"Señoras y señores....showtime!"
Rumbling drums. Trilling trumpets. Whirling spotlights.
The lights go down as a troupe of showgirls in silver thigh-high boots and glowing chandeliers atop their heads appear at the back of the auditorium.
Welcome to the Tropicana , the most famous of Cuba's pre-revolutionary open-air extravaganzas–now in its seventh decade of Vegas-style paganism.
Every town in Cuba has at least one cabaret espectáculo – "show" – featuring flamboyant cabaret routines highlighted by a never-ending parade of showgirls sashaying and shaking in sequined bikinis, ruffled frills, sensational headresses, and feathers more ostentatious than peacocks'. Jugglers, acrobats, even comedians are often featured, as are solo singers who perform everything from boleros to romantic opera – all a legacy of the 19th-century Cuban music halls that were the modern cabarets' antecedent.
Outshining all other venues is the Tropicana, with open-air outlets in Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago de Cuba.
Neither the Revolution nor the recent economic crisis ruffled the feathers of the "paradise under the stars," which opened on New Year's Eve 1939 in the Havana district of Marianao in an open-air theater in the gardens of the former residence of the U.S. ambassador. Tropicana's performers – more than 200 of them – are handpicked from the crème de la crème of Cuba's dancers and singers. And top international guest performers are still given star billing.
Cuba's cabarets  closed briefly in 1968 after an ideological soul-searching, but they were reopened thanks to a demonstration of popular support by the performers and patrons; and to an acknowledgement that these seemingly pure '50s follies inherently play a profound part in the Cuban sense of identity. Cuban couples delight in these razzmatazz spectacles and shake their head at any puritanical concept that they're not quite PC. While the Tropicana (which generates about $2 million per year in foreign revenue) and the Hotel Nacional's Cabaret Parisien cater mainly to tourists, at provincial cabarets the crowd is usually entirely Cuban.
Cabarets are the free expression of sensuality inherent in the Cuban sense of a liberated self. And the Tropicana is a national institution and quintessentially Cuban as cigars and rum.