The sound could be heard above the traffic from outside on the street. A hundred clicking heels, stamping to a Cuban rhythm. Londoners learning a Latin beat.

Children and staff at the Camden Square Play Centre are among the first to benefit from a rare cultural exchange.

Six Cuban dancers from the National School of Dance in Havana, including the acclaimed teacher and choreographer Alfredo Velazquez Carcasses, have arrived to teach their vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture in a two week summer school and a series of dance workshops.

Their visit is the culmination of two years of planning, fundraising, and frustrating paperwork, by the Weekend Arts College, a performing arts training centre for young people. But their well-laid plans almost went awry when riots erupted in Havana.

In the worst outbreak of civil disorder since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, 35 people were injured, two policemen killed, and shops looted as hundreds of demonstrators marched along the Malecon waterfront shouting 'Freedom] Freedom].

Alec Cuffy of the WAC feared the trip would be called off: 'They were due to fly out on Sunday. After working so hard to get them over here we were worried that the troubles would prevent them leaving.

In fact by Sunday the riots had been controlled and the Cubans arrived that evening after a 12 hour flight, determined to dance, not debate


The biggest problem for the Cubans, who learn social dancing as soon as they can walk, may be comprehending the British reserve. This was summed up by one breathless eight-year-old, Chianah Sinanan, who said: 'I might dance at home on my own, but not in front of people I know. It's embarrassing.

But she went on to Cha-Cha-Cha with skill.

Jane King, dance critic for the Morning Star and a board member of the Weekend Arts College, believes the Cubans can teach us more than just rhythm.

Despite the economic crisis and fuel and food shortages caused by the break-up of the Soviet bloc and a strict US trade embargo, the Cuban Government is still struggling to give education and the arts the priority it has always had since 1959. Ms King said: 'The big difference between the British system and the Cuban is that there the scholarships are free and the standard of the training is second to none. This small country, despite its troubles, is still funding the arts. In England talented students cannot get grants.

The dance summer school at WAC lasts from 15 to 26 August. Participants will go on to perform their work as part of an international line-up of artists in a fund-raising evening on 26 August to pay for further Cuban exchanges. The next night Cubans will perform a full evening of dance.

Both shows are at the WAC, Dalby Street, London NW5. Tickets are pounds 5 full price, pounds 3 concessions.

(Photograph omitted)