Passionate and syncopated, Latin-American dances are among the most inspiring on the global stage. From tango to salsa and samba, these dances are favorites of nightclubs and ballroom champions. Incorporating African rhythms, European forms of storytelling and music from Central and South America, these dances evolved with the music that inspired them.
Originating in Buenos Aires, this passionate dance evolved to include Argentine, American and international versions. The Argentine tango is the most improvisational, with the dancers interpreting the music more or less on the fly. The American version is more structured, with the dancers following a predetermined set of "slows" and "quicks." The international version is the most structured and is the standard for competitive dance. All three versions involve the wild, staccato pacing, gravity-defying twirls and fancy footwork that have become trademarks of the genre. Typically accompanied by strings, this dance often expresses stories of love and loss.
Salsa -- meaning "hot" -- is a favorite of nightclub-goers and social-dance enthusiasts. Involving percussive beats with jazz movements, the dance follows an eight-beat structure with dancers moving for three beats, pausing for one beat, dancing for three beats, then pausing for one beat in a left-right-left, then right-left-right movement. Generally a partnered dance, dancers can use the pause beats to incorporate personal touches called "shines." While salsa music has become an all-encompassing term, it is most precisely a style developed by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City in the 1960s and '70s. While salsa may incorporate guitar and even piano, the foundation of salsa music is a hand-held percussion instrument called a clave.
A nightclub step born out of mambo in the 1950s, the cha-cha is an evolution of swing and Cuban beats with a slightly slower tempo. First known as the triple mambo, then the cha-cha-cha, and finally the cha-cha, the three-beat dance form emphasizes the movement of the body rather than the movement of the feet. With flirtatious showmanship and room for improvisation, the partnered dance is a ballroom favorite adaptable to different styles of music.
This fiery, passionate form of storytelling is both a musical and dance art form. From the Andalucian region of Spain, flamenco evolved as an artistic expression of marginalized peoples in a cultural melting pot. The music came first -- a mix of Greek, Roman, Moorish and even Jewish influences. The dance, with its heart-bracing foot stomps and bold movements, first appeared as dance accompaniment to a singer before becoming the main attraction for many. Existing in many forms, a solo woman often dances the flamenco. The hybrid paso-doble flamenco -- or two-step flamenco-- is a partnered version that often evokes a bullfight. Dramatic and defiant, flamenco is one of the most enduring forms of Latin dance.
A Brazilian dance officially adopted by the mainstream Brazil in 1930, samba first evolved as an underground dance influenced by African music and customs. First considered lewd, samba is characterized by quick footsteps with a rocking, swaying motion and a rhythmic pelvic tilt. Often performed with a flirtatious attitude, the infectious dance is the most popular street dance of Brazil's carnival. Often danced to percussion, guitar and even call and response, samba also exists in a more-restrained ballroom version.
Other Latin American Dances
There are well over 20 distinct Latin-American dance forms, many of which are subsets or related to main ones. These include rumba, Son, Cumbia and many others with African, European and indigenous roots. Explore Latin-American dance through classes in your area.
Timothy Edmond holds a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies from Stanford University. A former intern for Roger Corman, he has a passion for both art-house and well-executed commercial films. His first short film, "Trompe L'Oeil," is forthcoming from Imaginaut Entertainment.