A wedding. Your prom. Or just a night on the town. You might as well face it, at some point you're going to have to dance. Don't panic! Our collection of Five(ish) Minute Dance Lessons will teach the moves that will let you hit the dance floor looking like a pro. From the African Dinhe, to the East Coast Swing, Charleston, Salsa or Cha Cha Cha, we've got you covered. Click below and get your groove on!
Learn to Latin dance with Ricardo and Elba
More Latin Dance with Ricardo and Elba
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.
No Death Grip Needed
Latin Dance Level 2 involves complicated turns and movements that require maintaining contact with your partner, even when standing back to back or with arms crossed in front. These moves look great, but how do you execute them without twisting an arm uncomfortably, or tying your partner into a human knot?
The secret lies in the way you hold your partner’s hand. Don’t go for a death grip when a lighter touch is much better. Notice the way Ricardo and Elba maintain contact when doing moves like the Pretzel. Sometimes Elba holds on to only one of Ricardo’s fingers allowing her to do a 360° turn more easily. Other times, Ricardo turns her by lightly touching just the tips of her fingers.
Lesson 2 moves will be much easier when the point of contact between you and your partner allows easy turning.
Don’t Flap like a Birdie
During those moments when your partner is turning and you aren’t in a closed hold, you can rest your free hand flat on the front of your hip, or keep your arm at waist height with elbow bent, ready, but relaxed. As soon as your partner’s turn is done, re-establish contact.
Additional Latin Dance and Music Videos
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.
Latin dance and music are a blend of European and African elements due to the importation of Africans to Latin America as part of the slave trade.
In the Salsa lesson, a strong rhythm is played with a stick on a cowbell. This is called the clave (KLAH-vey), or “key” in Spanish. The clave is the basic rhythmic pattern the other musicians respond to and is central to Salsa music. Typically, the clave has two parts that sound like a question and answer, or call and response. The clave rhythm is frequently played with two sticks or with a conga drum.
The complex combination of rhythms coming from all of the instruments reflects Salsa’s African roots.
As you are listening to the polyrhythmic music, notice the following instruments:
- the cowbell played with a wooden stick
- the güira (GEER-ah), a perforated piece of metal that is played with a stiff brush
- the tambora (TAHM-baw-rah) drum, a two-sided instrument used in Merengue music that is often struck with a hand on one end and a stick on the other
- the tall, narrow conga (KONG-guh) drum
Not all instruments are used in each lesson. Instead, the ensemble chooses instruments that reflect the style of music they are performing.
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.
Did You Do Your Homework?
In Level 1, we explained the origin of Merengue’s small steps as resulting from African slaves who were chained together and could only drag their feet as they cut sugarcane to the drum beat.
We suggested your students find other theories how Merengue began. Any interesting research results? Perhaps your students discovered the following:
Where the Merengue Comes From
The Merengue was popularized in the Dominican Republic. One story about its origin states that a great hero was wounded in one of the many revolutions that took place there. When he returned home to his village for a victory celebration, everyone felt obliged to limp and drag one foot like their wounded hero.
Latin Music in the United States
Latin music has greatly influenced American popular music and culture and continues to do so today. Here are some interesting facts to know:
During Prohibition (1919–1933), interest in Cuba peaked as the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages became illegal in America. A less “restrictive” Havana, Cuba suddenly became a desirable place where wealthy Americans could travel. When they returned home, they carried back a new fondness for Latin music and dance. In turn, Big Band musical directors responded to this heightened interest in Cuban music.
Granted U.S. citizenship in 1917 by President Wilson, Puerto Ricans began moving to America settling predominantly in New York City. Once here, they contributed to the cultural mix, and were exposed to American music styles, like jazz. Prized for their musicianship, many Puerto Ricans played with famous bands at New York’s crowded music clubs.
Even after America cut off political relations with Cuba in 1960, Puerto Ricans helped popularize Cuban rhythms, fusing them with native Puerto Rican elements, jazz, and rock and roll. Later, Dominican Republicans added to New York’s cultural melting pot and the promotion of Latin music. As a result, popular music today has many elements of Latin music including Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, and Cha Cha Cha rhythms.
You may want to listen to the following musicians and groups that incorporate Latin rhythms in their music:
Juan Luis Guerra
Los Tigres del Norte
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
September 6, 2019
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