In the country of salsa and rumba, a troupe of sneaker-wearing Cuban youngsters have burst onto the dance scene with a style until recently all but unheard of on the isolated island nation: hip hop.

Under US sanctions and with the Communist Party in charge of all aspects of daily life, including what people get to see on public television, Cubans have had little exposure to the American genre that has taken the rest of the world by storm.

But this changed suddenly with internet arriving in the one-party state in 2015 – and mobile internet since 2018 – with some 4.2 million of Cuba’s 11.2 million people now connected.

With no other platform on which to ply their trade, 16-member Cuban dance troupe Datway (a play on That Way) have taken to Facebook and Instagram to display their unique brand of hip hop moves, blended with more traditional, home-grown styles.

It has launched them to international fame, even catching the eye of Daddy Yankee, dubbed the King of Reggaeton – a Latin American music style that borrows heavily from hip hop and rap.

The Puerto Rican rapper, who co-starred on the hit single “Despacito”, took to Instagram to comment: “Too good #Cuba” about a dance number the troupe performed to his latest hit “El Pony” and posted online.

In the video, the troupe jumps and gyrates to the reggaeton rhythm in sports clothes and sneakers, dyed hair and bandannas, and watched by a ragtag of neighborhood kids in a poor district of central Havana.

The video has earned them 2.2 million views.

“Hip hop videos from other countries are always [set] in these very beautiful places,” Datway founder Dariel Lopez, aka Chaiky Dari, told reporters.

Much talent, little exposure

“We always look for places that are . . . well not ugly, because for us they are not ugly, but real – those balconies in need of a touch of paint, young people and children who are not very well dressed,” said the 23-year-old with his wild mop of hair, parts of it bleached blonde.

Chaiky Dari boasts 33,700 subscribers on Instagram, a high hit rate for a country with the third lowest fixed broadband speed, according to Speedtest, though it ranks 88th out of 134 for mobile speed.

Under a tin roof held up by walls covered in graffiti, the members of Datway train from Monday to Friday, shooting their videos on weekends.

The troupe jumps and gyrates to the reggaeton rhythm in sports clothes and sneakers, dyed hair and bandannas as they are watched by a ragtag group of neighborhood kids in a poor district of central Havana. AFP

The troupe of 18-to-32-year-olds have backgrounds in contemporary and folk dance, some even worked in circuses.

Sometimes they go out on the street, plugging in their sound system at the house of a neighbor – an old lady who sells fruit from her front steps.

“Abroad, Cuba is still seen as the country of salsa,” but “here there is also a lot of talent in hip-hop, with a lot of dancers from the street,” said Liuven Dopico, 28, who himself learned to dance “in the street” and “by watching a lot of videos.”

Datway’s idea, however, is not to abandon their Cuban dance roots.

“We often mix hip hop with traditional Cuban music, we mix it all and we create something truly beautiful,” said Dopico, his hair tinted turquoise.

“If it is a salsa we mix it with urban dance, if it is reggaeton, we add salsa steps to it,” added Dari.

‘The best!’

Fellow troupe member Paloma Duarte, 23, started off as a classical ballet dancer, then worked in a folk dance company.

Now, “I feel complete as a dancer, I have all the styles!” she said.

Duarte said the group receives frequent messages from amateur dancers, many of whom send in videos, as the hip hop phenomenon spreads.

But to encourage more youngsters, “it would be really good if at the level of the state, of television, there was some urban dance and not only salsa and rumba,” she added.

In recent weeks, the glowing comments of Latin stars such as Daddy Yankee and Ricky Martin – “The best!”, he wrote on Instagram – have propelled Datway to new heights, even signing a contract with a record company in Florida to appear in dance videos.

And when Puerto Rican-Cuban Reggaeton duo Ozuna and Ovi launched an online challenge, inviting dancers to choreograph a video for their new song “Envidioso”, the winners were none other than Datway.

The group received a prize of $10,000 – a fortune in a country where the minimum monthly salary is $87.

Half of the money will be used on “technology” – better internet connection and filming equipment, said Ernesto Rodriguez, 32, the group’s technical director.

“The rest was divided among the members, and I also gave money to the children” from the neighborhood, who appear in Datway’s videos.