Marfa is a dancing town. It may also be a doomed town. My friend Frank once told me that years ago a handsome stranger arrived in Marfa and asked a girl to a dance. Her parents forbade the date, so she snuck out the window and danced all evening with this dashing fellow. People marveled at his splendor—his bespoke clothes and his good looks—but when the dance was over and the lights came up, everyone realized that the enchanting stranger had the feet of a chicken. The girl had danced with the devil, and this, according to my friend, is why Marfa will never prosper. Frank seemed inclined to believe the story, and I have no real reason to disagree. I do hope the prophecy is false, but in any case, I am here to report that devil or no devil, Marfa loves to dance.
I moved to Marfa 22 years ago, when there weren’t many jobs and there wasn’t a lot to do. Frank and I were neighbors in a pair of side-by-side apartments above a Catholic thrift shop downtown. Sometimes we sat on the tailgate of his truck parked out front, trading stories and counting the cars that passed. This was entertainment.
Frank bartended on Friday nights at a low-ceilinged, high-spirited joint called La Fiesta Number Six, whose patrons often followed him home for a dance party after the bar let out. He cranked the music and dished out chile verde to the revelers crammed in his apartment. Frank kept a poster of Selena in his living room, and she watched over me as I bumbled my way through song after song, dancing with people who became my new friends. Now, so many years later, we are all old friends together.
Besides dance parties at Frank’s place, there were also big dances in town, usually held at the USO Building, the Marfa Activity Center, or Vizcaino Park. Every month or so word would get around of a wedding dance, a quinceañera, or, best of all, a touring act from Odessa or Chihuahua that had pulled into town, drawing practically the entire population of Marfa. The preferred music then and now is Latin American, though the crowds are happy if the set list includes a country song (“Silver Wings” comes to mind) every half hour or so. Marfans can two-step and waltz and polka a little. By far the most popular dance, however, is the cumbia.
The cumbia is a cousin of salsa, but easier-going. There are different styles of cumbia; some have a big-band tropical sound and others tend toward electronica. The type favored in Marfa is heavy on layers of percussion, with a thumping two-four beat, like the rocking rhythm of a walking horse. The melody is usually delivered via accordion or, sometimes, keyboard or sax. The dance itself is a two-stepped shuffle from side to side or forward and back. A slight jab with the elbows punctuates the beat. It’s a partnered dance, and while some folks do clasp each other’s hand and waist, usually the cumbia is danced slightly apart from one’s partner.
A fellow told me long ago that the cumbia is based on the courtship rituals of chickens, and while its tangled roots in Afro-Colombian, Latin American, and European cultures make the chicken heritage difficult to verify, I understand why that mating-dance theory sprang up. Dancers sort of pretend to ignore one another in the cumbia; from time to time they may turn their back to their partner and sidle away a few steps before returning. They might even spend a moment or two with neighboring dancers before coming back to their partner. Cock-a-doodle-doo.
In Marfa the cumbia is danced in a big, loose wheel, with everybody grooving along in a counterclockwise circle. Not every place follows this tradition. In fact, we’ve been at dances in other towns where Marfans created confusion and congestion by trying to circle when no one else was circling.
Anyone can cumbia. It is the perfect dance form, an equalizer among dancers. The shy and the uncoordinated can cumbia. Those who are mojo-impaired or rhythmically challenged are as welcomed into the cumbia circle as the hip-shakers and showy dance-floor kings. You don’t have to charge around the floor to stay on top of the up-tempo beat, although some do. You can go quite slowly if you like. You can dance near the center of the circle or out on the fringe. Old and young can cumbia. If all else fails, you could follow the circle at a walk and swing your arms and it would count as dancing the cumbia.
My husband, Michael, grew up in El Paso, where he danced the hora or stood at the edge of a mosh pit more than he cumbia-ed. He learned the cumbia when he moved to Marfa in his early twenties, from a work friend named Esteban who was some decades older. Esteban had a courtly manner when he danced, one of the slow-movers. He had sad, droopy-dog eyes that were a surprising, piercing blue, and he tended to mumble as though he were eating his words even as he spoke them. Esteban brought Michael to a wedding dance on someone’s ranch deep in Chihuahua and took him aside before the festivities geared up. “Mira. Pay attention to your forearms,” Esteban instructed Michael. “It’s all in the forearms.” He demonstrated the motions, like slow punches to a heavy bag. Every once in a while I will catch Michael’s eye as we’re sashaying in the middle of “Juana La Cubana” or another old cumbia warhorse. “Mira,” he’ll say. “It’s all in the forearms.”
There are more bars, venues, and concerts here now, and the big dances don’t happen as often as they used to. Every now and then, though, one gets organized and flyers advertising the event flutter around town. A dance brings whole families to the USO Building, from grandpa to grandbaby. Folks show up at the start of the night to claim the long tables that line the sides of the room; arrive late and you’ll have to squeeze in with friends and relations who have a chair or two to spare. Good luck with that.
The USO’s floor is well-worn pine. At one end of the room is a stage, like the stage in a school auditorium, and above is a chandelier, ho-hum in the daytime but wonderful and twinkly in the dim light of a dance. An earnest mural of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima adorns one wall. Ringing the rest of the USO’s walls are row upon row of photographs of Marfa’s servicemen and -women, hundreds of formal photographs of solemn soldiers in their dress uniforms, some of them decorated, many of them long dead, but a few still quite alive and, in fact, now twirling their sweethearts to the band in this very room.
The middle-school cheerleaders go round and round, while the boys mostly hang back and watch. Older couples glide seamlessly, never changing pace or trampling toes. How long do you have to be married before you can do that? The band wails Freddy Fender and the slow-dancers move in. Frank might be here, though I haven’t seen him. A party is nice, a fun thing, but a dance is different. It’s an occasion. There’s magic and electricity and movement and touch. It’s dark—there’s no telling what might occur. I don’t blame the girl for dancing all night with the chicken-footed stranger. I see how that could’ve happened.
There’s a commotion at the door. A bride, a beautiful dark-haired woman in a trailing lace gown, enters the USO with her groom and six groomsmen. Word of their arrival rockets around the packed room. Strangers! Visitors from out of town! There are gasps, for the bride is that lovely, and although there were no unclaimed seats just a moment ago, a closet is opened and folding chairs are produced. Space is created at a table. The band plays the first notes of a new song. The bride takes up her train in one hand and grasps her groom’s hand in the other. The circle opens and closes around them. Baila esta cumbia.