History of the Cha-cha Dance

By Cara Batema
Professional Latin dancers; view of their dancing feet.

The cha-cha is a style of Latin American dancing derived from the mambo and American swing. This Cuban dance form became popular in the 1950s. Visitors to Cuba brought the cha-cha to their own countries, which increased the spread of its popularity. Even today the dance's influence can be heard in popular music.

History

Streets of Havana, Cuba.

In the 1940s, many American tourists frequented resorts in Havana, Cuba, where Latin American dances rose to popularity as American and Latin American musicians mingled. Jazz and Afro-Cuban beats were mixed to create new dances, including the mambo, of which the cha-cha is a derivative. By the 1950s, the mambo was simplified to two slow steps preceding three quick steps, and this dance became the cha-cha.

Identification

Young couple dancing.

The cha-cha, originally called “cha-cha-cha” can be identified by its distinct rhythm; the dance itself follows a triplet rhythm (or “cha cha cha”), when the dancers move in three quick steps. In musical terms, the cha-cha is in 4/4 time. Two slow dance steps are counts two and three, and the cha-cha steps are counted four and one--the last “cha” of the triplet is actually beat number one.

Geography

African drum.

The cha-cha itself originated in Cuba, but its ties to other popular Latin American dances links it to other Latin American countries and Africa. The mambo's ancestry lies in African ritual dances, and the cha-cha is a derivative of the mambo. The intermingling of musicians in Cuba, especially American jazz musicians, affected the music and the dance of the country. American swing, taken from jazz music, also had an impact on the cha-cha style.

Features

Close up of dancers.

The cha-cha shares similar features with other Latin American dances. For instance, the dancer’s feet are kept close to the floor and their hips are loose to allow free movement and weight shifting from one foot to another. The cha-cha also tends to be a moderately fast dance--today it is danced at about 120 beats per minute.

Significance

Latin music and musicians.

Visitors from other countries who went to Cuba brought back the cha-cha to their native countries, thus spreading the popularity and knowledge of the dance. The cha-cha beat continues to be heard in popular Latin music today. Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin and Carlos Santana often employ the cha-cha’s rhythm in their music.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.