Movin' on up - Issue 165 - Magazine | Monocle

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It takes seconds for the dance floor to fill. It’s a Saturday night in Mexico City and as soon as the band strikes the first chord, onlookers from surrounding tables shoot up without hesitation. At the end of every song, they return to their tables for a quick sip of mezcal, then bounce back, without missing a beat. We’re at Barba Azul Cabaret, a dance hall that has been here since the 1950s. The space feels like it’s in a time warp, with red lighting, silver tinsel and servers dressed in white shirts and black waistcoats. “We have live music from Tuesday and Saturday,” says a proud Alejandro Moreno, one of Barba Azul Cabaret’s owners, who keeps a keen eye on proceedings. The band is playing cumbia to a crowd of old and young punters, couples and friends, all of whom have little in common other than the fact that they’re having an exceptionally good time.

Across town, there’s no shortage of real estate where people can burn up the dance floor, from old halls like this to major clubs, as well as parks and open squares. The vitality of Mexico City’s nightlife and its residents’ penchant for dancing isn’t just an attraction for those in search of a weekend on the tiles; it’s a telling sign of what makes this city an invigorating place to live. “Dance and night culture have a lot to do with the energy of Mexico City,” says Toño Vilches, co-founder of entertainment brand Archipiélago. “It’s a chaos that doesn’t allow you to stop.” 

Vilches’ company runs bars and restaurants across town as well as hosting major music events. When Archipiélago opened its first outpost, Leonor, 15 years ago, the scene was dominated by big venues owned by profit- driven businessmen, where the music didn’t matter quite as much. Leonor was smaller than your average club, with no sign advertising it from the street. “It looked a bit like a living room,” says Vilches. “We were just a group of friends who put together some money and wanted to open a small bar.” At the heart of proceedings was a more experimental approach to music, which ranged from classic cumbia to techno and less mainstream genres. “We represented a generation that was born with the democracy of music through download platforms,” he says. Since then his team have organised huge festivals such as Trópico in Acapulco and Radio Bosque outside Mexico City, as well as concerts with Mexican and foreign artists. For Vilches, there could be no better place than this city to host parties. “I truly believe that its dance scene is one of the best in the world.”

Go out any night of the week and Vilches’ point will immediately be proven. Whether it’s a sonidero (a big party where people gather around speakers on the street), a pop-up event or people simply getting together in a park to shimmy to salsa, it won’t be long before you stumble on some catchy beats. Far from providing simple carefree entertainment, this liveliness changes the way residents feel about their everyday. “Mexico is a festive place and even if your life is going to hell, at least you can dance,” says Dora Mariana Vidal, founder of El Micky Bar, one of the most popular spots to have opened in the past year. 

When we first arrive at her venue early in the evening, it’s hard to imagine the windowless room, which looks like a converted garage with tiled floors and cool blue lighting, heaving with some 300 people. Servers in red T-shirts are setting up for the night, arranging basic wooden chairs and tables as well as organising drinks behind the bar. “People come here to dance,” says Vidal, whose musical career began when she hosted a radio show. “By 22.00 it’s packed.” If you want to secure a spot, it’s best to come early. A few hours later that same night the queue reaches almost around the block, with stragglers trying to negotiate their way in via Nadia, the firm but friendly gatekeeper. Some wait in the slow-moving queue for hours; others, even if they’re close to the entrance, simply give up. 

Once inside, the lucky ones groove, glued together, holding aloft cups of pitufos (a vodka and blue-energy drink concoction). The space is so tight that it’s almost impossible to move, and yet, somehow, everyone does. The crowd is mostly made up of youngsters but changes from night to night; Vidal has tried to create a space where everyone feels welcome, no matter their class or age. “It’s a good meld of people,” she says. “You can have an expensive whisky or a bottle of beer. It doesn’t matter where you come from.” From pop hits to reggaeton and Mexican classics, the songs played are all recognisable tracks that people can sing along to. The recent global rise of acts such as Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny has helped to create a newfound appetite for Spanish-language music – something that was starting to get lost in the city’s modern clubs. 

Though traditional genres are still played in some barrios and old-school dance halls, in many affluent areas the nightlife scene had long been drowned out by techno and electronica. “In poorer parts of the city, people dance to Mexico’s beautiful music but in gentrified areas such as Condesa, it doesn’t happen so much,” says Pablo Usobiaga, co-owner of Café de Nadie, a vinyl-only bar in the hip Roma neighbourhood. “If you listen to traditional Mexican music, it’s either for dancing or singing,” he says. “When people hear mariachi, they start moving. Everyone knows the songs.” Slowly, he’s starting to see a shift as younger customers become more interested in Spanish-language tracks. “There is a resistance about not wanting to lose what we have in Latin America,” he says.

Usobiaga’s 550-strong record collection used to feature only 20 or so Spanish-language titles but that number has now grown to at least 70. “Three or four years ago things started changing, with artists coming to Mexico City from the rest of the continent,” he says. Parties such as Noche Negra, run by a Venezuelan-Brazilian, have taken the city by storm, bringing in DJs from all over Latin America. “We used to think that what happens in Europe or the US would happen in Mexico five years later,” says Usobiaga. “But now many things are coming from the south. We are realising that we are a cultural force.” 

This influx of creatives and influences – something that has energised all disciplines, from food to design – has also been fundamental to Diaspora, a pop-up club and dance party founded in 2020. At these nights, diversity doesn’t just come by way of the genres played but also in the clientele, the staff and the performers who get booked. “It’s a place where people can connect,” says co-founder Quentin Perry, a Los Angeles transplant himself. “Our team is from different places; we have DJs who are Nigerian, Costa Rican, Colombian, Haitian, British…” This varied group plays anything from reggaeton to afrobeat and amapiano (a kind of house music from South Africa). “We wanted to recreate a diaspora in the dance industry,” says co-founder Brenda Lopez. What started as house parties at Perry’s place has now become one of the hottest tickets in Mexico City. Diaspora’s events, which range from dance competitions to DJ sets with special dress codes, are announced on social media, sometimes just one day in advance – and they always draw a crowd. “Mexicans love to party 24/7, so there’s a market to host an event every week,” says Perry. 

To find proof of this round-the-clock willingness to move, we head out onto the streets in the morning. By midday on Sunday, a group of older residents have gathered under a canopy in Ciudadela, in the Cuauhtémoc barrio. They’re swirling to cumbia, being played by a band on a makeshift stage. Some passersby sit around the square, tapping their feet to the rhythm and swaying their heads to the songs they know and love. On the dance floor, no one is paying too much attention to step-counting or style; it’s all about enjoying a day among neighbours. It’s proof of something that El Micky’s Vidal believes is fundamental to the spirit of the city. “In Mexico we have a lot of places where people go to dance with unknown people, old and young,” she says. “They get together to dance and share things.”

Meanwhile, in Parque Mexico, instructor José Eduardo is rehearsing a bachata with his colleague Valeria Ávila before his class begins. Eduardo started teaching Latin American dance in 2015 at the National Autonomous University of Mexico but his weekend lunchtime lessons now take place under a bougainvillea-covered terrace. “In Mexico we listen to music like salsa from the moment we are born,” says Ávila. “It’s in our everyday lives, on the radio while we’re doing chores. Even if you don’t know how to dance, it’s instilled in us.” 

When Eduardo started teaching in this green pocket of Condesa, he had seven students. Now he can count about 150, many of whom moved here during the pandemic. “Dancing is a language,” he says. “We have people from Germany, France and the US. Even though we teach in Spanish, they understand because the language and the rhythm is universal.” It is also a fail-safe way to build friendships and community – soon enough, a large crowd of attendees arrive. They drop their bags to the side and slip into line. Across the park, a cohort of 30 students has also just begun a Cuban salsa class. Once both lessons wrap up, everyone lingers a little longer, trying to master their new moves while chatting on the sidelines until the early evening. “I love the way they choose to spend the whole day with us,” says Eduardo. “We dance until the battery of the speaker goes flat.” 

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