The conga or conga line dance, as we know it, originated as a street dance in Cuba in the early 20th century. Its full history goes back much further – with the roots of African slaves who were forcibly brought to the Caribbean. The dance also became associated with the Santeria religion and Easter traditions of the islands. The conga -- both the dance and the style of music it is generally danced to -- became popular in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, largely due to the influence of bandleaders Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz, both then working in Hollywood on a series of Latin-themed musicals.
Types of Conga
There are several conga dance variations. The most familiar is the single file line dance in which the dancers hold on to the hips of the dancer directly in front. The line then zigzags around the dance floor – and off – with the dancers kicking alternating legs on the beat as they move forward. The conga version for couples resembles the mambo or any of the other Latin ballroom styles, with the couple holding hands but switching hands on the beat and turning occasionally.
Big in Cuba
As a street dance, the conga had political implications in pre-revolutionary Cuba. At different times, the dance was banned or restricted as a way of discouraging mass assembly. At other times the dance was associated with annual Carnival and Easter celebrations and performed as a kind of processional. The dance is executed to a distinctive drum rhythm. Conga music holds an important place in the Latin and North American cultural landscape.
Popular in the West
Conga dancing became popular in the nightclubs of Paris first and then became fashionable State-side in the 1930s. All things Latin were in vogue at the time – Hollywood cranked out one Latin music and dance movie spectacular after another, nightclubs were Latin-themed and offered lessons in dances like the conga and mambo. Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz – who married comedienne Lucille Ball and starred with her on the TV series "I Love Lucy" – became a huge star associated with the conga craze and is credited with introducing it to Los Angeles and New York.
Pop Culture Conga
Like the “Macarena," the conga and conga line dance has become a staple of the wedding dance floor. Its mass familiarity was ensured by its ease of execution and its ubiquity. The conga line has been a recurring theme in cartoons and comedies on television and in the movies throughout the 20th century. And Miami Sound Machine’s Gloria Estefan had a hit with her single “Conga” in 1985, further securing the conga’s place in American popular culture.
Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.