Swinging in from half a world away, Alberto Romay, a Cuban dance instructor based in Tokyo, is bringing a taste of the Caribbean country’s culture closer to the people of Japan.

Alberto Romay leads a student during one of his salsa lessons at studio Bodeguita in Tokyo.

Amid the growing popularity of Latin music worldwide, Romay hopes his students take that extra step to enhance their knowledge of the island of music and dance. The sole remaining communist country in Latin America, Cuba remains unfamiliar to many.

“I try to teach salsa, but also how you can communicate through the music and the rhythm,” said Romay, 35, whose six-year career in Japan is the longest among Cuban instructors here.

When he first came to Japan, Romay was one of just a handful of salsa instructors. Today, more than 40 dancers — mostly Japanese — offer lessons in Tokyo. At least six Cubans hold regular lessons or temporary workshops, with more scheduled soon.

Salsa clubs are also flourishing in the neon-lit Roppongi district, with at least eight bars or studios packed with well-practiced Japanese fans and Latin Americans who miss their home countries.

Salsa — Spanish for sauce, especially a spicy tomato sauce mixed with onion and other vegetables — stems from traditional Cuban “son” music. But, like the name, it is a mixture of Latin and Western sounds, Romay said. “At the beginning, you only come (to the lessons) from a feeling that you want to dance,” he said. After several lessons, a friendship sometimes develops with his students and their growing interest may prompt them to visit Cuban restaurants or the country itself, he said.

Cuban music stole the spotlight in Japan following the global success of the “Buena Vista Social Club” in the late 1990s, a hit movie focusing on the lives of a group of Cuban musicians.

Growing attention on Hispanic beats and ballads in the world music arena and a rising interest in Cuban sounds bolstered the number of salsa dance students in Japan.

Backed by this popularity, Romay was issued a challenge. He was invited to lead a group of salsa dancers in Japan to the third annual West Coast Salsa Congress in Los Angeles, where more than 3,000 dancers from around the world gathered last month. The invitation was unusual for the Cubans, whose country has been diplomatically cut off from the United States for 40 years.

Romay said instructing Japanese students has not been easy, particularly due to their timidity — a characteristic in striking contrast to that of Cubans.

But what has maintained his bond with Japan for many years may have something to do with the sincerity of the students here.

“In some way, I think Japanese people are more serious (than Western students). If they want to know something, they really go forward,” Romay said, adding this may come from the little contact between Japan and Cuba.

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