Personality of the month
By Jade Arroyo
Who has not seen Leonardo Rosen with his flowered shirt and his Panama-style hat, dancing danzón on Sunday at the Jardín, and inviting everybody to join him? Rosen is the founder and teacher/choreographer of Club de Danzón Mercerina and a man whose personality combines joy and warmth with seriousness. He is a man who devotes himself with professionalism to work and at the same time we hear him exclaiming with great gusto, “Pa’bailar y pa’gozar!”
Leo’s romance with Latin American music and culture began in childhood. He grew up in Los Proyectos, a New York neighborhood populated mostly by Puerto Ricans. “I started learning Spanish on my first experience in a hospital as a child, when I shared the room with a Puerto Rican boy who spoke no English. Closed up in the hospital, we spent time looking at things and naming them.” At that time he began to dance Latin rhythms, mainly the Cuban mambo, cha-cha-cha, boleros, and others.
Leo worked full time as an administrative officer for the city government of New York, a state-certified massage therapist, and as a musician and active member of the musicians’ union. Asked how he combined so many different activities, Leo said that each activity had its time. “I set my priority at working full-time to pay the rent, but as the old saying goes, ‘Not by bread alone does man live.’” Leo plays guitar, harmonica, Afro-Cuban percussion, and also sings. In New York he played Mexican music, dressed in charro attire, performing classics of Mexican music such as rancheras and boleros, mainly by José Alfredo Jiménez.
“In New York, musicians and dancers knew Danzón music from bands, orchestras and records, but virtually no one knew how to dance to it. Then I saw a show at The Tropicana Danzón, Plaza Garibaldi with danzón orchestra Acerina in the early ’80s. It was my first contact with real danzón,” he recalled.
The first time Leo visited Mexico was in 1963, and from that time he began a relationship with the country that would last for decades and decades. At 54 he retired and could devote more time to traveling. Visiting friends in Guadalajara and Mexico City, the notion of visiting San Miguel often came up in conversations. Why not? But, to be truthful, he said he did not feel very impressed the first time. That is, not until he met Fito Gómez, a man whose friendship led him to take part in a jam session of Mexican music and click with jazz and blues musicians with whom he shared friendship and fellowship.
Then he returned several times and sang with a Chicago-style group or sang Mexican music solo. In 1998 he decided to become a resident. Leo’s passion and dedication for danzón is remarkable, and more than that, it is authentic. Just listen to him talk about the famous movie by María Novaro or about the Puerto de Veracruz (in this part you can feel the sea breeze on the face); it makes you feel like moving your body to the rhythm of the gentle and mysterious cadence, fan in hand.
He is deeply involved with danzón, not only dancing and teaching, but also writing letters, asking for support from the government. It doesn’t matter whether you dance well or not; as he says at the performances at the Jardin, “The important thing is that people dance danzón, and everyone is welcome.”
I love danzón because it is a great tradition. I like music and I like dancing, but most of all I like the people in danzón. There is no snobbery or elitism. I have formed friendships with many people; it’s a pleasure to greet and get hugs and kisses from people from other cities. More than music and dancing, what I love is to belong to that scene and have that fellowship with all those danzoneros in this republic.”
He is a man who cannot imagine life without music or dancing. Celebrating life with music and dance is his way of honoring it. Leo says that danzón is not merely dance, but an expression of the people. In that sense people feel they belong heart and soul to danzón. “Although I am a foreigner, I share that feeling,” concludes Leo. He and Dr. Claudia Llanas met four years ago at La Fragua while dancing milonga. The two of them, together with the student group, create choreography, give demonstrations (twice a month at the Jardín) and have a dream of taking danzón to New York City.