A Brief History
When we talk about Latin dance we are drawn to thinking of ‘Latinos’ or generally people of Spanish speaking decent (Hispanics), but why?
Well first we need to take a look back to around 1492 when the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas and laid claim to it on behalf of the Spanish. Columbus didn’t really ‘discover’ America, plenty of people already lived there and had done for centuries, but what Columbus did do was to pave the way for a massive influx of western Europeans to the Americas which would then go on to colonise the Americas under the Spanish Empire.
So why is this important? Well the Spanish colonization of the Americas began in 1492 with Columbus and they began to expand their territories until it included Central America, South America, Mexico, what is now Southern states of USA and some Western states of USA including up to the South western part of British Columbia in Canada. Spain began losing control of colonies in the 1820s and through the rest of that century.
During Spanish rule many Spanish settlers came, as did the slave trade. The Spanish brought many African slaves to the Americas and along with Spanish culture they brought African cultures. Many history books tell of particularly cruel and barbaric practices by the Spanish.
The Caribbean region of The Americas was particularly important to what is today known as Latino culture. The key Islands that still contribute to the development of Latin Dance are: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic & Haiti (previously joined as Hispaniola) Jamaica and Panama. At one time these all fell under Spanish rule.
In 1898 the Spanish-American war occurred. This began with America intervening in the Cuban revolt against Spanish rule and ended with the liberation of Hispaniola (Haiti & Dominican Republic) and then Puerto Rico which now comes under American control. After a 10 week war in the Caribbean and Pacific, the Treaty of Paris allowed the US temporary control of Cuba and laid the way for US ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine Islands with a $20 million ($602,320,000 in today’s money) pay out by the US government to the Spanish government. Thus, the Spanish Empire was no more. Other Caribbean Islands remain independent today, whilst some are governed by countries such as Frances, Netherlands, UK, USA & Columbia.
Although the Spanish rulers were gone, their culture wasn’t. The Spanish left behind whole Spanish speaking nations, newly freed slaves and a population widely converted to Christianity and Catholicism.
After Hispaniola gained Independence many Spanish nobles and their newly freed slaves emigrated to Cuba, which is why there is a large population of Haitians in Cuba.
There is always a reflection of the political and economical situation of a country in popular culture, such as music, singing and dancing. Music gives an outlet for expressing attitudes towards oppression, poverty, freedom or whatever the general populous is experiencing at the time.
So, to understand the term ‘Latin Dance’ we are talking about dance originating from Latino or Hispanic cultures. We really need to look at each of the Hispanic cultures, country by country and explore the dances that have originated from each one.
We’ll cover Cuba, Puerto Rico, Columbia, the USA, Dominican Republic, Argentina and Jamaica in this paper.
You might already know some of these things, so you can navigate your way through to later chapters using the quick links below. Throughout our guide you will find links to other articles for further reading in depth on a subject plus helpful links to other resources such as music lists.
We hope you enjoy this guide, don’t forget if you like it, share it!
The Dance Guru
In this guide you will find 9 Chapters.
You can click the links below to skip ahead
Chapter 9: Latin Dance in the world of Ballroom Dancing
Chapter 1: Latin Dance in Cuba
This was a formal country dance from the French ‘Contradanse’ popular in Europe in the 1700s and thought to have been adopted in French courts from the English country dance.
It was then brought from Europe to Cuba mainly by the Spanish rulers between 1511 and 1898. With them they brought African slaves and it was the first known fusing of African rhythms into European music in Cuba and the forerunner to Danzon.
The Contradanza was also known as the Habanera or Danza Criolla due to it’s French routes.
Originally Danzon was a group dance with set steps, a sequence dance with around 20 couples and was notably danced in the Matanzas area by Black people. It was formal, and included coloured ribbons and flower covered arches.
The new Danzon was born around 1879 when Miguel Failde composed and promoted ‘Las alturas de Simpson’ or ‘Simpson Heights’ . The Simpson Baseball Club was in the mainly Black neighbourhood of Matanzas which had it’s on Matanzas baseball league.
From here the Danzon become slower, danced more closely and intimately and initially outraged more formal parts of society! There is a lower centre of gravity and gentle movement of the hips and it was often seen in the areas of prosituion in Havana.
Around 1910 we started to see the emergence of the recognizable modern Danzon which is still danced in Cuba today. It’s also popular in Mexico and Puerto Rico. It was instrumental in the future development of Son, Cha Cha and Salsa.
The music of the time in Cuba was mainly Son which was a combination of Guaracha, Danzon, Cha Cha, Pachanga, Rumba & Mambo these all combined to be known as ‘Son’.
In the early 1900s after La Hispanola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic) was liberated, many affluent French Caribbean families and their slaves emigrated to Cuba. Around 1917 the Danzon was still the most popular dance in Cuba but a new musical genre ‘Son’ was emerging. It incorporated African rhythms such as the Clave and Bongo and a new dance emerged.
Pachanga dance is a mix of son montuno (Salsa) and merengue and emerged around 1959 as a more lively, playful version of it’s Salsa cousin. It comes from a branch of Charanga style music and both the Salsa & Cha Cha beats can be heard within. It has a flavour of Charleston with a bounce, bent knees and a gentle rocking motion. It was popularised in New York with the Cuban dancers.
Most usually attributed to the composer Enrique Jorrin in around 1953, cha-Cha music and the subsequent Cha-Cha dance was developed from danzon-mambo. Enrique had begun composing songs with a stronger melody focusing on the first downbeat and les syncopation, dancers adapted their dancing accordingly and began ‘shuffling’ around the floor with a triple step that can also be found in several Afro-Cuban dances. The Cha-Cha name is an onomatopoeia derived from the shuffling sound of the feet as they perform the triple step.
One type of Bolero, originating in Spain in the late 18th century (the Spanish Bolero) is a mixture of the Contradanza and the Sevillana. The Spanish bolero dance comes from a traditional ballroom dance. It is not the same as the Cuban Bolero which comes from the ‘trovadores’ or street singers with guitars that moved around Cuba taking their songs from one community to the next, spreading popular music, especially boleros as well as ‘sones’ ‘guaguancos’ and ‘abakua’.
Pepe sanchez is known as the creator of the Cuban bolero, which spread from the East of Cuba to the Dominican Republic in 1895.
Salsa Casino or Cuban Salsa
The original rhythm of dancing ‘Casino’ style is that no step is take on the 1st and 5th beats, thus originally being danced ‘On3’ and more widely in other non-Caribbean parts of the world ‘On1’.
Casino dancers are spontaneous and use elements of all the dances through time that have given birth to the modern dance, it truly is a ‘freestyle’ dance as you never know what is coming next. It is also danced with a more flat foot and bare foot as often Cubans were too poor to afford shoes, and further back this stems from the Slaves being bare-foot.
Here’s a video of montage of Cuban ‘Casino’ Salsa dancing. When danced as a group with a caller shouting out the moves to all the couples, this form of group Cuban salsa dance is known as ‘Rueda de Casino’. It’s a fast paced and energetic party dance if you can keep up!
Chapter 2: Afro Cuban Dance
Afro-Cuban dance pays tribute to the fusing of the Afro Dance and Cuban dance through the mixing of the 2 cultures during the dark days of the slave trade.
The dances are very rhythmic and pay particular attention to traditional instruments, especially the drums and sticks (clave).
Most Afro-Cuban dances have specific moves that relate to a particular historical incident or to the worship of African Gods, so each dance tells its own story whilst passing on the folklore traditions to the next generation.
The Cubans are extremely proud of the dance heritage and nearly everyone in Cuba can dance!
Here’s a small sample of an Afro Cuban Dance examination at the Institute de Superior Artes (ISA), Havana.
Cuban Comparsa is the street dance of carnivals, most commonly known elsewhere as the ‘Conga’ (no, not the dance associated with the Gloria Estafan hit of the 80s!!).
It’s a loud, celbratory dance with the dancers wearing vibrant coloured costumes and many ear-piercing instruments being played such as trumpets, trombones, tubas etc accompanied by multiple percussion instruments such as ‘maracas, bongos, congas, guiros, batas, claves, checkeres, surdos, tamborines’ (IFE-ILE Afroc-Cuban Dance & Music).
Here’s a demonstration by Banrara, one of the foremost dance troupes in Havana:
Many slaves in Cuba were brought from Africa and the Yoruba religion was followed by many of these slaves. ‘Orishas’ are spirits sent by higher Gods to guide humanity on how to exist on earth. Each ‘Orisha’ has a name and a purpose and have found their way into other religions.
The most notable ones in Afro-Cuban dance today are the 7 primary Orishas that were passed down during the slave-trade under Spanish rule, and for which these days the Spanish spelling & pronunciations are used.
Today’s Afro-Cuban dancers present movements specific to each Orisha in tribute to the representative element of the Orisha (War, Sea, Storm, Rivers etc).
Elegua – Male Orisha of roads and paths
Yemaya – Female mother goddess, patron deity of women & the Ogun river
Oshun – Female Orisha who presides over love, intimacy, beauty, wealth, diplomacy and the Osun river
Chango – Most feared Male Orisha often represented by an axe, who is the God of Thunder & lightening
Obatala – Male Orisha the sky father who was the creator of human bodies, he is referred to ‘as purity, both physically & symbolically as in the ‘light’ of consciousness’ Wikipedia
Oya – Female Orisha of the River Niger, wind, lightning, fertility, fire & magic
Ogun – Male Orisha of iron, fire, hunting, agriculture & war
The Palo religion developed in Cuba among the Central African slaves originating from the Congo. The beating of sticks and the ritual dances are associated with Palo.
The Yuka is the name of both the dance and a drum. In Bantu (the language of the Bantu people in Sub-Saharan Africa) the word ‘yuka’ means to beat. An avocado tree trunk is hollowed out to make the drum and it originates from the Congo in Africa. The dance is a contest between the man and woman, he chases and she tries to avoid him. It originated from the Matanzas and Pinar del Rio regions in Cuba
Afro Cuban Dances from French Haiti
1. Tumba Francesca
Chapter 3: Latin Dance from Puerto Rico
Parranda de aguinaldo is music of African origin performed with acoustic guitars, drums, maracas and other percussion instruments in the Caribbean region. It is most notable in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Trinidad and the coastal areas of northern Venezuela. In Puerto Rico especially, the word ‘Parrandas’ has become the term for the Puerto Rican music festivals at Christmas time.
The music and dance of Plena is native to Puerto Rico, traditionally performed by guitar, accordian and pandero and without singers, until around 1900 when singing was introduced. It is often referred to as the ‘periodico cantado’ or the sung newspaper of the lower classes as it spread the word of the day.
It is attributed to a specific neighbourhood of Barriada de la Torre in Ponce where there was a large population of immigrants from the islands of St Kitts, Tortola & St Thomas. Generally steeped in folklore, it’s beats and dance are African in rhythm and it’s sung in Spanish, a fusion of the European and African cultures dating back to the African slave trade in the Caribbean and born from the sugar plantations and it tells of the struggles of the working class.
La Bomba originates from the coastal regions of Puerto Rico, where at the time of its emergence the slaves were entrenched in the sugar plantations working for the Spanish rulers.
The composition of the music is from a large drum known as a buleador and a maraca and follows a call and response between the drummer and dancer. Bomba music was often more satirical than Plena and was used more light heartedly to try to escape the hardships of the slave trade.
It is danced by men and women but not as a partner dance. Traditional plantation fashions would be worn, although less formal than in Plena.
In more recent times King Africa had a huge commercial hit with La Bomba
Salsa Puerto Rican
Mainly danced On2 the Puerto Rican style of Salsa is elegant and shows off the lady. It is graceful with long lines, arm styling and dramatic musical pauses. As influenced hugely by Felipe Polanco, Puerto Rican Salsa has gone on to influence New York Style Salsa.
The emergence of Reggaeton in the late 1990s was a fusion of US and Latin American culture. There have been strong links between the 2 cultures, mainly since 1917 when the USA ‘helped’ to liberate Puerto Rican and then went on to colonise it. Puerto Ricans have since been granted American citizenship and strong links between the island and the mainland remain with many Puerto Ricans settling in the USA. As rap music gained popularity in the USA, Puerto Rican underground culture was taking on Spanish reggae rap.
Reggaeton has spread the be one of the main music genres across the Spanish-speaking areas of the Caribbean including Dominican Republic, Cuba and further afield to Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. Since around 2004 reggaeton has spread worldwide and is recognised in popular music charts globally.
With the music followed the dance. Reggaeton is danced between men and women but not strictly as a partner dance. The is a large focus on ‘grinding’ in front of each other with your back to your partner, not face to face as other forms of partner dancing. With high energy squatting and thrusting moves it originally shocked a lot of conservative cultures.
Reggeaton has helped Latin-Americans contribute to American urban culture whilst keeping many aspects of Hispanic culture.
Salsaton or Cubaton
Salsaton is a sub-genre of reggaeton which started with a fusion of Salsa with Reggaeton by Andy Montanez’s album Salsaton "Salsa Con Reggaetón" in 2006. It was popularised by collaborations with Daddy Yankee and others within the album.
Other famous artists such as Tito Nieves, La India and Ruben Blades have incorporated reggaeton percussion instruments within the music and a new genre of dance has emerged.
Salsaton is particularly popular for those dancing solo in nightclubs and fitness classes. Take a look at this dance fitness routine to ‘Salsaton’ by El Rubio Loco.
Chapter 4: Latin dance from Columbia
A dance born from the days of slavery when African slaves in Columbia had their feet shackled it is danced in colonial style dress and has sensual movements. It is still popular today and is considered to be Columbia’s primary folk dance.
At first, African slaves used to imitate their Spanish masters, then the dance evolved to become a courtship dance between the slaves and the indigenous Columbians.
Musically, Cumbia combines the African drums and the melodies of Columbian flutes. Steps are small, resembling the restrictions of the shackles and you move in a circle, women weaving their skirt in a figure of eight motion.
Salsa Cali Style
Cali-style Salsa is also known as Colombian Salsa and Salsa Caleña. Cali-style Salsa is named after the City of Cali, known worldwide as the Capital of Salsa.
Salsa dance schools were set up all over the city to help keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. Cali has the most salsa schools and salsa teams in the world per capita of population.
Cali-style Salsa has fast and furious footowork, is danced side by side and steps in place (rather than cross body). In competitions there are death defying lifts, dips & tricks.
The city of Cali now hosts many annual salsa events such as the World Salsa Cali Festival and the Encuentro de Melomanos y Coleccionistas.
Here’s a video of ‘Swing Latino’ of the Team Division at the World Salsa Championships 2016.
Chapter 5: Latin Dance Styles in the USA
As people moved from Cuba and Puerto Rican to New York, Los Angeles and Miami so their dances moved with them. Most famously Salsa dancing was born from Mambo in the 1950s.
Salsa took on very distinctive styles such as LA Style, New York Style, Miami Style and Puerto Rican style. You can read in full about each of these styles of Salsa in Salsa Dance: The Guide to almost Everything You Need to Know About Salsa Dancing
Derived from Cha-Cha and popularised in New York in the 1960s, Boogaloo is a fusion of Rhythm and Blues with Soul Music and Mambo. Following the Cha-Cha rhythm but with a funk sound it was very popular in nightclubs amongst the Latino youth. It brought together son montuno, guaguanco, guajira, guaracha & mambo with American R&B and soul.
An example of Latino music crossing over to main stream pop was Mongo Santamaria’s cover of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’ and Ray Baretto’s ‘El Watusi’. Probably the most famous track of the 1960s was ‘Bang Bang’ by the Joe Cuba Sextet followed by Pete Rodriguez’s ‘I like it like that’.
The Boogaloo dance follows the cha-cha rhythm in the main and adds in funk or disco stylised moves.
New York Style Salsa
L.A. Style Salsa
Chapter 6: Latin Dance from the Dominican Republic
In Merengue, the man holds the lady in a closed position and they march in quick 4/4 time with bent knees. As the weight is shifted from foot to foot so the hips naturally rock. Occasionally the dancers walk sideways or circle each other, all the time keeping the fast marching step going. Turns are not faster, they are ‘stepped around.
Originally the lead instrument in the music was the guiatar, but by the 1940s this was replaced by the distinctive sound of the accordian.
It can be a very energetic party dance and is the national dance of the Dominican Replublic. As the Dominican Republic shares the Island of Hispanola with Haiti they often share music and culture, but with the Haitian Merengue being sung in Creole with the Dominican Republic’s Merengue sung in Spanish.
Chapter 7: Latin Dance from Argentina
Chapter 8: Latin Dance from Jamaica
Chapter 9: Latin Dance in the world of Ballroom Dancing
Most Ballroom Latin also known as American Rhythm in the USA & Canada or ‘International Latin’ in the rest of the world derives from the traditional Latino dances mentioned above.
However, as examining boards and awarding bodies formed around the world, particularly over the 20th Century, dances were chosen or ‘incorporated’ and then ‘standardised’.
This means that each awarding body has a strict syllabus of ‘figures’ for each style of dance. When dances are entered for an exam or competition the are instructed as to which figures are ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ for that particular level of exam or competition. Their dance routines can only contain those figures or points will be deducted, or worst still they will be disqualified.
International Latin is danced by most awarding bodies outside of the USA & Canada. It consists of 5 dances and these are danced all over the world in DanceSport competitions:
Cha Cha – takes inspiration from the Puerto Rican Cha Cha
Rumba – takes inspiration from the Cuban Son
Samba – takes inspiration from the Brazilian Samba
Paso Doble – takes inspiration from a Spanish war march
Jive – takes inspiration from East Coast Swing, Boogie Woogie and Rock n Roll
Cha Cha - takes inspiration from the Puerto Rican Cha Cha
Rumba - Rumba – takes inspiration from the Cuban Son
East Coast Swing – takes inspiration from Jive, Swing, Boogie Woogie & Rock n Roll
Bolero - takes inspiration from the Cuban Bolero and adds stretchy slow movement
Mambo – from the original Mambo of the 50s and with many influences from the current New York Style Salsa
Here's a video from an American dance competition showing all 5 American Rhythm dances