In ‘Danzon,’ a Dancer Looks for Her Missing Partner and Finds Friendships Instead

Written and directed by María Novaro and co-written by her sister Beatriz, Danzón tells the story of Julia as she searches for her missing dance partner. It’s a beautiful story of a woman’s friendships, her wants and dreams, and her love for the Cuban dance danzón. (AEL: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

The film opens in a scene that is central to the lives of its participants: at the club, where they come to dance the danzón every week. Governing the playful atmosphere is a fraught set of social rules by which friendships have codes with which self-worth is determined, especially women. In a community dynamic where women have little agency in their romantic relationships, where gender interactions are often disempowering and even demeaning, the danzón is where women seek to find meaning in those relationships and take back their joy and self-expression. A dance partnership can be more genuine and significant than a marriage. One of the women jokes, “Maybe I’ll find a partner just for dancing and nothing else.”

When we meet protagonist “Julia” (María Rojo), she is without a dance partner. Her longtime partner “Carmelo” has stopped showing up. A friend suggests that he could be married, or he could have taken off. Although they’ve been dance partners for over a decade, Julia doesn’t know anything about Carmelo’s personal life or the state of their relationship. She doesn’t even know if their involvement is romantic at all, though she sees it that way. Asking around, Julia finds out that Carmelo was falsely accused of a crime, and he ran away to a seaside town—though his name has since been cleared.

So Julia follows after Carmelo, hoping to tell him it’s safe to come home; and, probably, to fill her need for the validation of that romantic gesture, or even just to feel like she’s taking agency over something in her romantic life.

I’m not spoiling anything by saying that Julia is searching for a long time. I love this movie for this long limbo period, for the wonderful people she meets on her search and the wise and comforting observations they make. “Doña Ti” (Carmen Salinas), the owner of the hotel where Julia stays, quickly recognizes that Julia is distraught and helps her search. Perceptively, she recognizes that Julia needs a supportive base more than anything. Julia is looking for a safety net, but in the process, she discovers over and over that there are people to take care of her everywhere. And she can take care of them, too.

This movie captures subtle images of womanhood, sometimes beautifully and sometimes painfully. Many times, Julia and her friends endure catcalls and stares. Julia is so used to it that she doesn’t react. It’s almost hard to notice it’s happening, unless you’ve had the common experience of women and female-presenting people that has made you wary of those kinds of stares. It’s a powerful choice by the filmmaker to stage and include this, adding a heartbreaking, vulnerable layer to Julia’s journey.

In another recurring image of womanhood, we see communities of women crop up everywhere. Julia picks up her daughter from a class, surrounded by watchful mothers and daughters. In the street by the hotel, where Julia and the hotel owner sit and chat, an intergenerational mix of women moves in the background, going about their daily lives. When one needs a favor or advice, others quickly come to her.

The film critiques exclusive notions of womanhood as well. A close friend Julia meets, “Susy” (Tito Vasconcelos), is trans. When Julia teaches her the danzón, Susy asks if she can dance the woman’s part. At first, Julia refuses, explaining that Susy is taller, so she needs to dance the man’s part. But finally, they try it, and Julia takes the male role. At that moment, they’re dancing together tenderly, each feeling freer in her own way. Julia’s— and the film’s— definition of gender is softened and expanded.

Danzón is a Cuban style of music and dance. The soundtrack lends the film a feeling of joy and celebration. And although this is a tragic story, not a dance movie, the danzón as a theme feels like Julia reclaiming her joy.

© Amelie Lasker (12/16/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: María Rojo as “Julia.”

Middle Photo: Tito Vasconcelos as “Susy.”

Bottom Photo: Víctor Carpinteiro as “Rubén.”

Photo Credits: Edgar Ladrón de Guevara.

Q: Does Danzon pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

So many of this film’s characters are women. Often the women’s most profound or most difficult conversations are about the roles they play for men—but they question these roles, seeking and finding the selves they obscure.

Amelie Lasker

By Amelie Lasker

Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 

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