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Danzon: Politics and Dance Meet in Cuba and Mexico

March 4, 2011

Dance may be a source of pleasure, according to Alejandro Madrid of the University of Chicago, but what pleasure dancers feel and want to feel is dependent on their social context. In a talk last semester at the Institute, Madrid compared experiences of Danzón dancing in Cuba and Mexico, exploring how the “pleasure” of this sensual dance may be constrained by political ideologies and social norms.

The challenge of Danzón is “how to channel feelings of freedom through culturally sanctioned movement,” Madrid said.

In both Cuba and Mexico, Danzón is a highly codified dance. If one makes a mistake, one risks being labeled “uncivilized.” In Cuban Danzón, however, one is allowed more freedom of movement. While Mexican dancers are forbidden from moving their hips, Cubans draw from African dance styles and move their hips in circular motions.

Within Cuba, however, different dancing styles reflect social and cultural divisions. Those who practice a more restrictive and academic form of Danzón call hip motion a “backward” motion rooted in “uncivilized” African traditions. This labeling reflects an attempt to make blackness invisible, said Madrid.

“The body politics is performed in a way that fits the political or cultural agenda of the nation state,” he said.

The impact of Danzón on gender relations is equally complex. In Mexico, the dance provides an outlet for women to temporarily escape Catholic restrictions and express their sensuality. At the same time, the film industry has objectified and “fetishized” Danzón dancers. As a result, the pleasure women feel when dancing Danzón no longer belongs to them alone.

While political and cultural differences affect different ideas about pleasure in Mexico and Cuba, the basic social phenomenon is universal. We do not experience pleasure in a vacuum; knowing that others are watching us shapes how we like to move and which movements we experience as pleasurable.

Dancers themselves may also define pleasure as a political act. When Danzón became a national dance in both nations, it ceased to be used for recreation, Madrid said. The pleasure it created became political, not personal. Even as their ideas are shaped by their political context, dancers of Danzón seek to reclaim the pleasure of dance for themselves.

Regardless of their particular styles, Mexican and Cuban dancers of Danzón agree on one thing; Danzón is a “sensual, erotic dance,” Madrid said.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Department of Ethnomusicology.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11