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Merengue - What Is It?

posted Mar 10, 2014, 7:39 PM by Joreth InnKeeper   [ updated Nov 24, 2014, 8:05 PM ]
This history of merengue is murky, but there are a couple of legends floating around.  One is that the style was developed by the slaves who were chained together by one leg, which caused a limping-in-tandem movement.  Another is that a great war hero was wounded in the leg, and at a party in his honor, all the attendees danced with a limping motion out of sympathy and to make him feel better.

What we do know about the merengue is that it probably originated on the island that houses both Haiti and the Dominican Republic back before the Dominican Republic was the Dominican Republic, and that it most likely came from the Dominican Republic although Haiti lays claim to its origins too.  The dance was developed to go along with the specific music of the same name.  It has mentions as early as the mid-1800s and is very closely tied to the racial tensions and revolutionary history of the Dominican Republic.  

At first, because of its Afro-Caribbean rhythms and vulgar lyrics, the dance was strictly limited to the lower classes (there's some of that racial tension).  But a dictator named Rafael Trujillo changed that when he came to power in 1930.  He grew up poor and resented the aristocracy's stranglehold on popular culture and their refusal to allow the lower classes entrance to upper class society - either as people or through their music.  So he mandated that all bands include merengue in their repertoire and had a merengue band follow him around on public functions as a way to thumb his nose at the aristocracy.  He gave his brother control over the media airwaves, who then flooded television and radio with the merengue sound and in 1936 he made merengue the national dance and music.

At that point, merengue had split into two styles of music - merengue tipico, which was the most common style and favored by the common people, and orquesta merengue, which uses classic European orchestral instruments and structure.  But when Trujillo was ousted in 1963, the new leader opened up the Dominican Republic to international travel.  Influenced by exposure to other national musical styles and later by Dominican Republic immigrants moving to New York and bringing the merengue with them to meld with other Latin music styles like salsa, the merengue morphed into the style that Americans are most familiar with today.  Merengue music really didn't hit its stride until the 1980s , however, when the genre that had previously never had to compete in an international market finally caught up to international recording quality and techniques, as well as the decline of other fashionable genres with the fickle tastes of popular media enthusiasts.

Although this dance has a particular style of music that it goes to, the dance itself is a very simple beat and can be done to any 2/4 or 4/4 music of around 180 beats per minute.  This simplicity in dance steps and common time signature makes it a favorite among both beginner and advanced dancers because it has such flexibility and so many opportunities to dance it, even to other styles of music.  It looks best when danced to traditional merengue music with accordions and saxophones in the band and Afro-Caribbean percussion, but pretty much any song with roughly 180 BPM or faster can work for the merengue.  That's one of its features - the simple marching step can be done to really fast music where dances with syncopation might have trouble keeping up.

Today, there are 3 styles of merengue dance.  The Ballroom Merengue or merengue de salon is characterized by Cuban hip motion, every step on a beat in a marching fashion, and the classic "limping" movement of emphasizing one leg more than the other that results from (or perhaps resulted in) the two legends of its origins.  The steps may be fast to match the beat, but the spins and other movements tend to take their time in large, grand movements.  Instead of spinning on the ball of the foot, for example, to face back around to the partner by the next beat, a merengue dancer can take 8 full beats or steps to make it back around to facing the partner.  

Since the footwork can be so simple, the flare for this dance is in spinning for both the lead and the follow often and in complicated pretzel arm moves, as well as its characteristic Cuban Hip motion.  Club Merengue is basically Ballroom Merengue done by younger people in nightclubs with a much more overtly erotic feel to it.  Folk Merengue has its roots in the merengue tipco of the Dominican Republic and the dancers tend to move their hips in a circular fashion with a straight upper body.

This is one of the best dance scenes in a movie ever.  It's from the movie My Blue Heaven, where a New York City gangster tries to teach his Witness Protection Program officer how to dance the merengue.  In addition to being funny, it's actually a good example of merengue dancing.  It shows us the Cuban Hip motion, it shows the limping trait, and it shows the sense of fun and flexibility and fluidity that the merengue is known for.

Here is a basic merengue demonstration that will show you what you can expect to learn in a merengue class.  You can see several basic moves, turns that take about 4 beats, and pretzel arm combinations.  There is not a very pronounced limp in this video, and it is clearly a Ballroom Merengue as there is almost nothing overtly erotic about this dance, although it is lighthearted and fluffy, much like its name.

Although this couple is clearly a professional ballroom dance team and they are not doing a street or Club Merengue, modern Ballroom Merengue has relaxed some of its prim and proper ways and this dance incorporates more sensuality and flirting into it than the above beginner's lesson demonstration.  Again, notice the Cuban Hip motion, the marching beat, the complicated tangled arm work, and some turns that take several steps to complete.