Mercedes, a senior in my English classes, introduced me to danzon, a style of dance (like tap, square dancing or salsa), forever changing how I experience Mexico. Through danzon I performed at festivals around town and the country, taught classes hither and yon for years, and let’s not forget the parties, because folks who like to dance, like to party!
Danzon developed in Cuba in the mid-1800s with roots in the English line and French square dances, 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 elegant movement. Its far-flung rhythms merged into a quintessentially new form, danzon, allowing people of all races and social strata to intermingle.
Danzon had a second revival in the 1990s, especially among Mexico’s senior citizens. Though I enjoy the challenge and speed of salsa dancing, danzon is a better style to grow old into as the passes are slower and require better listening skills to find the music’s cadence.
Basically a danzon song has three parts, all beginning with man inviting his partner to dance then introducing the woman to the audience before embracing. The first two parts are slow, delicate and romantically restrained. The third is faster, allowing the woman to spin away from the man and perform more active passes with dips and swirls. In choreographies the dancers will switch partners forming Busby Berkeley-esque musical numbers. Each part ends with a bit of drama and flourish as the pair face the audience while he dramatically lifts his hat, and her, the fan.
With subtle manipulations of her fan, a woman communicated to a man her interest, her marital status and whether that status mattered much to her. Before the days of texting a danzon fan was the medium for communicating secret messages in a public venue.
For example, drawing the fan across the cheek meant ‘I love you’, while twirling it in the left hand signalized ‘We are watched’ and dropping indicated hatred. You could be even more specific by inciting an affair and with the number of fan panels being shown at what time your dangerous liaison was to commence.
A more chaste lass touched the edge of the hand fan with her fingers to initiate a later conversation. To slide a fan across the eyes signaled she wanted him out of her sight. Tossing a fan to her lips, well, you can guess what that meant (kiss me).
The seductive language of the fan was invented over time to communicate in the open without necessarily being overt. Though hardly foolproof as many men could read the dancer’s fan and felt she was chatting with him when perhaps her intentions were meant only for her partner!
To this day there is fan dancing in San Miguel de Allende’s public parks. Dancers turn out by the hundreds while bands coax the music forth from a variety of instruments all thanks to Leonardo Rosen.
Leonardo, a native New Yorker, has done more to increase danzon’s popularity in San Miguel more than any other person. Leonardo has volunteer taught countless classes, arranged forays to other cities for our groups to dance for thousands of people and leads the Sunday in the Park music and dancing extravaganzas. All the while Leo has been hosting a Saturday morning radio show on danzon while frequently writing on the subject. Leonardo has worked tirelessly to bring danzon, and other rhythms, to San Miguel.
Normally there is a catalog of danzon songs, many quite popular. For me, I enjoy pop music in English and adapting it to the danzon passes. To watch a danzon to “These Boots are Made for Walkin‘”, “I Wanna Be Loved by You” or “Kiss Me” adds a bit of surprise and pop culture relevance to danzon in public performances!