By 7 p.m. dusk has fallen in Veracruz, and the sticky tropical heat finally begins to ease up. The streetlamps have been illuminated, as have the lights in the grand arcades of the city hall and the cafés that border the zocalo. The bandstand in the center of the square slowly fills with the evening's musicians, who carry with them their trumpets, trombones, and timbals. Chairs are arranged in a circle around the bandstand, and they are taken by couples who have come to dance. (Taking a seat means you must dance; non-dancers stand behind the chairs.) The average age is about 50, but for the most part the dancers are, as they so respectfully say in Spanish, of la tercera edad. They have dressed in the traditional clothes for dancing the danzón—spotless white guayaberas for the men, white dresses with full skirts for the ladies—because that is what they are all here to do.
For the next hour or so, these couples will do the precise, elegant danzón that is to Veracruz what the waltz is to Vienna. The danzón is a relatively slow dance, in which the man places his left hand, holding her right, at cheek level. The movements are small, the smaller the better; a good dancer will always emphasize style over speed. The musical structure of each danzón usually includes three pauses, during which the woman coquettishly fans herself while her partner wipes his brow with a handkerchief.
Why this elaborately formal dance would take root in an utterly informal city like Veracruz is a question with no simple answer. After all, sultry, unhurried Veracruz is best known for its raucous February Carnival (one of the world's biggest). It is still, really, a port town, with all the transience and funkiness that implies, a place seemingly at odds with the fastidious etiquette of the danzón. It's very easy to pass the day, as countless Veracruzanos do, sitting in cafés or relaxing on park benches in the cool shade of palm and laurel trees. But the disciplined danzón persists, and the city owes its most beloved evening ritual—which takes place not just Saturdays in the zocalo but six nights a week in different public plazas—in part to geography, in part to history, and in no small measure to the temperament of the Veracruzanos themselves.
On Mexico's central Gulf Coast, Veracruz has long been, for better or worse, an entry point for outsiders looking to visit, trade with, or simply conquer the country (Cortés landed in 1519). Here, where the Old World has always collided with the New, cultural influences have washed up only to wash out to sea again. But the danzón, which hit Veracruz more than a century ago, is one foreign-born arrival that never left.
The danzón got its start in Cuba, on January 1, 1879, to be exact, when composer Miguel Faílde Pérez premiered the first musical piece written as a danzón, in his hometown of Matanzas. The dance was born that day, though its roots date back to the 17th-century quadrillesbrought by French colonists to Haiti. With the Haitian revolution under way in the 1790's, many colonists fled to Cuba, slaves in tow, and took their dances with them. Faílde's achievement, nearly 100 years later, was to synthesize several of these elements—courtly ballroom dance, Afro-Antillean percussion, sensual tropical rhythms—into what would become a sensation.
It quickly reached Veracruz, and the jarochos, as Veracruzanos are called, jumped at it, putting their own spin on the Cuban version. Unlike the Cuban dancers, who move as if glued together, Veracruzanos keep a small distance between partners. The woman's fan is also a Mexican addition. "Right away we adopted the danzón as our own," says Miguel Angel Zamudio Abdala, director of the Veracruz-based National Center for Research & Dissemination of the Danzón. "It took hold here because Veracruzanos are very close to Cubans in terms of lifestyle, customs, history, and, of course, the rhythms we like."