Exploring Afro-Cuban folkloric and religious dances.
“Elegguá go Elegguá go aña
ala ala yo Ye ma san nkio
Elegguá go aña”
Understanding the Orishas
Salsa dancing did not spring out of a vacuum.
It has its unique history, culture and traditions. Trace things far back enough — beyond Fania Records, before the Cuban Son, Cha-Cha-Cha and Mambo… We have Afro-Cuban Yoruba and Congolese dance traditions. The secular Rumba and the religious Orisha dancing within a Lucumi (Santeria) framework.
It’s important to recognize that Orishas are not Gods in a Monotheistic sense. In Lucumi the highest power is a Supreme God with three manifestations — Olodumare (the Creator), Olorun (ruler of the Heavens) and Olofi (the conduit between Orun (heaven) and Aye (earth).
The traditions of Lucumi were preserved by African Initiates who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa into the new world. These traditions have been remembered and kept alive since the 16th century.
The easiest way to think of the Orishas is to consider them as similar to the Greek or Roman pantheon of Gods. The Orishas are deities and immortal (Chango is the only one who has tasted death), but they’re flawed beings. The Orishas meddle with human affairs and get caught in petty conflicts and squabbles much like the Greek and Roman Gods.
Orishas, Afro Cuban and Salsa Dancing
Orishas form the basis of Afro Cuban dancing and heavily influence the evolution of salsa dancing. Many salsa shines and solo moves are adapted straight out of the Afro Cuban playbook.Whether it’s the Rumba Complex ( Yambú, Guaguancó and Columbia), Abakuá, Yuka or Orisha dances, we must appreciate and acknowledge the influences of Afro Cuban dancing on modern day salsa.
Unfortunately, caught in the hoopla of looking fly and shining brighter than a diamond, it’s easy to forget the significance of dance moves. Afro Cuban dancing is more than mere body movements — they specifically honor and channel the Orishas.
There’s no need to believe in Lucumi to appreciate the stories (patakines) and personalities of the Orishas. Your dancing will improve by at least 114% once you recognize the significance and context behind the moves you execute.
Eleggua is the trickster deity. The child, the playful one. Eleggua also exists in the form of a wise old man. He is omniscient, everywhere at once. Past, present and future.
Don’t get it twisted. Eleggua is one of the most powerful and important deities within the Yoruba pantheon. Eleggua is known as the god of roads and the god of fate. Any ceremony in Lucumi must have Eleggua’s blessing before it proceeds.
In a dance context, Eleggua is unique because he seemingly has “no rules”. Keys to Eleggua’s dance is the garabato he holds. The garabato is a weeding tool and one of Eleggua’s signature props.
Eleggua is known to interact playfully with the audience, often breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience in banter and mischievous antics. Check out this female Eleggua below! She’s really fun 🙂
The mother of all. Yemaya is the goddess of the ocean and one of the most powerful Orishas. She is associated with the moon, the ocean and feminine mysteries. The goddess of life — Yemaya is the ultimate female badass.
Her dance alludes to female wisdom and the power of community. The cycle of life, healing and vicious properties of water are all present in her dance.
The one dressed in all-white.
Obatala, creator and ruler of all human heads and the father of all (or most) Orishas, depending on the tradition you believe in. Obatala is one of the most powerful Orishas and you really don’t want to mess with him.
When it comes to dancing, Obatala’s dance mimics the movements of an old man. Don’t be fooled, he is also a powerful warrior and can turn on the jets when he wants to!
Fierce is the word that comes to mind when thinking of Oya. She is a female warrior Orisha who lords over the cemetery, lightning and the winds of change.
Don’t fight her. You’ll die.
She rides into battle with her favourite lover Chango (that’s why fire and lightning are always together). Channel Oya and discover the strength of your inner feminine spirit. Swing that iruke, screech and summon some nifty hurricanes while you dance!
Ogun, the Orisha of iron, war and technology.
Armed with his trusty machete, Ogun is always ready to clear the way, allowing innovation and civilization to flourish. He’s best friends with Eleggua and Ochosi. The three of them love a jovial hunting trip together. Ogun can be a loyal, loving father as well as a fierce, blood thirsty warrior.
Don’t put him together with his rival Chango! The two of them have beef and history together 😉
(hint: it involves female Orishas, heh heh heh)
(PS “Aguanile, Aguanile Mai Mai!” Is a chant for Ogun. Spiritual cleansing.)
One of the most popular Orishas, Chango is the king of drumming, dance and fire. Chango is also the Orisha of masculinity and male energy. He is the only Orisha to have experienced death.
Chango is very relatable to worshipers due to his human qualities and numerous flaws such as over indulging in women, drink and partying. In dance, Chango wields his wooden axe and rains fire and lightning from heaven to devastating effect.
Chango eventually matures into a graceful ruler, teaching us that we can all redeem ourselves after a lifetime of mistakes and bad decisions.
Watch Chango and Ogun battle while Oya intervenes!
Chango and Oya are lovers. In some stories Ogun and Oya were once married… before Chango came along and charmed Oya with his fiery ways.
Oshun is the Orisha of love, beauty, femininity and sensuality.
She’s also a goddess full of ingenuity, creativity and tactful diplomacy. Sweet and innocent on one hand, vast and powerful on the other. Oshun represents the various stages of womanhood. From coquettish flirtations to the powerful matriarch of later years.
Watch for her jewelry, joyful gaze and flirtatious ways.
Don’t anger her though or you’ll awaken Beyonce-Oshun.
Babalu-aye (Baba Soroso/San Lazaro)
Greatly feared and respected, Babalu-aye is the god of disease, sickness and healing. He survived a horrible bout of smallpox as a child and is now happy to be alive. Babalu-aye both spreads and heals epidemics such as AIDS/HIV, ebola and leprosy. He’s a very popular orisha and wields great power despite being lame in one leg and constantly suffering from various sicknesses.
The hunter Orisha and the lord of justice and the law, Ochosi is a baller through and through. His arrow never misses.
Ochosi helps guide those on their spiritual path and journey toward self development. He is a seeker of Truth and helps others find Truth in their own way.
Ochosi enjoys hunting with his best friends Eleggua and Ogun. Their teamwork is incredible. Eleggua scouts the prey, Ogun clears the way and Ochosi shoots to kill.
Now let’s see how many Orishas you recognize here!