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LATIN DANCE HISTORIES

a. Salsa

Salsa is one of the most dynamic and important musical phenomena of the 1900's. In many Hispanic communities, it remains today the most popular style of dance and music.  The roots of salsa originated in Eastern Cuba early in the l900s. There, Spanish and Afro-Cuban musical elements were combined, both in terms of rhythm and the instruments used. By mid-century, this music came to Havana where foreign influences were absorbed, particularly American jazz and popular music heard on the radio.

By the end of the l950s, many Cuban and Puerto Rican people including musicians had settled in the U.S., especially in New York. In this environment, salsa music completed its development. In "El Barrio" (Spanish Harlem), bands were formed and immigrants continued to make Afro-Caribbean music, but they adapted the sound to their new world.  Gradually in the 50s and 60s, salsa as we know it today was emerging. The most famous musicians of that time were Tito Puente ("King of Mambo") and Celia Cruz ("Queen of Salsa").

The rise of salsa music is also tied closely to Fania Records which was founded in l964 by the musician Johnny Pacheco and an Italian-American divorce lawyer named Jerry Masucci. The two met at a party in a NY hotel. They struck a deal to launch what became the most influential record label in Latin music's history. Fania was known as "the Latin Motown," with one huge hit after another becoming popular all over Latin America. Many artists became very famous with the promotion they received from the record label "La Fania." Fania Records remolded Cuban music into a sound more appropriate to Latin New York, and they called the sound "salsa." By the l970s salsa was becoming so popular that Fania's bands and artists were touring all over Latin America. This decade was the real "heyday" of salsa.

The type of salsa music that Fania promoted came to be referred to as "hard salsa." Then in the 80s, another style of salsa which was softer and more romantic was born, with artists like Gilberto Santa Rosa. Around this time, Latin musicians began to have an impact on mainstream U.S. music. Latin music was becoming trendy here and beginning to intrigue the rest of the world as well.

Both types of salsa remain popular today and with the popularity of the music, came the popularity of the dance. Salsa refers both to the music and the dance done to that music. The rhythm for Salsa is quick-quick-slow. To dancers, a "quick" is a step that lasts for one musical beat and a "slow" lasts for two beats.


b. Rueda de Casino (Cuban Salsa)

During the 1950s, a dance craze called Casino Rueda became popular in Cuba.  The name "casino" comes from the name of the social club where the dance began. That club was called El Casino Deportivo. "Rueda" means wheel or circle. It is a type of salsa dancing done by a group in a circle, with partners being passed around.

The moves to this dance are numerous and can be very complex. The dance is done by two or more couples who do the moves in synchrony. A member of the circle calls the moves for everyone to execute. Each move has a name and most have hand signals since it is hard to hear in noisy nightclubs. Moves can be called in quick succession, and along with frequent partner exchanges, this creates a very dynamic and exciting atmosphere for everyone involved.

The group nature of the dance is unique and makes it quite social. A group consciousness develops to make the rueda work well---with everyone watching the leader for the calls. Dancers have to open up their sphere of awareness far beyond what is necessary for ordinary partner dancing. Whether you are dancing or watching, it is thrilling when a rueda circle works well and flows smoothly!!

This festive dance was brought to Miami by Cuban immigrants and took hold there in the l970s and l980s. From Miami, it spread first to major U.S. metropolitan centers with large Hispanic populations and eventually to other cities as well. The movie "Dance with Me" has a segment of Cuban Salsa (Rueda) dancing which helped popularize the dance in this country. 

In recent years, Casino Rueda has swept the world.  The joyful spirit of this dance has made it popular just about everywhere--from Israel to Alaska, from North and South America to Europe, Australia, and beyond. Groups of Salsa dancers assemble in classes, clubs, and conventions all over the globe to teach, practice, and perform beautiful Casino Rueda moves done in a circle!  What began simply in a Cuban social club, quickly became a world-wide dance phenomenon!


c. Cha Cha

Cha Cha evolved and developed around the mid-1900’s. Cha Cha music is similar to Salsa, but the tempo is slower. Thus there is time to replace the slow step found in Salsa with the “cha cha chas.” Indeed, Cha cha was originally called triple Mambo because you take 3 cha cha steps in place of the slow step in mambo (and Salsa).  The name "cha-cha" imitates the sound of heeled shoes as they hit the floor percussively.  This explains why some refer to the dance as the cha-cha-cha while others call it cha-cha.

Cha Cha quickly became very popular and remains today the most well-known of the Latin dances to Americans. Cha Cha music is catchy, and has a lively, happy sound.  You’ll notice that most dances have “rhythm breaks,” or steps that vary from the basic rhythm of the dance. If you watch Cha Cha closely you may be able to see some of these different patterns which include syncopations and other types of variations. These rhythm breaks make the dance more interesting and challenging. They are particularly easy to notice in Cha Cha because any alteration of the “cha cha cha” tends to stand out.


d. Merengue 

Merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic and, to some extent of Haiti which shares an island with DR. This dance was developed in the early 1900’s. The music has a repetitive quality and pounds out a steady beat. The dance rhythm is quick-quick-quick-quick. It is the only dance that doesn’t have a mixture of “quicks” and “slows”.

The movement of all Latin dances is characterized by “Cuban motion.” This is the hip sway that is created by stepping onto a bent leg and then straightening it. “Cuban motion” is most easily taught in Merengue due to the steady beat. As a result, it is the Latin dance that beginning dancers often start with.

In the basic movement of Merengue, one leg is dragged slightly. There are a couple of legends about why this is so.  One is that the dance originated with slaves who were chained together. So they had to drag one leg as the cut sugar to a drum beat.  Another story is that during one of the revolutions in the Dominican Republic, a great hero was wounded in the leg. He came home to a celebration in his honor. When the villagers danced at the celebration, they all limped and dragged one leg as a gesture of sympathy for him.


e.  Bachata

Bachata is a popular form of music from the Dominican Republic.  The first bachata was recorded in 1961 by José Manuel Calderón.  But over time, bachata began to be associated with the world of prostitution, crime, and delinquency.  The stigma against bachata was strong enough that only one national radio station would play it.  From about 1970 to about 1990, bachata music told stories of an underground life-style such as men who loved prostitutes, poor country boys who get to the city and are ripped off, impoverished barrio dweller without light or water, etc. 

But bachata’s popularity began to grow, as Anthony Santos and others used the new style to record more acceptable, romantic songs.  Over time, middle class musicians experimented with bachata, and were so successful that the music began to be accepted by all sectors of society.

In its current form, bachata is listened to throughout Latin America, and is particularly popular in New York City today. Many seasoned dancers in the US have witnessed the tremendous rise in popularity of Bachata dancing.  Around the late twentieth century, it was only occasionally played by DJs at clubs.  But now it is far more commonly heard, and many interesting dance moves have sprung up to make dancing Bachata richer and more interesting.


SWING DANCE HISTORIES

a.  Lindy Hop

Just as jazz helped shape the evolution of Latin music and dance, it was also fundamental to the evolution of swing dancing. In a sense, you might say that if the Latin dances are closely related to each other, then swing is like their second cousin. They are all related through jazz with its African roots.

One of the features of jazz music is the subtle pulse, or swing, that animates the music. In the l920s and 30s, jazzy, big band sounds became popular and with that, swing dancing began to evolve.  On March 26, 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened in NY and was an instant hit. People flocked there every night to dance and listen to bands play what was called "Swinging Jazz."

One night, a dancer named "Shorty George" Snowden was asked by a newspaper reporter what was the name of the dance being done. It happened that Charles Lindbergh had just made his famous flight, and there was a newspaper on a bench by Snowden. The headline read: "Lindy Hops the Atlantic." Glancing at the newspaper, Snowden answered, "Lindy Hop." And the name stuck. By the late 30s, Lindy Hop was sweeping the nation.

In Lindy Hop, the dancers move in an elliptical pattern. The rhythm of the basic step is 1, 2, triple time, 1, 2, triple time. A couple of styles of Lindy Hop gradually emerged, notably the Savoy and the Hollywood styles. Ultimately, Lindy Hop developed into some completely different forms of swing dancing described below. These variations on swing are characterized by different rhythm and movement patterns.

b.  East Coast Swing

     Single Swing

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a form of swing developed that was called "East Coast Swing" since it began on the east coast.  The basic movement in East Coast Swing is in a circular pattern. East Coast that is done to very fast music is also referred to as Single Swing and has an underlying rhythm of Slow-Slow-Quick-Quick.  Of all the forms of swing, this is probably the easiest for beginning dancers to learn. The fast tempo makes it an extremely lively dance.

    Triple Swing

Music that is a little slower in tempo lends itself to another form of East Coast Swing called Triple Swing. In this dance, each of the Slow steps from Single Swing is replaced by three steps in the "Triple time" rhythm. So the underlying rhythm for this dance is "Triple Time-Triple Time-Quick-Quick." Many of the same steps can be done in both Triple Swing and Single Swing with some small adjustments. Both Single and Triple Swing remain very popular today.

c.  West Coast Swing

While East Coast Swing was developing on the east coast, West Coast Swing emerged on the west coast. West Coast Swing is smoother, more sensual, and done to music with a slower tempo than East Coast. West Coast is danced in a line which is referred to as the dancer's "slot." Some people think that the dance developed partly because dancing in a line enabled more people to fit onto dance floors which became very crowded after World War II.

West Coast Swing lends itself to a good deal of improvisation. In fact, in some steps, the woman, who is normally the follower, can actually do what is called "hijacking the lead." She indicates that she wants to take over the lead and then controls the steps for a short interval. This is quite unique in partnership dancing. It is like a dance form of improvisation that mimics instrumental jazz improvisations. So there is a sort of parallel between the dance and the music that gave rise to it. West Coast Swing is now popular all over the country. 

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