For love of the dance ... a tale of defection
Members of the 'Havana Night Club' severed national ties for a new beginning.
Dennis Bain has seen it all - the neon glow of Tokyo, the cafe culture of Paris, the bridges of London, and even the ornate spires of a sheikh's palace. But no matter where his travels carried him, the 27-year-old dancer kept a special place in his heart for what he calls "the humble life" of Cuba.
There he could visit his grandparents in rural Santiago and help mend the palm-frond roof or the wooden slats that made up the walls of their home. There no one bothered to warn the neighbors if they were going to throw a party because the neighbors always came, too.
Living a threadbare life also meant Bain learned to find simple riches in the passion of Cuban dance and rhythms. And now the talented dancer wants to be free to share that love with the world, even if it means turning his back on the very culture that fed his artistic soul. Thus Bain and 42 members of "Havana Night Club - The Show," a Cuban dance troupe, made international headlines last week when they filed for political asylum in Las Vegas.
"I had traveled the world and I'd always returned to my country and my family, and my neighbors, my environment, and my chores," he says in Spanish. "Not this time."
The decision to defect didn't come easily or suddenly, but it was almost unanimous - with just three of the dancers saying they may want to go back to Cuba. The reasons involve freedom and opportunity, but this mass defection also hinged on their close kinship as a troupe and a rebuff from the Cuban government.
Formed six years ago, the Havana Night Club has toured in 16 countries including Germany, Thailand, and Australia delivering a show depicting eras of Cuban nightlife to captivated audiences in a swirl of movement and sound.
But their applications for permission to perform in the United States drew a harsh response from the Cuban government, which eventually confiscated equipment and closed their rehearsal space. Then, early this year, the government barred the company's German-born founder, Nadine Durr, from returning to Cuba.
When the troupe did secure US visas, the threat that they would never be allowed to perform if they returned weighed heavily, says Ms. Durr, the company director. That, she says, impelled the largest Cuban defections in the US since Fidel Castro came to power.
"You want to tell a 19-year-old dancer that 'When you come back, you can no longer dance'?" she asks. "Tell that to [someone] who has a future in front of him, who has talent, who is a star," and see what happens.
What happened is a leap into the unknown - and into new opportunities.
"I know I have a future," says 21-year-old Naomi Rojas a singer from Camaguey. "In Cuba you work hard, very hard, every day. But you can't travel anywhere everything is prohibited." For all its simple pleasures, the shaky economy in Cuba means a dancer might make $5 a month. Here in the United States, she feels, "you can work for you, for your future."
For now, that future means working eight shows a week earning $50 to $80 a day at the Wayne Newton Theatre at the Stardust Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.
Defections to the US have long shadowed the the trail of rising stars from communist countries ranging from athletes to artistic performers. Soviet sensation Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in 1974. A husband-and-wife team of Soviet tightrope performers compared their 1986 defection on American soil to Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. The largest Soviet defection involved 14 members of a Soviet circus in 1990.
And now Cuban performers, suffering economically since Cuba lost its trading partner with the demise of the Soviet Union, are left to continue the tradition. The "Havana Night Club" defection is the largest since about 34 Cuban athletes asked for asylum in Puerto Rico in 1993.
But defecting to the US has rarely meant that the performers' culture, influences, and passion for the old country has been lost. Indeed, Baryshnikov and others like him have built new careers on time-tested traditions.
And it seems the scope of "Havana Night Club" looks hopeful beyond the bright lights of Las Vegas. Someone is talking to director Durr about doing a movie, there's discussions of extending the current contract, and there's percolating interest from other venues.
It lessens the sting, at least, for many of the Cuban performers who have left so many parents, siblings, and sometimes even spouses and children behind. But sacrificing for their art has long been part of shaping who they are.
As a teenager, Bain endured raised eyebrows in a country where strong Cuban boys grow up to become baseball heroes, not dancers on stage. It didn't help matters that his father, employed by the government, is an athletic director.
"It was a little strange, even for my family," says Bain, who knew he wanted to dance ever since he was 10 years old, and whom Durr describes as the "motor of the show."
Those times are behind him now.
"I can't believe I'm here," he says as the rapid beat of flamenco music blares from speakers behind the stage curtain. "But the fact that I am here makes me believe that one day I'll be able to go back. No one has the the right to tear your family away from you."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.