Ballroom dancers would argue that the danzón is a metaphor for romance, like a graceful waltz through history, and with good reason. The rhythms of different cultures have blended in Caribbean and Latin American dance halls in this sensuous genre for nearly 150 years. The dancers’ steps narrate stories spanning generations.
Born in 19th-century Cuban dance halls, danzón eventually became the country’s official national dance. It continues to thrive outside the big island’s borders, in Mexico and beyond, in orchestra halls and dance salons, leaving an indelible mark on Latin American culture. Its legacy resonates in dances such as salsa, mambo, cha-cha and bolero. It also shares similarities with American music traditions, such as jazz and big band swing.
Still, it’s a genre all its own and a lovely bit of romance to remember during Hispanic Heritage Month here in the U.S. The Library has plenty of music, films and books to help you explore its rich history. It also held a danzón exhibition in late September.
Originating from the English country (or folk) dance, danzón was adapted by the French as contredanse and the Spanish as contradanza. Originally, this kind of dancing was for several couples, starting in two lines (gentlemen on one side, ladies on the other), with each couple working their way to the front of the line, then falling back to the rear. This developed into the quadrille, which included four, if not five, couples executing swirling (but chaste) turns with different partners in the group, working their way back to the beginning.
But in 19th-century colonial Cuba, with sugar plantations mixing European and African cultures, the danzón melded African rhythms with European musical structure. Something new was afoot.
Danzón’s charm lay in the connection between a couple as they engaged in fluid movements without being overtly sexual, their eyes locked. As the women’s flowing dresses billowed and twirled, and the men dipped and spun them until the music faded, audiences would nod, smile and applaud. This sensuous genre took off in dance salons, where Cuba’s elite gathered. It quickly became a symbol of national identity.
The father of danzón was Miguel Faílde. His orchestra premiered the first danzón piece, “Las alturas de Simpson,” (“The Heights of Simpson”) in Matanzas in 1879. It had the characteristic slow tempo, charanga instrumentation and intricate dance choreography that came to define the genre.
You can see this in the 1991 film “Danzón” by Mexican director María Novaro. (The Library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center preserves 35 mm prints of the film.) The film captures the music’s nostalgic and romantic essence.
The story revolves around Julia (María Rojo), a telephone operator by day and danzón enthusiast by night. She goes on a frantic search for her missing dance partner, Carmelo (Daniel Rergis), in the port town of Veracruz.
The film showcases the elegance and tradition of danzón against a backdrop of vintage décor. Couples in elegant attire glide across polished dance floors under the soft, warm glow of ornate chandeliers. Young enthusiasts and seasoned aficionados yield to the music with deliberate movements and intricate footwork, swaying with grace and poise, powering through turns, spins and dips.
“Danzón is a movie that bets on nostalgia, reviews our sentimental education, and that I tried all the time to make in a ludic, playful way,” said Novaro during a 2015 interview in Mexico City with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Oral History Project. “[This movie] was about revisiting our sentimental education but in the ’90s, and also feminist, right? With a different perspective of how things should be or how the dialogue between men and women should be.”
A song from the score, “El teléfono a larga distancia” (“Long-distance Telephone”), a lively instrumental composed by Aniceto Díaz in 1921, is also preserved at the Library. A click on the link will take you to the recording.
The Library holds other resources about danzón, including books, recordings, music scores and documentary films. This includes a documentary about the life and music of Israel López, known as “Cachao,” an extraordinary bass player and composer of danzón and mambo. “Salón México,” a 1949 film directed by Emilio Fernández — featuring a cabaret dancer who wins a danzón contest — is also part of the Library’s collection.
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