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Cuban Salsa & the Saints – Let’s Talk about Yemaya

Yemaya Orishas Santeria Saint of the Sea culture and history of the dance

Perhaps you didn't know - but religion and the Cuban Saints had a huge impact in the CREATION OF SALSA!

Who is Yemaya and why is she important to Cuban folklore dance and modern Cuban Salsa today? Why is it important to understand the culture behind the movements and steps we learn in class? Understanding the culture behind the steps will give your dancing and passion more depth.

Who is Yemaya?

Beautiful Goddess of the Sea – Yemaya, mother of all, the source of all waters and all life, she is also associated with the moon and all feminine mysteries. Motherly and strong, profound and unknowable. She is often depicted as a mermaid.

She is the protector of women and her many children, ruler of fertility, childbirth and healing.

Costume & Movement

Her colours are of course BLUE & WHITE. Generally women representing female orishas in Cuban folklore dance, are typically dressed in large flowing skirts with many layers to keep their modesty, the dancers use them to represent emotions – Yemaya has seven to represent the seven seas.

Yemaya is one of the royal saints and you can see her headdress is also her crown. Here Yemaya uses her large flowing blue & white skirts to represent the ebb and flow of the waves. She is not quick to anger, but once she can be very destructive and violent, such as turbulent waters and floods. She is also quick to forgive and it’s reflective in the waters and her movements.

A very popular Cuban Salsa song played in the social today – the video clip is a tribute to Yemaya, asking for the water and her blessings.

The Saints - Explained

Four Centuries ago, more than a million African slaves were brought to Cuba by the Spanish as part of the Spanish slave trade. They were forbidden to practice their religion, instead they fused their African deities with the characteristics of the Catholic saints and this way they were still able to honour their religion, and over time became inseparable. Cubans have had the freedom to practice Santeria since 1992.

The Saints Music

Each Saint has it’s own music, the complicated polyrhythms reflect each different saints characteristics. You can hear clearly the singers in the first video calling her name in the traditional, they talk about the moment the river turns into the ocean.

Yemaya uses many body pops through the shoulders and chest, as well as skirt play there are movements we often see in performances. As an exercise, listen to the drums and imagine the waves and the sea in your head, you can probably get some strong images of calm, flat surfaces, changing to crashing waves and rough seas and back again, you can watch the dancer enact these changes perfectly with never ending spins, tossing of skirts and seemingly out of control body movements that are actually very precise (and hard to master).

Modern Day Salsa and Yemaya

In modern music, homage is paid to the orishas and saints by using one or more of these unique rhythms and melodies. If you listen you can sometimes recognise the name of a saint called out by the singer, usually the music (in the drums) calls to the dancers to perform the steps of the saint. It is like a little game for the dancer and a chance to freestyle and show their knowledge and creativity, as well as their understanding of the culture behind the dance.

Learning the steps and moves of the orishas deepens the connection you have to Cuban Salsa and improves your musical knowledge, interpretation and over dance movement and skills.

Check out dance artist Diaz Martinez. Watch her unique style and see if you can recognise some Yemaya moves (hint: from 1:09) in her lady styling classes.

Article written by Rhian Saunders

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