Every Saturday of the year, hundreds of couples converge on a shady park in this capital to embrace one another in the slow-moving, genteel dance known as the danzon.
Many of the men appear transported from the 1930s and 1940s – in zoot suits with loose-fitting jackets and high-waist tapered pants. Fedoras, graced with a lone feather, top off the retro look.
The women balance on high heels, waving fans to shoo away the heat.
Danzon lives on in corners of Mexico even though it has virtually died out in Cuba, where it evolved in the 19th century from dances and rhythms originating in Europe and Africa centuries earlier.
It is a precise, elegant dance, with the men leading in a three-step movement, dipping and swirling their partners in delicate but restrained style.
“It is a dance in which the partners touch each other in a discreet way,” said Jose Luis Ceron Mireles, a sociologist and expert on danzon (pronounced dahn-SONE). “They don’t look at each other directly. They glance at each other out of the corners of their eyes. That’s where the sensuality lies.”
To this day in public parks in Veracruz, Merida and Mexico City, as well as ballrooms in other cities, fans of the dance turn out by the hundreds while bands known as danzoneras, replete with marimbas, trumpets, drums and percussive instruments made from gourds and known as guiros, coax the music forth.
“See that guy with the hat with the feather in it? They are called pachucos. They dress like they are from the 1940s,” said Vicente Carranza Navarro as he took a break in Mexico City’s Balderas Avenue Park, where danzon is played every Saturday.
Pachuco is an old school Mexican slang term referring to a style of dress developed in northern Mexico and in El Paso, Texas, more than six decades ago. A basic staple is the fedora with the lone feather.
“I have been doing danzon for 45 years,” said Carranza, 63, who wore a blue guayabera, the loose-fitting square-tailed shirt commonly worn in the Caribbean and along Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
The park was filled with people in their 60s and 70s – or older – but a smattering of young people, and even children, mixed in.
“My mom would come here and bring me along, so I started to learn,” said Carla Bocanegra, a 23-year-old whose partner wore an elegant white striped suit and a panama hat. “I come all Saturdays, every last one.”
Danzon developed in Cuba in the mid-1800s with roots in the English line dance known as contradance and the French square dance-like quadrille, two styles that arrived in Cuba from British invaders and French colonists fleeing the Haitian Revolution. The dance forms blended with African rhythms to make a fusion of African and European movement.
With its far-flung rhythms merged into a quintessentially creole form, the danzon allowed people of all races and social strata to intermingle.
Itinerant Cuban theater and music companies arriving in the Mexican port of Veracruz and the Yucatan city of Merida brought danzon with them.
“They’d play in the parks and on the wharves,” Ceron said. “People danced in the open air.”
As the decades passed, other dance forms evolved in Cuba, like the mambo, cha-cha-cha and salsa. Danzon took root and grew in Mexico.
“The triumph of danzon has come outside its country of origin. It’s only in Mexico where the danzon carries on,” Ceron said.
“I went to Cuba two years ago, and it is no longer there. Danzon is dying out. They only dance salsa,” Carranza said.
In an essay on the musical form, Ceron wrote that the elegant swing dance “has the particular characteristic that . . . after each refrain, the woman fans her face and the man wipes the sweat from his brow, wooing each other as they do so.”
In the early years, the dance had a whiff of iniquity, made stronger by a historical incident on Nov. 18, 1901, during the rule of dictator Porfirio Diaz. That night, police raided a house in which they found 41 men, 19 of them dressed as women. The raid is said to have occurred just as a danzon was being played.
A rumor at the time said Diaz’s son-in-law was among the upper-class men present at the dance. To this day, “41” remains a symbol in Mexico of taboo. Some high-rises don’t have a floor 41, and it’s rare to find a house along a street numbered 41.
By the 1920s, after Mexico’s revolution, times had changed, and ballroom salons opened in the capital, bringing a true explosion of danzon, especially in the city’s premier venue, Salon Mexico, where throngs lined up to enter its multiple ballrooms. Cuban and Mexican musicians filled the dance halls.
Benjamin Muratalla, deputy director of the Fonoteca, a national archive of popular music and street sounds in Mexico, said the danzon incorporates many elements of African culture along with its European roots.
“Danzon has a big dose of black cultures – its sensuality, its elegance, that snappy tropical rhythm all come from there,” Muratalla said.
Mexican musicians began to add their own elements to danzon, and the physical movements varied. Unlike Cuban dancers, who embrace one another more closely, Mexican dancers move at greater distance and with more delicacy.
Victims of economic change, ballrooms began to close down in the 1970s and 1980s as families stayed home or chose other entertainment options. But a movie, “Danzon,” in 1991 helped the dance revive, telling the story of a telephone operator who lived for her work, her daughter and danzon in the Salon Colonia ballroom.
Some experts see danzon inevitably falling by the wayside, ignored by youth wearing ear buds, exposed to MTV and oblivious to the rhythms of Mexico’s past.
“Unfortunately, new generations imbued with other types and genres of music don’t know this music. They think that it’s only for their grandparents and old people,” Muratalla said.
Some better-educated young Mexicans, though, embrace what they can find of traditional culture, from the drinking of mescal (a distilled alcohol made from the maguey plant) to traditional forms of music. One of the better danzonera bands is La Playa, comprised mainly of younger musicians, Ceron said
Still, without ballrooms to support them, probably fewer than 40 professional danzon bands remain, he said, and few are composing new songs with contemporary themes.
“They keep playing the same 50 songs we’ve always heard,” Ceron said.
“If the danzon groups go by the wayside, then danzon is over,” he added.
Danzon lives on