(image source: Putumayo.com)
You hear Latin music and it makes you want to dance – but is it a Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, or something entirely different? The beat tempts you to the dance floor, but what do you do once you’re out there?
Today my friend and professional Latin dance instructor, Jennifer Gonzalez, guest posts and gives us the basics!
Lovin’ that Latin Dance!
by Jennifer Gonzalez
It is hard to believe that just 13-14 years ago I had no idea that merengue, salsa, bachata, or cha cha cha were dances. Ok, maybe in the ballroom world I had heard a bit about cha cha cha or salsa but definitely nothing else. The only type of Latin dance I had ever laid eyes on was whatever came out of Mexico or California. As much as I love the Mexican culture – the dance just didn’t do it for me.
Then one day, I met this man. He was (well, still is) Puerto Rican and he introduced me to ‘his’ music! I fell in love with the music instantly. For one of our dates, we went to go to see the movie, “Dance With Me” staring Chayanne and Vanessa Williams. In the movie, Chayanne takes Williams’ character to a club where they dance ‘real’ salsa (not the ballroom kind.) My eyes probably popped out of my head at that moment as I watched and saw what I thought looked like the most fun you could have out at a club.
I told my then-boyfriend, “I must learn how to dance salsa!” So for my birthday we went to a tiny little club that we had found in the City Paper. After only one lesson I was hooked. I had no problem with the rhythm or the steps and wanted more. What I didn’t know was that these lessons were going to open up a whole new world to me full of music, dance, and culture. Little by little I started to learn other dances, where they came from, and how they fit into the culture of Latin America.
What intrigues me is that many times people have a hard time distinguishing Latin music. A merengue will be playing and someone will ask, “Is that salsa?” No. They sound nothing alike. To me. How can you tell them apart? You learn about them!
Merengue is the easiest of the Latin dances to learn. It involves just two beats and two steps. 1-2, 1-2. The man and women mirror each other’s feet as they dance and start in closed-position. As they step, there is a slight bend to the knee which will move the hips. They key is to not move your shoulders to the side or to bounce – that will give you away as a gringo (or non- Hispanic person) immediately! The bend in the knee while dancing gives the hips the movement that everyone wants but works so hard to achieve. Because of the easy steps, the leader can move through series of turns without too many issues. The dance originated in the Dominican Republic in the 19th century and is considered the ‘national dance’. If you take a trip to the Dominican Republic and stay in a resort, you will most likely find merengue dance lessons each afternoon or evening (sometimes both). You can see the basic movement in the videos below:
One dance gaining in popularity right now is bachata. Everyone and their mother and brother want to learn Bachata – especially here in the Washington DC area. Again, this dance comes to us from the Dominican Republic. Many call bachata the ‘country music’ of Latin music. The lyrics are often full of heartache, pain, and love and as a result, the dance itself can portray all of these things. Traditional bachata dancing requires partners hold each other very close in the closed position. Their legs will straddle so as to not step on each other’s feet (with the woman’s right-leg often between the men’s legs while dancing). The dance involves 4 steps – 4 to the right, 4 to the left with the 4th step being a left-lift or hip pop (see the video). Although many dance very close together, it isn’t necessary. It can be beautiful danced with space between the man and the woman.
Salsa dancing is one of the most complex Latin dances. Not only are the steps harder to learn but there are variations within the dance itself which have caused controversy for years. Salsa music first originated in Cuba (as mambo) before being brought to the United States by Cuban musicians. The origins date back to Cuban Son. When the Cubans brought their salsa to the states it wasn’t yet considered ‘salsa’. Only after the United States shut the doors to Cuba and other artists took the music, added their own flavor (like Fania All Stars) was it given the name ‘salsa’. The style became immensely popular in Puerto Rico due to singers like Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Tito Puente, and others and slowly moved throughout the world. Today, you will find that styles of salsa vary from country to country. Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and more all have their own distinct style of moving.
What does salsa look like when danced? Excellent question! As people start to learn they may find themselves confused. The styles to pick from are: on1 (LA style), on2 (New York/Puerto Rican style), casino (Cuban style), or Colombian. They each have their own way of relating to the music but one thing stays the same: the clave. All salsa music is built upon the clave. If you dance up the clave or down the clave does not matter – just stay with the music. Salsa is danced in 6 beats: 1-2-3, 5-6-7 with on1 and on2 styles pausing for the 4 & the 8. However, Cuban and Colombian salsa most often use every beat of the music. Trying to decide which style to learn can be confusing but I suggest to just pick one, learn it well, and then move on to another.
Video 1 demonstration:
New York Style:
Beyond Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata
Beyond the dances mentioned above there are numerous other Latin dances available. The most popular is probably the cha cha cha. Most people are familiar with the cha cha cha from ballroom dancing or tv shows like Dancing With the Stars. Again, cha cha cha was born in Cuba. It progressed from the Danzón and received the name ‘cha cha cha’ from the sound the footwork would make on the floor. And although many people call it just the cha cha – the proper name is cha cha cha. The footwork is most similar to salsa but with a syncopated step on the 4 and 8. For a feel of the cha cha cha, I might recommend people break out their old Santana music and listen to “Oye Como Va.” This song was written by Tito Puente as a straight cha cha cha but Santana took it and created an incredible rock song. The cha cha cha is still there in the song. Although the cha cha cha can be danced to some popular music (as they show on tv) it is best danced to classic cha cha cha music for the proper feel.
Another popular dance is Afro-Cuban rumba. Again, ballroom took what they called rumba and created their own dance. When you say ‘rumba’ in Cuba or in Puerto Rico or other Latin American countries they will most often assume you are talking about the rhythm that originated in Cuba. Because rumba is so diverse and complex, I would suggest reading this article I wrote for Ritmo Bello which explains the types of rumba as well as gives examples.
Learning these dances not only gives people the opportunity to connect with a culture (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Dominican, etc.) it provides an outlet for exercise and socializing. Some of my greatest friends have come through dancing salsa. And for me, I know that I still have so much to learn. Watch the videos, pick up some music from Amazon or iTunes, and get in the groove!
Jennifer Gonzalez has been dancing salsa for the past 12 years and salsa rueda/casino for the past 10. She danced and taught with SAOCO DC for 4 years before having to focus her interests elsewhere due to kids, work, and life in general. She has also taught at the San Francisco Salsa Rueda Festival for two years and independently throughout Northern Virginia. Jennifer dances LA Style on1 and salsa casino but prefers salsa casino. She has trained with Aramis Pazos in Washington DC in AfroCuban dance. She works full-time as a web content manager and in search engine optimization/social media marketing. In addition, Jennifer authors Salsa Casino in DC – a blog dedicated to sharing events, classes, and more that are happening in the Washington DC Metro area as well as teaching people about the Cuban history of dance. Additionally, she is a regular contributor to PlanetTimba.com and The Examiner. When she is not dancing, thinking about dancing, or writing about dancing she spends time with her two children and husband.