A mix of 17th-century ballroom dance and Cuban rhythms, danzón heats up the Mexican port town of Veracruz.


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."

The impact of Cuban music is enormous in Veracruz, and one type or another can be heard everywhere you go. You'll hear it in the Plazuela de la Campana, a hard-to-find, pocket-sized square in the shadow of a former convent, with regular live music including weekly danzón nights. You'll hear son jarocho—the local version of the classic Cuban rhythm—on the malecón, the waterfront promenade where musicians linger outside the cacophonous Gran Café de la Parroquia, which has been a Veracruz landmark for nearly 200 years. You'll even hear hip-shaking rumbas blaring inside the municipal fish market, where among thefresh seafood you can eat a perfect snapper a la veracruzana (in a sauce of tomato, onion, chiles, capers, and green olives) in one of the many food stalls.

"Like Cubans, we are very festive, and there isn't a Veracruzano alive who doesn't dance," explains Bernardo "Nayo" Lorenzo, Veracruz's unofficial historian, tireless raconteur, and author of five books about the city. Most days, Nayo can be found in hisoffice above the fish market, from which he broadcasts his eccentric, ad hoc radio show. "Of course," Nayo adds, with a mischievous smile, "we are also liars and dreamers. This comes from living in a seaport. Seamen depend on their imaginations to get through a long voyage, and when they arrive they are full of fantasies. That's who we are, too."

Fantasy could find no better vehicle than the danzón, which evokes a world of exquisite manners and glittering ballrooms (in fact, it is often referred to as "His Majesty, the danzón"). This romantic image is no doubt what appealed to many of the first enthusiasts, who came from Veracruz's underclass. "In the beginning, the danzón attracted people without the resources to go out and enjoy themselves," Zamudio says. "It was the best alternative entertainment for them. But over the years that changed, and lots of people took it up. Now in Veracruz we have something like fifteen different artistic dance troupes, mostly older dancers, who study, practice, and perform together."

For the 28-year-old Zamudio, the greatest challenge is to persuade young people that the danzón is not just for their grandparents. The 1991 release of a popular Mexican movie called Danzón, filmed in Veracruz with sexy leading lady María Rojo, helped broaden the dance's appeal, but it still continued to suffer from the stereotype that it was for old folks. Zamudio realized that without the next generation's support, the dance could die off with the old-timers, or, perhaps even worse, end up as a hokey folklórico show. To avoid this, he has put together a dance troupe of his own, Tres Generaciónes, which is composed mostly of teenagers. Now, twice a week, some 45 members between the ages of 16 and 25 practice their steps and learn new routines; they have performed before audiences throughout Mexico as well as in Cuba and Japan. "The danzón had skipped a generation," Zamudio explains. "It was being danced by grandparents, but not their children. So with Tres Generaciónes, we are teaching the grandchildren the traditions of their elders. We want to show that the danzón can be for everybody."

And everybody, it seems, is who you'll see in the crowded zocalo on Saturday night. Even though the band has finally wrapped up its set and the musicians have packed up their gear, the die-hard dancers aren't quitting. By 10 p.m. or so, they have reassembled at the evening's next stop, Rincón de la Trova, a popular two-story nightclub on Callejón de la Lagunilla, a stone-paved alley several blocks away. Here, some 300 people will dance to four live bands playing son (to which many of the dancers do a kind of danzón, minus the pauses). The dancers stay until two or three in the morning, and after the last number they spill back out into the alley, passing the statue of legendary Cuban sonero Benny Moré on their way home.

Daniel Cruz Rosas, 70, a retired electrician who still plays trumpet and works with one of the city's danzón troupes, rarely misses a Saturday night out. When asked why he's so passionate about danzón, Rosas says,"I'm an old man, but when I dance I feel young again."

Arnulfo Luna, another regular, puts it a different way. A member of one of the city's most established troupes, Los Seguidores de Su Majestad el Danzón, Luna never misses a chance to dance. Next Saturday night, his group is to put on a performance in the zocalo, so tonight he and his colleagues are out practicing their routine. "They say that once the danzón is inside you, it never leaves," Luna says. "Its rhythm enters your heart and soul."

Plaza de Armas (the zocalo) Tuesdays and Thursdays 7-8 p.m., Saturdays 7:30-9 p.m.
Parque Zamora Wednesdays 8-9 p.m., Sundays 6-9 p.m.; Avda. Rayon and Avda. Independencia
Plazuela de la Campana Wednesdays 8-9 p.m.; Callejon Campana, between Calle Serdan and Calle Arista
Rincón de la Trova Technically, this is a place for dancing to son, but couples do the danzón as well. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays 9 p.m.-3 a.m. ($2.90 per person); 59 Callejon de la Lagunilla; no phone
Instituto Veracruzano de la Cultura Classes in the danzón, as well as many other forms of dance. Centro Cultural Atarazanas callejon Julio S. Montero; 52-229/932-8921; www.ivec.gob.mx

Holiday Inn Veracruz Centro Histórico A lovely 18th-century colonial building with a pool and large, beautifully furnished rooms. Doubles from $99. 225 Calle Morelos; 52-229/932-4550; www.holidayinn-veracruz.com.mx
Hotel Mocambo The 1930's-era Mocambo, about five miles south of the city center, was one of the first beachfront resorts in Veracruz (bear in mind that Veracruz beaches are not particularly attractive). Charming rooms, gardens, a pool, and a spa. Doubles from $99. 4000 Calzada Adolfo Ruiz Cortines; 52-229/922-0202; www.hotelmocambo.com.mx

The good restaurants tend to be outside the city, in and around the little town of Boca del Río to the south. In Veracruz, try the cafés tucked under the arches, or portales, and—yes—in the municipal fish market (Calle Landero and Coss, between Arista and Serdan).

Gran Café de la Parroquia Huge and noisy and a Veracruz institution. The ideal spot for a light meal. 34 Avda. Gomez Farias; 52-229/932-2584
Gran Café del Portal Right on the zocalo. Where locals hang out over café con leche. 1187 Avda. Independencia; 52-229/931-2759
Villa Rica Excellent Veracruzano food—wonderful snapper, crab, and shrimp—under a breezy palapa with a view of the gulf. Dinner for two $40. 527 Calzada Mocambo, Playa de Oro Mocambo, Boca del Rio; 52-229/922-2113
Restaurant Isla Paraiso Worth all the effort it takes to find. Twenty minutes south of the city in a fishing village called Mandinga, on a tiny island in the middle of a lagoon (take a cab to Mandinga for about $12, and ask for directions from there). Order a torito (a milk, sugar, and cane alcohol cocktail), and enjoy just-caught grilled fish. Dinner for two $20. Isla Paraiso de Mandinga; no phone

Hotel Mocambo

Holiday Inn Veracruz Centro Histórico