The hottest dances in Latin America

The WorldTravelerWhether Salsa, Samba or Mambo – these spirited dances to fiery music immediately spread good mood. Whoever wants to learn them needs a feeling for rhythm and a lot of flexibility in the hips.

The Latin American dances Samba, Cha-Cha-Cha, Rumba, Paso doble and Jive have long been part of the standard program of every good dance school. But many of us did not think about learning to dance even better after the obligatory dance lessons in school. Because in the disco or at parties the few dances that you have rehearsed years ago are usually enough.

This attitude is now changing partially, since Central and South American dances with their great music are conquering the German market and giving a Caribbean feeling. In a casual atmosphere even the biggest party poopers dare to enter the dance floor. The courses are not only about learning step sequences, but above all about feeling the stirring rhythm and switching off your thoughts. Because dancing in Central and South America is not only a nice leisure activity, but also an expression of joy of life and sensuality.


Hot rhythms in the tropics

Salsa is more than just a dance: Salsa is a way of life. Not perfect step sequences are decisive, but fun to move to fiery music. Especially in Cuba you experience how much dancing is part of everyday life. Nobody should be surprised if the saleswoman in the music shop not only puts on the CDs but also dances along. And in the evening there is no stopping as soon as the salsa bands start playing in the streets and dance halls.

But also Cali in Colombia is considered the Salsa capital. Here you can find the right place to dance Salsa for every taste and every age group. The older generation enjoys themselves on Sundays in the Viejotecas (discos for older people), where melodies by Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz are played; the younger generation is drawn to the modern salsa dance halls, where nobody can sit still for long with cross-over rhythms and rousing Salsa Caleña.

Salsa (Spanish for sauce) combines Afro-Caribbean and European dance styles, which are danced differently depending on the region. Opinions differ about the exact origins of Salsa music. But experts agree that the most important Latin American rhythms such as Cha-Cha-Cha, Mambo (also has roots in Haiti) and Son, from which Salsa („Salsa“ is female) originated, come mostly from Cuba.

In Germany, dance schools teach mainly the New York Style, L.A. Style and Cuban Style. Referred to as „On 2“ dancing or mambo style, the New York Style impresses among other things with its elegance, the effective vueltas (turns) and its richness of variations. In New York Style, Puerto Rican and Cuban elements mix with figures from North American couple dances. It appears very elegant, dynamic and offers many possibilities for improvisation.

L.A. style (“On 1”) consists of fast, complex turns, and an energetic style of dancing. The Cuban Style, which is more strongly influenced by African styles, is a dance in street style with harmonic movements and – compared to the New York Style – rather slow turns of the woman. Here the focus is not on the partner (as in New York Style), but on the man. The Cuban Style is relatively demanding, because in the course of time new movements and vueltas have been added.


Erotic hip swing, tingling joy of life

Brazil without samba? Just as unthinkable as Germany without Oktoberfest! Accompanied by drums, rattles and bongos, the dancers‘ hips roll seductively, their lower bodies move rhythmically up and down („bouncing“). The appearance of the samba schools at the Carnival of Rio is a feast for the senses: In the Sambódromo, a huge street of grandstands, the most talented dancers in dazzling costumes compete against each other and sweep the audience from their seats with their fiery performances.

This dance and music style with African roots was born around 1917 in the suburbs of Rio. It quickly replaced the Tango Argentino, which had been the norm until then. With its fast rhythms and provocative movements, the Samba embodies the Brazilian mentality better than the more leisurely Tango. In Brazil, the Samba experienced its Golden Age in the 1930s, but its triumphant advance into Europe did not begin until after the Second World War.

From the original form, many different styles have developed over time, for example the „Samba de Roda“ (a rural round dance), „Samba Canção“ (a slower song variation), „Samba-Enredo“ (sung and from loud, high-pitched instruments accompanied carnival samba), „Samba Batucada“ (played similar to the „Samba Enredo“, but without vocals), „Samba-Funk“ (a modern style) and „Samba-Reggae“ (originated in Salvador from Reggae and is often no longer counted as Samba).

Since the end of the 70s the name „Pagoda“ has also become more and more popular. This is the name given to the casual „backyard“ party variation, the samba with romantic themes and improvised verses: Although the pagoda was created at humid house parties in the favelas and backyards of São Paulo, it achieved a much greater popularity in the carnival stronghold of Rio.

Tango Argentino

Pure seduction

The most beautiful spontaneous street tango can be experienced on Sundays in San Telmo, a district of Buenos Aires: In good weather, the couples glide light-footedly over the Plaza Dorrego – much to the delight of the tourists. But also in Calle Florida and the famous port district La Boca, street tango is cultivated by professional dancing couples in old-fashioned outfits.

In order to distinguish it from the standard tango, the original form of this dance and the corresponding music is called Tango Argentino outside of Argentina, although it is also danced in Uruguay. Many different musical influences contributed to the development of the Tango Argentino at the end of the 19th century, for example African-American elements such as Candombe, Habanera („Tango Americano“), Mazurka, Polka and the Waltz. But the Germans also made another important contribution to the development of the Tango: they brought the instrument typical for the Tango – the bandoneon – which, together with the piano, replaced the instruments guitar, flute and violin.

From 1900 onwards, the tango was danced in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires. Shortly before the First World War, it made it across the Great Pond to Paris. However, its social breakthrough did not come until the 1930s and 1940s, after decades of being regarded by the Argentine upper class as a sign of impoverishment and depravity. In the Golden Age of Tango – between 1935 and 1955 – Argentineans then flocked to the tango halls at weekends and new tango orchestras were founded in every district of the city.

Even today, after many ups and downs, the tango is still an integral part of the Argentinean music scene. In show tango, the dancers intoxicate the audience with flowing, soft figures and a variety of sophisticated pans and turns. The couple only follows the music and its emotions; the woman ensnares the man, the man wants her to feel comfortable with him. It is a passionate, sensual dance that reinvents itself again and again.


Sensual dance from the Caribbean

„If you can walk, you can merengue.“ In other words: Those who would like to learn a Latin American dance but cannot remember the sometimes difficult figures should try Merengue. Here, too, you have to have a sense of rhythm and be able to move your hips, but the step sequences are easier and the turns are often left to the dancers‘ imagination.

It is true that merengue music (meringue is actually a meringue made of beaten egg whites and sugar in Latin America) originated in the Dominican Republic in the 18th century. But only since the 1960s has it been part of the cultural heritage of the Caribbean island. Merengue is now celebrated at festivals in the Dominican Republic as well as in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Miami. The classical merengue instruments conga (hand drum of African origin), güiro („ratchet cucumber“) and accordion have now been joined by more modern musical instruments; the songs are mostly about love, longing and passion, but also about socially critical topics, some of which are brought across with a lot of humour.

In contrast to Salsa with four beats, the couple dance Merengue has only two, which keeps the rhythm easier. With each beat, one step forward, one step back and one step to the side is danced and the hips are moved. The dance is very body oriented; with the arms „wrap figures“ can be created during the turns. However, the Dominicans prefer to leave this to the foreign dancers; they themselves usually dance the merengue without these figures, because otherwise the dancing partners would „move away from each other“.


Narrow and hip emphasized

The Bachata, which originates from the Dominican Republic, is danced worldwide in different forms. The basic steps of this couple dance in four-four time with its steady rhythm are easy to learn. The Bachata is a straight, calm, soulful dance without turns and figures, but especially the women should have the typical hip swing.

The Dominican musician Juan Luis Guerra was instrumental in the development of the Bachata. In the 1990s, the „super-father“ of merengue composed not only fast merengue pieces but also slower ones. In doing so, he helped the bachata out of its dirty corner, because many had often associated this style of music with crime and prostitution in the two previous decades.

For Guerra, Bachata was a mixture of Bolero, Cuban Son and traditional Dominican music. Among the most famous songs of the musician and his band 4:40 are „Bachata Rosa“, „Burbujas de amor“ and „Frío frío“. But Guerra’s aim is not only to lure people onto the dance floor with his sometimes cheeky pieces, but also to make them think. The tones of the „Requinto“, a small guitar with six strings, tuned three to four tones higher than a „normal“ guitar, make the Bachata unmistakable. The songs are mostly sung by men. In the meantime the Bachata has also become popular in Germany and moved into dance studios.

Cuban Reggaeton / Cubaton

Young and explosive

The young Cuba dances Reggaeton – an explosive mixture of Reggae, Hip-Hop, Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, electronic dance music and Jamaican dancehall. Although reggaeton has been around for over two decades, this music style from Puerto Rico only made its breakthrough at the beginning of the new millennium and has now been making the dance floors of North America and Central Europe vibrate for several years.

Cuban groups have helped shape reggaeton, which combines Latin American and especially Puerto Rican elements. One of the most famous bands that made this style of music popular is SBS, which was very popular among Cuban youth, especially because of its own style: SBS mixed Puerto Rican-influenced rap with Cuban music. Later, other groups were added, such as Candyman, who added Jamaican elements to reggaeton and entered the charts with their original style.

From 2000 onwards, new bands and solo artists developed reggaeton further and mixed it with Cuban music such as the timba, a variant of salsa. The result was the typical Cuban reggaeton, also called Cubaton, with stars like El Medico, Triangulo Oscuro or Baby Lores. In Cuba, the lyrics mainly convey coded socio-critical messages. The musicians play with simple instruments, but the mixing desk then blends the sounds into an electrifying mix of styles, driving the audience onto the dance floor.


Joy of life in four-four time

Just like Shakira, Cumbia comes from Colombia, although this erotic couple dance is probably much more popular there than the singer who left her country a long time ago. The roots of the Cumbia, which has African as well as Spanish and Indian elements, can be found on the Caribbean coast in Eastern Colombia. The name „Cumbia“ („cum“: drum, „ia“: to move) is derived from a popular dance from Guinea.

In the middle of the 20th century, Colombian musicians introduced this style of music to other parts of Latin America, and it was particularly enthusiastically received in the Andean region, Argentina and Mexico, and until the early 1980s was more popular in many places than salsa. From a musical point of view, cumbia is one of the most popular Colombian export hits and has had a great influence on the international music scene.

This style of music is played by various instruments such as guitars, bass, accordion, drums and sometimes a horn in four-four time. Traditionally the „Gaitas“ (cactus or bamboo cane flutes) and „Maracas“ (rattles) are also part of the orchestra.

The sensual dance tells the story of a man who harasses a woman in an expressive way. With graceful, smooth movements she denies him the love affair. The couple dances out of the basic step in a closed dance posture in a circle. The rotation „vuelta de seis“ allows the change of place and following figures.


The Northeast of Brazil sends its greetings

This sensual couple dance from the Sertão – the interior of north-east Brazil – has conquered not only the whole of Brazil, but also many major European cities. Some even believe that it will become the trendsetter among Latin American couple dances.

Immigrants, who worked on the railway lines at the end of the 19th century, are said to have played a decisive role in the creation of the Forró. In any case, the many European elements such as klezmer, polka and Sinti and Roma music strongly suggest this. The term „Forró“ has several meanings – on the one hand it denotes a certain rhythm or a whole style, on the other hand the dance festivals at which Forró is played are also called so.

According to research, the word „Forró“ is even a variation of the English „For all“: During the Second World War, the officers‘ clubs at the American military base in the state of Pernambuco also invited the locals to dance events under the motto „For all“ at which bands played „Baião“ music, a basic rhythm of the Forró. It is said that „For all“ finally became „Forró“, which was the name of the event, the dance and the music. The couples dance closely together in the forró; the step sequence is not very difficult („two left, two right“).

Among the characteristic instruments of the forró are the sanfona (a hand harmonica), the zabumba (a flat bass drum with two heads) and a triangle. Only in the 1990s, when the Lambada was a huge success, did the Forró musicians give their sound a modern touch with keyboards, electric guitars and drums. And since then, the triumphal procession of this music from the Northeast, which many South Brazilians had looked down on until then, has been unstoppable.


Feeling the music

Not to be confused with salsa is the mambo, in Cuba of the 30s, which originated from a mixture of Son and Danzón. The title „Mambo of Orestes López“ appeared for the first time in 1938 in a Danzón. When the Cuban musician and composer Dámaso Pérez Prado then combined saxophone and trumpet with Cuban percussion instruments, the Mambo was finally born. The „Mambo King“ Prado became world famous for his hits „Qué rico el mambo“ and „Mambo No. 5“, among others.

The word „Mambo“ probably comes from Creole and originally meant „prayer“ or „religious conversation“. The dance Mambo is one of the fastest Latin American dances, very lively and sensual with small fast steps. It can be danced close together, but often the couples need more space for the many turns and sometimes complex figures. Many dancers feel how music and movement merge together.

The style has changed constantly due to the immigration of many Latin Americans during the Second World War to the USA and especially to New York, and has been influenced by jazz. In the mid-50s the new New York Mambo enthused Europeans, but was soon replaced by simpler dances such as Cha-Cha-Cha and Rumba. Since the Mambo is not part of the world dance program, the real Mambo is only offered in a few German dance schools. It also happens that Salsa is sold as Mambo course.


Highly erotic mayfly

When the Brazilian band Kaoma catapulted themselves to the top of the European charts in 1989 with their stolen hit „Lambada“ (Portuguese: hit, punch), a Lambada hysteria broke out in Germany. The dance schools were stormed, because everyone wanted to be Brazilian all of a sudden and seduce their sweetheart on the dance floor with erotic, provocative hip-swinging and other sensual movements.

For some of them this was too much of a good thing and remarks like: dirty, indecent and prostitutes. Which didn’t really stop the hype. The song was followed by the movie „Lambada – the forbidden dance“ in 1990. And at her dance shows, Kaoma also made thong tanga socially acceptable in Europe.

As great as the dance looked with Kaoma, however, it was difficult for somewhat immobile Europeans without experience with other Latin American dances to learn it. The Lambada is a stationary dance: the couple dancing closely together have their legs crossed and keep contact with each other over the whole upper body. The dancer’s upper body rotates in a semicircle away from her partner, who bends back and counterbalances in a low kneeling position when she goes into the horizontal. Rotations of the dancer are often done with both hands above the head; her partner holds her low at the hips.

In the mid-90s the lambada hype was already over and the Brazilians were now dancing Zouk, which comes from the French speaking Caribbean and combines African, French and English elements.