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Ford Center for the Fine Arts

Knox in Cuba: Students Explore Dance, Music, and Culture

Knox College students learned about Cuban dance and music

A group of Knox College students and faculty members recently spent 11 days in Cuba, interacting with the country's people and culture while taking classes in Cuban styles of dancing and drumming.

"I think it was probably one of the best experiences I've had in my life," said Aiyana Godsil '18.

The trip took place during Knox's winter break and was designed specifically to build on students' academic experiences. All 18 students had taken at least one of these classes: Cultural Perspectives in Dance, taught by Associate Professor and Chair of Dance Jennifer Smith; Music of the African Diaspora, taught by Associate Professor of Music Nikki Malley; and Culture and Identity in the Caribbean, taught by Assistant Professor of Anthropology-Sociology William Hope.

In addition, the students and faculty members met once a week during fall term for "lab time" to prepare for the trip. At one of these meetings, Cuban musician and Knox Artist in Residence Jesús Fernández spoke with the group about the evolution of Cuban politics.

While in Cuba, the Knox group worked four hours a day with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional—Cuba's national folkloric troupe—to learn about Cuban dance and music. Other highlights of the trip included a walking tour of Old Havana, a visit to Museo Nacional de la Ruta del Esclavo (National Museum of the Slave Route) in Matanzas, a nature walk at Las Terrazas, and an evening with Cuban students.

Students and faculty alike said the immersive experiences were meaningful to them.

"I found a connection to my own African heritage there," Godsil said. "There's a celebration of African heritage and African ancestry."

Malley said that traveling to Cuba and studying music there fulfilled a lifelong dream.

"I've spent almost two decades studying Afro-Cuban music from both the academic and performance fields, but all of this accumulated knowledge has been second-hand at best," she said. "There is no substitute for experiencing a culture and community IN the culture and community, and there is no substitute for learning about the music of another community from authentic performers and practitioners."

Similarly, Smith said she appreciated that students could learn more about dance as a cultural art form in Cuba.

"When I teach the rhumba or when I play with some traditional folkloric dance form or explore it in class, I try to be as genuine and culturally respectful as possible, but it has a very different flavor to it," she said.

A few weeks after returning to campus, the students gave presentations related to the trip. For example, some students read their personal reflections aloud, and others exhibited photos or demonstrated the dance moves and drumming skills they learned while working with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional.

Smith said the presentations are a way of "processing the experiences and figuring out how we can now go forward with them, rather than leaving them behind."

As a follow-up to the trip, Godsil is conducting an independent study on the Cuban economy. "Through my readings, I've been able to connect back to the things I saw in Cuba, like the globalization that goes on there," she said.

Tevin Liao '17, who is completing a post-baccalaureate fellowship at Knox, said his favorite experience during the trip happened on the final night. The Knox group had dinner at a restaurant where a live band was playing, and two couples got up and began salsa dancing. Other people joined in.

"Partway through it, they start pulling all of us on stage, and we had a giant dance party in the middle of this restaurant," Liao said. "That is the best memory that I have because it wasn't planned. None of us knew that it was going to happen. It was so organic, it was so natural. It really felt like we were being invited, and that we were part of what it was like to be in Cuba."

Photos submitted by Aziza Bentsi-Enchill '19 and Jennifer Smith

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#"I think it was probably one of the best experiences I've had in my life."—Aiyana Godsil '18

Knox College

Printed on Sunday, July 14, 2024