This week, you’ve traded your plush seat in the theatre for a very different experience. You are standing in a large crowd in the Zócalo, the vast square in downtown Mexico City, surrounded by magnificent buildings, including the Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace. A stage is set to your left, with giant speakers strategically placed to project out to the thousands of people present. Onstage, a band is preparing, each musician well dressed and smiling.
In front of you, in a large group starting at the foot of the stage and stretching out as far as you can see, stand countless couples. They are all ages, but mostly over 50 and all the way up to 80 or even 90. Almost everyone is dressed up. Women flow in elegant dresses, and many carry fans. Men wear suits, and some sport fedoras–occasionally with a feather. There is an air of expectancy and excitement.
The band leader walks out onto the stage, and a hush falls over the crowd. There is a pause. Then the first few notes sail out over the Zócalo, and every couple begins to dance. The moves are romantic and elegant. The couples are close most of the time, except for the occasional twirl. They make little eye contact, despite the closeness of their bodies. The women wave their fans coquettishly. The mood is flirtatious but understated, sensual but demure.
The whole scene is timelessly elegant. It looks like it could be something out of a movie from the 1940s, but this is 2019. And this is danzón, a genre of dance and music originally from Cuba that Mexico has taken and made its own.
Danzón began in Cuba in the late 19th century, when “composer Miguel Failde premiered a new song, ‘Las Alturas de Simpson,’ that took the traditional French contredanse and injected it with spicy Latin beats.”1 Men lead in the elegant three-step movement of the danzón and hold their partners very close, except for the occasional dip and twirl. It’s a deeply flirtatious and sensual dance, though also very subtle. It became immensely popular in Cuba for a time, but it faded as people became more interested in the emergence of more openly sexual dances, such as the salsa, mambo, and cha cha cha. In fact, danzón has essentially died out in Cuba.
In Mexico, however, danzón thrives to this day. “‘If Mexico hadn’t adopted danzon [sic] as an important part of its popular culture, it would have disappeared,’ said Miguel Zamudio, director of the National Center for Research and Promotion of Danzon, based in Veracruz.”2 “Danzón is popular in 25 of Mexico’s 32 states, with more than 200 registered dance troupes and 20 orchestras.”3 Mexican artists have evolved the music as well as the dance. “Danzon arrived in Mexico soon after it was born, traveling first to the Yucatán 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 Danzon No.2, by the composer Arturo Marquez, a piece of music that has been performed by some of the top symphonies around the globe.”4 Among the other Mexican musicians who’ve contributed to danzón are Acerina Y Su Danzonera, Esquivel!, Danzonera Veracruz, Luis Arcaraz y Su Orquesta, and Los Xochimilcas. (Below this post, there is a link to a Spotify playlist that includes each of these artists.)
Many parts of Mexico come alive with danzón on a regular basis, and the genre continues to develop in ways unique to each area. This includes, of course, the places where danzón first entered Mexico. “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.”5 While in Veracruz, danzón has stayed very true to the Cuban original, in Mexico City, danzón has merged noticeably with other genres, sometimes replacing the smooth, graceful moves with ones that are more “acrobatic” in nature, according to Zamudio.6 In the capital, too, couples gather regularly to dance. “Every weekend, hundreds of couples descend on Mexico City’s Plaza de la Ciudadela….the dancers converge in the pretty square, known locally as the Plaza de Danzón.”7
For almost 100 years now, in these public squares and in ballrooms across Mexico, danzón fans have turned out by the hundreds to watch and listen as “bands known as danzoneras, replete with marimbas, trumpets, drums and percussive instruments made from gourds”8 play enthusiastically and dancers perform. There was only a brief lull in the ballroom scene, in the 1970s and 1980s, when “ballrooms began to close down…as families stayed home or chose other entertainment options.”9 However, the popularity of Mexican filmmaker Maria Novaro’s “Danzón,” released in 1991, helped revive the dance,10 and danzón lovers have kept it alive to this day.
My first experience of danzón was hearing the song “Mazatlán” by Los Xochimilcas. I was sitting here in this very spot from which I’m writing (where I’ve spent most of the pandemic) and listening to a Spotify playlist by Jessica Ramos called “Mexican Traditional Music.” Immediately upon hearing the first few bars, I was transported back in time, to a beach at night, a nightclub with a patio stretching over the sand. Torches were lit around the perimeter, blowing slightly in a warm breeze. A live band was onstage, and everyone in the band and in the audience was dressed formally and elegantly. Several couples got up to dance under the stars, and the music and their movement was so graceful and romantic. It felt like the 1940s, but hearing it and loving it now, and finding out how people in Mexico love it still, shows the timelessness of danzón’s elegance. May it play on and keep people dancing…always.
Picture of dancing couple from El repositorio digital de acceso abierto del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México