My first dance partner was my father. The dance lessons started in earnest when I was around five or six years of age. I vividly remember climbing barefoot onto the tops of my father’s shiny brown oxfords, and as he clasped my tiny wrists and in 4/4 time, transported me on the top of those polished shoes through the long continuous movements of the foxtrot around and around the living room rug, while the record player spun Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve got you under my skin”.
My soft spoken, unassuming father was a fabulous dancer. I would see him in action at the occasional family wedding, or a Christmas party. I was dumbfounded at my father’s effortless ease in spinning and twirling my mother in perfect rhythm to “Sentimental Journey” despite seldom seeing them in such synchronicity at home. Their eyes were locked on each other, and as they spun around the room, it was how I first understood their love and the romance of dance.
So it was no surprise that as I grew up and started to date, my suitors had to be “willing” to dance. Good dancers even more appreciated. My husband and I love to dance, and quite frankly don’t do enough of it now. But there is one song that will always make us dance, no matter where or when we hear it.
We have been seated, waiting patiently for our paella, in a sidewalk restaurant in Rio de Janeiro when the lone minstrel started playing that song. We have been in far away Asia and next-door North America, and heard those chords as musicians strum for a tune that sparks some recognition and gratuities from the crowd. Each and every time that song is played, no matter how badly, no matter where we are, it transports us back in time and we begin to dance.
Within the first three bars, my feet start tapping, and I give a sideway glance to my husband. Our smiles widen, and up we leap, to start dancing to the one tune we cannot ignore. On busy sidewalks, and in dimly lit restaurants, packed bars and quiet parks, in places where no one is dancing, we dance. Oblivious to the looks, we dance and remember. It was the song of our first dance as a married couple, and ironically a foreshadowing for a connection for a country we would grow to love. “La Bamba” was our first dance at our wedding and if “romance in dance” is this month’s theme, there can be no greater romance than a wedding’s first dance. It is the first moment, as a newly married couple, you can embrace and move together to the beat of the common song that you hold dear.
It is quite possibly the best moment of the day if your wedding was like mine, a blur of of faces and interactions, all compressed in a short period of time. The first dance was, well, a time to finally catch your breath, and just enjoy.
Everyone knows “La Bamba” and Ritchie Valen’s rock and roll version from the 50’s which is ranked #345 on Rolling Stones list of the 500 greatest songs of all times and the only one on the list not sung in English.
Its origins date back to Veracruz and the 1700’s. It is a classic example of the Son Jarocho musical style which combines Spanish, indigenous, and African elements. The song is typically played with one or two arpas jarochas or harps, with guitars accompanying. While lyrics vary depending on the performers, the traditional tune remains almost identical throughout most versions. The name of the dance has no direct English translation and comes from the verb bambolear, which means to shake or stomp. The traditional “La Bamba” is often played during weddings in Veracruz, where the bride and groom perform the accompanying dance. Today this wedding tradition is observed less often than in the past, but the dance is still popular, perhaps through the popularity of ballet folklórico. The dance is performed displaying the newly wed couple’s unity through the performance of complicated, delicate steps in unison as well as through creation of a bow from a listón, a long red ribbon, using only their feet. The “arriba” (literally “up”) part of the song suggests the nature of the dance, in which the footwork, called “zapateado”, is done faster and faster as the music tempo accelerates.
So while its history and its deep roots in Mexico makes it uniquely special, it is also the romance that it evokes, that wins our hearts. Even after twenty years, “our” dance brings out the best in “us” as we remember that first day we became a couple and promised to take what ever came, together.
So if we contend that dance is intrinsically linked to Romance, the First Dance, is magically so. It may also be a bit more. Knowing we tend to choose partners who mirror our parents and end up marrying people much like them, then my wedding’s First Dance, in a way, arcs full circle, back to my dad and those shiny brown oxfords that I rode around the living room rug over 50 years ago.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at www.gosanagustinillo.com