The women who travel to dance and sleep with much younger men.

I got a commission from a London-based newspaper to write an article on learning salsa in Cuba with your own Cuban dance partner then booked a trip for September with the same tour operator; their groups went out every three months.

‘I want a piece that explains why Cuban salsa has become so popular,’ said the travel editor, who danced Colombian-style salsa herself. ‘I want sun, sex and more sex.’

There was a woman named Mary in the Air Cubana queue at Gatwick who I recognised from my last visit to Santiago. She was in her mid-fifties with rimless specs and a feathery chestnut crop with blonde tips. She was heaving a suitcase onto the check-in scales, shoving it in with her knees.

‘Everybody was asking me to take presents over for the Lucumi guys,’ she said as we waited at the gate. ‘But I’m just bringing stuff for my Kico.’

I got a flash of the little fine-boned Afro-Cuban guy with cornrow plaits who wore cut-off shorts and midriff tops and understudied all three of the female dancers in their official performances.

‘Kico,’ I said. ‘Wow.’

‘It took us both by surprise,’ she said.

‘It was the same for me and Oscar.’ An older Scottish woman was sitting with us. She had also been towing an enormous suitcase.

‘You and Oscar?’ I said.

I’d emailed Patricia, the older Liverpudlian redhead I met on my last trip to Cuba, and who as far as I knew had been Oscar’s girlfriend for a couple of years - to see if she was coming on this trip and she’d emailed back to say that she’d just been out for Carnival in July, and wasn’t going back again until Christmas. She sent me down a couple of short-sleeved shirts and a pair of khaki combat trousers to give to Oscar. Cuba’s postal service was notoriously light-fingered.


‘Oscar was my dance partner in April,’ said the woman, whose name was Edie; she had flyaway grey-blonde hair and was big-boned and striking, like Patricia. ‘Mary took a phone over for me in July; he hasn’t stopped texting.’

Mary got up to check the departures board. I knew that she knew Patricia. I knew that she knew that I knew Patricia. I knew that she knew that Patricia didn’t know about Edie, and that Edie didn’t know about Patricia. I knew she knew this might make me dangerous to know.

What was it about salsa and Cuba that made grown women carry on like they were still in high school?

‘Totes awks, Mary,’ I said, dabbing on cherry lip gloss.

A text pinged just as we were boarding. Edie made a told-you-so face and showed her phone to Mary then to me.

‘Oscar y Edie siempre,’ it said.

The arrivals hall at Holguin International Airport was a whirl of bureaucracy and Cohiba smoke, testosterone and HRT. Several women from my flight had already dragged their luggage off the carousel and pushed their trolleys through the crowd waiting outside the glass exit doors. They were snogging whichever fit young Cubano had come to meet them.



Edie was snogging Oscar as her trolley rolled away. Mary was leaning on the minibus snogging Kico, who was standing on tiptoe in cut-offs and a pair of magenta flip-flops. The little blonde tour rep had her clipboard clamped under her arm as she kissed Basilio, the hunky dancer she fell for the last time I was here. They had applied for his British tourist visa.

Sometimes I’d be in the loo at a salsa club and overhear conversations between the Western women who went out to Cuba a lot.

‘He’s not some jinetero. Here, read his text: he doesn’t have a lot to give but he gives me all his love! I’ve booked him premium economy from Havana to London. Got him a job teaching salsa on Fridays; he’ll do private lessons too. Everybody’s going to love him!’

I walked around outside while I waited for my group to gather. Over by Departures a turista who looked Italian was crying as she hugged a ponytailed Latino in white jeans and silver Nikes with gold swooshes.

‘Hasta pronto, mami.’ He was wiping her tears away with his thumb; beaded Santeria bracelets circled his wrist. See you soon.

A Los Van Van song was playing when I climbed onboard the minibus. Double entendres about black chefs marinating meat were blaring in Spanish over a fierce timba beat.

‘Ahi nama,’ hollered Oscar, who was sitting down the front holding Edie’s hand.


‘Hola, Oscar.’ I edged along the aisle.

‘Yeni!’ His eyes widened; he tried to look pleased to see me.

‘It’s Yanay,’ I said. ‘Patricia’s friend.’

He hit himself on the forehead with his palm.

‘Si, claro, African hips.’ he added, referencing the funny way I danced freestyle.


We got into town late. The road to Santiago still had the same sweep of potholed roadworks going on as it did the last time I was on it. Maria the housekeeper had been waiting up; when the minibus arrived she opened the casa’s wrought-iron gate, leapt down over the step and clutched me to her humongous cleavage:

‘Yanaaay,’ she said. ‘¿Como estas?’

My suitcase was extra heavy, too. I’d filled it with clothes I didn’t wear anymore, brought body lotions, perfume, aftershave and basic medical supplies like antiseptic cream and Ibuprofen. I wanted to give stuff to Irma and Jose-Luis next door, and other stuff to the Lucumi dancers.

I rummaged in my old childhood music box for jewellery to give to Maria. A tiny figurine in a thumbprint-sized piece of tulle had jerked and spun to the tinny strains of ‘Dance Ballerina Dance’ as I fished out a pair of Statue of Liberty earrings, some wooden necklaces from Morocco and the silver-plated charm bracelet Dina sent me after Jamaica: a talisman for my life in the UK.

The charms — teapot, horseshoe, four-leaf clover — tinkled as Maria held out her arm and traced arabesques with her wrist and hand. As she thanked me again I noticed a stump where a cloverleaf had snapped off the bracelet and felt bad.


My room was a time-frozen tableau: salmon chenille bedspread; a tall wobbly electric fan; a saucer drop ceiling light with the shadows of dead insects inside it; and a bathroom ensuite with a busted shower curtain, a little plastic bin for used toilet paper and a sneaky cockroach darting about.

‘Tortilla? Fruta?’ Maria’s voice was a stage whisper down a passage foggy with other peoples’ sleep. There would be too much food. There was always too much food for guests.

On the first morning dance class the sun had streamed in behind Angel, my formerly goofy young dance partner, who had grown up, got his swag on. The diamanté in his ear snapped and crackled in the rays.

‘Scorchioso!’ I said as I squeezed his biceps; I’d run out of Spanish adjectives. He put his arms out into partner hold and off we’d gone: the mambo toe taps and boom bada boom came to me out of nowhere.

Me and Angel were as in sync as Fred and Ginger, Torvill and Dean: when the track finished I kept my fingers wrapped around one of his huge thumbs for almost as long as we kept our eyes on each other.

Like last time, we went out dancing every night: to son bands at the Casa de la Trova, the traditional music house, upstairs with wooden floors and curving Spanish balconies.


To timba bands at the Casa de la Musica, where a mirror ball dappled the floor and walls and a TV screened videos of cocky Puerto Rican reggaeton duos and BMX stunts going hilariously wrong.

Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ was everywhere, its more-ish blend of salsa, reggaeton and Colombian cumbia zinging from taxi windows and ghetto blasters, tearing up hotel dance floors. The Lucumi guys would line up in a row whenever it came on and do that double-time pelvic-thrust-arm-pumping move they did in front of the sound system at Carnival.

All the tourists who were watching would cheer and we’d feel like VIPs as they sauntered back to our table, our gorgeous dancers with their state-nurtured, world-class talent.

I’d try to make sense of their scattergun Spanish as they stood, laughing and smoking, on the crumbling bit of patio during water break.

‘My mujera is rich. Her house in England is like a palace. Mira! See this gold chain she gave me? Bite it, man! She’s staying at a different casa this time. Last time she got upset because we had to go to my place, and my parents were asleep behind the sheet over my door! Mi novia understands. Papi, she says, you do what you have to do.’

Edie told me her story as we leaned on the bar at the Casa de la Musica: her husband left her for his best mate’s PA when she, Edie, was fighting breast cancer. She fell apart and then bit by bit put herself back together. Then she followed the April sun to Cuba and rediscovered her mojo.


‘On our first night together Oscar kissed my mastectomy scar and told me I was beautiful,’ she said. ‘Can you imagine?’

Oscar saw us looking and waved. Edie blew him a kiss.

‘So excuse me, everyone.’ She raised her glass in the air.

‘If I sometimes like to buy my hot young Cuban boyfriend some stuff.’

A reggaeton hit was packing out the dance floor.

‘A mi me gustañ los yuma.’ Yelping over a crazy beat. Ah, I love the foreigners.

There was no point telling Edie about Patricia. Just as there was no point telling her that earlier in the day I’d seen Oscar walking down past the Casa Granda patting the pockets of his new khaki combat trousers, trying to figure out which pocket was ringing.

‘Hello?’ He’d been pressing different phones to his ear.

‘Hallo? Ciao? Hola?’

Someone squished in next to us at the bar.

‘Wooo.’ It was a young woman from our group, fair-haired, blow-dried, a chain smoker. ‘What are you having, babe?’ she asked a ponytailed Latino in silver Nikes with gold swooshes: the guy with the crying Italian at the airport.

‘Ron.’ He squidged in as well, putting an arm around her waist. The beads on his bracelets were red-and-black and green-and-yellow. ‘Ron y tu, mami.’

I glanced across the dance floor to the seating area, where Angel was sitting at a high round table with one foot on the rung of his stool. The sole of his lace-up leather shoe was coming away.


He saw me looking and beamed. ‘¿Bailas?’ he mouthed.

As he came over for a dance I figured that it was okay to fancy him, even if he was young enough to be my son, had I of course been a young mother. Surely a positive of being vacuum-sealed by the Revolution, of living la vida loca inside a Caribbean snow-dome, was rewriting the dating rulebook.

Angel didn’t walk me straight back to my homestay that night. Instead we strolled up a hill to a little square that overlooked Santiago’s underused port, where lights from Russian trawlers blinked and horses with V-shaped hipbones dozed inside parallel lines in front of carts.

A bust of the great Cuban poet and political thinker José Marti sat on a plinth in the middle of the square, his moustache bristling towards Jamaica.

‘Yo soy un hombre sincero/De donde crece la palma.’ Angelstared at me as he recited the words; he’d brought me up here to make a point.

I am an honest man/from where the palm tree grows.

Then he put his arms out into partner hold and we danced together under the stars, our feet picking at the silence as we looped and twirled. A sausage dog, someone’s pet, padded down the hill and stood with its ears pricked and plus-size paws turned out, yapping encouragement.

‘Sssst, perro,’ said Angel, and it tucked in its tail and ran off.


He tried out a new dance manoeuvre, spinning me around with both of his hands then crossing them over and bringing them down so that one of his forearms was under my chin, the other resting across the top of my head.

Then he pulled me towards him and kissed me.

It was a tender, practised kiss: the kiss of a man who loved kissing.

On a deserted backstreet he leaned me up against a wall, ruching my faded olive green Ghost dress up to my thigh and pulling my G-string to one side; the asphalt had sprouted tropical flowers.

‘Hasta mañana,’ he said as we stood outside my casa’s wrought-iron gate.

He had taken a step and turned around.

‘Yanay …’ Unsure. ‘¿Tiene diez pesos? Para mi taxi?’

Oh-oh. Wasn’t ten pesos a lot of money? Even if he did live out in the public housing projects that Patricia had once told me about, where Oscar and the other dancers from Compañia Lucumi – the Afro-Cuban ballet troupe who taught salsa to foreigners in between leaping and pliéing on old stages with cracked proscenium arches – also lived. I’d seen the buildings from the window of the minibus, hunched on their own by the side of the highway: stark, grubby, with concrete lattices, washing on balconies and the words ‘Vivan Fidel y Raul’, more propaganda than graffiti, splodged across a side wall.

I gave Angel five pesos and he pulled the corners of his mouth into a smile before walking away and being swallowed up by the dark.


At class the following morning he seemed tired and preoccupied. I wondered what he was thinking.

Would I have asked you for money if I didn’t need it? There weren’t any more buses going out to the Russian buildings last night. I stood on the side of the highway holding out my five pesos and patting the air in front of headlights but nothing stopped: I couldn’t even get a lift on a motorbike, or in the back of a truck.

So I walked the whole way. Mira! Look at my shoes now!

That night Angel signed into my casa particular; the dancers from Compañia Lucumi had more standing than random guys like Fernando , the mysterious black cowboy I had a fling with last time. You can stay, the Latina owner told him in Spanish as Maria stood behind her, winking, but there are children here so you are forbidden to make any noise. Angel widened his eyes as the Latina disappeared across the courtyard and into the back of the house where her family lived. But he stayed the next night as well, and every night after that.

We made love as if lovemaking was an Olympic sport: lying down, standing up, upside down, sideways, back to front. We hung off the wobbly electric fan and the saucer drop ceiling light. We sent objet d’art flying, cockroaches scuttling and brought Maria running — charms tinkling — to say shoosh.

‘Bonito,’ he said when he saw the faded comedy Pegasus tattoo on my left shoulderblade. ‘Pero las alas son un poco pequeñas.’
Beautiful. But the wings are a bit small.


I would imagine holding up a scorecard each time Angel and I finished having sex.

10 for the Union Suspendida.

10 for the Postura del Yin y del Yang.

10 for the Mariel Boat Lift.

We had been together a week, which is about twelve months in Cuban-salsa-course years, when I took Angel shopping for jeans and shoes. Taking your Cuban boyfriend shopping for jeans and shoes was what I always thought other turistas did. But now here I was, doing it.

I checked my handbag into a shop-cum-cloakroom next door and we went into the department store, which had three floors but not many goods. It looked like it had been done over by looters. A woman’s brown wig sat next to a toaster. Boxed cutlery sets were on display alongside bathmats, pillows and bottles of the cleaning fluid used to keep floors and cupboards free of santania ants, the tiny black dots whose bite sets you on fire.

I followed Angel up a set of wide marble stairs to the top level, where pairs of sports trainers were arranged on shelves, from the cheapest to the most expensive. A pair of silver Nikes with gold whooshes sat alone at the top: aspirational, embargo busting and outside my price range.

I wanted to buy Angel shoes he liked but I didn’t want to feel like a sucker.

A Latino shop assistant with a gelled side-parting brought out three boxes of shoes in Angel’s size and I sat on a hard plastic office chair watching Angel try them on. I felt a bit how Richard Gere must have felt when he took Julia Roberts shopping in Pretty Woman, except physically a lot more uncomfortable.


Angel was walking up and down in a great-looking pair of two-tone Adidas when he went over to the shelves and reached up to touch the silver Nikes. He looked at me over his shoulder as he ran a finger along their edge.

‘¿Si o no?’ he said.

‘Er, no,’ I said.

I was paying for the Adidas when I got a weird but not unpleasant head rush. I quickly bought him a pair of Levis, a short-sleeved red shirt and a white Kangol-style cap that he put on straight away, turning it back-to-front on purpose.

We were on the ground floor making our way out when Angel stopped to pick up a tiny pair of pink Mary Janes that were on display between a wok and a birdbath.

‘Yanay.’ He dangled the shoes from his finger. ‘¿Para mi niña?’

Since when did Angel have a kid? Since around a year ago, I guessed, going by the size of shoes. I took out my purse, my eyeballs whirling.

He had worn his new outfit to see me off at the airport.

‘You have my heart,’ he said to me in Spanish.

When I got back to London I missed Angel so much it was ridiculous. So I took out a loan, rang the tour operator and booked myself on the next trip going out.


‘Aha,’ said my Frenemy, a woman I didn’t really like and only spoke to at salsa because I didn’t know anyone else.  ‘Was it the sex?’

I lay on my bed pining and flicking through photos: there he was planting a kiss as he cupped my face. There we were wrapped around each other on the dance floor, looking all crazy in love. There we were riding donkeys at the beach, me in my straw hat and sarong, Angel in his navy blue budgie smugglers, looking hot and fit. And young.

I rang Australia, checking in with my advisory committee of longtime girlfriends.

‘Now that’s what the doctor ordered,’ said Elspeth.

‘You going to put him through school?’ said Dina.

‘I hope you taught him how to tie his new shoelaces,’ said Vanessa.

My grumpy friend Erin came over to my place in north London.

‘It’s my Sponsor-A-Child phase,’ I said, trying to be funny.

She rolled her eyes.

I showed his photo to my Frenemy. Maybe she would get it.

‘Wow, do all the dancers look like that?’ she said. ‘When is the next trip?’

‘Unfortunately it’s full,’ I said.

Angel told me he would email from the computer in the Compañia Lucumi offices but that I had to be patient because there was always a queue, and because the internet in Cuba was slow and temperamental.


His emails came sporadically, in flowery Spanish. I asked Patricia to translate them for me so that I didn’t miss anything vital. Babelfish was suggesting all kinds of nonsense, also because Angel wasn’t the greatest speller.

‘He says he wants a serious relationship, not a game,’ she said. ‘He says he does not have a lot to give but he gives you all his love.’

The two attachments he sent took ages to download: the entire Kama Sutra, in Spanish with black-and-white drawings; and a spoken-word poem with panpipe accompaniment, which made me think of my mum’s favourite instrumentalist, Gheorghe Zamfir.
‘My love for you will never die …’ said a low male voice in Spanish, over soothing tooting.

Mary was going back to see Kico. I rang and asked if she’d take a mobile phone over to Angel for me.
‘Amazeballs.’ There was a sound of bubblegum popping.

Angel’s texts were brief, maybe because his thumbs got in the way. Some were in English. ‘Hello, I love you. Write back.’
Some were silly: ‘3000 besos en tu pussy.’ A few were blank.

A text came asking for money. An emergency: could I ask Mary to give him 100 pesos and then pay her back? He would explain when I arrived.

I was his life.

We were poolside at Hotel Santiago when I gave Mary back the hundred. She couldn’t remember what Angel needed it for. Cuba is in a constant state of emergency, we said, shrugging like old hands as we lay on our sun loungers watching Kico, Oscar and Angel ducking and diving in the chlorinated blue water in front of us.


We so loved bringing the guys to Hotel Santiago. With its bar and waiter service, its fluffy white towels and occasional live son band, it was worth paying the ten-pesos-a-head cover charge.

‘Another mojito?’ Patricia put down her book and sat up.

Oscar, waist-deep, looked over to make sure Patricia was watching him before climbing onto Angel’s shoulders and throwing himself backwards with a big splash. He didn’t seem to be missing Edie in the slightest.

Patricia clapped and cheered when he burst back up out of the water, grinning.

‘Ew,’ said Mary. ‘Look over there.’

An old European man with a comb-over was reclining on the steps in the shallow end of the pool, the legs of his baggy swimming trunks billowing under his paunch. He had a martini in one hand and an arm around a very young Afro-Cuban babe in a tiny bikini; she giggled as he tickled her side.

‘Gross,’ we said. ‘Disgusting.’

Kico and Oscar came out of the pool, put on their new designer sunglasses and started fiddling with their new MP3 players. Then they twisted their caps around, pulled the brims down over their eyes and lay there jiggling their toes to the music.

Angel slipped one of my rap CDs into the old CD Walkman I’d given him and started jiggling his toes as well. Then he shouted the refrain to ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’, glancing at his mates and looking sheepish.


On my next trip I brought him an MP3 player and some mirrored Ray-Bans. Then took him to the department store and told him to pick himself out something nice. He chose a pair of American-style baseball shorts and a perforated blue-and-white vest that went nicely with his perforated Adidas.

‘Que rico, Angelito,’ said Maria at breakfast. The plastic Statues of Liberty swung from her lobes as she cleared the plates. Angel winked and kept eating; he could really put it away.

The sex was still dynamite, although Angel had started to want to come on my face or shag me up the bum, neither of which I was super into. He’d wanted to stop using condoms and I’d said uh-uh to that as well; when I told him that I had been faithful to him since we’d been together — six months in real time, which was a decade in Cuban-salsa-course years — he looked surprised, as if the thought of fidelity hadn’t occurred to him.

But he was sweet and affectionate, and we kept on making each other laugh; he found the word ‘schlong’ hysterical.

‘I cannot find my schlong,’ he would say in Spanish as we stood on the balcony of the Casa de la Trova, drinking ron.

He’d lean over the street, a lit lung-buster in his hand: ‘¿Oye aseré, donde esta mi schlong?’

Sometimes I would notice him sneaking looks at younger women: a pretty London-based Kiwi in her twenties; a shy librarian from Oxford who’d just had her braces off. I saw them sneaking looks back at him.


I gave him money for taxis, and for three or four emergencies.

When I got back to London I checked my bank balance.

My overdraft had an echo.

‘We might have to wait before we see each other again, cariño,’ I texted.

‘I will be here,’ he texted.

I took my boom bada boom out salsa-ing in London. I had so much boom bada boom that I was never off the dance floor.
I spun right; I spun left. I danced with a big Afro-Cuban named Alfonso who smelled like Old Spice, who held me tighter than was usual and then asked me for my number.

I couldn’t get him out of my head.

Angel texted.

‘Mami, I love you. I need money for an emergency.’

For a while I tried to help.

When his phone credit ran out I didn’t top it up.

I emailed him and told him it was all too hard. We were too far away, and the age difference was too much.

After about a month I got an email back.

There was no attachment.

‘Was I just an adventure to you?’ it said.

This is an edited extract from The Whirl: Men, Music & Misadventures by Jane Cornwell (Harper Collins, 1 June, $29.99)

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