Dance Halls | Translation

Dance Halls | Translation

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Translated by MC Editorial

[Daniel Alarcón]: Hello ambulantes.

Listen carefully: An episode of Radio Ambulante that we published this year was the most shared on Spotify among all episodes of all NPR podcasts.

Incredible, isn’t it?

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what that means. NPR, in case you didn’t know, is one of the most significant podcast production houses in the United States and worldwide. And Radio Ambulante is its only Spanish-language podcast.

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Thank you for making all of this possible. For listening, sharing, and donating. We have earned a space in the media in the United States, and we’ve achieved it together. We continue our campaign until the end of the year, and I want to ask you a favor. If you appreciate what we do… If you are one of the thousands of people who shared one of our episodes at some point in the year… Why not take a step further and become a member? With any donation, you join our membership program, which comes with several benefits: meetings with the team, early access to episodes, discounts in our store, and more.

But above all, becoming a member gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping this project continue. That Latin, Latino American stories keep being told. You can support us at radioambulante.org/donate. Thank you. Here’s the episode.

This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. 

A few months ago, our Senior Editor, Luis Fernando Vargas, visited a legend from Costa Rica: Carlos Moreira, better known as Gringo.

[Gringo]: I’ll show you a little bit of what Gringo is about. 

[Luis Fernando Vargas]: Mhm. Wow! It’s a lot.

[Daniel]: Gringo is many things—a blond man with light-colored eyes, a father, a businessman, a kind of everyday philosopher… But mainly a dancer. 

[Gringo]:  What I carry inside is in my blood, and if I have to dance in the middle of the street, I’ll dance in the middle of the street. As simple as that. Because dancing is my passion and no one is going to take that away from me.

[Daniel]: And Gringo, who is nearly 70 years old, is famous for one dance in particular: swing criollo.

It’s a strange dance. First of all, it does not exist as a musical genre. It is danced to the sound of cumbia. But its moves are small jumps, kicks and turns that resemble the American swing of the 40s. It is an energetic, playful and unique dance of Costa Rica.

Gringo is part of a group of people known unofficially as The Old Guard. A sort of league of superheroes whose power is swing criollo. The people who shaped that dance during the 70s and 80s in San José, the Costa Rican capital.

[Gringo]: I come from those dance halls that are the real thing in Costa Rica, where the dancer throws himself on the floor and leaps and jumps. It’s up to him or her to figure out what to do, but right there on the dance floor, because in those days there were no academies.

[Daniel]: People who to this day live only for the dance.

[Gringo]: The Old Guard has been keeping swing alive. I mean that almost on our deathbed, we’re still dancing.

[Daniel]: Luis Fernando went to Gringo with a very particular mission: To understand and learn his art. The swing criollo.

After the break, a story of self-knowledge, physical pain and other uncomfortable things.

We’ll be back.

[Daniel]: We’re back, and Luis Fernando brings us the story.

This is Luis Fernando:

[Luis Fernando]: Okay. First of all: I don’t dance.

I took a lesson—the only one before this story begins—when I was 12 or 13 years old. It was salsa or cumbia, I don’t recall exactly, but then I decided definitively that dancing, like soccer or riding a bicycle, was not for me. I knew immediately that I was too uncoordinated and lazy to manage to dance on a level that would be considered acceptable. So I gave it up and since then, dancing for me has been moving my head, maybe my hands if I’m feeling adventurous, at the bar, to the rhythm of New Order.

But I’ve always felt a repressed jealousy of people who can dance. I have a set idea in my mind that people who can dance are the heart of the party, of the fun. And I tell myself that I don’t want to be the heart of the fun and the party, but deep down, and no matter how much I deny and reject it, I do want to be… even if only a little. And the thing is that in Latin America, if you don’t dance, you are excluded. It’s like lacking a social skill. Not at the level of, let’s say, making conversation, but not that different, either.

Now, at age 31, I’m always getting ahead of things—and therefore am now anticipating a mid-life crisis—but I’m also looking for new things to make me feel alive before the impending climate apocalypse. So I thought dancing might be a good idea.

And no dance, not merengue or salsa, has seemed so attractive to me, so strangely beautiful and charming as swing criollo. It feels inherently native to Costa Rica. Just as the energy and sensuality of salsa takes you to the Caribbean, the jump and kick of swing criollo has something so unserious and playful that it makes me think of Costa Ricans. I don’t know how else to explain it.

I thought it would be interesting to record myself learning to dance swing criollo, which could be an episode of Radio Ambulante. And I aimed high—at Gringo. It is as if all the paths of that dance led, one way or another, to him. His style and energy when dancing are nationally recognized. He has been the subject of a documentary, countless press and television reports, and now this podcast.

But one thing is true. He is very clear on who he is and what is said about him. 

[Gringo]: First and foremost: You can imitate Gringo, but you cannot match him.

[Luis Fernando]: Humility is not exactly his strong suit. For example, when I spoke with him, he mentioned to me on more than one occasion, and with emphasis, that he had invented dancing swing criollo with four women at the same time. 

[Gringo]: One was dancing, but another wanted to get involved. “Let me dance, let me in.” So she got in. And I said, “Well, now what?” Then another girl said, “No, I’m not getting out, you get out.” I figured I didn’t have an option, either dance with both or look like a coward, so now it was happening, what could I do?

[Luis Fernando]: So Gringo used his head, feet, hips, elbows, everything to keep the four women dancing. On YouTube you can see a video of Gringo’s performance on the national television program Fantástico, specifically in the “Piratas del Ritmo” section, dancing with four women. Check it out. It’s chaotic; it feels like everything will fall apart at any moment, but it holds up for minutes. And in that fragility, there is an elegance that at first glance is difficult to find in swing criollo.

I spoke with Gringo for about two hours. He showed me his life in articles and public tributes. 

[Luis Fernando]:  Televisora de Costa Rica.

[Gringo]: Televisora de Costa Rica was when I participated a lot in Fantástico. I was a winner often, and look at the kind of prizes we got: Pressure cooker and irons. Two irons, two percolators and two electric frying pans.

[Luis Fernando]: He showed me his black and white suits, with blue or red glitter…

[Gringo]: They are used only for dance performances or dance competitions. In other words, we are talking of a professional level. 

[Luis Fernando]: He theorized about dance… 

[Gringo]: Dance is health, it is love, it is joy.

[Luis Fernando]: He listed the dance halls where the history of swing criollo happened… 

[Gringo]: El Gran Parqueo, los Higuerones, los Citados, el Versalles, los Jocotes.

[Luis Fernando]: But Gringo clarified one thing for me: he would not teach me how to dance. 

[Luis Fernando]: If you will be dancing some day, may I join to see whether… whether I can learn a little? I don’t know how to dance at all.

[Gringo]: Honestly, honestly—you have to be honest in life. I have been asked to be a dance teacher. I’ve been told that I can charge whatever I have to charge. But I don’t see myself doing that.

[Luis Fernando]: Sure. No, no, no, no… 

[Gringo]: It’s not my thing. 

[Luis Fernando]: It doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

[Gringo]: It’s not my thing

[Luis Fernando]: For him, it is something innate. He explained that dancing is not just learning a few moves and combining them. And then he told me that the best dancer is not him, but the one who enjoys it. I didn’t understand very well, but he mentioned it to me when we said goodbye, with the recorder off, as I was leaving his house. As if I should remember that phrase for posterity.

I wasn’t going to learn swing criollo with Gringo. So I turned to a friend:

[Kimberly Elizondo]: He wanted to check my playlists to see whether I already have one that is kind of like… swing criollo.

[Luis Fernando]: Kimberly Elizondo. Kim is not a professional dancer. But she has taught classes, and dances incredibly well. She was also the only person who was really excited when I told her I wanted to learn to dance swing criollo. Because it’s her favorite dance.

[Kim]: I feel like it’s so much fun. Like it has a much higher component of play than other genres that are danced as a couple. First, because there is jumping, right? So it’s like jumping all the time at full cardio, and also, the fact that there are jumps means that many more people can do it easily.

[Luis Fernando]: Well, at least, says Kim, it’s easier than the hip movements of merengue. So, jumping… cardio. I wasn’t in great physical shape, but it sounded simple enough.

I got my first swing criollo lesson in Kim’s living room. 

[Kim]: Your goal with swing criollo… you want to be able to do the base and the turns. A few turns, enough to be able to dance two songs in a row and feel tuanis

[Luis Fernando]: Tuanis, that is, cool, great. 

Yes. 

[Kim]: OK.

[Luis Fernando]: To be able to go to a dance hall and not make a fool of…

[Kim]: OK.

[Luis Fernando]: Not make a fool of yourself, I meant to say. We start looking for the rhythm of the cumbia… 

[Kim y Luis Fernando]: Titititis tititis… 

[Luis Fernando]: And transfer it to the feet with a move called the skate.  

[Kim]: And you have to slide your feet. I’m going to do it like this, super unadorned, so it’s like a slide.

[Luis Fernando]: Oh, it’s a slide. 

[Kim]: It’s like a slide, yeah. 

[Luis Fernando]: You take a step to the right—or to the left—sliding your feet so that it looks like dancing. You can double it up too. That is, two steps to the right or left and then to the other side.

[Kim]: TA… TA… TA… TA… 

[Luis Fernando]: Kim taught me the skate first because, in addition to being simple, it is a move that addresses one of the biggest fears of anxious people like me, which is not having anyone to dance with. That is: the skate can be done alone or with a partner.

There is a trick to the skate, though.

[Kim]: You can add a little more bounce when you land. 

[Luis Fernando]: OK.

To make it look like genuine swing criollo, you have to add a bounce to the skate. The bounce is basic in swing criollo; it is what makes it look so dynamic. It is a constant bending of the knees which makes it seem, forgive me for repeating myself, like you are bouncing on the floor.

It is what makes swing criollo look so light… playful… It’s also a sure way to get tired.

(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE)

[Luis Fernando]:  I’m already tired

Still, Kim stayed positive, reassuring me that I was doing great. In fact, it was difficult to believe her. I didn’t feel rhythmic, light, or graceful like her or like Gringo. Rather, I had the perception that my body was a heavy lump. I don’t have the best relationship with it. I have never felt comfortable. I constantly joke saying I would like to be a concept, floating in a world of ideas, removed from the material plane of reality. But it’s not hate I feel. It is a feeling closer to disappointment or shame. As if it were an adolescence that has gone on for too many years.

When I asked Kim what dancing meant to her, her answer made me think directly about that relationship I’ve always had with my body. 

[Kim]: The maximum expression of comfort. Because it happens to me that if I’m even the least bit uncomfortable, I can’t dance. It still happens to me that maybe I go to a party, I go to a bar and I say, “I’m not comfortable, I don’t feel like dancing,” and maybe I force it, a little at the beginning, and suddenly I really want to dance, and then I’m already dancing and there are people dancing with me, and that’s when I feel it as the maximum expression of comfort and ease.

[Luis Fernando]: Since she was a child, Kim has been tall and skinny. She felt stiff, uncomfortable. Maybe a little more than some of the other girls at school. And in learning to dance she saw an opportunity to change that. Little by little, as the lessons she started at age 13 progressed, she saw how the way she moved changed and became more confident.

[Kim]: It was like a big step in my life, because it changed not only my attitude, my personality, let’s say, the way I got along with people, but also my body changed, physically, the way I moved, how I handled myself.

[Luis Fernando]: I don’t think that at my age dancing is going to change my life in such a profound or radical way at my age. But, in retrospect, watching videos of that first rehearsal with Kim, and the way I executed that skate, I was able to perceive, among all the clumsiness, certain movements that felt like someone else’s—small flashes of the appearance of someone who arrives somewhere and greets others and presents himself without breaking a sweat from anxiety, a person who does not have to hide under layers of irony, far-fetched sentences, and self-deprecating jokes. 

We’ll be back after a break. 

[MIDROLL]

[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Here is a continuation of Luis Fernando’s training: 

[Luis Fernando]: From the skate we went to the kick and the base move. I put them together because the kick is the main action of the base move. It consists of front kicks, placing the heel on the floor. First left, then right. Once you master that, you add one more move, which is to place your left foot back and throw the first kick from there.

If you can do that while bending your knees in the rebound movement, you are practically dancing swing criollo.

[Kim]: And suddenly ta, ta, ta, ta…

[Luis Fernando]: This move is usually done as a couple, as if you were dancing merengue, salsa or cumbia. Facing each other. The dancers hold hands only when the left foot is placed behind. Contact is minimal, a matter of an instant. 

[Kim]: Almost as if it might burn. It’s more like a little push, like, “No, I’m kidding, I’m not going to grab her hand,” right? So it’s like… it’s very like playful.

[Luis Fernando]: The similarity of this move to the American swing is something of a mystery. There is no defined and documented narrative about the birth of swing criollo. The most formal study of the dance is an academic thesis from 2010—four decades after swing criollo began appearing in San José—and only theories are presented there.

One of the sources for that paper is this person:

[Ligia Torijano]: My name is Ligia Torijano. I am from San José, Costa Rica. I am involved in the preservation, research and dissemination of swing criollo.

[Luis Fernando]: Ligia entered the world of swing criollo in the 90s, visiting dance halls and talking to different people. And more than a dance, what she saw was a world of beauty. 

[Ligia]: To see the place, the dance room… to get dressed. People wearing miniskirts,  wearing pants, older people. In other words, there was a whole bundle of beauty which people there didn’t notice.

[Luis Fernando]: But it was a beauty that was hidden right in the heart of the capital. 

[Ligia]: Swing criollo had always been growing underground. So it was not for, let’s say… like… even though we were not rich, we were a family that took care of our children and didn’t mix with the riffraff. Because swing criollo was a low-class dance, you know?

[Luis Fernando]: A dance for criminals, sex workers, ordinary workers. The reason for the direct association that was made between swing criollo and these groups is not very clear. An explanation may lie in one of the theories of the origins of this dance, in the banana companies of the 40s.

[Ligia]: One way the banana companies had to entertain their workers was showing them films. They watched movies of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, those movies from World War II, where you saw couples dancing, where women moved all over the place.

If you watch and analyze those movies, swing criollo has six beats, and indie dance and boogie woogie and jipi have six beats, and there is also the hand grip.

[Luis Fernando]: Ligia’s theory is that banana workers—and we should explain that many of them were from San José—watched the films, copied what they could by heart, and then brought the dance back to the capital in the central valley. But again, there is not much clarity on the matter. 

What is clear is that there is a class component, evident in the way that swing criollo was marginalized for decades. Gringo, for example, told me about a sign that was put up in a dance hall catering to middle-class audiences, that read: “Dancing swing criollo is prohibited.” This was to keep out the so-called rabble.

And yes, dancing swing criollo was prohibited in many places, not by law, but by social sanction. And although it was not technically illegal, the legislation always did its thing to exclude these dancers.

It’s time to talk about a law with an unlikely name: the Vagrancy Law. An initial version was enacted in 1864 and the last one was repealed only in 1994. Yes, we verified this and we couldn’t believe it, either. Who were the vagrants? Well, people who couldn’t prove that they had a job. Like Gringo, who for a long time in the 70s made a living from dancing. It wasn’t that he was paid to dance, but he was so popular, handsome and charming that someone always ended up inviting him to eat, or to sleep. It was common for the police to arrive at the places where they were dancing and arrest him and his friends.

[Gringo]: They caught us in the dance halls at nine, ten, eleven at night. Every day. The police saw us dancing and said, “What are these guys doing? Just dancing and dancing. They are vagrants.”

[Luis Fernando]: They were taken to the police station and locked up in a small cell.

[Gringo]: Not because we had committed a robbery, not because we had made or sold drugs. No. It’s because we were dancing at that time and we had no Social Security ID.

[Luis Fernando]: He is talking about a document indicating that you have a formal job and contribute to Social Security. They remained locked up until the next morning, when the shift changed. I asked Gringo how he felt when this happened. 

[Gringo]: You feel like the lowest of the low, because they put you in there with drunks, they put you in with criminals, with murderers, with the guy who robbed a bank and was caught and they threw him in there, and there I was for no good reason. Do you understand? It feels really low-down.

[Luis Fernando]: But Gringo and his friends kept dancing, because their only law is that you dance until you die. 

(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE)

[Luis Fernando]: When I try to coordinate my arms, my feet become uncoordinated.

Kim finished the first lesson and told me to go home and practice. So I did it. I may not have practiced rigorously, but I was diligent. And as for coordination… it was frustrating. There were days when I didn’t get any moves, others when I felt like I was dancing swing criollo. There were days when my legs just hurt a lot and I wanted to die. I lost weight, then I think I gained weight, but lost it again. But I also understood my 12- or 13-year-old self saying, “This is too hard for me.”

So I spoke to an expert.

[Cecilia Méndez]: Hello, sweetheart. Pura vida. How are you?

[Luis Fernando]: That’s Cecilia Mendez. She is 62 years old and has been dancing since she was 15. Gringo was an obvious name for this story, it is a guaranteed hit, but another name that was heard over and over again was Cecilia. She is a dancer like no other, but with a lower profile. She is shy: we had to talk several times before doing the interview, which, by the way, she did remotely while she was visiting New York, where she danced as an unofficial ambassador of swing criollo in front of the Statue of Liberty. She sent me a video.

Cecilia’s introduction to swing criollo was by chance, when her aunts who took care of her went to the dance halls. 

[Cecilia]: And at first I didn’t like it. I said, “Oh no, how ugly, the way they jump is ugly. No, no, no, no.” And then I was the one jumping. And I continued dancing all my life, you see? What’s more, if we talk about addictions, it’s the only vice I’ve ever had. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t stay up late. No, I have never woken up on the street. But dancing… mmm… I haven’t been able to quit.

[Luis Fernando]: This despite the stigma associated with dancing swing criollo. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was literally labeling yourself. 

[Cecilia]: They said that only low-life women, ladies of pleasureis what they are called? The people who went there were supposedly homeless people who didn’t have jobs and who were stealing and doing bad things. And actually, that’s not true. I guess maybe in the dance halls of downtown San José, right? But not where I went, no, you didn’t see prostitution and stuff like that. Sure, people like that did come, of course, but not everyone could be classified the same.

[Luis Fernando]: Cecilia did things like get off the bus two stops after the dance hall and walk, so people wouldn’t notice she was going there. And today, for people my age, swing criollo is an activity that is not only very folkloric but also institutionalized to the point that there are presentations in theaters and cultural events. A dance that is taught in academies, along with tango, bolero and salsa. It is no longer something condemnable, something representing a part of society that people prefer to ignore.

To a large extent, this institutionalization is due to the efforts of Ligia Torijano, whom we heard a while ago, who was the one who proposed returning to the country’s intangible heritage of swing criollo in 2011. Now, in theory, there is an active effort by the State to preserve the dance, but more is said about its moves than the context in which it developed. I think we owe it to people like Cecilia and Gringo not to erase the parts of the story that feel uncomfortable to conservative Costa Rican society, but to make it this happy and uncontroversial thing. An addiction that is very much Costa Rican.

But, anyway, I spoke with Cecilia with the intentions of an apprentice in search of a teacher: seeking wisdom, guidance, and at the same time, words of comfort. I asked her what advice she could give me in my learning.

[Cecilia]: Look, Luis Fernando, my friend, learn the basic moves, which are actually two or three. After the basic moves, you are ready to go. You have boarded the plane. Now it’s just about letting it take you. 

[Luis Fernando]: She explained to me the dance is more about spontaneity and instinct than technique. 

[Cecilia]: I never asked, “Hey, teach me that step.” No, no, no, no, no, never, but rather you watched and then you did… whatever came out. You did steps that no one else did; it was each person’s individual inspiration.

[Luis Fernando]: Sheer creativity. For Cecilia, dancing is a meditative state. 

[Cecilia]: When I’m dancing, I forget everything. And my body moves to the rhythm of the music. I can’t even look around. I’m just focused on my body, dancing. And it makes me so happy. 

[Luis Fernando]: It’s more than just a social skill. It’s a place where you silence the world and focus on yourself, on the now, and for a few minutes you don’t have any problems. It could be a definition of joy. 

(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE)

[Luis Fernando]: I rehearsed the turns, no longer worrying about making a fool of myself. After talking to Cecilia, I stopped worrying. I felt complete, victorious and sure of myself.

I was thinking of a way to ask Cecilia to dance… You know, a final test to close the adventure, when I saw an activity announced at a cultural institute: a celebration of swing criollo—an evening of dancing and social gatherings.

I decided to go see what I would find. It was a rainy Friday, and when we arrived, most of the people were elderly, as if swing criollo were this vestige of the past that refuses to die. Shortly afterwards, Gringo and Cecilia showed up. Cecilia was wearing a black dress with a short skirt and heels that seem incompatible with swing criollo.

Minutes before the event began, the room was filled with people of all ages. There were about 60 or 70 people. It started with a forum. One of the guests was Cecilia. They talked about the past, yes, about what it was like to dance swing criollo in San José 40 years ago, but also, to my surprise, about the present—the best dance halls nowadays, and about the New Guard of swing. 

(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE)

[Presenter]: The question is: When you go out dancing, what is your relationship with the dancers of the New Guard?

[Luis Fernando]: At the beginning of the episode, we mentioned the Old Guard, or the golden era. The group of dancers that defined what swing criollo was in its beginnings, the group to which Gringo and Cecilia belong. Now there is something called the New Guard. These are younger people, even teenagers, who are learning swing criollo, sometimes in academies, and have a more energetic and jumpy way of dancing.

There have been attempts sometimes to create a narrative of rivalry between the two groups, as if both could not coexist in Costa Rica. The truth is that they don’t mix—that’s true—but, as Cecilia said at the forum, it is more a matter of age: 

(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE)

[Cecilia]: Yes, they are much faster than we are. Actually, we are slower, right? And I have a very good relationship with young people.

[Luis Fernando]: Although she doesn’t dance with them much because, according to her, her age is beginning to weigh on her. But when I saw her dancing that night after the forum, she didn’t show it. She has an energy level that I will never have. When the presentations of both Guards were over, the dance floor was open to the public, and I thought it was time to put all those weeks of training to the test. I went to Cecilia, who was about to leave, and asked her to dance for a minute. She was surprised and I was surprised that she was surprised.

We danced the basics. I got lost, I missed steps, but there was no anxiety. Finally, for the first time in all these weeks, in the middle of partying and dancing, I had fun, and dancing awkwardly didn’t feel like a problem. I was happy and understood what Cecilia had told me—you let yourself go.

At the end we gave each other a hug, like when a mother hugs her child before the first day of school, knowing that there is a sea of experiences that will open up for him from that moment on.

[Daniel]: Luis Fernando Vargas is our Senior Editor. He lives in San José. Thank you very much to Gabriela Noriega for her assistance in production. 

This story was edited by Camila Segura. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. The sound design and the music is by Andrés Azpiri.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Adriana Bernal, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, Ana Tuírán, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. 

Carolina Guerrero is the CEO. 

Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program. 

Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.

 

CREDITS

PRODUCED BY
Luis Fernando Vargas


EDITED BY
Camila Segura


FACT CHECKING
Bruno Scelza


SOUND DESIGN
Andrés Azpiri 


MUSIC
Andrés Azpiri


ILLUSTRATION
Andrés Alberto


COUNTRY
Costa Rica


SEASON 13
Episode 14


PUBLISHED ON
12/19/2023

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