individualist as they come.

The author spent most of her time outside the dance studio with artists and gay friends, some of whom had been deeply wronged by the revolution. Her friend Boris—who’d been sent to the reeducation camps that existed for homosexuals during the early years of the revolution—surprised Guillermoprieto by revealing undying respect for Castro despite what had happened to him. Another said: “Do you know what it is to wake up in the morning and know that what you’re eating for breakfast hasn’t been stolen from anyone else’s mouth? … It’s all because of Fidel and Fidel alone.”

Slowly, the author falls in love with the spirit—if not the actualization—of the revolution. But as her personal drama unfolded there, Guillermoprieto met with deep individual insecurities: “I was not beautiful; I was not a great dancer. I had nothing to say to people living in a country that faced, day after day, the danger of atomic annihilation, invasion. … It made no sense to do what I was doing. My dance had no meaning.”

Toward the end of her stay in Cuba, the author became enveloped in this deep personal unhappiness. This was strange and painful to read about. But once home to America, she found a cure for the melancholy. Inspired by lessons learned in Cuba, she took to protesting against the Vietnam War and, later, working on behalf of various Latin American struggles for liberation. Eventually, she found herself in Nicaragua writing about the Sandinista revolution. Her career as a celebrated journalist took off from there.

Is Dancing with Cuba a story of disillusionment or one of awakening? It’s a little of both. Mostly, it’s a compelling look back—from the safe wisdom of middle age—at the role a revolution played in transforming this young dancer into a journalist.