Since prehistoric times, dance has always existed on our island. The earliest dances documented by the cronistas de Indias [early historians describing the newly “discovered” Indies] were the areito (sometimes spelled areyto or areíto), dances that were chanted by a chorus, set to music, and led by a guide. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo called them “bailar cantando” [“singing dances,” or “to dance while singing”], which was common among the indigenous groups of the region. The areito was danced in a line, with the participants holding hands, linking their arms, or according to Bartolomé de las Casas, “the arms of some placed on the shoulders of the others.” Pedro Mártir de Anglería tells us that the participants wore shells on their arms and legs, using them to make “a pleasant noise.” They told a story while the guide indicated which steps and songs to repeat until the story was finished.
When the Conquistadors arrived, the indigenous population quickly began to disappear, and with them vanished any autochthonous cultural expression that the authorities deemed pagan. Even so, Fray Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra affirmed in 1789 that “the most appreciable pastime for these island people are their dances; they have them for no other reason than to while away the time, and rarely are they missing on one occasion or another.”
Later, other dances that appeared on the island and took root and developed in the mountains, on the coast, and in urban centers were brought by the Spanish and by African slaves; by immigrants from the Antilles, such as the French or the English; by Latin Americans fleeing various wars of independence; and from 1898 on, by North Americans. Little ethnographic and anthropological research has been done, but some scholars observe a difference between the dances from the Lesser Antilles and those from the Greater Antilles, especially from Haiti, with its strong French influence and view of dance as a manifestation of a social code of manners and proper behavior.
Dances of European origin that became popular among the campesinos [peasants] from the mountains and the central part of the island include the waltz, the mazurka, the lancer (a combination of quadrilles), the rigadoon, and the contradanse (the so-called country dance). Among the campesinos these dances rapidly acquired distinctive features of rhythm, instrumentation, interpretation, and even dress. The seis is the most important. Manuel Alonso, in El gíbaro (1849), classified it as one of the garabato dances, a dance “of the people of inferior class and from the country” as opposed to the dances of higher society. The name “seis” [six] comes from the participation of six couples who begin the dance in a line with the men facing the women. The lines cross, the dancers stamp their feet, and at the end the couples waltz, while songs (are sung) of love and spite.
Another important dance is the bomba, a generic term, according to Nydia Ríos, covering a number of dances of campesino, African, and Hispanic-Central American origin. The Afro-Puerto Rican bombas, developed in the sugarcane haciendas of Loíza and the northeastern coastal areas, in Guayama and in southern Puerto Rico, utilize barrel drums and tambourines, while the campesino version uses stringed instruments.
The Puerto Rican danza, the dance itself and its musical form, is considered the most refined of the dances. Its inspiration supposedly comes from the Cuban habanera, or perhaps from the South American one; in any case, it achieved its own style, with two distinct divisions. During the first part, to the steady cadence of the music, the couples promenade around the room; during the second, with a lively rhythm called merengue, they dance in a closed ballroom position. Captain General Juan de la Pezuela considered this position “a depravity of manners” and prohibited the practice in 1849, under penalty of ten days in jail for those who permitted the dance in their homes. The people, however, ignored the proscription, making it obsolete though never repealed.
The plena, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is the last of the national dances to emerge before the change of sovereignty in 1898 and the beginning of the influence of the U.S. It was a sort of sung newscast that mainly came from the coastal area, although there is evidence that it was danced in inland regions as well. It was also the first Puerto Rican rhythm to gain popularity beyond our own island and to influence the music of other countries.
In addition, dances from elsewhere were imported to Puerto Rico, including the bolero, the mambo, the cha-cha and the guaracha, as well as dances from the U.S. Today, Puerto Ricans dance to salsa, rock, reggaetón and, especially, merengue, while dances such as the pasodoble and even the plena are disappearing.
Research in Folklore
Beginning in the 1950s with the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, a surge in anthropological consciousness led to an interest in rescuing these dances and rhythms. The dance company Areyto, directed by Irene McLean, was founded—the first dance troupe devoted exclusively to folk dances. Its productions presented costumbrista sketches that recreated the dances, usually in chronological order. Many others have copied this model, most of them amateur groups; with a few exceptions such as the Grupo Guateque, there is usually little or no serious attempt at research.
There are many groups performing the bomba, and they originally came from the regions from which the genre sprang. Because these areas remained isolated to a large degree, the authenticity of the dances was preserved for a longer time, at least until the development of mass communication. Recent interest in the politics of identity has revived the desire to learn about and practice these dances. Today, the production and staging of the dances lean more toward the theatrical than toward true folklore, for which reason all sorts of modifications and innovations are being introduced.
Until the mid-20th century, no only a few independent Puerto Rican performers and foreign troupes or dancers were presenting theatrical dance. While on her American tour, Anna Pavlova performed in Puerto Rico between December of 1917 and January of 1918. During the 1940s, dancers and companies came from Europe, North America, and Russia, brought in by Pro Arte Musical and the University of Puerto Rico, whose theater was inaugurated in 1939.
It was two sisters—Ana García and Gilda Navarra—who initiated the professionalization of dance by founding a school in 1951 for the purpose of training dancers to form a company. That company, Ballets de San Juan (BSJ), was founded in 1954 and has been active without interruption ever since. Trained in Puerto Rico and in New York, García and Navarra acquired professional experience off the island. García was a member of Ballet Society, a company that was a predecessor of the New York City Ballet and also directed by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, and of the Ballet de Alicia Alonso, with which she toured South America. Navarra danced with the companies of Pilar López and José Greco in Spain, Europe, and North Africa.
BSJ developed a heterogeneous repertory that included classical and neoclassical ballets, Spanish dances, and ballets with Puerto Rican themes. These last represent BSJ’s original contribution to the field, and had librettos, scripts, set designs and costumes commissioned from young artists who shared that company’s vision and aesthetic. Some pieces are based on popular stories, legends, and historical figures or themes; some use popular music; and still others are not “about” any specific subject but are set in a Puerto Rican ambiance. The pieces are created and choreographed by a considerable number of artists, including García, Navarra, Juan Anduze, and Ramón Molina. In addition, for many years the school and the company trained the majority of its own dancers and many who joined other companies, not only locally but also in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America.
During the 1960s, Navarra retrained in classic pantomime in New York and Paris, with Etienne Decroux and Jacques Lecoq. She later joined the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico and also formed, in 1971, the Taller de Histriones, a pantomime and dance-theater company that elaborated a very innovative approach, especially in terms of movement. Histriones invented and adapted expressionist and realist movements for their 16 mimodramas, based on texts, legends, commedia dell’arte, abstract themes, and regional or popular culture. Histriones was disbanded in 1985, although Navarra continued to create pieces in the following years. Due to the roles they played in the development of theatrical dance, Ana García and Gilda Navarra have made an incalculable contribution, and their names will be forever linked to professional dance in Puerto Rico.
During the 1950s, José Parés directed a short-lived company called Teatro de la Danza. Although it lasted only three years, it provided training to dancers, teachers, and choreographers who are still active in the early 21st century. In 1959, Parés and several of his dancers were invited by Alicia Alonso to join the National Ballet of Cuba. Parés later worked as a dancer, teacher, and ballet master in Europe and in Venezuela before returning to Puerto Rico, where he died in 2006.
Another company whose life was brief but intense was the Ballet Puertorriqueño, it funtioned under the direction of Ramón Segarra, a Puerto Rican trained in the U.S. who also directed companies in Europe and Brazil.
In the late 1970s Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico and Ballet Teatro Municipal de San Juan were founded. The aim of the latter company was to take classical ballet to disadvantaged communities within the capital city. Its most important director was Juan Anduze, a long-time member of BSJ and an experienced teacher, choreographer, and producer. He recruited well-known professional dancers whose names lent prestige to the company, he created an ample repertory of pieces, and he trained dancers who are professionally active in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Ballet Concierto was founded in 1977, initially under the auspices of the Asociación de Maestros de Baile de Puerto Rico [Association of Dance Teachers of Puerto Rico] and later as an independent company directed by Lolita San Miguel. She developed the company into a prestigious professional troupe that has toured the U.S., Europe, and Japan with classical choreographies and pieces by Puerto Ricans and Latinos such as Alberto Méndez, Parés, Carlos Veitía, and Jimmy Gamonet de los Heros. The company’s Conservatory was created in 1988 under the direction of Carlota Carrera.
Ballet Concierto established a Choreographers’ Workshop for new talents, whose work enriched the company’s repertory. These include, among others, Jesús Miranda, Oscar Mestey (former member of the Taller de Histriones) and Ana Sánchez Colberg—a Puerto Rican choreographer, dancer, and professor who works in London.
With a more contemporary style but grounded in classical ballet is Andanza, a company of soloists founded in 2000 by Lolita Villanúa, who danced with Ballet Concierto, Ballet Teatro Municipal de San Juan, and Grupo Corpo in Brazil. Ambitious and of a high technical caliber, Andanza seeks in dances, gestures, or a codified vocabulary an expressive aesthetic that speaks of the music, the ambiance, or the themes of its pieces. Its is choreographed by Brazilians Matías Santiago and Antonio Gomes and by Puerto Ricans Jesús Miranda, Carlos Iván Santos, Rodney Rivera, and Villanúa, among others. The group commissions costume, set, and lighting designs, as well as original music which is often performed live.
Amongst the 20th-century dance idioms, only modern dance has failed to maintain a stable presence in Puerto Rico. However, an “experimental” or postmodern dance movement has evolved, with periods characterized by a strong and vigorous presence. This movement appeared in the late ’70s and early ’80s with Petra Bravo, Viveca Vázquez, Awilda Sterling, Gloria Llompart, and Maritza Pérez, united in the group called Pisotón. Formed in New York, Pisotón aimed at redefining the very concept of dance, moving away from the classical and modern disciplines and searching for a way to conceive and mold movement, the use of the body, the surrounding space, and composition into a suitable style for expressing their concerns.
The dancers and choreographers have developed independently, with differing styles, but they share an interest in everyday movement; body consciousness; debates about the politics of sex, identity and gender; and our political, social, and cultural climate -frequently employing a humorous perspective. After Pisotón, which lasted seven years, various groups have been formed. The longest-lived of these is the Taller de Otra Cosa, directed by Viveca Vázquez, who as been the most prolific of all these choreographers and one who, for a considerable time, has trained dancers by means of the courses she offers at the University of Puerto Rico.
In order to document dance, in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, the University of Puerto Rico created in 1991 a dance archive, with bibliographical, artistic, photographic, and filmed resources.
Author: Dra. Susan Homar
Published: September 11, 2014.
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