More than 50 years have passed, but Afro-Cuban author Pedro Pérez Sarduy still remembers the dances.
He and his friends would dress smartly in white linen guayaberas and black bow ties to attend balls at La Bella Unión (Beautiful Union), a social club in his hometown of Santa Clara, Cuba. At these matinés, they danced cha-cha-cha and flirted with girls.
''The matiné went from 1 until 5 with a local orchestra for the kids,'' Pérez Sarduy said. ``After that, the dance for adults had a good orchestra because this was important for the prestige of the club.''
Known in Spanish as sociedades de color, these and similar clubs fell victim to Fidel Castro's drive, shortly after he seized power, to eliminate any aspect of Cuban society that emphasized racial exclusivity. But their spirit and mission have been enjoying a renaissance over the past decade. And the same revolutionary government that once opposed them now seems to welcome their comeback.
In prerevolutionary Cuba, where blacks and poor, uneducated whites were denied access to good jobs and ritzy outings, the clubs served as centers to socialize and promote black racial progress. Many had libraries and offered night classes and sports instruction.
Above all, the sociedades sought to dispel any negative stereotypes of blacks.
Author and activist Carlos Moore says that members of Amantes del Progreso (Lovers of Progress), the club in his hometown of Lugareño, went as far as forbidding dances that they felt demeaned blacks.
''Dancing huahuancó was not allowed because whites considered it a savage dance,'' Moore said.
The clubs patterned themselves after similar organizations catering to other communities, such as Spaniards and Chinese. They also existed alongside institutions reserved for affluent white Cubans, like the Havana Yacht Club.
Cuba boasted more than 200 Afro-Cuban sociedades in 1949. Most had inspirational names, like Fraternal Union, Progress or New Era.
Castro's revolution moved quickly to force integration, opening up private clubs and other facilities to all races and socioeconomic classes. It also dismantled the sociedades, both black and white, decreeing them obsolete in the new class-color-blind Cuba. Some survived into the first years of the revolution but were eventually disbanded.
LOSS OF AUTONOMY
While Afro-Cubans enjoyed unprecedented opportunities in education and social advancement after 1959, with the disappearance of the sociedades they lost ''an autonomous position in Cuban society and politics, given that the revolutionary government took control of everything,'' said Frank Guridy, who teaches history at the University of Texas.
The regime's actions not only deprived Afro-Cubans of a unique platform to air grievances but also erased a significant part of their heritage.
''The cultural history of Afro-Cubans was lost, too,'' Guridy added. ``The folkloric representations are well-known. But the younger generations have no idea of the existence of these clubs.''
In the euphoria that followed dictator Fulgencio Batista's ouster, many blacks supported doing away with the sociedades in exchange for the promise of a better future, said Alejandro de la Fuente, author of Race, Inequality and Politics in 20th Century Cuba and a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
According to de la Fuente, the reputation of many sociedades had become tarnished because of their association with pre-Castro governments. The Club Atenas of Havana, for example, had built its headquarters on land given by President Ramón Machado, and some clubs had been close to the Batista regime.