History of Latin Dance

Rachel Hanson
Latin dance couple

Latin dance has a long and complicated history, but the elements that come back again and again are self-expression and rhythm. While some Latin dances are almost wholly descended from one cultural sphere, the vast majority of Latin dances have three distinct influences: the native influence, the upper-class European influence, and the African influence. Dating back at least to the 15th century, which is when indigenous dances were first documented by European explorers, the roots of Latin dance are both deep and geographically far-reaching.

Origins of Latin American Dancing

Long before men and women were dancing the Rumba or the Salsa, indigenous peoples of South and Central America were developing what we have come to recognize today as Latin dances. On the path to becoming the dances spectators enjoy in competitions and ballrooms today, these earliest ritualistic dances would be influenced by many different European and African styles, both in movement and in music.

Ritualistic Beginnings

Around the turn of the 16th century, seagoing explorers like Amerigo Vespucci went back to Portugal and Spain with tales of native peoples (Aztec and Inca) performing intricate dances. Just how long these dance traditions had already been established is unknown, but when they were observed by European explorers the dances were already developed and ritualized, suggesting a significant base. These indigenous dances often centered around everyday concepts such as hunting, agriculture, or astronomy.

In the early 16th century European settlers and conquistadors like Hernando Cortes began to colonize regions of South America, and absorbed the local dance traditions into a new version of the local culture. Known as assimilation, the Catholic settlers merged the native culture with their own, keeping the movements but adding Catholic saints and stories to the dances. Aztec dances greatly impressed the settlers because they were highly structured and included large numbers of dancers working together in a precise manner.

Over the centuries, European folk dances and African tribal dances would mix with these indigenous roots to create modern Latin dancing.

European Influences

Since European folk dances that traveled to the Americas with the settlers prohibited male and female dance partners from touching one another, the practice of having a dance partner was new. While the indigenous dances were group dances, many, but not all, of the European dances that were exported to the Americas were performed by a male and a female as a couple. These European dances combined a mixture of musical appreciation and social opportunity, which were both integrated into the developing Latin dance genre. Much of the storytelling element disappeared from the genre as the focus moved toward the rhythm and the steps.

In terms of movement, the European influence brought a certain daintiness to the indigenous dances of Latin America because the steps were smaller and the movements were less forceful. Combining this finesse with the irresistible beat of the African drums is one of the defining features of Latin dance.

African Influences

Movement styles and especially musical rhythms of Africa left a lasting mark on dances of Latin America. With the European settlers came African slaves, whose dances and music survived better in South America than in North America. The following elements of Latin dance can be traced to African influences:

  • Polycentric rhythms
  • Polycentric movement
  • Bent knees and a downward focus (grounded in the earth) instead of the straight-backed upward focus of European folk dances
  • Improvisation
  • Whole-foot steps (as opposed to steps for the toes or heels only)
  • Body isolations: for example, immobilizing the upper body while making wild movements with the hips

Development of Latin Dance

Different dances developed in separate countries, with some dances spreading over several regions and others being limited to one city.

Many popular dances of today that are associated with Latin America were largely developed in social spheres, in an organized fashion, and with professional musicians providing the beat. This is the case for the following dances:

  • Salsa
  • Mambo
  • Merengue
  • Rumba
  • Cha Cha Cha
  • Bachata
  • Samba

While folk dances like the Mexican Hat Dance developed in more rural areas, Latin dances developed into full-fledged genres after 1850. These genres were modeled after the European waltz and polka. The music was the engine for each dance, guiding the dance steps with its measure, speed, and the feeling it evoked, from energetic to sensual.

Various Latin American regions had independent musical styles, and from each musical genre, or combination of styles, a dance genre was born. For example the Mambo, which originated in the 1940s, was born of a marriage between American swing music and Cuban son music, which dated from the same period.

Following the music, the movement history, and the rhythms of the soul, Latin dances developed over time and individual steps slowly fleshed out the repertoire of each dance. Many Latin dances still have a significant improvisational component to complement the steps, and the regional influences rooted in each genre date back significantly in time.

A Rich Cultural Heritage of Dance

The different types of Latin dances offer a rich cultural history when you examine each dance individually and look at the various influences that contributed to it. Many Latin dances have several different forms by now, and what spectators see at ballroom competitions is only the tip of the iceberg. To discover even more styles and genres, check out cultural events such as the Brazilian Carnival in order to experience the many genres of Latin style dancing as well as the cultural and musical histories that are deeply embedded in the dances.

History of Latin Dance