TXT: mauricio vicent PHOTO: RÓmulo Sans
The first pair of tap shoes that Roberto José Manzano had, he made himself when he was nine years old by nailing some Polar or Hatuey beer bottle caps to the tips of his shoes - he doesn’t remember the brand, for seventy years have passed. The Second World War had just finished, but he still hasn’t forgotten the whipping he got at home for ruining his only decent pair of shoes. Besides the beating, his aunts punished him by forbidding him from going to the cinema for a month, and it was well-justified, as Roberto got the jazz-dancing-bug when he saw Bill Robinson in action for the first time in Stormy Weather. In that 1943 Fox movie, the Nicholas brothers did intricate work on stage to the rhythm of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, and that drove Roberto and a group of black guys from Havana crazy. Even today, at well over seventy years old, a score of those friends still get together religiously to dance jazz on the first Saturday of every month in Santa Amalia. It’s what is left of their rebellious streak.
The rendezvous is at the home of the late Gilberto Torres, legendary leader of this group of dancers, who at the age of 82 gave up his fight against lung cancer. Before his death, in his hospital bed, Gilberto asked best buddy Lázaro Montero and his son William to continue the “Jazz Corner” tradition, a space founded in the living room of his house around the ‘60s, when North American music was considered the enemy’s instrument of ideological penetration in Cuba.
“Sometimes one has to wonder who will be next… but one thing is for sure: while one of us is alive, we will continue coming to dance,” says Roberto. Small-set, with a certain air of Sammy Davis Jr., at 72 he is one of the few in the group with a command of the tap technique. Among his friends, Roberto is as famous for his swift, elegant steps as for his ability to paint and sketch in ink. Two of his portraits preside in the living room of this Santa Amelia house: one is of Dizzy Gillespie, who visited the place in 1988 and shared a glorious evening with the dancers; and the second, the late Gilberto watching his friends through the corner of his eye.
+ information pág. 116-127 The H Book 2008 09