Latin dances hail from several different countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and most have influences that range far beyond this region. Some dances are easier to learn than others, but all Latin dances have a flair that hooks both spectators and dancers.
Popular Latin Dance Styles
Sample the Latin dances most often learned and performed. Whether watching a dance show on television or attending a social dance workshop, you're bound to run into some of these Latin styles.
The Bachata is a dance from the Dominican Republic, named after Bachata guitar music. Dancers move side to side in a four-beat pattern: three steps to the side followed by a pause, which forms the essence of the Bachata as dancers incorporate pronounced hip movements. Overall, the dance is much more about moving the body with style than about the simple back and forth steps. Because this dance is about polished style in addition to simple steps, intermediate to advanced dancers will have the most success making the Bachata look good.
Cha Cha Cha
The Cha Cha Cha, also called the Cha Cha, is a Cuban-born dance, similar to the Mambo in style. However, after the basic movement of stepping forward or backward and shifting weight between feet, the Cha Cha Cha adds a quick set of three steps. This gives the dance its name since many dancers count out these steps as "cha cha cha."
The Mambo also originated in Cuba. Its signature move is a three-beat step moving forward and then backward while shifting weight from one foot to the other. One member of a dancing pair performs the backward motion while the other moves forward.
What really gives the Mambo its style, though, is the hip-swaying action the weight shift creates. Although the Mambo is a couple's dance, the basic step has appeared in everything from line dancing to aerobics videos, where individual dancers perform the three-beat step either alone or as part of a group.
Merengue is a Dominican dance; it's the official dance of the Dominican Republic. It is generally considered easy to learn, making it a great choice for those looking to ease their way in to Latin dancing.
The following basic movement goes to the front, back, and side when a couple dances the Merengue together: step onto the inside edge of the foot, roll the foot to transfer weight, then drag the other foot to meet the first foot. Learn the basic technique from an instructor or observe other dancers doing it, such as in this instructional Merengue video, where the basic step is demonstrated to the side.
Paso Doble means "double step" in Spanish, and a version of the Paso Doble originated in Spain. The French turned the moves into a couples dance, which the Spanish embraced. French-invented corrida choreography is complex, challenging, and awe-inspiring. The dance is the dance of conquest between the matador and the enticing cape, as well as the provoked bull. The man is the matador in a bullfight, the woman functions as both his cape and his adversary/prey. It is tense and intense; you dance Paso Doble with ferocity and passion. The moves borrow from Flamenco and are performed in 2/4 time. The costumes, the exaggerated style, and the fierceness of the dancers is highly theatrical. Expect them to clear the dance floor for you; so get your act together to deliver a performance. Paso Doble is always an emotional experience.
The Rumba has its roots in the Cuban son. The Rumba consists of two quick steps and then a third slower step that takes two beats to execute. Dancers use a box-like pattern to guide their movements.
Though dancers originally danced the Rumba with quick steps, ballroom Rumba dancing (Latin dancing most often seen in competitions) has emphasized slow, romantic steps with a focus on hip movements.
The Salsa originated in the Caribbean, although it also has a strong African influence. Couples typically perform this dance together, and it centers on a four-beat combination of two quick steps and a slow step with a pause or tap.
Partners then add turns and other flourishes to the basic footwork in order to create a fun dancing experience, as well as an impressive performance.
Samba is Brazilian in origin and danced to music of the same name. Many different forms of Samba dancing developed in Brazil, some for couples, and others for individuals -- solo dancing.
Different musical styles are paired with different Samba dances. The speed of the dance varies according to the music. Samba is one of the most well known Latin dances, especially for its role in Carnival events, where individual dancers perform.
The Tango is a dance of seduction, born in the Buenos Aires dockside brothels on the cusp of the 20th century. Yes, done well it can take your breath away. And yes, it will take you some serious practice to get that good. From its earliest provocative dance floor couplings to the embrace of the racy choreography -- subdued but not sanitized -- by upper class Argentine society, the Tango proved irresistible. The dance mirrored its times. Through waves of immigrants, military coups, decades of relative prosperity, and eras of social upheaval, the Tango expressed grief, passion, nationalistic pride, pessimism, and celebration. But it always relied on the stylized sensual moves, staccato foot steps, flexed knees, and the highly focused connection between partners that still typifies Tango today.
Conga, Macarena - Get in Line
Group dancing or line dancing is popular at parties, along parade routes and at informal gatherings where people get together just to have a casual good time. These Latin line dances are fun, easy, 100 percent social, and approachable for even the excessively left-footed or habitual toe-stompers.
Your kid brother can do the Macarena -- the one who's still rocking his half-days in preschool. Relax your knees, shake your hips and get the kid to teach you the funky hand and arm gestures and you're good. The 1995 song is just a beat, so very danceable, although, two decades beyond its heyday, a little past its prime.
Remember Gloria Estefan: C'mon, baby, shake your body. Do the Conga? Hard to sit that one out. Did the Conga enter the Americas from Africa through the port of Colon on the Atlantic coast of Panama? Or did it emerge from the carnival comparsas, the dancers in street festivals in Santiago de Cuba or San Pedro Town, Belize? No matter. Just put your hands on the waist of the one in front of you, shuffle step 1 - 2 - 3 and kick out just ahead of 4. It's a rhythmic hoot and anyone can do it. Anyone. Really.
Exploring Latin Dancing
While many dancers only do Salsa or Samba, or restrict themselves to one or two Latin dance styles, there is no reason to limit yourself to just a few genres of Latin dance. The International DanceSport Federation, hosts international dance competitions that are exhilarating to watch -- and if you get good enough at your favorite shake, shimmy, and seduce choreography, you might want to compete. Latin dance is addictive. You may find that, as soon as you master a style of Latin dancing, you can't stop at just one. So, put on your dancing shoes and discover some of the other tempting rhythms that the Latin dance world has to offer.