Fashionable In aristocratic circles throughout Europe in the 18th century, the British introduced their formal yet lively “country-dance” at balls during the Earl of Albemarle’s occupation of Havana in 1762. The French emigres also brought their own version of contredanse to the Oriente region after fleeing from the slave uprisings in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in the 1790s. Hence, the dual etymology attributed to the world refers to it rustic English origins as well as to the fact that it was danced in a group with men and women “counter,” or facing, one another in two rows. Its form is characterized by two contrasting sections of eight measures each. The second part tends to be folkloric but may also be romantic in nature. In Cuban contradanza, two slow movements, known as paseo and cadena, are followed by two brisk, the sostenido and cedazo. Gradually, local popular instruments, namely the güiro and timbales, were introduced and accompanied the established clarinet, fifes, horn, double bass, and violins in creating a distinctively Cuban music.
Anselmo Lopez published San Pascual Bailón, the earliest extant contradanza criolla, or Cuban contradanza, in 1803. The genre’s popularity became widespread, from Havana’s elegant salons to provincial society, by the early 19th century. Over time, both the dancing style and music underwent a metamorphosis, the former adapted for couples while the latter slowing to a tempo more comfortable given the island’s tropical climate.
In the 19th century, contradanza enjoyed not only the public’s favor, but the predilection of Cuba’s most talented composers as well. Its mot renowned exponent was Manuel Saumell (1817-1870) who wrote La Tedezco, La niña bonita, and Los ojos de Pepa, to name but three of his more famous compositions.
Due to its adoption by elite Creole society, its cultivation by native-born composers, and its association with a romantic sense of nationhood, Alejo Carpentier, in his classic La música en Cuba (1946), considered contradanza the island’s first distinctly national music genre. Moreover, later Cuban music and dance trace their roots back to the contradanza. Thus, the first sung contradanzas, appearing in the 1840s, evolved into the habanera. With the danzon, derived from the danza cubana (or danza criolla), itself an intermediate 19th century form of contradanza, the influence extended well into the 20th century.