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Learn to Dance Merengue

  Paul F. Clifford     

 
 

 

 
 

 

Video - Learn to Dance Merengue 

 

- Background

 

Since the 1930s Merengue is readily recognized as the national dance of the Dominican Republic. However, there is some controversy regarding it's origins. To get an unbiased opinion we really do need to differentiate between the music's historical roots and the nostalgia of the dance itself. Musically, it has links with Cuba but the dance belongs to the island of Hispaniola - one third of which is now called Haiti and the other two thirds make up the Dominican Republic.

 

A quick look at the island's history might assist in providing some understanding to the debate about Merengue's origins.

In 1697 Spain ceded one third of the island of Hispaniola to France, who created the colony of Saint-Dominique. The French colony became the most productive agricultural colony in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo was small and it's economy mainly depended on subsistence agriculture. Prosperous French plantation owners sought to maximize production by importing great numbers of slaves.

 


 

By 1790 Saint-Dominique was a powder keg waiting to explode! About 500,000 black slaves were being managed by only 57,000 whites and freedmen (in Santo Domingo there were about 60,000 black slaves to 65,000 whites and freedmen). The inevitable happened and in 1791 the slaves revolted. The initial reaction of Freedmen, French colonists and Spanish colonists to news of the slaughter of Frenchmen to armies of rebellious slaves was to flee to Cuba taking some of their slaves with them. It took 20 years before the first of these émigrés returned to the island. Hence the Cuban connection. It is regularly discussed whether the Merengue music was taken to Cuba (influencing the music there) or whether on return to Santo Domingo the émigrés brought back Cuban music which in turn influenced the development of Merengue.

 

The independent nation of Haiti was established in 1804 and ruled the entire island to 1844. Hence, the Haitian connection. Of the dance; one story alleges it originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of the drums. This being true the dance probably originated with the slaves of the French Colony.

However, the most popular story relates that a great hero of the revolution, who had been crippled in one leg was welcomed home with a victory celebration. It was known that he loved to dance but all he could do now, was step with one leg and drag the other to close. Out of respect, everyone dancing copied him and the Merengue was born. The trouble with this story is that "which revolution" is not mentioned. If it is the slave revolt then the dance originated in Haiti. If it was the revolt of Spanish émigrés against the Haitians then the dance could be either Dominican or Haitian depending on which side tells the story.
 


Who invented the dance and how it came to exist really doesn't matter to anyone but the Dominicans and maybe the Haitians! The important thing is the imagery of the above stories, both describe stepping side and dragging the other leg to close both are worth remembering as you learn the basic dance steps.

From the middle of the 18th century the Merengue developed as rural music in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, the Haitian méringue is sung in Creole and tends to have a slower, more nostalgic sound, based on guitar.
 

The most representative form of Merengue only survives in the rural areas of the Dominican Republic. It consists of paseo (walk), body and "jaleo". In time the walk disappeared, the body has been extended and the jaleo has been alienated by the insertion of exotic rhythms.

These days, Merengue is done with the man holding the woman in a vals-like position, they step to the side (paso de la empalizada - stick fence step). Turn clockwise or counter clockwise while maintaining closed dance position (merengue de salón) or individually perform turns while holding onto at least one hand of their partner (merengue de figura).

Strangers and older couples tend to keep a respectable distance from each other, while more intimate couples break the barriers of personal space and entwine their bodies. Whatever age the contagious beat causes the adrenaline to rise and you can imagine yourself dancing bare foot to the pulse of a Caribbean sunset.

 

- Heritage

 

From 1838 to 1849, a dance called URPA or "UPA Habanera" (UPA from Havanna), which had a movement called Merengue, gained some popularity throughout the Caribbean. Whether or not URPA is the root of the Merengue is unconfirmed. Extant documentation from about 1850, indicates that Merengue was very popular among the peasant classes. However, because of its obscene lyrics urban class moralists considered it vulgar. Consider the following lyric and make your own judgment...

All prostitutes are from Santiago
and they have a good life in Santiago
and because of that damn woman
I am from Santiago too

Its known that in 1875 the moralist, Ulises Francisco Espaillat, started a campaign against Merengue. However, by that time the dance, especially in the Cibao region, had been so integrated into peasant society that the campaign failed. As more educated musicians from the urban classes were introduced to the Merengue rhythm, the music started to be modified. By the beginning of the 20th century, educated musicians established Merengue's musical form and attempts were made to introduce it into the urban dancehalls. However, the lyrical content hadn't been changed and because of the vulgar lyrics mainstream society continued to reject it. The situation changed from 1930 onwards.

In 1930 Rafael L. Trujillo, used several "Perico Ripiao" bands for his presidential campaign. Using the recently installed radio stations he caused the Merengue rhythm to be heard in the parlors of the urban classes. Trujillo became dictator of the Dominican Republic and held power from the 1930s until his assassination in 1961. He was from peasant roots and he promoted the Merengue as a symbol of national expression and the culture of the former underclass. Though he repressed its traditional role as a music of social commentary, he did provide a forum for the musicians in the dancehalls. Larger Merengue orchestras were developed, with piano and brass to cater to the taste of the new urban audiences.

Still for some time Merengue wasn't accepted by the more refined classes, until an aristocratic family of Santiago asked Luis Alberti to write a Merengue song with "decent lyrics" for their daughter's fifteenth birthday. Alberti wrote "Compadre Pedro Juan". The song was not only accepted, but became a hit. With the help of the radio the Merengue then started to disseminate rapidly. As its popularity grew variants of the Merengue rhythm began to appear and while the rural peasants continued playing Merengue the same way (Folkloric Merengue), a new music form began to appear that we associate with the Merengue today.

Merengue was originally interpreted with the instruments common people owned and were easy to obtain, Dominican Bandurrias, Tres and Cuatro. At the end of the 19th century the German accordion displaced the bandurria in the Cibao region. The music began to be played on accordion, saxophone, box bass with metal plucked keys, a guayano (a metal scraper transformed from a kitchen implement), and a two ended tambora drum, struck with hand and stick. However, due to the accordion's melodic limitations, the music itself became limited, and consequently altered the Merengue.

Since the 1960's the sound has changed even more with the accordion being replaced by electric guitar, keyboards and synthesizers. The saxophone is now highlighted, giving the music a sharp, stuttering momentum that the old style only hinted at. Despite the change of instruments, the basic rhythm of Merengue remains unmistakable, with the tambora keeping a fast pulse, working around conga patterns, while the bass drum, operated with a foot pedal, provides a continuous 1-2-1-2 pulse

Today, throughout the world, Merengue has become a Salsa sister dance, with many of the Salsa body moves being practised in the easier to perform Merengue.

 

- Technique

 

There is no intentional hip movement in any of the Latin dances. The hip motion is a natural consequence of changing weight from one foot to the other. Sub-consciously we do this when walking backwards. We feel for the first back step with our toe, roll onto the small of our foot and place our weight onto the leg, as we lower the heel.

The Roll of the foot
Unless the music is really slow (Bolero/Rumba) always take small steps. If the music is really fast (Salsa/Cumbia), max it at just a half foot length!

When you step, whether forward, backward or side, step onto the inside ball of your foot (big toe), roll your foot onto the small ball (little toe) and imaging you are squashing a grape under your heel, place the foot flatly onto the floor, straightening the leg. If you have done this correctly, your body weight is now on the foot you have lowered and you should be able to stand on one leg without falling over.

Knee Bends
You shouldn't need to consciously bend your knee. Relax! As you change weight onto one leg the other leg should naturally bend at the knee and the heel of the foot raise. In the Latin dances whenever one leg is straight (bearing weight), the other should be bent. If this hasn't happened then your weight is probably centered. Simply shift your weight onto the appropriate leg. It may take a bit of practice to co-ordinate your movements. Try not to think about the isometrics, just let your body do what comes naturally.

Hip Isolation
Your weight should be focused into the middle of the foot. Sorry about the analogy but if you are in the correct position and I drove a pike through the middle of your skull, it would come down your spine, come out at the base, then penetrate the mid thigh, follow the leg skeleton down and come out the middle of your foot. If your weight was centered (incorrect position) the pike would come out between your legs. Simple fact of physics, center your weight and you won't be able to move either foot. To help isolate the hips and increase hip roll, turn your feet out in a V shape (heels closest together) and as you straighten your leg (change weight) bend the other leg toward the straightened leg. The hip roll looks more exaggerated if you keep the upper body steady (don't bounce around or sway the upper body about - it looks nerdy). There shouldn't be any perceivable rise and fall in the body. If there is, you are raising on the ball of the foot, instead of rolling the foot and lowering the heel - probably means you are not changing weight fully onto the leg. If you are swaying the upper body, it will throw both your timing and leads out (or in the case of the girl the acceptance of a lead), not to mention, probably annoy your partner. Girls seem to think they look sexy if they sway about but it looks really bad and is a mega turnoff for the guy. So don't do it!

Leading and Following
Its helpful to think of the Latin Dances as being sexual pantomimes. Even though the man leads the whole dance, the idea is that the man is trying to seduce the lady, he is pushing forward and she is pushing him away. So maintain a slight forward pressure with your body. If you are in hand to hand position the man keeps his hands/arms at the lady's hip height. If you are in closed dance position - the man's right hand should be just below the shoulder blade (thumb on the back bra strap), and his left hand gently takes hers in his - the lady must never place her right hand above the man's shoulder, if he is short she places her thumb on the intersection of the muscles just below the shoulder (he should have a little slot where it fits naturally), if he is tall then the lady positions her hand lower down the arm. Her aim is to have her elbow slightly above his. That way he can lead her. A simple rule for the man: if the girl is much shorter than you, stand further away from her. If she is much taller than you, stand closer. The cardinal rule is hold each other comfortably. Under no circumstances should you stretch to reach your partner.

Arms and Elbows
Try not to thrash your arms and elbows about. You'll look silly and probably cause an accident on the dance floor. The man should use his arms to tell the girl when to go back or come forward or whatever. Both need to keep some tension (pressure) in the arms, so the man can lead. A common problem is girls complain that guys can't lead. These girls should consider that maybe they aren't allowing the guy to lead. Typically, they, are the ones that sway their body about too much, flap their arms, bounce around, fake their hip movements and do not sustain hand/arm pressure when dancing. A guy can't lead dead fish, seagulls or bowls of jelly. Guys, even if you are a beginner, you can dance effectively, if you stand erect and keep a firm forward pressure on your partner.

Stand Erect
Although its useful to imagine the Latin dances as sexual pantomimes, that doesn't mean the man should be sexually aggressive. The dances should be performed with a hint of sexuality but remember, children maybe watching. Guys keep your upper body erect (that means from the waist up) and be gently aggressive. Girls and Guys, stand up straight, look at your partner. Enjoy yourselves!

- Tricks & Tips

 

 If you lose the beat and find yourself out of step with the music don't try to catch up. It will make things worse and confuse your partner. Instead just close your feet to return to the start position (do nothing). Wait for the second beat of the next bar of music and start again (step forward or back).

Guys be considerate of your partner

You might want to perform some fancy move but she might be on the wrong foot, not ready or someone has got in the road making it hard or even dangerous for her to do the move. Be aware of what is around you and always lead the girl into an open space before you do a move and most importantly, before you do a move, wait until you are both obviously in the correct position. She'll appreciate it and consider you an above average dancer.

Girls you can't both lead!

So let the guy lead. After all it is his job! If he is having trouble be considerate and show him what you are expecting but be warned, he might be leading you into a move you haven't learnt yet, so before getting too helpful, see what he has to offer.

Guys and Girls

A lot of moves have been invented from people making mistakes. If either of you does something the other didn't expect and it felt or looked good - assume it's a new move. If you started to do a standard move and something happens where you have to modify the steps (eg: you forgot what to do) - fake it (innovate), you might have just invented a new move!

Dance is about partnership and team work

A marriage of two minds, if not bodies. Guys you might be leading but you are not the center of attention (nor are you girls). Co-operate with each other! Your partner doesn't have eyes in the back of their head. So if your partner is stepping backwards, and something will obstruct their step, its your responsibility to prevent them from stepping back. Guys, be prepared to accept a lead from the girl, it might save you from injury!

- Timing

 

Like most modern music, Merengue is written in 4/4 time (4 beats to a bar of music, and therefore four dance steps to a bar of music.) In Merengue you move on every beat!

To perform it really well, all you need to remember is the most popular story relating its origins. A hero of the revolution, who loved to dance, was honored with a ball on his homecoming but with a wounded leg all he could do, was make a small step to the side with one leg and drag the other to close.

Here we have a description of the steps of the entire dance. Step side, drag to close, Step side, drag to close or Step forward (or back), drag to close. What could be simpler!

The complications in the dance come with the body moves and these will be discussed in the next section - Basic Moves. The timing is often described as slow-slow, where the slow represents one whole beat of the music but this can be confusing to the beginner. It is probably better to think of the movement as Step (Side, Back or Forward) and Drag to close (Side, Back or Forward). Then do it again.

In Merengue you can start moving on nearly any beat but to give the dance its character, you change weight as you step to the side (count 1), again as you roll your foot (count &) and drag the other foot to close (count 2). This will become meaningful in the description of the basic steps. Counting from the 1st beat of the music, my preferred count is 1 & 2, 3 & 4.

- Basic Movements

 

 There are three basic movements to the Merengue - the Side Basic Movement, the Forward Basic Movement and the Back Basic Movement. Variously coupled or combined and often with small variations in body position, these three movements create the Merengue moves. A move is loosely defined as any sequence of eight steps. Generally, you don't change from one movement to the other until a count of eight steps but in some sequences movements are interchanged after four steps and still some others after two steps.

The Lady facing the man, will perform steps complimenting his. So if the man moves his left foot forward, back or side left, the lady will move her right foot back, forward or side right. This is very sensible. Otherwise, the man would probably tread on her!

Styling Tip
As you dance the Merengue the look and feel of the dance will be considerably enhanced if you keep your upper body erect and as still as possible. Try not to thrash your arms about. Focus the Merengue action into your legs. This will provide you with the latin hip motion that makes Merengue look seductively attractive.

Side Basic Movement
The Man waits to start with his weight on the right leg. On the first beat he steps left onto the inside edge of his left foot. On the half beat, he rolls his left foot (puts the foot flat on the floor) and changes weight onto it. On the next beat using the inside edge of the foot, he drags the right foot to close, returning to the start position.

The lady does complimentary steps. Side right, drag to close left.

Forward Basic Movement
This movement is usually performed after completing a Side Basic or Back Basic Movement.

The Man starts with his weight on the right leg. On the first beat he steps left slightly forward onto the inside edge of his left foot. On the half beat, he rolls his left foot (puts the foot flat on the floor) and changes weight onto it. On the next beat, he drags the right foot forward to close, returning to the start position.

The lady does the complimentary steps - the Back Basic Movement.

Back Basic Movement
This movement is usually performed after completing a Side Basic or Forward Basic Movement.

The Man starts with his weight on the right leg. On the first beat he steps slightly back onto the inside edge of his left foot. On the half beat, he rolls his left foot (puts the foot flat on the floor) and changes weight onto it. On the next beat, he drags the right foot back to close, returning to the start position.

The lady does the complimentary steps - the Forward Basic Movement.

- Choreography

 

We attempt to teach beginners a standard choreography that can be applied in multiple dances. This allows the man to master his leads while diversifying the number of dances he can perform. The First sequence captures elements that need to be mastered before attempting more advanced moves.

Many of the leads and body moves used in Merengue can be used in Mambo, Salsa, Cha Cha, Rock'n'Roll and Swing but for now we'll concentrate on the basic Merengue Sequences.

The First Sequence
Starting the sequence in closed dance (vals) position. Do a Curved Side Basic for 8 steps. Into a forward basic for 4 steps. Into a push away back basic, breaking into two hand position (4 steps). Into lady wrap (4 steps), with forward walks (4 steps). Complete with a lady unwind (4 steps), followed by forward basic (4 steps). Repeat the sequence or try a different combination of moves.

Remember that most of the Latin dances are closely related and have a strong Congas basis. There was a time that the native dances were danced as a sexual pantomime. When performing the dance, you want to be close to your partner, and unless your performing a turn, never turn away from each other (your aim is to always be facing each other). Even though the man leads the whole dance, the idea in all moves, is that the man is trying to seduce the lady and she is pushing him away. Remember to keep a forward pressure between you and your partner. For the man it makes leading easier and for the lady, acceptance of the lead more intuitive.

The Curved Side Basic
This is the most basic and common move. Usually its performed for a full count of eight steps and is curved, so that on completion of the eight steps you have completed a full circle. The man moves around the lady. So, he needs to take slightly bigger steps than the lady. The move is performed in Vals (closed dance) position. Simply perform the side basic movement four times for a count of eight steps (see section on basic movements). However, instead of simply stepping side man left; step at an angle. Step side but slightly forward. As you step, slightly twist your upper body following the direction of the turn. Then complete the move with right drag to close. The lady does complimentary steps. Side right but slightly back, left drag to close.

The Push Away
This move is used to convert from closed dance position into two handed position. Starting the sequence in closed dance (vals) position. Do a Curved Side Basic for 8 steps. Into a forward basic for 4 steps. On the next four steps both the man and woman perform Back Basic Movements. The man leads this by pushing away from the lady with his left hand. They fall into two hand position as the man releases the lady with his right hand and as he steps back slides his right hand along the ladies left hand until her hand falls into his (4th step). The lady does complimentary steps. On the last four steps of the Push Away, she steps backward away from the man. At completion of the move you are eight steps apart.

The Lady Wrap
This move can be used after converting from closed dance position into two handed position and you are eight steps apart. Throughout this move, keep hold of your partner's hands. The move simply requires the lady to walk four anti-clockwise steps (reverse half turn), so she ends up on the right hand side of the man, facing in the same direction as him. The man, simply performs the first four steps of the curved forward basic, as the lady turns.

Assuming you have just completed the Push Away move, you are in two handed position, eight steps away from your partner. As you complete the move, the man lifts the lady's right hand (his left) bringing it across (to his right) so that it is raised above the ladies head and more or less in front of her. The lady steps forward right, closing left to perform a quarter turn. She repeats this sequence once. As the lady completes her last turn the man lowers her right hand in front of her. You should now be in the wrap position. You could finish the eight step sequence by simply unwrapping the lady (lady unwind), replicating a similar sequence used in Cha Cha, but then you'd lose the seductive illusion of Merengue. Instead, keeping the wrap position, perform a forward curved basic for four steps. Then do the Lady Unwind, and return to closed dance position by performing a forward basic.

The Lady Unwind
There are numerous moves that end with either the man or lady in the wrap position. Usually, to return to the start position, whoever is "wrapped", simply reverses the steps they performed to become wrapped. Assuming you are in the Lady wrap position. The man raises the lady's right hand above her head and she steps forward right, close left making a quarter anti-clockwise turn. She repeats this sequence once, so that she ends up standing in front of the man. While she is doing this the man performs the curved forward basic.
 

Sources:
- John Barendrecht, History of Dance
- Tambora y Guira, Merengue History
- Sue Steward, Merengue

 

Courtesy: Paul F. Clifford