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Photoreport Photo: Marcela Joya

Stretching the magic

It looks like a parade of flirtatious expertise in slow motion. A well-rehearsed choreography. An exhibition of 1930's fashion. The sound background of a Tin Tan dream. It seems like the past but it is the present of many: danzón is danced in the Los Angeles ballroom as if it were the most important music of today.

This place, which has been in Mexico City's Colonia Guerrero since 1937, and can receive about seven hundred people at a time, has a lot of red on chairs, hats and lips, and a slogan that says "Who doesn't know Los Angeles doesn't know Mexico". The cab driver who gave me a ride one Sunday afternoon last January reminded me of this when I asked him if he knew how to get to the lounge. "And I guess they dance very well," he added.

I said I guessed wrong. But that didn't matter because we were just going to watch. How different the Mexicans dance the danzón from the Cubans; because both in its choreographies and in its musical form, the Mexican danzón is very different from the Cuban one. One can notice in the former, for example, the influences of tango and American big bands. Hence the twelve-step dance sequences, the many trumpets and the many saxophones in an orchestra. There is not so much, or none of that in the danzón that, we believe, began to take shape in Matanzas, like at the end of the 19th century.

It is not that danzón matters too much in Cuba either, neither now nor for a very long time. While in Mexico it had its moment of renaissance -and with that "academization"- during the 1990s, in Cuba it has been out of almost every repertoire and thought for decades. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, while in both places danzón was first the music of the elites and then a party music for the working class, in Mexico it very quickly settled in the middle class, where it continues to play.

Photo: Marcela Joya

To make it very simple, a dance teacher in Mexico today would explain to a novice that the danzón is a piece of music that is divided into three parts: melody one -or estribillo-, melody two and montuno. At the end of the montuno there is a remate - in which eight bars are danced - and then a movement pause. Also simplifying it a lot, a Cuban musicologist would say no, that the estribillo is the introduction, the montuno is what follows it and what is danced, and the pause -which does not exist- is rather the paseo, in which one does not dance but does not stop either (as Mexicans do), but rather "pasea" (walks).

Maybe it sounds confusing, because even if you look at it, it is. For me, the pauses of the Mexicans at the beginning confused me. I was watching them dance for three hours and almost didn't get the joke. But it's not that hard: it's about understanding that there is an almost loving attachment to the musical phrase. The Mexican danzonero, like few dancers today, moves with his eyes on his partner's eyes, and his ear glued to the orchestra - oh, in Los Angeles they dance with a live orchestra! If you listen well, you'll know where to stop. During the pause, which doesn't mean that the music stops but rather that the rhythm changes, sometimes the couple looks at the band without letting go of each other's hands. Other times, they look at each other as if they were about to kiss, but not. They smile at each other with blinks. They talk to each other with slight neck movements. The danzón is a dance of slow seduction whose aim is not conquest, but the game of stretching it. I am not particularly interested in learning to dance it but, looking at them, I thought that I would like to be able to dance life like that, stretching that magic; and that the orchestra of everyday life does not allow me to forget the importance of the pause, of the silences.

Photo: Marcela Joya

But the concrete pauses as dance figures in Mexican danzón did not exist before, some say, and were imposed by the academy. Ramona Celis -who has been dancing danzón for as long as she can remember- thinks, on the other hand, that this is the way it has always been danced; although she seems to remember that long before, besides stopping, she also walked hand in hand with her partner during the pause, as in a kind of "pleasant sonorous silence". And there are only "sonorous silences" in Los Angeles.

During the breaks of the orchestra, this time, the Danzonera Acerina, the DJ plays mambo and the Mexicans -these Mexicans, let's say- dance it with an agility quite the opposite of the one they have to dance the danzón. Something happens -or does not happen- in their hips, something does not happen -or does not happen- in their desire; it seems that the mambo imposes itself as the culmination of a flirtation that no one is willing to realize.

Other days, sometimes on Saturdays, in Los Angeles they play Cuban son. There are more and more Cuban musicians in Mexico, and less and less Cuban musicians in Cuba. When I went to Los Angeles, they were advertising a group I saw elsewhere whose name left me with a buzz. La Nueva Nostalgia, it was called. I thought that if there is one thing we don't need to renew in this life it is nostalgia; I almost repudiate it. Sometimes I think I understand why so many cultivate it, but I want it far away from me. The curious thing is to see that so many are seduced by this "renewal". I have heard of at least four groups with the same name.

Photo: Marcela Joya

This Nueva Nostalgia is not the one founded four decades ago in Cuba, nor the one from Maracaibo, but a group of Mexican musicians and some Cubans recently arrived from Santiago -and how it shows-. They sounded exquisite, even though they insisted on playing more of the same because "that's what Mexicans want to hear". I don't think that's so.

I kept wondering if, perhaps, something similar to what happens with the mambo would happen to these Los Angeles danzoneros, would the magic of waiting evaporate and they would dance it outside of all possible geometry, as if longing for the end? It seemed to me that other Mexicans, elsewhere, almost everywhere, danced it a bit like that.

Photo: Marcela Joya

Photo: Marcela Joya

Photo: Marcela Joya

Photo: Marcela Joya

Photo: Marcela Joya

Photo: Marcela Joya

Photo: Marcela Joya

Marcela Jewel Marcela Jewel He knows how to do useful things, like cut other people's hair and get others drunk, but he prefers to listen to music, write and take pictures. In that order. More posts

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  1. Alfredo says:

    Delicious explanation of how to dance the danzón. As precise as that seduction that seeks only to extend the conquest, in a rite of pauses, smiles and complicit silences. You were great...

  2. Ivan Restrepo says:

    Very good note on the dance at the mythical Salón Los Ángeles.

  3. Rosa Marquetti says:

    Wonderful visual and sentimental chronicle. Thank you, dear Marcela Joya, for that sharp look and that deep lens, only yours.

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