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A Glimpse of Havana in Downtown St. Petersburg

A piece of Cuba was left in Downtown St. Peterburg Sunday. The "Afternoon in Havana" event was filled with salsa lessons from professional ballroom champions, cigars, Cuban sandwiches and an orchestra directly from the island all to support the arts in St. Pete.

"An Afternoon in Havana" began with a VIP salsa dance lesson taught by Tony Dovolani and Maks Chmerkovskiy, the bad boys from ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

If you are spending an afternoon immersed in Cuban culture, knowing a few Latin dance steps is a must since that's the orchestra's specialty.

In addition to performances by the World Champion Latin Dance Competition winners, entertainment was also provided by the Cuban musical sensation Orquesta Aragon.

Credit Yoselis Ramos
Hosts Tony and Maks from Dancing with the Stars and Mary Murphy from So You Think You Can Dance share the stage with Orquesta Aragon.

Orquesta Aragon is a part of the collective Buena Vista Social Club. The Club is an actual members-only club in Havana, Cuba, and was the hotspot back in the 1930s through the 1950s where bands would play every evening. Orquesta Aragon was formed in 1939 by the director Orestes Aragon in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

The group helped launch the popularity of the cha cha in the 1950s. With the orchestra's long history, it's gone through its share of members as some retire and others step in. Rafael Lay Junior holds the director's baton now.

He said, in the past, the group has toured the U.S. and Florida before, but never the Tampa Bay area.

“Here in Florida, we got to know Miami just a few years ago so we were missing Tampa," he said. "We’re finally happily here. It’s a city that’s very close to Cuba, with a lot of tradition and lots of Cuban relations for years. So it was time for us to come here."

Oracio Rodriguez del Toro is the orchestra’s timbarero, playing the traditional Cuban instrument of the timabales. Del Toro said he felt good playing the event.

“Good good good, this is what I love to do, what we love to do and we’re of service to the people, to the public," he said.

That service includes supporting the arts.

Part of the proceeds of the event went towards the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, which helps promote and build awareness for the arts. Executive director, John Collins met with the band a few days before the show.

“Their leader got up and said that this gig is all that more important for them, they didn’t know it was benefiting artists. So I got goosebumps from that, I just thought that was the coolest thing, they get it."

Credit Yoselis Ramos
A poster to get into the Latin spirit.

This event was the kick start St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, which has been running for only about a year.

To Collins, the arts are vital to St. Petersburg—not only do they enhance the quality of life, they help drive the economy too. Collins says he's spoken to a few IT firms in the area who have job openings.

“There’s over 3000 open jobs and so if we’re going to attract the 20 and 30-somethings to come here to fill those jobs, we need to be cool," he said.

He also said the arts gives St. Pete an extra boost.

“Any city, every city- hopefully, provides the best they can in city services but nobody’s going to move there if you have a great city service," he said. "But they will move there if you have a nice orchestra, or a buzzing, thriving downtown or a funky scene.”

Tampa Bay has a long and rich Cuban history since the late 1800s. If an afternoon of Cuban culture qualifies as "a funky scene," Tampa Bay wins that title hands down.

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