HAVANA, Cuba – Young and old burn up the dance floor at Havana’s Las Canitas nightclub every weekend. On a recent Saturday night, half of the dancers twirling to the latest salsa hits were from Switzerland.
Cubans pride themselves on their intricate, hip-swiveling moves and can usually tell the difference between locals and foreigners.
“See, look at him. He needs to move his hips more,” a young Cuban woman shouted over the blaring sound system as she watched the Swiss tourists.
But some of them surprised her.
“Wow, he’s got tremendous feeling,” she said pointing to another dancer as he spun his partner in circles. “He could definitely be Cuban.”
This Caribbean island may be best known among tourists for its pristine beaches and classic American cars, but travelers are increasingly headed to Cuba for salsa dancing.
The tropical music has taken Europe and Asia by storm, with salsa clubs and dance studios in high demand, especially in the UK, Germany and Japan.
And when it comes time to travel, they’ve still got salsa on the mind.
Cuban dance instructor Marisuri Garcia opened a dance school in Switzerland, where she lives part of the year.
Back in Cuba, she receives locals and tourists in her second-story apartment on a rundown street in the center of Havana. Many Cubans like her have bought licenses from the government, which allow them to offer private lessons, charging around $5 per hour.
“Dancing helps you live better,” she told CNN. “It helps you to look inside and open up, to be free in mind and body.”
Cuba’s Culture Ministry also offers salsa packages with state-run dance studios like SprachCaffe, where tourists are paired with individual instructors.
A two-week tour including dance classes, hotel and some meals runs about 900 euros, or about $1,300.
Garcia has converted her terrace into a studio with a green plastic roof, mirrors on the walls and views of her neighbors’ laundry drying in the sun.
“More sexy!” she shouts to the rows of Swiss visitors as they roll their hips and practice their steps.
This group has come on a two-week package that includes beach time and city tours. But their main goal is to go home dancing better than when they arrived.
“I have been dancing for three or four years,” said Peter Schaffer, an accountant. “Now I will find my individual style.”
The origins of salsa are disputed. It has its roots in Cuba’s son and mambo but was heavily influenced by American music and Latin Americans living in New York.
Evelyn Hiestand, a flight attendant, says she has been dancing salsa for years but feels that she has found something more genuine in Cuba.
“Because I think it’s the roots of salsa,” she said. “It’s joy. It’s joy of life.”
Because of U.S. travel restrictions, very few American tourists make it to Cuba.
Garcia thinks salsa dancing could be a bridge as more cultural exchanges are allowed by President Barack Obama’s administration. She hopes to help people overcome political differences on the dance floor.
“We’ve got Swiss and Germans dancing salsa like Cubans,” she says. “It’s time to see more Americans!”