Newly moved to Yucatan and usually spending my nights on the prowl, a friend suggested that we visit “El Palacio Rojo”. It wasn’t palatial and it wasn’t red, but it was exactly what my friend had described: “It’s very Felliniesque”. Ok - I was into that. It was 1980 and I was 39 years old.
El Palacio Rojo was a typical dance hall, a turn of the century mansion with an enormous paved back yard in the middle of a downtown block. At that time there were about four different cumbia dance halls in downtown Merida, Yucatan. The music was cumbia, that blend of tropical rhythms which Yucatan seems to have adopted from the down low, working class Columbians. It’s a lazy, hip-wagging rhythm, a bit suggestive and sexual, but the partners don’t seem to touch much. But in those days they did drink a lot of rum or brandy with coke and mineral water and, of course, beer was the primary lubricant.
The speakers were the size of Volkswagen Beetles and the volume was at least 75 on a scale of 0 to 75. Several musical groups played throughout the evening, saving the best for the last, and as the evening wore on strident and exciting announcements heralded the arrival of: “Miss Deborah” or “Miss Palacio Rojo 1979” or “Miss Valentina”. There was a flurry of adjusted veils, feathers and carnival fabrics and applause, as the drag queens settled into an evening of dancing with the uniformed military men, police, and even with some paunchy Mayan grandmothers in typical dress.
I was there, and yes, they danced with me. Federico would have been proud.
Now, in 2019, cumbia music has fallen out of favor with the young people, and a cumbia dance hall can’t make any money anymore - but the musical groups still play dances in villages scattered around Yucatan. It’s all very loud, low class and drunken, and yes - Felliniesque !