Good for: 10-18 year olds.
Estimated Time: Give yourself some time! You'll probably want to take time to practice.
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It’s time to move! All three Latin dance styles shown in these lessons have basic steps that are easy to learn and fun to try. Get up out of your chair and get your hips swaying! Soon you’ll find yourself dancing!
Lesson One: Merengue (pronounced muh-RENG-gey)
This is a great style to start with as it contains movements used in other Latin dances. Ricardo and Elba will demonstrate Merengue’s characteristic small steps and slow, graceful turns. They will perform using two holds:
- The closed hold: The dancers face each other, his arm on her back; her arm on his shoulder. Free hands are held together and elevated to shoulder height.
- The open hold: They both face the same direction with only one hand maintaining contact. This hold is needed for turning.
Listen for the beat of the tambora (TAHM-baw-rah) drum, and the rhythmic sounds of the güira (GEER-ah), a perforated piece of metal that is played with a stiff brush.
Lesson Two: Salsa
Time to pay attention! Salsa is done at a faster tempo, and involves three different kinds of steps: forward/back, side step, and cumbia (or ½ swing). Notice that the dance is performed to counts of four, but there is no step on the fourth beat. This pause or rest can be interpreted differently. Some dancers use this pause as an opportunity to add a “highlight” or bit of personal flair.
Listen for a rhythm played by striking one wooden stick against another called a clave (KLAH-vey).
Lesson Three: Bachata (BAH-cha-tah)
This dance may be the most romantic of these dances. It is typically performed to slower music with a tighter closed hold. The fourth beat in this dance uses a tap or kick with one foot. While the Bachata may be simple, the basic steps can be performed in any combination.
All three dances encourage flexibility on the dance floor, so get out there and give it a try.
Lesson Four: Cha Cha Cha
Haven’t you always wanted to say that out loud? The name sounds just like the noise the stick makes when scraped over the notched grooves of the güiro (different from the metal güira mentioned earlier). In this lesson you will do a rock step—a forward or backward step that takes your weight just slightly, rocking you back where you started. It is fast, so stay light on your feet and transfer only enough weight to enable lifting the opposite foot. In between rock steps, get those feet moving quickly to complete the triple step. You can count 1, 2 (for the rock step) then cha- cha- cha (for the triple step). Like this: 1, 2, cha- cha- cha. Remember to engage your arms; gentle pressure between leader and follower helps you communicate with one another.
Note - Cha Cha Cha is available in both English and Spanish in the Resource Carousel above.
Follow my Lead
All three Latin dances are done with a partner. It isn't necessary for a woman and man to dance together—any combination will work—but one person must be the leader, while the other follows.
The leader tells his partner which direction they are going by putting a slight pressure at the points of contact, giving a gentle signal to communicate what is coming next. A good leader can do this without the movement being obvious to an observer. A good follower is alert and sensitive to the leader’s signals, and can enjoy the dance while responding as needed. Remember: There can’t be two leaders, or the dance will start looking like a wrestling match.
The musicians also must work as a team. In contrast to music in which the beat is easily heard (by being thumped out by a bass drum, for example), the rhythm of Latin music is more complex. Many instruments combine to create the rhythm, including the conga (a tall narrow drum), tambora, güira, and clave. To hear the beat, you must listen to how all of the instruments work together as a whole. This will help you know when to do your dance steps, too.
Just as the dancers have the freedom to combine their steps in any manner they choose, the musicians can also improvise within the rhythmic structure of the music.
Where Are The Dances From?
The islands of the Caribbean were colonized by Spain beginning in 1492. Columbus reached the island of Hispaniola (later split into two countries named Haiti and the Dominican Republic) on his first voyage.
The Spanish colonists enslaved the natives living on Hispaniola, forcing many to work in the gold mines. The hard labor and diseases brought by the Europeans killed many natives, so the colonists began importing slaves from Africa to work. The Africans brought their music, dance, and religious beliefs with them. Latin dances from the Dominican Republic today are a result of the mixing, or creolization which took place between European and African cultural practices.
Think about how Latin dance combines the following:
- Closed hold from ballroom tradition
- Ensemble (or group) of musicians
- Hip movements
- Heavily syncopated rhythms
The Dances We See Today
While the origins of the Merengue are more Caribbean than Dominican, the version performed most often today is a variation created in the Dominican Republic, and is a symbol of cultural pride. Bachata, the Dominican Republic’s national dance, came into popularity in the 1960s. Salsa combines a variety of musical influences including Cuban rhythmic traditions.
For The Educator
Where did the Merengue Come From?
Ricardo explains that Merengue uses small steps that don't lift off the ground because African slaves who were chained together could only drag their feet as they cut sugarcane to the drum beat.
There are other compelling stories as to the origin of the dance. Ask your students to conduct research to find another story and share it with the class.
Dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic used the Merengue as a political tool to connect to the poor majority. He also had Merengue songs written about him and played on a radio station run by his brother. Have your students think of modern examples when music has been used by political candidates to connect to the electorate.
Resources to Explore
Austerlitz, Paul (1996). Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity. Temple University Press. ISBN 1566394848.
An overview of Salsa, with popular musicians and audio clips
Great history of both Merengue and Salsa
Site where you can pick music genres and listen to current artists