Compared to other forms of popular Mexican dance, Danzón is less about flair and improvisation, and more about control. In this intro to the 1991 Mexican film Danzón, a dance that may at first seem like little more than shuffling reveals itself as an elegant sequence of carefully controlled steps.
While Iʼm thankful to have dodged the Swine Flu with my health intact, Iʼm bummed to report that my project took a hit.
A few weeks ago I was looking forward to traveling to the historic port city of Veracruz to get an up-close look at one of Mexicoʼs most cosmopolitan styles of popular music: the Cuban-born Danzón. Every year, competitive Danzón teams from all over the country convene in a seaside ballroom in Veracruz—Mexicoʼs Danzón headquarters—for a weekend of cha-cha-chá-ing in front of a panel of judges.
This year however, the National Danzón Championship had the bad luck of being scheduled for the week of the swine flu outbreak, or what will later be remembered as the dullest week in Mexican history. The government ordered that all public gatherings be cancelled, and since the goal of this particular event was to get a large number of people from across the country to grab hands and hold each other close, it was probably for the best.
So I missed out and thus, with a short time left in Mexico, my relationship with the Danzón must remain one of admiration from afar. But thatʼs ok. It seems a fitting stance for a style of music and dance that is so glamorous, rich in history, and well-traveled as this one. And itʼs not so terrible sitting on the sidelines, rather than jumping in (which Iʼve been lucky to do with other musical communities this year), when the people youʼre watching are dressed in gala attire.
But I shouldnʼt fool myself: Danzón may look like an activity enjoyed only by Mexicoʼs country-clubbers, but its history and present-day reality are actually much more diverse than that.
Danzónʼs roots go all the way back to 16th-century English country dance, whose other famous New World offshoot would be known as square dancing. The flirtatious format of dancing in parallel boy-girl lines took hold on the aristocratic dance floors of France, where it was renamed contredanse, and later traveled with those bewigged dancers to their colonial plantations in Haiti. At the end of the 18th century, when the Haitian Revolution sparked a mass-exodus of Frenchman and their African slaves to Cuba, the contradanza went with them.
In 19th-century Cuba, where the majority of dance hall musicians were of African descent, the contradanza underwent a musical metamorphosis. The separate boy-girl lines of dancers broke up into individual pairs; the basic 2/4 rhythm was elongated into an “African Tango,” and the first danzones appeared, showing off the new percussive flavor of timbales (Afro-Cuban drums) combined with the krrrrrrr-ch-ch of the güiro. These changes, first described as “voluptuous,” “wonton,” and “grotesque” in 1830s Cuban newspapers, were initially loathed by upper-class Cubans. But the Danzón caught on, and by the beginning of the 20th century, it was firmly rooted in Cuban culture as the preferred way to get down on the weekends.
Though it continues to thrive in Mexico, the Danzón reached its peak in popularity in 1920s Mexico City. Hereʼs a clip from 1950 of the iconic Acerina y Su Danzonera playing “Rigoletito.”
The Danzón first arrived to Mexico via trading ships to the Yucatán, and found its lasting home in the port city of Veracruz. Long before Mexicoʼs “Mambo Craze” of the 1950s, the gulf coast was already pulsing to uniquely local renditions of Cuban rhythms. The Caribbean crazes have since come and gone, but the Mexican Danzón still draws a crowd—albeit a graying one—to the central Plaza de Armas in Veracruz every weekend.
Similar to ballroom dancing in many Western countries, the Danzón used to be a widespread social practice. But for todayʼs younger generations of danzoneros, like the world-traveled troupe Grupo Tres Generaciones in Veracruz, it is an art form that is increasingly choreographed and staged. Gone are the days of getting down to Danzón on the weekends—young people are more likely to experience it at competitive events like the National Danzón Championship and folkloric festivals celebrating Mexican culture.
But in Veracruz, there is no shortage of resources for newcomers who want learn and “preserve” the Danzón. That the city promotes the Danzón so aggressively is a testament to the the dominant music culture that threatens to overwhelm it—that combination of discos, home stereos, rock, rap, and every Mexican grandmotherʼs worst nightmare, reggaetón. Danzón enthusiasts can choose from classes, workshops, frequent festivals, or they can simply learn from watching the experts as they swish across the Plaza de Armas on Friday nights. But as one young man pointed out to me recently, as he and I stood watching the older dancers in Veracruz, learning to really dance the Danzón is harder than it looks.
“Itʼs way too slow for us,” he explained, sipping a beer and appearing to enjoy his momentary role as spokesman for all young people in Veracruz. “For this kind of stuff, you need patience. And we donʼt have that anymore.”
• Some great selections of Cuban Danzón, played by the San Fransisco-based
group Orquesta La Moderna Tradición. Iʼm a big fan of “Soy Matancero” on the
• The Cuban Danzón: Its Ancestors and Antecedents (Folkways, 1982.) Available
on Amazon. Read more history in the liner notes here.
• CNIDDAC – Mexicoʼs Danzón Research Center.
• Fernandez, Nohema. “La Contradanza Cubana y Manuel Saumell.” Latin
American Music Review. Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1989), pp. 116-134
• Nodal, Roberto. “Social Evolution of the Afro-Cuban Drum. The Black
Perspective in Music, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Autumn, 1983), pp. 157-177
• Figueroa Hernández, Rafael. Tres Generaciones del Danzón Veracruzano.
CNIDDAC: Veracruz, Mexico, 2008. Available at ComoSuena.