Danzón de Cuba: Music and Dancing

by Katherine MacManus, Sam Tate, & Malik Henry

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This paper covers the study of the danzón, Cuba’s official national genre and dance. The paper dives into the history and development of the genre from European colonization, to its structure and musical characteristics, and how it has culturally impacted the country of Cuba. The purpose of this paper is to understand how a simple dance can greatly impact a nation, and highlighting the difficult, and at times controversial, path of the danzón. Deriving from the English Country Dance, the dance traveled the continent of Europe before being introduced to Cuba through Spanish and French imperialism. However, it is one of the few genres of music that can claim to originate from one specific writer as Miguel Faílde is considered to be the father of the danzón. While it developed a unique style that bended the characteristics of different nationality, like African isorhythms and European melodic phrasing, through its early development, Miguel Faílde brought the genre to life by writing “Las Alturas de Simpson.” Its characteristics, like the slow dance tempo, combination of cinquillo and tresillo rhythmic patterns, and charanga instrumentation, are what truly make the danzón its own unique genre. But while the population of Cuba enjoyed the genre, the bourgeois society rejected the dance for being too vulgar and passionate. However, while the dance faced many difficulties, it is deeply rooted in Cuban culture and national identity, and inspired newer genres like the Mambo and cha-cha-chá.

Across the world of music, there are but a few languages as universal as melody, rhythm, and dance. Anyone can make sound with an instrument, keep a beat, or move their body. As the peoples of the world started to discover one another, they began mixing cultures and music to create new styles, dances, instruments, traditions, genres, melodies, rhythms. One genre of particular interest is the danzón, Cuba’s official national genre and dance.

Although the danzón is traditionally Cuban, it was influenced by a variety of cultures. Miguel Faílde, a Cuban musician, is the official originator of the danzón, the composer of the first danzón, “Las Alturas de Simpson,” and the founder of one of the earliest danzón orchestras, Orquesta Faílde (Faílde 2016). Without Faílde, the slow tempo and partner dance choreography (two main elements comprising the danzón) would have never existed.

Faílde possessed both African and European heritage which made him the perfect person to piece together what would form the complex structure of the music accompanied by the slow and sensuous dance music. Faílde used his heritage as inspiration to combine the melodic phrases and instruments that were typical of Europe with the intricate polyrhythms and animated dance styles of Africa. While being a somewhat controversial genre and partner dance in its early formation, the danzón still holds a rich history with wide impact. From being pioneered by Miguel Faílde it has now turned into the extremely popular official dance of Cuba that has impacted Latin cultures as a whole.

History and Origin

Cuba developed primarily as a plantation-slave colony, allowing many cultures to come together and interact, which created Cuba’s unique personality (Malcomson 2011). The mixing of European and African cultures created the perfect environment for the danzón; it allowed different social classes to dance together and celebrate something uniquely Cuban.

Cuban flag

The foundation of the danzón began in 17th century England with the Country Dance (Malcomson 2011). The English Country Dance was a rural pastime for commoners in England; the structure allowed people to dance together as a group, and as it gained popularity, it began to oscillate between different social classes. The dance was adapted by the French in a new style known as the contradanse, and was performed by bourgeois society (Madrid and Moore, 2013). Characteristics of the contradanse consist of a meter in either 2/4 or 6/8, and the AABB structural format. The Cuban contradanzas often use a 2/4 or 6/8 meter and also follow the AABB structural format (Madrid and Moore, 2013).

Soon the dance spread to Spain from France under the name contradanza. In 1697, the Treaty of Ryswick was signed which allowed France to buy the Caribbean island Saint Domingue from Spain. After Spain sold Saint Dominigue, French culture was adopted across the island. The people of Saint Dominique enjoyed the contradanza, but gave it more rhythmic vivacity such as incorporated isorhythms like the tango, cinquillo, and tresillo, and African instruments like the güiro (Malcomson 2011).

During the late 18th century, slave revolts erupted in Saint Domingue that prompted the French planters and elites to flee to Cuba. As a result, the Cuban economy morphed into a strong plantation based economy (Malcomson 2011). Even though Cuba already had the contradanse at the time, the mix of new cultures significantly incorporated African rhythms in their music, creating the Cuban Contradanza (Malcomson 2011).

The contradanza increased in popularity as Cuba increased its use of slave labor and experienced economic growth. It was at this time that the Cuban contradanza began to be recorded in great detail; the first example of this kind of dance was “San Pascual Bailon” which was published in Havana in 1803 (Malcomson 2011). This dance was the first example of a creolized contradanza and played by an orquesta tipica. The creolized French dance added African isorhythmic patterns like the habanera (a four note rhythm), the tresillo (a three note rhythm), and the cinquillo (a five note rhythm); the rhythms were often heard in melodies or repeated in an ostinato bass pattern (Madrid and Moore, 2013). However, the trademark pattern was the tango rhythm which changed the choreography of the dance to escobilleo (‘sweeping’) and cedazo (‘sieve’) movements (Malcomson 2011).

This began the transition from the contradanza to the danza. In the 1830s, the piece “El Sungambelo” highlighted the gradual shift to its slower tempos and more variety of rhythms added to the B section of the piece. Specifically, the format was an A section with two four-bar phrases with cinquillo characteristics (such as alternating eighth and sixteenth notes), and a B section with sixteen bars and a variety of cinquillos in both the melody and the bass line (Malcomson 2011). It is important to understand that as composers began writing more complex and varied B sections to the songs, they started transitioning the dance to be structured as more of a rondo, seen in the danzón. The transition from the danza to the danzón was gradual as more and more people began to enjoy the slower rhythms and couple choreography (Malcomson 2011).

The danzón was the first genre to have an author or originator, Miguel Faílde Perez (1852-1921). At the time, the status of musicianship allowed people of mixed races to move upward in social mobility and away from manual labor (Roy 2002). In 1877, Faílde composed one piece that was broken down into four graceful danzóns: “El Delirio,” La Ingatitud,” “Las Quejas,” and “Las Alturas de Simpson” (Leymarie 2002). The last movement, “Las Alturas de Simpson,” was played at the Club de Matanzas on January 1, 1879, and is considered the first “officially” structured danzón performance (Leymarie 2002).

The characteristics of “Las Alturas de Simpson” became the trademark for all danzón songs: a cinquillo rhythm in the melody and bass line, and a rondo structure (ABACA) (Malcomson 2011). The rondo transformed the genre of the two-part contradanza to the multi-sectioned danzón. The songs were based around the clave (an Afro-Cuban rhythmic pattern composed around eighth and sixteenth notes) and the cinquillo. The ability to organize the music around the clave and timelines derived from West African music traditions (Madrid and Moore 2013). Although not very different from the contradanza and the danza in the musical sense, the uniqueness of the danzón came from the complex choreography, like the paseo and cadena (two slow movement dance steps), and the cedazo and sostenido (two brisk dance movements), and improvisations provided by the band (Gerard and Moore 2001).

The danzón began to gain enormous popularity among the population of Cuba. The genre resonated with the Cuban people and its popularity was associated with the Wars of Independence in Cuba and the nationalistic sentiment during the struggle for autonomy with Spain (Gerard and Moore 2001). The danzón spread throughout Cuba, forming new kinds of bands and dance halls for the people to enjoy. Today, the danzón is still considered Cuba’s national genre (Malcomson 2011).

Structure, Instrumentation, and Stylistic Relevance

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of any musical style is instrumentation. At its original modern inception, Miguel Faílde used the instrumentation of orquestas tipicas consisting of a brass section (trumpet, cornet, valve trombone, ophicleide), one or two clarinets, one or two violins, and a kettle drum (Gradante 2001). This was the prevailing instrumentation until the beginning of the 20th century where the more delicate sound of the standard charanga ensemble began to gain popularity (Gradante 2001). Charanga instrumentation, comprised of a string section (two violins, a cello, and a double bass), a flute, timbales, and a güíro, became the prevailing setup by the early 1930s, approximately a decade after Faílde’s death (Leymarie 2002).

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Being a slow partner dance, 2/4 and 4/4 time are the most common meters found in danzón (Rodriguez 2000). The smooth consistency of the musical texture is accentuated by the synchronized, rhythmic dance movements of the performers. Where the music is a mixture of European structures and African rhythmic mentality, the dance combines facets of the traditional European partner dances, such as the contredanse, with the polyrhythmic accents of sub-Saharan Africa (Gradante 2001). This unique fusion of styles created a uniquely Cuban product.

The underlying rhythmic structure of danzón is called the baqueteo, which is a composite of cinquillo and tresillo rhythmic patterns (Gerard 2001). The cinquillo rhythmic sequence, generally found in the clave in sub-Saharan African music, is comprised of an eighth note, a sixteenth note, an eighth note, a sixteenth note, and an eighth (Gerard 2001). When written in 2/4 time, as opposed to 4/4 which would double the perceived downbeats, the syncopation is felt more deeply. In addition to the cinquillo, the tresillo pattern is comprised of a dotted eighth-sixteenth followed by an eighth rest and an eighth note. While the term “tresillo” literally means triplet in Spanish, the rhythm itself is not the same (Gerard 2001). The triplet and tresillo are distinguishable by the difference in note length of the third note of each grouping; the third note in a tresillo grouping is an eighth note shorter than the third note in a grouping quarter note triplets (Gerard 2001). As is the case with many polyrhythms, the baqueteo is generally perceived in two ways: 1) as an embellishment of the basic clave pattern, or 2) as the layering of a five-note and three-note pattern in which the common notes are emphasized (Gradante 2001). In 2/4 time, the basic rhythm of the baqueteo is 1&a e& 1& 2&, where the bolded beats signify open drum strokes and the non-bolded beats signify muted drum strokes (Gradante 2001). Featured in the timbale part and mirrored in the güíro, the baqueteo follows the same structural principles as the use of the clave. The timbale functions as the rhythmic driving force, i.e. the timeline, while the güíro doubles the timbale pattern in a manner identical to the axatse (Titon 2001). In effect, this pairing creates a polyphonic texture with the grating crunch of the güíro texture sitting seamlessly on top of the subtle persistence of the timbale.

While there are many structural variations of the danzón, the original formatting created by Miguel Faílde in 1879 is as follows: a 16 bar introduction and paseo comprising the (A) section, a flute theme introducing the principal melody (B), a repeat of the (A) section, a trio (C) section known as the parte de violin which features the strings, and an ending which often includes a third recapitulation of the introduction and/or another commonly used danzón ending. Cumulatively, the form of the danzón is ABACA, a typical rondo (Gerard 2001).

In contrast to many of the flashy, high energy styles of Afro-Cuban music, the most salient feature of the danzón style is how well the synchronized steps of the partner dance match the syncopation and character of the musical ensemble. The slow, elegant, deliberate steps are in constant interplay with the virtuosic passages featured in the string section and solo flute stanzas. Despite the social, cultural, and political backlash faced by the danzón style in late 19th century Cuba, this rich amalgamation of the many cultures present in the country allowed Cuba to morph into a music culture of its own.

Social and Political Impacts

The danzón was always surrounded in controversy as it was met with adversity by the Cuban government and elites of the society. Miguel Faílde’s father being from Spain and his mother being a mulata from Cuba made him of Afro-Cuban descent (Malcomson 2011). His mixed ethnicity was looked down upon in Cuban culture making it difficult for him to make his music, especially since Cuba still had slavery in the 19th century. While Faílde was not a slave, he was limited by Cuba’s rigorous class system that had little to no mobility. Malcomson gives an example of his struggles as “The Matanzas Society took more than two years to license this performance,” in reference to his performance of “Las Alturas de Simpson” (Malcomson 2011, pg. 267). Faílde composed the piece, but could not perform it because of his ethnicity. Malcomson also speculates that it took so long to sanction his piece because of Faílde’s political association with the Cuban independence movement. The Cuban independence escalated into a long, bloody war during the end of the 19th century.

The danzón’s history closely follows with the Caribbean islands’ fight for freedom. The danza arrived in Cuba from French refugees that were displaced by the Haitian Revolution of 1804 (Crowley 1985). Even in the midst of war, music was still able to travel through the French refugees and mix with the Cuban general population. The dance unified the people because of the close proximity of the movements which intertwined groups together, both physically and socially.

Before abolition, the high society of Cuba saw the dance as too sensual, therefore socially unacceptable. The dance was much slower than the other dances of the time, like the danza (Gradante 2011). The elites were not happy with how the danzón bridged class gaps. Faílde created folk music for the Cuban people since he was a common man in the society. The instruments that made up the danzón orchestras were not viewed as proper instruments by the elite people and the common people danced to it in local clubs. The common people enjoyed it because it blended together European melody and African rhythms to create an intricate web of music (Gradante 2011).

Cuban street scene

Because the genre was popular amongst the common people, the danzón continues to thrive as it is played in Cuba as well as Mexico. In 1954, a special danzón was written and recorded to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the dance (Crowley 1985). The Charanga Tipica Nacional de Concierto made four different danzóns with varying tempo and melody, demonstrating how the danzón is still relevant and revered today.

Evolution of the Danzón

The danzón became a catalyst for other influential genres as well. Gradante explains how “the 20th century danzón interacted with other Cuban genres, feeding into son, and to the development of the mambo and cha-cha-chá” (Gradante 2013, pg.1). While it is difficult to find information on the specific details of the impact of the danzón, many authors mention it having an impact on other genres. Much like the clave is for Brazilian music, the danzón is a standard starting point for their musicians. The danzón’s specific rhythms, melodies, and dance can be heard in popular Cuban salsa and jazz music.

In the early 1900s, the son and the danzón built an interesting relationship as the two mixed together. José Urfé, a Cuban composer, added a section with a swinging feeling similar to the son to a danzón. Due to its popularity, Aniceto Díaz, another Cuban musician, decided to add a singing part as well as to create a new genre, the danzónete (Crowley 1985). This example demonstrates how the danzón evolved into new genres.

The mambo and the cha-cha-chá cannot be analyzed without mentioning the danzón as it was an integral part to their development. David Garcia said “in its earliest manifestation, the mambo involved new ways of playing and dancing to Cuban danzón and son music, both of which had already been established by the early 20th century” (Garcia 2010, pg.1). The variation of the danzón and son combination created the mambo which had a wider impact than the danzón by reaching over to Mexico and even New York. Garcia also points out that “the mambo’s popularity eventually subsided after the emergence of the cha-cha-chá in the mid-1950s” (Garcia 2010, pg.1) .While danzón did not have a direct impact on the cha-cha-chá, the cha-cha-chá would not exist without the mambo which clearly originated from the danzón.

Even with the danzón originating back in 1879, it is still relevant today through its impact to Cuban culture (Crowley 1985). Original compositions of the danzón are still being played along with new variations and fusions. Many genres owe their creation to the danzón and the impact those genres made to the musical world.


As Cuba’s first unique genre of song and dance, the danzón was bound to have a position of prominence in the country’s national spotlight. As a combination of the lively, yet subtle African rhythms and the elegantly robust European instrumentation, the popularity achieved by the style from the late 19th century through the early 20th century bore positive results for the nation. Through its multicultural musical heritage, the danzón is the first genre to musically amalgamate the racially diverse country. Although the old socio-political climate made it initially difficult for the genre, the unique Cuban spirit proved that the danzón could not be contained by such an exclusionary mindset. The creator, Miguel Faílde, can be credited with much of these profound, nationwide impacts. His creation and true love for music is fully embodied in the elegant, precise, patriotic, and uniting power of the National Dance of Cuba: the danzón.


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Urfé, Odilio 1965. El danzón. La Habana.

Associated Course: MUSI 3020

Course Faculty: Dr. Kidula

WIP TA: Jennifer Larue

Citation style: Chicago

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