25 YEARS AGO ON AMBERGRIS CAYE BY ANGEL NUÑEZ
In the old little village of San Pedro there was no other dance or fiesta that was more long awaited with enthusiasm than the Baile de los Viejos (translated as the Dance of the Old People). This was the party in San Pedro Village that attracted the largest attendance, since every married couple attended this party and in pairs. This was the party that was most eagerly anticipated since married couples planned for it during the entire month of December. Actually it was a dance for “Los Viejos” or old people because even couples sixty years and over attended this bash. It was a real clout or hit in those days as it is today also. But it was not only a dance for old people for the young married couples also went there, as a rule of thumbs.
In those days couples got married quite early, so you know that there were 15 and 16 year olds dancing at the “Baile de los Viejos”. However, for the most part, the majority of the people at that party were older people. There was only one rule and that was that you had to be married to get in there. You could not get in there by yourself. You could not get in there with a sweetheart. And you could not get in there with a sister or friend. It had to be with your wife and you had to dance the first piece with your wife. After a few drinks, I guess one did not know who was his wife or did not care, and he could dance with anyone.
The preparations for this bash commenced early December with the securing of the dance hall. At first it used to be at the big wooden house of Tio Dolito, which used to be where Rocks Store and the Casino are presently located. It used to be a long wooden building no higher than one foot high but it was for some unexplained reason, one long room with no partitions. Another place used later on was at the downstairs of Tio Pil’s house, which also used to be a big open room. That was located where Cholo’s Bar is presently located. Tio Dolito and Tio Pil were both “party folks” so they delightfully gave their places for the wallop. Then the organizers made sure they got a musical group or “El Conjunto” as they would call it. Conjunto means a group. They could not go to any one band leader as there was no band, so they gathered them one by one and assembled an accordion player (Ovidio Guerrero or Don John Alamilla). Then they got a guitar player like Don Fedo Alamilla or Santiago Vasquez, who was also a leading singer or vocalist. From there on they tried to get more guitars and drummers and percussion players.
Once the band and dance hall were secure, the organizers then circulated a note or letter of invitation from house to house calling out the folks to the party. They would ask for a contribution of two or three dollars, which would be used to buy drinks for the musicians and chocolate beverages and biscuits for the ladies. That was all you had to pay for the party as it was not a profit-making thing. It was a fun bash. Apart from that you had to buy your drinks at the place, but it only cost about a dollar for a pint of white rum and ten cents for a pint of red strawberry pop to mix with the rum. That was a cheap and easy spree, right? What was not easy was the hangover that you got the following day.
The day of the party arrived and that day the fishermen would not even go to the fish trap for they were getting ready to party. The women cooked a big meal that would last until the next day for on January first, they would not be fit to cook nor wash nor anything. They would be up still dancing at nine in the morning. At eight in the night, the “conjunto” or combo would strike their first beat, a bolero of course. A bolero is a Spanish soul beat. They men immediately went to their wives and ask for the first selection and they did their thing on the dance floor. Everyone was dressed in regular clothing, some even ragged, and danced until midnight when the church bell called everyone for the “misa de gallo” or midnight mass. The music stopped, the drinking stopped, and the mass commenced. After the mass everyone went home to dress up in new clothing to symbolize the beginning of a new year. And the party continued. By then the men would start dancing with other ladies and a few men even bothered the ladies who refused to dance if they were too drunk. These men would usually be ejected out of the dance hall with a few blows, at times either from a jealous husband or from the crowd of friends who did not want to spoil a good party.
By three or four in the morning the dance for the single persons held at Daddy’s Club came to an end and some of them tried to sneak in at the “Baile de los Viejos”. Some did sneak in because the guys were already quite “drunk” and did not care less whether you were married or not. They simply wanted to party. At four or five in the morning when the ladies were getting tired, the men served hot chocolate and biscuits to energize the women. It did and as long as the musicians did not get tired or too drunk, the party continued until the sun was high at nine in the morning. By that time, yes, the rum and the heat of the sun combined to declare the men unfit to dance. In fact they were unfit to stand up, so the women took their men home and that was the end of “El Baile de los Viejos” Today, to re-enact this event, the Lions hold a similar bash at the Lions Den but one thing is certain. Only a few hold on until the very end. It is not that the folks of twenty five years ago were more resilient. It is because in those days they only went to one party a year and it was “El Baile de los Viejos” and they had to make the most out of it.