Danzón was once called the official dance of Cuba. It is no longer an active musical form in Cuba, though it still survives in Mexico. Like the habanera, the danzón evolved from the contradanza. Originally, the contradanza was of English origin, and was evidently introduced to Cuba in the late 1700s by English visitors, Spanish colonists, and by French colonists fleeing the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s. In Cuba these dances were influenced by African rhythmic and dance styles, and so became a genuine fusion of European and African influences
The danzón developed in the second half of the 19th century, and has been an important root for Cuban music up to the present day. The precursors of danzón are the contradanza, and the habanera, which are creolized Cuban dance forms. The danzón was developed, according to one’s point of view, either by Manuel Saumell or by Miguel Faílde in Matanzas
The danzón, first stage
The contradanza, the danza and the habanera were sequence dances, in which all danced together a set of figures. The first use of the term danzón, which dates from the 1850s, is for just such a dance. Havana’s daily paper, El Triunfo, gave a description of this earlier danzón. It was a co-ordinated dance of figures performed by groups of Matanzas blacks. The dancers held the ends of colored ribbons, and carried flower-covered arches. The group twisted and entwined the ribbons to make pleasing patterns. This account can be corroborated by other references, for example, a traveler in Cuba noted in 1854 that black Cubans “do a kind of wreath dance, in which the whole company took part, amid innumerable artistic entanglements and disentanglements”.This style of danzón was performed at carnival comparsas by black groups: it is described that way before the late 1870s.
The interesting thing is that Faílde’s first danzóns were created for just such sequence dances. Faílde himself said “In Matanzas at this time there was a kind of square dance for twenty couples who carried arches and flowers. It was really a dance of figures (sequence dance), and its moves were adapted to the tempo of the habanera, which we took over for the danzón”
The danzón, second stage
The form of danzón created by Miguel Faílde in 1879 (Las alturas de Simpson), begins with an introduction (four bars) and paseo (four bars), which are repeated and followed by a 16-bar melody. The introduction and paseo again repeat before a second melody is played. The dancers do not dance during these sections: they choose partners, stroll onto the dance floor, and begin to dance at precisely the same moment: the fourth beat of bar four of the paseo, which has a distinctive percussion pattern that’s hard to miss. When the introduction is repeated the dancers stop, chat, flirt, greet their friends, and start again, right on time as the paseo finishes.