Latin dance is a general label, and a term in partner dance competition jargon. It refers to types of ballroom dance and folk dance that (with few exceptions) originated in Latin America.
The category of Latin dances in the international dancesport competitions consists of the cha-cha-cha, rumba, samba, paso doble, and also the jive of United States origin.
Social Latin dances (Street Latin) include salsa, mambo, merengue, Rumba, bachata, bomba, plena, and the Argentine tango. There are many dances which were popular in the first part of the 20th century, but which are now of only historical interest. The Cuban danzón is a good example.
Perreo is a Puerto Rican dance associated with Reggaeton music with Jamaican and Caribbean influences. Latin folk dances of Argentina include the chacarera, gato, escondido and zamba. Typical Bolivian folk dances are the morenada, kullawada, caporales and the recently created tinku. In Colombia one of the typical dances is the cumbia.
Latin dance is mainly derived from three styles: Native Latin, European, and African influences. The roots of Latin dance is deep and geographically embedded because it dates back to the fifteenth century when indigenous dances were first recorded by Europeans.
Its influence was first derived from their native roots, the Aztecs and Incas. When sixteenth century seagoing explorers returned home to Portugal and Spain, they brought along tales of the native peoples. According to Rachel Hanson, no one knows how long these dance traditions were established, but they were already being developed and ritualized when they were observed by the Europeans. This suggests that these Native influences became the foundation for Latin dancing. Indigenous dance often told stories of everyday activities such as hunting, agriculture, or astronomy. When European settlers and conquistadors began to colonize South America in the early sixteenth century, they reinvented the local dance traditions, but still kept the styles of the natives. Catholic settlers merged the native culture with their own and incorporated catholic saints and stories to the dance. The Europeans were captivated by the highly structured, large member dance working together in a precise manner. It was not until the integration of European styles that modern Latin dancing became its true form.
After the Europeans brought home the Aztec/Inca influences in the sixteenth century, they incorporated their own styles to the dance. Since the Aztec/Inca dances were performed in a group, many of the European dances were performed by a male and female. This was a new practice because European dances prohibited male and female dance partners from touching each other. The benefits of such dance style allowed musical appreciation and social integration, which became the form of Latin dance. However, “much of the storytelling element disappeared from the genre as the focus moved toward the rhythm and steps,” Hanson explains. The movement evolved differently because it brought a certain element of daintiness to the Aztec dances since the steps were smaller and the movements were less forceful. Combining African styles along with the Native and European influences is what truly makes Latin dance unique.
The movement and rhythms of African influences left a permanent mark in Latin dance. When the African slaves entered Europe in the 1500s, they brought styles such as basic, simple movements (putting emphasis on the upper body, torso, or feet) and intricate movements like the coordination of different body parts and complex actions such as “fast rotation, ripples of the body, and contraction and release, as well as variations in dynamics, levels, and use of space.” The difference between the African and European styles was that it included bent knees and a downward focus (grounded to the earth) rather than a straight-backed upward focus like the Europeans, and whole-foot steps than toes and heels. Such influences of African roots allowed the beauty and uniqueness of Latin dance.
Many dance styles from different areas of the world were integrated into Latin dance. Such styles came about which comprised the main categories of Latin dancing: Salsa, Mambo, Merengue, Rumba, Cha Cha Cha, Bachata, and Samba. Music became the engine for Latin dancing because it guided the dance steps with its measure, speed, and the feeling it evoked, from energetic to sensual. Various Latin American regions developed independent styles, and from each genre, or combination of styles, a different genre was born. For example, the Mambo which was created in the 1940s emerged through the combination of American swing and Cuban Son music.
The Modernization of Latin Dance
Following the music, movement history, and the rhythms, Latin dance evolved over time and individual steps slowly shifted the repertoire of each dance. It has several different forms and many modernized styles which creates a problem because it is shifting away from its Native, European, and African roots. A popular aerobic dance class known as Zumba is said to be influenced by Latin rhythm and steps. However, there are disagreements among Latin dancers about whether Zumba is true Latin dance. One skeptic is Darlin Garcia, salsa dancer and instructor. She says: “You're taking a salsa step and in the middle of it you jump into a jumping jack. When you're mixing the two, that's just funny.” Zumba is including and expanding moves from international and western influences such as Coast swing, belly dancing, and bhangra.
Although Latin dance has been evolved and modified over the centuries, its Native Latin, European, and African roots will always remain in the movements and rhythms of the genre. The great thing about such genre is the rich, cultural history embedded in each dance.