By Marlin Caddell | Staff Reporter | The Crimson White
Robert Thompson spoke at the first annual Alabama-Cuba Conference on Wednesday, explaining how the mambo dance routine relates to many aspects of American life, ranging from football stances and plays to the simple high-five.
Richard Diehl, a UA anthropology professor, selected Thompson, who is an art history professor at Yale University, as the conference’s keynote speaker. Diehl said one of the reasons he selected Thompson was because Thompson has visited Cuba and studied about the country’s people and history.
“If [Thompson’s] speech were a painting, I wanted an eye-banger,” he said. “I wanted something that would really hit them in the face and wake them up. And this was it.”
Thompson said he participates in conferences such as the one sponsored by the University, so individuals will develop a respect for themselves and their culture. He said he accomplishes that through speaking on the mambo dance.
“[The] mambo helps level people up, so they can have a down-to-earth view of who they are as Americans,” Thompson said. “Mambo also helps accentuate the connection, the tight connection Americans have with 22 ... other countries.”
Thompson said he would use the word ‘liberation’ to describe the conglomeration of various aspects of the mambo dance as it translates into American culture. He said mambo, in contrast to all other forms of dance utilized in the early 20th century, caused men and women to dance separately and was meant to liberate men and women from each other.
Thompson connected Alabama football coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant to the dance by noting that different aspects of football - such as the stutter step, the touchdown follies and spiking the football - can be related to the mambo. Thompson also said the origin of the high-five comes from dance.
“[The high-five] is at the heart of American athletics, but the high-five is from the conga word for ecstasy,” Thompson said. “When your hand is up and the hands are flayed, and if I have just made a touchdown, I am ecstatic.”
The Alabama-Cuba Conference, which began Monday, will wrap up today. The University hosted several different speakers who discussed factors of Cuban life and culture and ways the University can help build ties with the Cubans.
Diehl said Cuba Week will reinforce contact between the University, the state of Alabama and the Cuban people. He said this connection will only grow as more conferences are held and students study in the Latin American country.
“These two countries have been separated for almost 50 years, and we don’t know anything about them,” Diehl said. “They don’t know anything about us, and one of the greatest things we are trying to do here is break down some of those barriers.”
Diehl said the United States and the University specifically are both doing a poor job of learning Cuban culture, but conferences about Cuban people and history help to resolve the differences between the two nations. Diehl said Americans need to know how Cubans feel about sports, such as baseball, and what attitudes they have about life, culture and every other aspect of life.
“At some point in the future, the wall is going to fall that divides Cuba and the United States, and we have got to be in the position where we understand the Cubans, and the Cubans understand us,” Diehl said.
“As we continue [to participate in Cuban conferences], we will build up ties between us and the people of Cuba, particularly between the University and the people of Cuba ... and ultimately we will break down the walls that have ... come to exist since 1959.”
Diehl said the University has already seen an impact from the Cuba Week Conference with the interest of biologists and archeologists who want to travel to Cuba to study the people and culture.
“Things like that will start happening and will start building a foundation until we get a critical mass of interchange going on between Alabama and the Cuban people,” Diehl said.