Part 7: Merengue in the U.K.
The immense popularity that merengue enjoys over
salsa in the Americas is not experienced here. Rather the converse is
true, merengue is outplayed and out-danced by salsa greater than one
to eight. To understand why, it's important to be aware that there are
actually two scenes in the United Kingdom: one formed by a majority
of British nationals who actively learn to dance; and another comprising
a minority of immigrant Latin Americans. Merengue is accepted much more
readily by the latter, and the difference is easy to explain.
Instructors catering for the British market, including those from Latin
America, teach off the merengue into salsa. Most lessons are conducted
in a pre-club atmosphere, where teachers are under considerable pressure
to get people with little dance experience to be able to execute a complex
combination at the end of one hour. At the start of the lesson a teacher
might say, let's start with something simple like a merengue
and students would walk through the arm work of a combination to a merengue
tune. After that, the teacher might say Now, let's (make it harder
and) fit it to salsa music, at which point students would try
the arms with footwork. Merengue is inadvertently made to look as a
dance that only beginners perform, and salsa as the dance to aspire
is seldom learned as a dance in its own right.
Merengue is performed more by those who have acquired
their dance skills: Latin Americans, and those who have had prolonged
contact with them. Unfortunately the diaspora hardly touched these shores,
so there are few Dominicans who take an active role in promoting merengue
as part of their cultural heritage.
Slap on a merengue track at a dance and the contrast
in attitude is plain to see: the British taught dancers sit down and
the Latin Americans get up. Curiously enough, untrained Brits get up
and dance too. Maybe they lose their will to merengue somewhere along
the road to salsa proficiency.
is about moves, and merengue is about movement - and any teacher worth
his or her salt would say that it's more challenging to improve the
quality of dance movement than it is to teach a combination. It's unfortunate
that merengue does not have the popularity it so richly deserves, nor
does it seem as if instructors are rising to the tougher challenge of
improving movement quality. I hope it happens, because if history were
anything to go by, merengue would inject a greater vitality into the
U.K. Latin scene.