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Merengue: The Dance
(extracted from “Teaching & Salsa” by Loo Yeo)

The merengue is an extremely accessible dance, mainly because the level of co-ordination between legs and arms is less crucial to beginner dancers than, for example, in salsa. This fact is greatly responsible for the rapid uptake of the merengue as a dance worldwide. People can, with little or no instruction, merengue straight away. Ladies in particular can learn to dance it very quickly, so long as they receive a good lead. In many places, instructors tend to teach off the merengue into salsa by introducing the armwork in the merengue and fitting the footwork later in salsa. This is a little unfair to the merengue, since learning dancers tend perceive the merengue as a poor person's salsa, instead of being a rich dance form in its own right.

History of the dance
Observing couples dance the merengue tells us two things; the partnership hold originates from the Western Europe and the hip action belies its African roots. Apart from that inference there is little specific information currently available about the origin of the merengue. A couple's bodies can vary from being pressed together where only simple steps are performed, or with bodies further apart to allow for turn combinations. Legend has it that the Dominicans tend to dance further apart because they like to show off their fancy footwork, whilst those from other Latin countries tend to dance closer together. What is evident is that the turn combinations found in the merengue bear similarity to that found in other partnership dances. Arguments go on well into the night about whether the moves were borrowed from other dances or if the other dances borrowed moves from the merengue. It's probably safer to assume a case of parallel development; since the human anatomy allows the body to adopt only a limited number conformations (safely), and it doesn't take long to explore most of them.

Basic structure
The basic merengue is danced as a walk, a step being taken with each leg in alternation on every beat. The amount of hip action varies according to personal preference. It is considered an asymmetrical dance because, in the basic walk, the same leg is used at the beginning of each new bar of music. Although many turn combinations can be executed with both partners performing the simple walk, some moves allow the hips to synchronise better if one of the partners performs a null weight change by tapping the foot on the floor instead of stepping onto it. Synchronising hips is normally the responsibility of the partner leading the dance, because it is easier for the lead to do it than to get the follower to do so. Becoming proficient at synchronising hips (and therefore feet) confers and added advantage; that more turn combinations are available in merengue than in salsa, as a result of being able to alter the co-ordination between the arms, legs and transfer of weight at any time during the dance.

Dancing the merengue to time is easy because the beats are usually obvious, but the timing aspect of merengue is kept simple for a reason. It's because the merengue is more than just about stepping on the beats. It's about dancers expressing themselves to music, and the merengue's flexibility is supposed to encourage just that. What happens between the beats of the music is just as important. The tambora roll and the corresponding saxophone/accordion “roll” (from Merengue: the music) form an important part of the rhythm structure, serving to lift the dancers' feet before grounding them on beats one and three (called the downbeats). They are responsible for the two alternating pulses that can be felt in the music. The real trick is dancing in a manner that reflects the rhythm structure, the music pulses and the way the melody weaves through it.


Dear Loo Yen Yeo,

Thanks for the excellent overview of merengue, which we have included a link to in our section on Latin American music (see Dominican Republic part)

Best Regards,
Travel Latin America



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