Not for nothing were the female dancers of the Tropicana described in their heyday as Las Diosas de Carne (goddesses of the flesh). There is something quite idolatrous about the spectacle of intricately painted showgirls clad in feathers, sequins and elaborate headdresses commanding the stage of the most famous cabaret in the world.
Evolving to cater to the north American tourist trade, Cuban cabaret really started when nightclub owner Victor de Correa cut a deal with casino operators Rafael Mascaro and Luis Bular and relocated the dance troupe and musicians from his successful nightclub Edén Concert, to the rented grounds of Guillermina Pérez Chaumont’s stately villa in Havana’s Marianao. The new business partners renamed the cabaret Tropicana in reference to the lush vegetation that would characterize their outdoor cabaret; and with a winning combination of dazzling musical shows and high-stakes casino, the club went from strength to strength.
Its heyday was in the 1950s, when the famous Arcos de Cristal glass-walled stage opened. The 1950s also saw cabaret-casinos open in various venues across Havana including at the Havana Hilton, the Riviera and the Nacional hotels – all of which still operate cabarets to this day. Following the Revolution all cabarets were nationalized and the mob, which had grown to have a large commercial interest in the cabarets, were expelled from the country.
Today the standard of both house band and dancers at the Tropicana is phenomenal, with the troupe often including several dancers who narrowly failed to make the grade at the Cuban national ballet. While some might find the sexist nature of scanty costumes and provocative dances somewhat hard to swallow, there’s no denying that this spectacle is a quintessential Cuban experience.