Dirty Dancing made it famous, the Havana Nights carved it into your minds and the Buena Vista Social Club had you dreaming of sipping Cuba Libres in a dusty Cuban cafe on a Friday night while watching a couple move sensuously to the music. The sultry sway of hips moving which brings to mind something similar to Shakira’s dance videos is not the only dance around. Yes, Salsa dancing is said to be the ‘numero uno’ of the Latin dances, but each country in the Caribbean and in Latin America has a unique style, a definitive flavour that is communicated in the lesser known dances of the region. Nearshore Americas takes a closer look at some of the more obscure local dance styles around the Caribbean and Latin America.
Bomba – From Puerto Rico
Born in Africa and transformed in Puerto Rico, the beat in Bomba music makes you instinctively want to dance. This dance form is a mix of Spanish, African and Taino cultures and dates back to the days when slaves needed an escape from the drudgery of their everyday lives. This dance became a way to express emotions, to communicate with each other in a common language and to have something to call their own.
According to the Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance and Cultural Center, “it was at ‘Bailes de Bombas’ (Bomba Dances) where baptisms and marriages were celebrated, and rebellions planned. For this reason, celebrations were only permitted on Sundays and Feast Days.” The tradition of female Bomba dancers raising their skirts to show their slips is said to have been a way to mock the traditional colonial plantation attire of the time.
The blend of cultures creates a music that challenges each dancer to a duel. I saw a crowd forming in Viejo San Juan around a beautiful woman dressed in a white long flowing skirt and top; she seems to be trapped within each beat. Each time the drummers created a pattern, her body movement and dance moves would top it off. She had such grace and fury in her movements, as she played with both the band and the audience. Bomba dancing is a common sight during the San Sebastian festival in Puerto Rico.
Merengue – From the Dominican Republic
Hailing from the Dominican Republic and danced all over the latin communities around the world, this dance is the easiest to learn. It is the simplicity and the happy music that accompanies it that makes it a favorite amongst beginners. The experts say: “if you can walk, you can dance Merengue”. It too dates back to the slave era in the Caribbean. According to CentralHome, there are two origin stories for what has become the national dance of the Dominican Republic. The first version proposes that “the dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums.” A different version of the story recounts how a wounded hero returned home after a war, with an injured leg. “A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot,” according to CentralHome.
The footsteps of this dance are small and the movement is close together. To dance the Merengue is to take a partner in a dance hold and walk, left-right-left-right, to the beat. There are many online videos that can teach you the basics of Merengue or build to the more complex steps in an easy to learn system.
Bachata – From the Dominican Republic
This increasingly popular dance has taken the Latin Dance community by storm, with Bachata teams in Russia, Bangkok, Japan and other countries around the world. There are two strains of this dance: the Dominican style, authentic with its remarkable footwork, and then the more sensual Urban style. Both are equally challenging to dance and if you watch the Te Extrano dance video which has more than 75 million views on Youtube, you will understand why this dance form has taken the world by storm.
The music originated in the early 1960s. According to the Heritage Institute, although “Luis Segura is widely acclaimed as ‘the father of Bachata’, José Manuel Calderón is credited with recording the first Bachata songs on May 30, 1962, in the studios of Radiotelevisión Dominicana (Borracho de amor and Condena).”
This is an eight-count partner dance which incorporates a tap on the fourth count, at a basic level. Once you are more advanced these eight counts become a playground for body movement and footwork. The most difficult thing in this dance is the connection between the two dancers, which is the true source of its appeal. The connection is evident when you see some best bachata dancers in the world dance with their partners. This dance grew so popular that they have one of the biggest dance festivals in the Caribbean for it, the Bachatu dance festival, which takes place at the end of May.
Quebradita – From Mexico
The first time I saw this dance was in Chicago where a group of dancers came out and flung their female partners into the air at lightning speed. I held my breath every time one of the girls went up into the air, especially since the ceiling was so low. This looked like a swing dance but with a Mexican twist.
Quebradita means ‘little break’, which refers to breaking in of a young horse and you can see it in this dance style. The roots of this dance is from a mix of acrobatics and a galloping horse movement. Partners hop around until the female dancer is either flipped into the air or spun around. This is an exciting dance to watch, with its high energy and insane moves, but difficult to learn.
Though it has sunk into obscurity in the US now, Quebradita was a popular dance style in Los Angeles and the southwestern US in the 1990s. According to author Sydney Hutchinson, who wrote From Quebradita to Duranguense: Dance in Mexican American Youth Culture, “accompanied by banda, an energetic brass band music style, Quebradita is recognizable by its western clothing, hat tricks, and daring flips. The dance’s combination of Mexican, Anglo, and African American influences represented a new sensibility that appealed to thousands of young people.”
Some people travel for the food, the historical sights, the tourist attractions or the beaches. I travel for the dances, the traditional and the street styles, which show you the history of the country through its music and people. The next time you visit a part of the Caribbean or Latin America, I challenge you to look a little deeper and discover the beautiful and often-overlooked traditional and cultural dances of that country.