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Ode to a Fading Song Breed: Notes on the Danza Puertorriqueña

By Brenda A. Mari

May 20, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Puerto Rican danza is certainly the most sublime and lofty genre ever to come out of our vivacious musical repertoire. No salsa-swaying hips or reggaetón humping on this one. No steamy butt-grinding, saucy boob-shaking, nor quivering thigh-rumbling, period. Just good old-fashioned, dignified dancing. The woman even controls how close her partner can get. The danza is, after all, about proper etiquette, not to get your rocks off.

Compared to the bomba and the plena, the danza is the "light n’ fluffy" side of our musical heritage. But what people don’t usually know is that danzas were once frowned-upon and seen as risqué. Believe it or not, the first couple of danzas that appeared on the street bore rather vulgar titles the like of "Ay, I want to eat mondongo," "The frog girl," and "The pig’s tail." Most of them penned by an obscure composer, last name Santaella. Governor Don Juan de la Pezuela even banned them in 1849.

The danza reared its head mid 19th century as an alternative to the stiff Spanish "contradanza," a carefully choreographed dance led by a guy called the "bastonero" (loosely translated as the "cane holder"), who dictated who was going to dance and with whom, and what moves they were going to make. Sort of like the minuet meets Simon Says. Many an argument ensued from showoff bastoneros that demanded specific poses from their captive crowd; some even had it all out on a pistol duel scenario. By 1839, the bastonero was pretty much gone.

Enter several Cuban rebels on the scene who brought with them the "habanera" style of dancing. This time couples could freely engage in some leisure dancing and the music sported just a tad more gusto. This habanera had a first part, the "paseo," or a "walk-by," which consisted of 8 measures, and served as a tonal introduction. The second part, the "merengue," was extended from its original 16 measures to 34 in 1854 and up to 130 later on.

The form kept evolving, but it was Manuel G. Tavarez, the "Father of the Danza," who raised the bar, giving it a whimsical, romantic lilt suitable for high-society salons. His disclipe, Juan Morel Campos, honed the genre to perfection, composing more than 300 danzas.

Dancing the danza is no big to-do. During the paseo, the couples parade in a circle with linked arms-- girls on the right. At the end of the paseo, the couple bows to each other: the woman curtsies, the man nods his head. The guy then wraps his arms around his gal and keeps the elbow at 90 degrees, holding up the woman’s right arm. The woman places her left hand on the guy’s shoulder to modulate the distance between them, just in case the man gets too fresh. The rest is pretty much danced like a waltz, in measurements of four.

Around the danza a whole set of societal modes and events came to be, such as the quinceañero, when the 15-year-olds were presented into society. There is even a whole set of silent fan language, with which they used to say sweet things to each other without the chaperone knowing. This is a very interesting language that you can find at

Our national anthem, "La Borinqueña," written by Felix Atol and given words by patriotic luminary Lola Rodriguez de Tió, is probably one of the best-known danzas in existence. "No Me Toques," by Juan Morel Campos is a perfect example of the festive kind. Other, more modern ones include "Tu vives en mi pensamiento" by Eladio Torres and the uber patriotic "Verde Luz" by Antonio Cabán Vale "El Topo."

This week, coinciding with Juan Morel Campos’ birthday, has been dedicated to the danza. Cultural institutions all over Puerto Rico have been paying homage to this most proper of dance forms and keeping it alive via concerts and contests. Local musicians believe there is no shortage of composers for new and exciting danzas, what there is lacking is a slew of interested interpreters. Seems like singers nowadays are not interested in reviving the genre. The only ones who could or would be interested in revamping it might be Fiel a la Vega, but those guys haven’t spun out anything new in a while.

Waltz-like, civilized and refined, the danza stands as a testament of our more "refined" European cultural roots. Fading as an art form, it is kept alive mainly by the efforts of the Puerto Rican Instiute of Culture, who came up with a weeklong set of activities to pay homage to this emblematic symbol of Puerto Ricanism. Read about what’s going on this closing weekend below.

Tonight, Friday, May 20

Students form the Juan Morel Campos Institute will show off their danza stuff at La Perla Theater in Ponce at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 21

More danza-mongering by accomplished students from the Escuela Libre de Musica

at La Perla Theater in Ponce at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 22

Puerto Rican Danza Dance Contest

Couples from all over dance away the afternoon in traditional satiny getup, complete with fluttering fans and coattails, reliving the good old days at the to the beat of the incomparable Ponce Municipal Band, led by Prof. Rubén Colon Tarrats. Trophies will be handed out and everything. Here’s your chance at savoring this art form. At La Perla Theater in Ponce at 3:30 p.m.

Concierto Danzaj
Pianist Angel David Mattos, percussionist Héctor Matos, and bassist Edgardo Sierra give a modern twist to the danza, fusing our national dance genre with jazz. This is certain to prove to be an interesting hoot. They will be interpreting classics like "No me toques", "Felices días", "Maldito Amor" and "Margarita".

At 4:00 p.m. in the Jesús T. Piñero House Museum, PR-3, In front of El Comandante Racing Track, in Canóvanas.

The Lowdown

Museum of Puerto Rican Music

Isabel St., corner of Salud St. Next to Museum of Ponce History

Phone: 787-848-7016

Inside a former residence of the Serrallés family, you can find an interesting showcase of the history of Puerto Rican music, featuring Indian, Spanish and African musical instruments. Discover all about the romantic "danza," a 19th-century favorite of Puerto Rico’s upper crust, as well as the African-inspired and popular "bomba" and "plena." Also on view are memorabilia of the island’s composers and performers.

For everything you need to know about danza and more. One of the most extensive collections of danza MP3s around.

Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at

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