Cuban dance lives on ... in Mexico
VERACRUZ/HAVANA, Mexico — Glowing in a yellow lace dress, Carolina Salinas fans herself languidly while the band burns through the sultry rhythms of the “danzon”, Cuba’s national dance.
But this is no Havana nightclub. In fact, danzon has virtually vanished from Cuba. Today, it is being kept alive thanks largely to a passionate group of Mexican fans like Salinas.
Danzon, a music and dance style blending European and African influences, was born in Cuba in the 19th century.
Its birthday is often given as Jan 1, 1879 — the date of a New Year’s concert where Cuban composer Miguel Failde premiered a new song,
that took the traditional French contredanse and injected it with spicy Latin beats.
The dance that grew up around this new genre is characterized by upright posture, swaying steps and repeated refrains during which the couples strut arm in arm or the women fan themselves coquettishly.
In the Mexican port of Veracruz, across the Gulf of Mexico from Cuba, couples gather four times a week to dance danzon, twirling around the central square in fedoras and evening gowns that evoke a bygone era.
“In danzon, they teach you that image and posture are important for both the lady and the gentleman. Elegance, that’s danzon,” said Salinas, a 26-year-old teacher, her hair and makeup impeccable as she fanned herself during the “rest period” of the refrain.
Mexicans have breathed new life into the tradition.
“If Mexico hadn’t adopted danzon as an important part of its popular culture, it would have disappeared,” said Miguel Zamudio, a promoter of Danzon.
Danzon arrived in Mexico soon after it was born, traveling first to the Yucatan Peninsula, then Veracruz. Eventually it reached Mexico City, where it leapt to fame after featuring in a series of Mexican movies in the 1940s.
The genre took on a life of its own in Mexico, whose musicians added many classics to the danzon canon. They include
by the composer Arturo Marquez, a piece that has been performed by some of the world’s top symphonies.
The dance also continued to develop in different ways across Mexico.
“In Veracruz they’ve kept alive a performance and dance style that is similar to the Cuban original, while in Mexico City danzon has blended with other genres and evolved,” said Zamudio.
In the capital, danzon lovers have made it their own, incorporating acrobatic turns and moves. But one constant that always remains is the “rest” during the refrains. “There are many legends about the rest: That it’s when couples fall in love,” Zamudio said.