My husband and I are spending two months in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. As escape from Chicago's winter. Lucky us! We are the gringos, part of the mostly American tourists and ex-pats who flock to this World Heritage city and put their stamp on the town and the culture.
It's easy to stick with our "own," speak only English, and stand out as the "outsiders."
Not last night. Nope, the Buena Vista Social Club came to town for a free concert in front of a crowd of at least 1,000 and hundreds of others on the streets around the Plaza de Insurgentes. We sat on the concrete steps behind the rows and rows of occupied chairs (we got there too late for a good seat ), surrounded by young and old Mexicans who'd come to listen to the music and dance.
This was Mexico at its best. Aside from a smattering of Americans, the concert-goers could claim the city as their own and brought their language, dance, and love of music with them.
Once the Cuban band took to the stage (All of the original members have long ago passed away)--and after a rather slow, uninspired opening number--the band launched into a bust-out song and, all around us, people started to move. Within a matter of minutes, first one couple, then another, then another took to the only open space right in front of me and started to dance. This wasn't a display of free-form boogie but well-choreographed moves to son, bolero, guajira, and danzon.
Now, I'm a dancer. I've been taking classes since I was five. But these couples--at least, some of them--could have been contestants on "So You Think You Can Dance" or "World of Dance." They danced as if mirror images of one another, moving their hips, turning, sometimes spinning, with graceful, stylized hands--almost balletic--placed perfectly in the air, on each other's shoulders, on each other's hips. I got the feeling that the couples had spent hours practicing, maybe even taking classes at least once a week. They were on display and loved every minute.
Me, too. It's one thing to attend a formal dance concert of a troupe from Mexico or from anywhere else in the world. It's quite another to be part of an impromptu "show" where the delineation between audience and performers has vanished like an old curtain no longer going up and down. I stood up, watched the choreography, and did my best to pick up the steps. I didn't have much room there on the concrete steps but there was room enough.
The lead singer of the Buena Vista Social Club sang off-key. It didn't matter. People were out for a good time. Music has always been viewed as a powerful tool in breaking barriers and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Research suggests that playing music or singing together may be particularly potent in bringing about social closeness through the release of endorphins.
And, hey, in the current climate where rancor, distrust, and cruelty rule, we need all the endorphins we can get.