Havana Habibi: Meaningful Exchange, Impact and Challenges of Bellydance in Cuba

When I met Hanan, I knew that she was teaching belly dance in Cuba. I knew Cuba and the United States had a conflictive relationship. I also knew that the city that I had moved to, Miami, was the home of the Cuban exile. I started to take private lessons with Hanan after living in Miami for four years, while I was teaching at Belly2abs. Hanan had expressed to me that she was going to finally present the documentary Havana Habibi. This film was going to illustrate her experience teaching belly dance for thirteen years in Cuba. I was intrigued.


The film Havana Habibi presents the political and social obstacles that exist between Cuba and the United States, the film furthermore explores the intricacies presented when teaching belly dance in Cuba. The difficulties of overcoming the bureaucracy of the Cuban government and bringing resources to the island are apparent. One of the difficulties Hanan faced as a Cuban American, was confronting the disapproval of her family when they found out she was going to the island. Hanan’s personal dysphoria and her encounters with the Cuban dancers exposes the repercussions of traumatic sociopolitical events on women’s bodies.


Dance is an effective tool of communication and a healing strategy that rebuilds a bridge of contact and bonds two realities that are seemingly antagonistic. This documentary is emotional and powerful. The film illustrates how Cuban dancers have evolved and grown independently in the dance.


In 2016 Hanan expanded the project and decided to do the first ever Cuban Belly dance Festival. I was honored to be invited as a guest teacher in the first and second Havana Habibi Festival. After watching the film Havana Habibi, I knew this was going to be a challenging pedagogic experience. Cuban dancers don’t have easy access to the internet, therefore their social imagery isn’t contaminated by the Orientalist media that dancers in the United States are consuming. However, the Cuban government has diplomatic relationships with several countries of the Middle East.  This is apparent as you can see the Embassy of Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria in La Habana. Some of these embassies hire Cuban dancers to teach and perform belly dance and folkloric dances as part of their cultural agendas. In addition, Cuban dancers have become familiar with Arabic culture due to the considerable number of Arabs immigrating over time to the island.


I witnessed the dancers expressing great enthusiasm and gratitude to all of the instructors the times I was able to teach in Cuba. I was very impressed with the quality of attention each one of them had and how expressive they were with their bodies. Although the classes were always packed, the Cuban dancers were not afraid to move and for that reason they stood out to me. The festival also included different panel discussions about feminism and providing education about using dance as an empowerment tool for social justice and autonomy. We didn’t come to Cuba to do charity. We came to Cuba as an act of solidarity with Cuban women” said Professor Meiver de la Cruz in one of her insightful presentations. The festival provided a valuable platform for socio-cultural discourse with Cuban and international dancers.  Gathering together with the Cuban dancers is one of the most crucial takeaways and learning experiences I had from the Havana Habibi Festival.


The Havana Habibi Festival ventured to different well-known art institutions including La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Retazos, Teatro Nacional de Cuba, and Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Part of this strategy was to support Cuban belly dancers taking over elite cultural spaces which have artistic prestige therefore supporting their dance careers in Cuba.


I was impressed with the amazing performers I saw in La Habana. One of the most memorable performances for me was a group that performed with swords in a very unusual way as compared to what we see in the United States. Their swords looked different than anything I had seen, so I asked them where they had bought them. They told me one of their fathers was a mechanic and had created the swords for them with a reflective plastic that looked like crystal. It is the same material that you find in the rear-view mirror of your car. The swords were absolutely stunning. They had told me something that stuck with me while we were talking, In Cuba what we don’t have, we invent.”


I’m not the same person after I watched the documentary Havana Habibi or after participating in the Havana Habibi Festivals in Cuba. The film is a great resource that invites us to reflect on our own personal practice in the dance as well as how far can we take our impact. The movie puts forth the idea that there can be a different approach to the way of teaching and treating this dance when it is not placed in a capitalist roulette.


Havana Habibi teaches us that we can have deep and heavy political conversations involving our bodies and our dance. We have multiple tools to push these conversations further. We have film, theater, community engagement, performances, and many other ways in which we can create meaningful exchanges and impact. A dancer from any part of the world can be inspired by this memoir of women’s resilience and power. This is central to the work of Hanan Arts and Havana Habibi.


The Havana Habibi Festival is a virtual offering this year due to the pandemic. In addition to seeing the original documentary, the festival features a gala performance where I participate with Cuban dancers. This year’s centerpiece is Hanan Arts’ new documentary film that once again centers bellydance and connects Cuban and Arab culture through film in Ya Habibi: The Story of a Song.


To learn more about Hanan Arts and a full schedule of Havana Habibi Festival events go to Hanan Arts. To register for the free virtual world premiere of Hanan Arts’ new documentary film Ya Habibi The Story of a Song, visit Live Arts Miami.

Valerick Molinary is an award winning artist known for her unique and elegant style, which flows seamlessly while having that touch of sassiness resonant of her native Puerto Rico. She has taught and performed at international festivals across four continents. For over 15 years Valerick has dedicated herself to the in-depth study of Arab dances and folklore, traveling to study at diverse Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. She has a BA in Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature, the influence of which can be seeing in her creative and poetic approach to choreography, dance teaching and production. Since 2015 she organizes the Lebanese Love Affair, an annual event in Miami dedicated to providing a platform for dancers to study directly from renowned and dedicated Arab dance artists. She's the co-owner with Kelly Rodríguez of Creative Hips Studio in Miami, FL. Visit Valerick online at www.valerickmolinary.com