“Señoras y señores…showtime!”
The lights go down… as a troupe of near-naked showgirls in silver thigh-high boots and glowing chandeliers atop their heads appears at the back of the auditorium. Welcome to the Tropicana, the most famous of Cuba”s pre-revolutionary open-air extravaganzas—now in its eighth decade of Vegas-style paganism.
Every town in Cuba has at least one cabaret espectáculo—‘show’—featuring flamboyant cabaret routines highlighted by a never-ending parade of mulata showgirls sashaying and shaking in sequined bikinis, ruffled frills, sensational headdresses and feathers. Jugglers, acrobats, even comedians and singers are often featured—all a legacy of the 19th-century Cuban music halls that were the modern cabarets” antecedent.
Outshining all other venues is the Tropicana, with open-air outlets in Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago de Cuba.
The Revolution barely ruffled the feathers of the “paradise under the stars,” which opened on New Year”s Eve 1939 in the Havana district of Marianao in an open-air theater in the gardens of the former residence of the U.S. ambassador. The Tropicana featured effusive tropical foliage as part of its setting. International celebrities such as Nat “King” Cole, Josephine Baker, and Carmen Miranda headlined the shows, drawing the Havana elite. The show was so popular that a 50-passenger “Tropicana Special” flew nightly from Miami for an evening of entertainment that ended in the nightclub’s casino.
In the late 1950s, the club was owned by Martín Fox, who held a legal monopoly on the installation and maintenance of slot machines—máquinas traganíqueles—in Havana. Managing the casino was Mafia associate Lefty Clark.
Kicking out the Mafia and closing the strip clubs, casinos, and brothels had been one of the revolutionary government”s first moves. The casinos, strip clubs, and live sex shows are gone, but the cabarets remain. They were closed briefly in 1968 but reopened thanks to a demonstration of popular support by the performers and patrons.
Cuban couples delight in these razzmatazz spectacles and shake their head at any puritanical concept that they”re not quite PC. ‘Cuban cabarets aren’t sexist,’ Sandra Levinson, director of the Center for Cuban Studies, in New York, once told me. ‘They”re part of Cuban tradition. Cabarets are integral to Cuban culture.’
Tourists usually misinterpret why this is so. While the statuesque figurantes are undeniably and intentionally sexy, to Cubans they literally represent the nation itself. Moreover, ritual dances from the island”s syncretic Santería religion are the quintessential element of most Cuban cabarets. The music is principally of Yoruba origin. Some songs are even sung in the Yoruba language and the figurantes, when they appear in their sensuous yellow costumes, are seen as idealized embodiments of Ochún, the provocative Santería goddess of love.
Tropicana”s more than 200 performers are handpicked from the crème de la crème of Cuba”s beauties, dancers, and singers. So esteemed are figurantes and bailarinas that more than 10,000 hopefuls a year apply for auditions.
Cabarets are the free expression of sensuality inherent in the Cuban sense of a liberated self. And the Tropicana is a national institution—the pinnacle of a performance art as syncretistic as Santería itself and as quintessentially Cuban as cigars and rum.