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South & Central America

From merengue to marinera

Our cover story in the September 2017 issue focuses on Latin American dance — from Colombia to Puerto Rico we explore the infectious top-tapping sounds that enchant a continent

From merengue to marinera
Image: Alamy

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Merengue, Dominican Republic

Couples — they all seem in love, not to mention a little bit libidinous — embrace or stay at an affectionate arm’s length. Shifting to the beat between the left and right knees, it’s a tight, well-oiled shuffle, hips and shoulders in tandem, smiles growing wider. The music builds, so time to twirl — hands always connected, the more twisted and pretzel-like, the better. Arm-flings and kickier kicks get you noticed. Tradition has it that merengue began among slaves chained together in sugarcane fields who could neither take long steps nor lift their feet very high. Yet despite its cruel origins, today’s Dominican dance is infectious and sexy, and what’s more, it’s a lot easier for beginners than some of Latin America’s other favourite dances. As for the sound, no band — however big or elaborate — can do the merengue justice without two instruments: the double-headed drum known as the tambora, and the güira, a studded metal cylinder, which, when struck by a stiff brush or scraper, produces that irresistible scratchy sound that backs up every move. Michael Parker-Stainback

Bomba in Puerto Rico

Image: Getty

Bomba, Puerto Rico

The best bombas happen right on the street. A woman — sometimes women or couples — stands proudly as a chorus of drums plus other percussion instruments awaken her form and fuel her movements. As beats intensify, it’s she who seizes command, initiating rhythms and daring drums to follow her as she starts and stops, bends at the waist or throws her body into almost-violent gestures, all with a sexy, catch-me-if-you-can hauteur. Perhaps a wholesale African import, the dance traces its New World origins to 17th-century Puerto Rico, where it served as a tool for overcoming language barriers among slaves on sugarcane plantations. Said to have been a galvanising influence on slaves in preparation for revolt, its skirt-swishing and saucy leg displays poked prudish slave-mistresses right in the eye. Bomba’s power as a source of identity and solidarity remain undimmed centuries hence. Michael Parker-Stainback

SOUNDTRACK
El Testigo, Los Pleneros de la 21

Marinera in Peru

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Marinera, Peru

With its roots in the colonial-era zamacueca and the dramatic Spanish fandango, this national dance sees suited men in broad hats and barefoot women in plump pollera skirts skip, stamp and twirl a teasing rural courtship dance. It’s a real spectacle: there’s handkerchief twirling, petticoat flashing, kisses are stolen — all to the jaunty clamour of clarinets, guitars, drums and bugles. In some versions, the man even performs from the saddle of a prancing stallion, the woman nimbly skipping away from its crushing hooves. Marinera norteña, born in northern coastal communities in the 19th century, is the most popular style, quicker paced than the marinera limeña, developed in the capital, or the Serrana variety, from the highlands. And it’s a big deal country-wide. Catch the national contest of marinera norteña in the city of Trujillo every January, which culminates in an exuberant parade of competitors and bands of musicians sashaying through the historic centre. Amelia Duggan

SOUNDTRACK
Montonero Arequipeño, Los Dávalos

Mambo, Cuba

Sensual steps, in counterpoint to driving rhythms; flawless poise; and — not least of all — everything redolent of the band Havana 3am make mambo as popular today as when it emerged with Cuban bandleader Pérez Prado in the 1940s. Named for the Congolese word meaning ‘conversation with the gods’, its syncopated style combines African, Latin American and US jazz-based elements that — originally unchoreographed — called on dancers to ‘feel the music’ in a fusion of sound and movement. Things have since been formalised (to a degree); the dance’s core — a linear, step-forward, step-back strut
— includes a split-second rest that enhances the tension and excitement of the overall syncopation. In a dance celebrated for its freedom, improvisational creativity is the goal, leading to dramatic arm and leg movements and a palpable, if stylised, connection to the Mother Continent. Fast-paced, complex moves mean it takes practice to master. But few apprenticeships could be more exhilarating — or such fun.
Michael Parker-Stainback

Salsa in Colombia

Image: Alamy

SOUNDTRACK
La Rumba Que No Termina, Clave y Guaguancó

Salsa, Colombia
The steps are dazzling, rapid-fire and precise; blame it on a DJ from Cali who accidentally ran a 33rpm record at 45 back in the early 1970s. These days, the best Colombian salsa dancers are the ones to beat at international contests (Cuba, Puerto Rico, New York and LA all spin their own versions). Step one is called atrás-atrás: you alternate moving either foot behind and to the opposite side of the other, swinging hips up and down, while keeping the torso erect. Circle arms in complement to your partner’s or move in for the embrace — it’s Colombia, after all. Once you master the footwork and basic attitude, take it more acrobatic, with flamboyant kicks, tossing partners into the air and dramatic stops at key musical moments. Freeze! Smile! Bask in your fabulousness for one beat only. Then keep spinning away. Michael Parker-Stainback

SOUNDTRACK
Cali Pachanguero, Grupo Niche

Read more tales from the dancefloor here.  

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)