Like the Rumba, the Cha-Cha has Afro-Cuban roots in Havana. Big bands from the US mainland made their way into the exciting clubs that populated the capital and went on to develop a unique fusion of Rumba music and American Jazz which eventually came to be known as the Mambo.
When famed dance teacher Pierre Lavelle (aka “Monsieur Pierre”) arrived in Cuba to study local dance in the early 50s, he noticed the additional steps many performers had added to the typical Mambo and Rumba. He returned to England and began teaching these extra steps as an entirely different dance, which later came to be known as the Cha-Cha. A number of theories attempt to explain the origins of the name: a borrowing from the Cuban dance known as the guaracha, the gliding steps of the “chasse,” and supposedly even the sound of a type of Haitian bell. Whatever its true source, there’s no question that the Cha-Cha has become one of the most popular Latin dances in the world.
Unlike many other ballroom dances, the origins of the Hustle aren’t buried in the distant past. Many Hustle fans can still remember when the dance first swept the country in the mid to late 70s.
As with so many other dance crazes, the Hustle began in the dance clubs and the party scene of New York City. Dancers in the local Latino community created the dance, infusing the Salsa with some Swing, Mambo and even Tango all the while using largely Cha-Cha-inspired music. The popularity of dance competitions at the time, which attracted many of the city’s best dancers, introduced the Hustle to the mainstream, and dancers throughout the country began to introduce variations of the original steps. Line and partner versions of the Hustle were developed, with ‘Saturday Night Fever’ depicting several types of each. Disco fever hit its peak in the middle years of the decade, and the Hustle became the dance that defined pop culture for the post-60s generation.
Once the hype that surrounded the film died down in the late 70s and early 80s, the Hustle lost some of its luster as people began to rediscover other Latin dances. It has since regained some of its appeal, however, particularly with the popularity of the TV series, ‘That ’70s Show’, and the trend among many stylish hosts to hold 70s-themed parties and events.
Dance experts dispute the origins of the Fox Trot, but one of the most widely-held theories is that a vaudeville star named Harry Fox invented it while performing in between movie showings at the New York Theatre. The story goes that Fox had initially developed a series of trotting steps to ragtime music that proved enormously popular to movie-going audiences, and, eventually, Arthur Murray himself and a handful of other dance instructors standardized the steps into a recognized dance style henceforth known as the Fox Trot.
As anyone who has seen a Fox Trot performed will remember, however, the contemporary Fox Trot looks nothing like an actual trot. In fact, not too long after its creation, choreographers realized that the original Fox Trot would prove too tiresome to perform for long, so they developed a slower and more fluid style that suited dancers better and which could be done even in small spaces. The modern Fox Trot retains much of its ancestral characteristics, however, not just in name but in the use of 4/4 time and its reputation for being a casual yet intricate social dance that, as one commentator put it, “is one of the easiest to learn and one of the hardest to master.” Today, it remains one of the most popular dances in the US.
The Dominican Republic is generally credited with inventing the Merengue, though variations of it have evolved over the years throughout the Afro-Caribbean region. Its indelible roots in the Dominican Republic, however, are such that its distinctive music — also known as Merengue – is known as the national music of that country.
Like many dances that grew out of the slave communities of the Caribbean, the Merengue’s exact origins are unknown. What is certain, however, is that by the middle of the 19th century, the Merengue had become the most popular dance in the Dominican Republic. It’s said that, in its infancy, the dance was not a couple dance but one in which participants — both men and women — moved around in a circle. The music itself was controversial in its early years because of its highly suggestive nature. In fact, its name, perico ripiao, means “ripped parrot,” allegedly taken from the name of a brothel where Merengue music’s roots supposedly began. As it grew in popularity, some attempt was made to ban the music, but passion for the dance was such that those efforts failed and the dance remains a perennial favorite throughout the Latin American and Caribbean regions. In the US, it’s especially popular in East-Coast metropolitan cities, particularly New York, where it first took the country by storm.
Although colloquially assumed to refer to a specific type of dance, the Rumba is actually a term used to collectively describe a variety of dances of Afro-Cuban origin. The earliest roots of the Rumba extend back to the 16th century, when slaves brought into Cuba from Africa introduced sexually aggressive dance moves to the local culture. The original Rumba patterns scandalized much of conservative, middle class Cuba, and, eventuall,y the more refined, slower version known as the Son evolved.
The Son made its way to the US in the early 1900s and soon became known as the American Rumba. It wasn’t until the 30s, however, that the Rumba became popular in the mainstream, when the Rumba-influenced song “The Peanut Vendor” became a radio hit and launched the dance into the national consciousness. The 1935 film ‘Rumba,’ starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, etched the dance permanently into American pop culture.
Forget about health care reform. Want to hear a really fiery debate? Try asking Latin dance experts about the history of Salsa and how it developed, and you’ll hear as many theories as there are experts in your sample. What is universally accepted, however, is that contemporary Salsa evolved as the offspring from a number of different Latin dances, from the Mambo to the Rumba to the Cha-Cha.
Much of Salsa’s origins can be traced back to the creation of the Rumba and Mambo in Cuba in the 30s and 40s. Those dances grew out of the African slave communities in Cuba, whose ancestors brought their rhythmic instruments and dance moves to the New World in the 16th century. Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians and singers made their way to the American mainland in the 20th century interwar-years and forged indelible alliances with the thriving African-American jazz community. Soon, renowned Latin musicians such as Desi Arnaz, Carmen Miranda, Celia Cruz, and Tito Puente had popularized Latin music and dance and brought them into mainstream America.
Salsa came into full flower in New York in the 60s thanks to Fania Records, an independent label that produced some of the most innovative music of the period. Fania needed a catchy term to attach to its artists’ unique fusion of Latin, Spanish, and African rhythms and styles, and the “Salsa” craze was born.
Swing dance came out of the electrifying New York City club scene of the 1920s and 1930s, a time when African-American jazz bands ruled the nightclubs and dance halls. Later, famed clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman took the then-nascent music and brought it to the mainstream, creating a hot trend that reverberated all the way to the West Coast. Hollywood picked up on the craze and made a number of movies about this homegrown American music style, and soon the entire country was rocking and swinging to a new set of dances inspired by the lively tempo of “swinging jazz.”
The Lindy Hop, Charleston and Jitterbug are some of the earliest and most popular swing dances, but in the ninety-plus years since its invention, swing dancing has evolved as swing music itself continues to absorb influences from other musical styles, from R&B to country and western. Regional variations have also contributed numerous unique moves, from the Imperial Swing in St. Louis to the Houston Push.
Many people think of swing dancing as the fast, almost gymnastic-type choreography often seen in films and reality show competitions, but over the years most dance studios — including the Arthur Murray Dance Studios — have successfully developed styles of ballroom swing dancing appropriate for the general public. And of course, the original dance moves — the Lindy Hop, Charleston and Jitterbug — remain some of the most popular with dancers of all ages and abilities.
Like so many of history’s most popular and enduring dance styles, the Tango’s legacy stretches back from its current cachet as a sensuous, exotic ballroom dance to its origins in the immigrant African slums of Argentina. No one knows for certain where the Tango really came from, but it’s generally accepted that the word itself likely has African origins, and that it evolved from the free mixing of cultures and ethnicities in working class Buenos Aires in the mid-19th century. There, poor immigrants from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, and Russia mixed and mingled with African slaves and shared their dance traditions. Cuban and African musical styles and instruments were introduced, and an early style of the Tango was born.
Later, wealthy members of the Argentinian elite who weren’t above slumming among society’s poor introduced the dance to their own circles and eventually brought the steps and music with them to Paris where many had moved for education and leisure travel. Unlike conservative Buenos Aires society, Parisians loved and embraced the coarse, sexual nature of the new dance. The Tango craze spread throughout Europe and soon landed in London and New York. Before long, even the most scandalized Argentinian matron couldn’t help but proudly claim the wildly popular Tango as a homegrown phenomenon.
Over the years several different styles of the Tango have evolved, including International, American, French, Gaucho, Ballroom, and others, though the original Argentine Tango remains a favorite. Although its popularity has waxed and waned over the generations, it’s become one of the most famous dance styles in the world.
Contrary to what one might assume from its reputation as an elegant ballroom dance, the Waltz’s genesis is wrapped in scandal and controversy. In its early years in the 1700s, the Waltz was largely a rural tradition among European peasantry, particularly in the Bavarian region, who had no qualms about touching their partners during their festivities. Proper society, however, looked askance upon this intimate, closed position, with the man holding the woman around the waist with his hand, and they chose to stick with the classic Minuet and Allemande dances.
Eventually, as with many trends that begin among the lower-classes, the Waltz made its way into the formal halls and ballrooms of upper-crust Germany and, especially, Austria. Its boisterous, energetic moves were smoothed and polished to fit the more sedate atmosphere of the ballrooms of the day, although it retained much of its “shock value” for many of the more conservative members of society.
The Viennese Waltz was introduced in the late 18th century, hearkening back to the Waltz’s origins as a lively, vigorous dance. Over time, variations of the Waltz made their way across the continent and over to England, then on to America in the early to mid-19th century. Slower versions of the Waltz took the New World by storm, and by the late 19th century it had become one of the most popular dances in the country. Today, the Waltz remains one of the most recognizable dance styles in the world and continues to be a mainstay at weddings, formal events and dance competitions.