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The danza is arguably the highest artistic expression of the Puerto Rican culture. It is the musical genre of the New World that most resembles European classical music. It is a genre very rich in melodic and harmonic content with a very deep character. Some are melancholic and romantic, like La Borinqueña, Puerto Rico's national anthem, composed by Felix Astol; with long phrases, rich harmonies and three or more clearly defined parts.
Traditionally, danzas are classified in two types: romantic and festive. The two variations don't really resemble one another. The romantic danza is more faithful to a form which consists of four parts: an introduction or "paseo" (usually of 8 measures), a first theme, a second theme, and a third theme, each one of 16 measures. The third theme is usually more lively and in it, the bombardino leaves its role as accompanist and becomes the soloist, playing the melody, sometimes in an "ad lib" or virtuoso fashion. After the third theme there is a recapitulation of the first theme and sometimes a coda at the end. All parts except the coda and recapitulation are played twice. There might be variations to this as the introduction of "bridges", parts of 8 measures instead of 16, etc.
Although danzas are mostly romantic, they are characterized by a very peculiar rhythmic accompaniment, played by the left hand when at the piano or by the bombardino or trombone in orchestras. The danza may be described as a mix of the waltz with the Afro-Caribbean beat.
The festive danzas are not so faithful to a particular form, except for the fact that they have an introduction. After that, they may follow the form of the romantic danza or may have just two or three more parts without any particular organization. They are very rhythmic, lively and fast.
The origin of the danza is not clear, but most scholars agree that it began around the middle of the 19th century (around 1840). During the first third of the 19th century the Spanish contradanza or "counter dance" was very popular in the island of Puerto Rico. This was a very rigid dance with "figures", in which the dancers had to make specific movements according to the directions of the bastonero. The "bastonero" was a kind of director who decided how many couples would dance in each dance and the position of each dancer. The first dancer, who was usually one of the most expert, performed whichever complicated movements or "figures" he wanted and the other dancers had to imitate him on their turn. It is said that many of these dances ended in fights or heated discussions when some of the dancers did not faithfully follow the leader's movements. The bastonero was suppressed from 1839 on and the change began to take place.
Around the decade of 1840, Puerto Rico received many immigrants from Cuba, who brought with them some new music. The "contradanza" was losing popularity, due to its rigidness and a new dance began to displace it. This new music was called habanera (from the name of Cuba's capital city, La Habana). The habanera was danced by couples in a very free manner that was liked very much by the youth of that epoch. At the beginning, Cuban music was used but later, Puerto Rican composers began composing their own music and adding their variations and unique flavor.
The first part of the danza, called the paseo, usually consisted of 8 measures and lacked a rhythmic base but served as a tonal introduction. The second part, which was called the merengue was extended from its original 16 measures to 34, in 1854, and up to 130 later on. Other parts began to appear and a new musical genre began to take shape.
Apparently, the original danza was very unsophisticated and was rejected by some of the high class people of that time (but not by the youth), maybe due to the fact that couples could get very close together and could talk privately with each other. This caused governor at that time, Juan de la Pezuela to make a decree prohibiting it, but it didn't prevail. Some titles of those first "danzas" were: "The tail of the pig"; "Oh, I want to eat pork chops", and others in a similar style.
The genre continued evolving until it was taken up by the young pianist Manuel G. Tavarez, who had just arrived from his studies in Paris, and took it to a new artistic level. His disciple, Juan Morel Campos adopted it also and developed it further to its maximum expression, composing more than 300 danzas, most of them masterpieces of an exquisite beauty. The danza that evolved was inspired mostly by women and romance and their titles reflected that change: Margarita, "From your side to paradise", "Laura y Georgina" (one of the most exquisite and popular and dedicated to the beautiful Capó sisters from Ponce), "My sorrows", etc.
Of course, many other danza composers composed equally beautiful danzas, such as the classic Violeta, written by modern composer Rafael Alers. The danza has ranged in style and over time but it forever endures in the heart and soul of Puerto Rico and its people.
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