In Cuba, you can say no with a flick of the hips

Lady Salsa | Pleasance, London
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The Independent Culture

In case I should ever find myself unchaperoned in some low dive in Santiago de Cuba, I now know how to say "I no want sleep with you" without fear of misunderstanding or reproach. Should a lady's dancing partner suddenly make an unwelcome pass midway through the salsa, she should pointedly cover her crotch with both hands in a sudden, coy movement, while saucily raising her eyebrows and inverting her knees, all without breaking the rhythm of the dance.

In case I should ever find myself unchaperoned in some low dive in Santiago de Cuba, I now know how to say "I no want sleep with you" without fear of misunderstanding or reproach. Should a lady's dancing partner suddenly make an unwelcome pass midway through the salsa, she should pointedly cover her crotch with both hands in a sudden, coy movement, while saucily raising her eyebrows and inverting her knees, all without breaking the rhythm of the dance.

This useful advice comes courtesy of 76-year-old Hilda Oates, the eponymous star of Lady Salsa, a Cuban dance show transferred from this year's Edinburgh Fringe. There it played in a tent strewn about with lifesize papier mâché Cadillacs and giant murals of Che Guevara, suggesting a street in 1950s' Havana. Sadly, the big limos didn't make it down to London's Pleasance Theatre. But Oates's larger-than-lifesize personality and the fabulous dancing of a troupe of 12 make this strange, ad hoc evening a hugely enjoyable event, with or without the warming inducement of an interval rum and coke.

It is not a polished show. Originally a scripted drama with dance numbers, it has been rejigged by British director Toby Gough as an illustrated history of Cuba - part racial and political, but more in terms of the social dance culture of the last 50 years - loosely tacked together with anecdotes from the extraordinary Ms Oates. That she is an extraordinary person is never in doubt. Big, black, ancient but vibrantly animated, she smokes a fat cigar and sports a brilliant fuchsia get-up topped with a turban. She herself doesn't dance more than a few shuffly steps but succeeds in holding court with her memories and opinions without quite having the English to do it.

We hear how she was kissed on the cheek by Fidel Castro, and how she once found herself pressed against Che Guevara in a crowded square. We learn how she manages to keep "so jung". But this hardly justifies being lauded as a heroine of modern Cuba. I learnt only later that Hilda Oates is the Dame Judi Dench of her country, a classical actress doubly famous for her defiance of the once-rigid repression of blacks in Cuba, who rose from unthinkable poverty and forged revolutionary friendships along the way. But somehow the show omits to tell you any of this. At least, Oates wasn't giving anything away the night I went. You sense that the script might be somewhat flexible.

The dancing, too, seems spontaneous. But common sense tells you that such vigorous and complex moves in such a small, crowded space must be tightly choreographed - and for this I'm told the credit goes to Cuban Alexander Varona, but bizarrely there is no printed programme, and no name-check for the dancers, either. What's more, the leaflet for Lady Salsa shows a Hilda Oates impersonator, not the lady herself. But don't let this put you off. It's phenomenal.

Following a vague chronology, Cuba's melting-pot dance forms pour out thick and fast: west African religious rants, cha-cha-cha, son, jazz, rumba, mambo, modern salsa - a riot of flashing smiles, wriggling bodies and outrageously grinding hips. It's hard to say what is more impressive: the every-changing brilliant costumes or the lack of them. At one point the women bound onto the stage in nothing but spangly bras and thongs, which would be alarming at such proximity but for the fact that the bodies are so lusciously perfect, and the dance technique detailed and sure.

What lifts the show above being a Club Tropicana sex fest is not just the performers' virtuosity and commitment, but the way they appear to be partying for real. Men vie with each other to do the tricksiest solo - crouching and circling slowly on one heel or swooping down on their stomachs to retrieve a dropped handkerchief in their teeth. A couple launch into a dance which consists solely of finely graded vibrations - starting from a faint, all-over tremor and building to a wild voodoo shake.

And it's catching. When the call finally comes for the audience to learn some basic steps and join in, amazingly they nearly all do, crowding on to the floor along with the half-dressed lovelies and steamy men whose trouser legs appear to have a life of their own. The live music, provided by a band called Sonora la Calle, is spunky and tough and compels you to start circling those sluggish hips. I cannot think of any other show I've seen so equally suited to dance aficionados and the office Christmas party.

The truth is that Cubans no longer dance spontaneously in the street. Today's clubs in Havana are more likely to play techno or rap. And the Guantanamera of the song has a US air base. But if the old spirit of Cuba can still take flight in a glorious - if slightly odd - show like this, then it will survive. It used be said that the island was a crocodile biting the foot of America. If Lady Salsa is anything to go by, it still has some of its teeth.

'Lady Salsa': The Pleasance Theatre, N7 (020 7609 1800), until 27 December

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