Sunday, April 29, 2007

Cuba's danzon is 'medicine' for older dancers who hope its rhythms live on

The Vancouver Sun, Canada

Andrea Rodriguez, Canadian Press
Published: Saturday, April 28, 2007

HAVANA (AP) - Luisa Herrera donned her very best dress, a long, black shiny number, for the genteel Cuban dance known as the danzon. She completed her outfit with an elegant hand fan to cool her 60-year-old skin, her hair gathered high atop her head.

Not to be outdone, her dance partner, septuagenarian Felipe Vasquez, wore a resplendent guayabera dress shirt over his dark pants and spit-shined shoes.

"Dancing this rhythm requires you to look your best, as beautiful as possible," Herrera said as she prepared herself for last month's International Danzon Festival in Havana, bringing together dance couples from Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and other countries.

A blend of European and African rhythms, Cuba's national dance lives on more than a century after its birth, especially among older couples such as Herrera and Vasquez.

Danzon is a "medicine" for such older couples, said Cuban music expert Luis Hernandez, who referred to the vitality and agility the dancers demonstrate, showing off decades of experience in every step and turn.

The tropical ballroom dance originated in the northern coastal city of Matanzas in 1879. The couple dances close - but not too close - with heads held high, posture erect, adopting a courteous and distinguished air as the man leads the woman in small, co-ordinated steps.

"It is an expressive dance," said Luis Terry, who with dance partner Angela Arocha attended the dance festival, held at a social centre that was once an elegant Havana mansion. "It isn't practised as much now, but in the past it was good for courting."

During the first years of the 20th century, many families prohibited their young daughters and sons from practising danzon, because there was "touching" - one hand lightly placed in the other's hand, the other on a shoulder or waist.

Compared to today's more risque styles, danzon seems almost quaint, old-fashioned, which worries older enthusiasts who want the dance to live on with future generations and in other countries.

"The genre fascinates me. I love it," said dancer Gilda Ramirez de Velazco, who learned a slightly different style of danzon in her native Mexico, where danzon remains popular. "I couldn't miss this."

In an attempt to attract younger dancers, the danzon festival featured special events for teenagers and children.

"If the new generations don't embrace it as their own, the tradition will die," said Hernandez. "It has to be kept current. Danzon in its essence is elegant. But if you have to, you can dance it wearing jeans."

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