The History and Identity of Latino Dance

The History and Identity of Latino Dance

Learn more about the Latino rhythms that are an important part of our identity.

By: Erin R.

There’s something about Latin rhythms that begs the hips to start swaying, the arms to start moving and the feet to start stepping. There’s something about Latin rhythms that get you out on the dance floor, every time.

For stateside Latinos, it’s often the pulsating beats of salsa and merengue ­— two of the more popular, widespread Latin dances — that get you moving. But depending on your family’s roots, you may also find yourself tap-tapping to the sounds of cumbia, tango, bachata or samba.

Your musical preferences are a part of your identity —they are a unique and complicated blend of you, your family and your upbringing.

Latin Dance: A Tri-Cultural Heritage

Despite its cultural associations, the origins of Latin dance are only partly Latino — at least, in the geographical sense. What we know today as Latin dance has its roots in indigenous cultures, Europe and Africa.

European explorers were likely shocked by their first exposure to indigenous dance; upper-crust, 16th century European dances of the day prohibited men and women from touching. But when they settled the continent, the conquistadors assimilated quickly, incorporating indigenous styles into their exported European dances.

Where native traditions added partners and storytelling to the genre, European influence brought lyrical rhythms and smaller, more measured steps. African slaves contributed their own elements to the developing dances of the New World: improvisation; steps with the whole foot, not just the heel or toe; a more relaxed, downward stance; and isolated movements, like a stiff torso to contrast with the now-renowned Latin hips.


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Formalizing the Genre

Over time, Latin dance grew and developed differently in different regions. You know the stereotypes — tango is quintessentially Argentinean; merengue is all but the dominion of the Dominican Republic; Colombia stakes claim to cumbia; Cubans love their mambo and bolero; and salsa belongs to the Caribbean.

By the mid-1800s, Latin dance had developed into distinct, regional genres, modeled after formal European dances like the waltz. In each case, the music — composed of individual rhythms, beats and instruments — guided the dance, with measured steps at a certain speed and direction, as well as the personality of a dance — be it fast and furious, or slow and sensual.

Dance as Identity

More than 150 years after its formal development, Latin music and dance have transcended regional borders and gone mainstream: Hollywood has embraced it in movies and popular television. Your local exercise class blasts Latin hits, old and new. And reggaeton (perhaps to your chagrin) claims the local radio waves.

Though many Americans now share a passion for Latin rhythms, for you these beats are more than just a trend. They are part of your heritage, your family, your earliest memories.

For many Latinos, the dances danced by our fathers and forefathers are one of the most tangible links to our roots. They fill us with joy, memories and pride. They are a part of who we are. And with that, there’s only one thing left to do: ¡A bailar!

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