Don Juan Bandini, Early California's "Tecolero"

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

"Early California" is considered the time period between 1769, when the Portola expedition first established a settlement at San Diego, until about 1860, ten years after statehood when the state almost totally eliminated its Mexican roots. Within that 90-year span, the first 60 years are considered to be the "Mission Period," overlapping the "Rancho Period" which began in about 1825. The Rancho Period is the focus of our study of Early California dance and its foremost proponent – Don Juan Bandini.

Born in Peru in 1800 of Italian-Spanish parents, he came to California with his father in about 1820 and quickly became involved in the politics and intrigues of the day. He was a constant rebellious thorn in the side of the authorities and experienced a number of financial ups and downs during his lifetime. A true Californio, he freely imbibed in the traditional impassioned gambling habits of the time and lost and gained several fortunes, including extensive land holdings in Southern California. His fine house still stands on the plaza in Old Town San Diego and was the center of social activity there for many years.

Two of his major accomplishments were the wresting of political control from the missions, whose monastic rule he despised, and promoting the admission of California into the United States. Indeed, his lovely daughters constructed the first American flag to fly in Los Angeles.

Don Juan Bandini Don Juan’s personal story is a long one, but it is his dance prowess is to be discussed here. He was famed throughout California for his skill at the dance and his dance is described eloquently by Richard Henry Dana in his "Two Years Before the Mast." It was said that if one wished to guarantee a successful fandango, you must have Don Juan there as "tecolero," the traditional master of ceremonies. He not only was skilled in the dance of his Andalusian heritage, he danced a splendid waltz and taught it everywhere in defiance of the edicts of the church fathers (dancing the waltz was grounds for excommunication). It was commonplace to distract the priests with drink and any other means and proceed to waltz without the benefit of clergy.

Bandini lived out his life in grand style by marrying his lovely daughters, Arcadia and Ysidora, to very wealthy Yankee merchants – Arcadia to Abel Stearns and Ysidora to Cave Couts, both fascinating stories in their own right.

Nearly forgotten today, Don Juan was in his day famed for many things, not the least of which was his magnificent dance.