Kerry Ribchester is a world-class dance teacher, dance therapist, choreographer and film-maker who is completely and utterly in love with Cuba. She is founder of Key2Cuba, the Cuban dance holiday company and she boasts Kylie Minogue, Rula Lenska, and Frank Skinner among her dance students. She is also three times winner of the Top UK Salsa Teacher Award. Her unique ability to to break down Cuban dance and her honest Northern charm inspires all of those around her.
She’s also very familiar with the authentic and captivating Cuba behind the tourist veil. For that reason, we are speaking to her today to discover exactly what it is that distinguishes a Cuban dancer from a Brit, how we can improve our own dancing and even a little interesting fact about dancing Cuban Orishas. Are you ready?
Many call you the ‘Godmother of UK Salsa’. You opened the first Salsa club in the UK ‘Club Brazil’. Can you tell me a little about that?
That was a really exciting time! I’d just come back from studying for 18 months in Brazil and I really missed the ‘latin vibe’. First we organised a festival and when it was instantly popular, we decided to take the plunge and open the club with one room of Salsa and one room of Lambada. We employed Nelson Batista to teach the Salsa and I taught some Lambada and it just completely took off! It was the start of everything and was about 20 years ago now.
How did you learn Cuban salsa?
Back then, I wasn’t really aware of what true Cuban salsa really was. What we were teaching was a kind of ‘street Salsa’. It was only when I got to Cuba myself that I realised that I had only really skimmed the surface. There is so much to it and you need to know all of it’s components. It’s like a cake- you need to know all of the layers to really appreciate it. I educated myself and took lessons with amazing teachers like Lydia of Raices Profundas (who I’m still friends with today). I didn’t want to dance like a Brit, I wanted to dance like a Latino.
What’s the difference between the way Brits and Cubans dance?
There are several main ways; inhibition, origin of body movement, and access to live music.
As a nation, we are far more inhibited than the Cubans and we have been brought up not to show off, to be modest and keep ourselves to ourselves. They have a far more open, confident and tactile culture in Cuba and this is especially evident when they dance. Us Brits generally have an unhealthy attitude towards touch- it’s seen as being a bit ‘eugh’ if you know what I mean. I think that’s one of our problems.
It’s also about where your body movement originates from. All of a Cuban’s movements come from the core. You walk down the main street in Obispo (a street in Havana) and everyone’s got these knees and these pelvises wonderfully relaxed. Where else in the world do you see that? It’s unique to countries in which people are moving more, and they’re not sitting watching the telly, they’re not sitting at their desk, they’re not living in cold countries. That is how they dance in Cuba. Let’s take dancing Cuban Orishas as an example. When you try to dance Changó as a Brit, you just copy the arms. And you don’t initiate the movement from the lungs. When you initiate from the core of the body, like for example when you’re Changó, you need to be moving with your two knees and you need to be accessing the pelvis. You need to have a pelvis that’s released and when you ‘re moving with his arm movements, you need to be really deeply using all of the three dimensions of the lungs; side, front and back.
Some Brits struggle to understand Salsa music. Obviously if you struggle to understand it then you are going to come across problems when you want to dance to it. I believe that one of the problems lies with our relative unfamiliarity with it- we just don’t have the access to live Salsa music as Cubans do.
How dancing Salsa benefits your body
There is something about Cuban dance that endlessly fascinates me. When you dance the Cuban Orishas, each Orisha stimulates a different part of your body. So if you’re dancing Elegua, you’re stimulating your joints, you’re stimulating the synovial fluid in your joints. If you’re dancing Changó you’re more in your pelvis and you’re using your arterial blood. If you’re dancing Ochun you’re dancing from your skin which is very sensual, and your lymphatic system too.
That means that when you are dancing, it doesn’t only look good but you are also changing your anatomy, your whole physiology. For example, when you dance Changó, you feel so powerful because you become so full of oxygen which of course comes from the movement originating from the lungs. And of course when you dance Cuban Salsa well and also when you go to Cuba, it’s fantastic for building confidence.
How could us Brits improve our dancing?
The best thing we can do for our dancing is to get more in touch with our bodies and our emotions. This means we become more connected to our pelvises and as well as seeing other improvements in our lives, we find it easier to dance Salsa.
I would love it if in the UK people didn’t take the dancing so seriously and really encouraged each other. t’s vitally important that when we’re dancing we’re smiling, we’re looking at each other. and we’re enjoying our bodies and the music. It’s very hard for me to come back to the UK and to see everyone so serious on the dancefloor . I once danced with someone at a Congress that wasn’t Cuban but he was a professional dancer. He spent half the dance not looking at me. Not once. He was so wrapped up in his movement and being accurate that it was as if i wasn’t there. And when I asked him to smile, his face changed and we had a lovely dance after that.
I also think we need to stop worrying about how good we look and getting the steps right. We need to just tear it apart and enjoy ourselves.. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only got a few steps. It’s not about how many steps you know, it’s how you interact with your partner.
British men need to spend less time on moves and more time on the quality of their body movement and the connection with the woman. British women need to stop worrying about their turns and just relax and be confident. The guys want us to be confident, they want us to show off- that’s part of what makes a gorgeous dance. Forget dancing politics and getting all of the moves right, we need to compliment each other more, support each other and try to find a way to boost each others confidence.
What is it that keeps you returning to Cuba?
I’ve often thought about this question and have realised it’s a combination of many wonderful things. It’s the adventure, the warmth and humanity of the people, the ability of the Cuban people to really live in the moment and make the best of what they have. The music, architecture and landscape is pretty good too.
What I really really love about being in Cuba is the ability to just to spend the day going from one place to another and meeting so many warm open people . In one day for example, you can go to pick up something from a shop and you can end up talking to somebody and going to another shop with that somebody in a bicitaxi, and then you end up somewhere else. It’s all such a massive adventure. In Cuba people look you in the eye and they touch your heart. There’s a humanity there that’s just beautiful. Somehow, people overcome the terrible effects of the embargo with their character. Cuban people are still suffering because of the embargo and there is so little they have materially. Yet spiritually, mentally and emotionally they have the ability to transform themselves by living in the moment and making the most of what they have.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world to share my knowledge. I’ve worked in 161 countries all over the world and Cuba is always different. I can never leave Cuba without knowing the date that I’ll return.
Do you think it changes people’s lives coming to Cuba with you?
It changed my life and I’m sure it changes other people’s lives too. When people first visit Cuba, they slowly become more relaxed, more confident, more in touch with their bodies and have a lot of fun. About 50-80% of the people that come say that it’s life-changing. And about 40-45% of people who have come on my trips come back . Once you’ve been to Cuba, it moves you, it touches your heart. Most people come back.
The thing I love most about our holidays is when I see my group just ‘ripping it apart’ and behaving more Latino than anyone else in the place. They’ll be hugging each other and singing along with all of the words and having a complete whale of a time. It’s just fabulous to see them like that. There’s also nothing quite like the feeling of being in a group.The bonding that happens, the sense of community that grows and the thought that there are people looking out for you is just wonderful..
Quite honestly when I come back I miss that group feeling, as do a lot of people. We’ve gelled as a unit, we’ve gone through an amazing adventure together. Then it’s back to your home. Back to your Facebook. Back to your work. That magic seems to be missing in some way.
Why did you start your company Key2Cuba?
I started doing joint holidays with Dance Holidays but I soon realised that what I wanted to do was more specific. I wanted to have a holiday that was more focused around the dancing, share my passion and take the Brit off the beaten path a little. So I decided to do it my own way and opened Key2Cuba. It was an instant success.
You have worked with many Salsa greats along the way. Can you tell me a little about your work with Juan Formell and Los Van Van, Bamboleo and Alexander Abreu?
The story with Los Van Van began a few years ago. Their drummer, Samuel had hurt his thumb and a friend of mine told him “My mate Kerry can fix that. She’s a Hellerwork practitioner”. So I went to his house, worked on his neck and back and he could play again. As you can imagine the band was very happy with me and dedicated a song to me. Over the years we have worked a lot together like when we made the video for ‘Me Mantengo’. I had the idea of the bands playing on the rooftops of Havana on a hot day with such a wonderful view, and I had a specific vision of one shot with some doves. So I ordered twelve white doves and when they came they were actually twelve dirty pigeons! When we did the only take and the birds flew up in the air, their wings were actually white underneath and it was exactly the shot that I’d dreamed of.
Juan Formell was the sweetest, kindest man with no ego. He would just sit next to you and very lightly hold your hand. He had such a sweet demeanour. Tell you something- I interviewed him last August and we found the footage which is being edited right now. I’m going to show it to Samuel and if he llikes it we are going to publish it. It’s basically Juan’s story in his words so we have a bit of history there.
We also filmed the Bamboleo video: La Que Manda on the Malecon. It was amazing- one huge fiesta of filming. To be honest, the moment I met Tania (Pantoja, ex singer) I knew I wanted to work with her.
More recently we worked with Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera on the video “Al Final de La Vida” along with the lovely Maykel Fonts which was great. Alexander is lovely, like a huge teddy bear with a heart of gold and he really wants to help people. He’s such a busy man now though as he’s enjoying great success all around the world.
What does the future hold for Kerry Ribchester?
So many things!
1) Key2Cuba keeps on growing. We’re extending what we do so we also do photography, percussion and Spanish as well as dance. Also we will offer corporate training which will be amazing in Cuba.
2) I’m promoting Cuban music and helping Cuban musicians to get their music out there by opening a music agency. And I’m working with Del Salereo at his radio show on Backtobackfm.com
3) I’m continuing my coaching work. I love to teach one-to-one and recently I have been working with a couple for TV. So if anyone has a performance that they need to sharpen up, just get in touch, I love making people look good!
3) I’m working on a great documentary and today I’ve had brilliant news about it so Im hoping it will go ahead, It’s not signed sealed and delivered but I can’t wait…
4) I’ve got an idea for a new video and I’m going to be working on that starting on Friday this week in Cuba.
So watch out it’s going to be an amazing international year!
Key2Cuba have a trip going out on 29th December for 10 days
Head to the Key2Cuba website for tickets or you can give Kerry a call on 07767 313168