History of Latin, Ballroom, Swing, And Folkloric Dances



Salsa dancingSalsa is one of the most dynamic and important musical phenomena of the 1900's. In many Hispanic communities, it remains today the most popular style of dance and music.  The roots of salsa originated in Eastern Cuba early in the l900s. There, Spanish and Afro-Cuban musical elements were combined, both in terms of rhythm and the instruments used. By mid-century, this music came to Havana where foreign influences were absorbed, particularly American jazz and popular music heard on the radio.

By the end of the l950s, many Cuban and Puerto Rican people including musicians had settled in the U.S., especially in New York. In this environment, salsa music completed its development. In "El Barrio" (Spanish Harlem), bands were formed and immigrants continued to make Afro-Caribbean music, but they adapted the sound to their new world.  Gradually in the 50s and 60s, salsa as we know it today was emerging. The most famous musicians of that time were Tito Puente ("King of Mambo") and Celia Cruz ("Queen of Salsa").

The rise of salsa music is also tied closely to Fania Records which was founded in l964 by the musician Johnny Pacheco and an Italian-American divorce lawyer named Jerry Masucci. The two met at a party in a NY hotel. They struck a deal to launch what became the most influential record label in Latin music's history. Fania was known as "the Latin Motown," with one huge hit after another becoming popular all over Latin America. Many artists became very famous with the promotion they received from the record label "La Fania." Fania Records remolded Cuban music into a sound more appropriate to Latin New York, and they called the sound "salsa." By the l970s salsa was becoming so popular that Fania's bands and artists were touring all over Latin America. This decade was the real "heyday" of salsa.

The type of salsa music that Fania promoted came to be referred to as "hard salsa." Then in the 80s, another style of salsa which was softer and more romantic was born, with artists like Gilberto Santa Rosa. Around this time, Latin musicians began to have an impact on mainstream U.S. music. Latin music was becoming trendy here and beginning to intrigue the rest of the world as well.

Both types of salsa remain popular today and with the popularity of the music, came the popularity of the dance. Salsa refers both to the music and the dance done to that music. The rhythm for Salsa is quick-quick-slow. To dancers, a "quick" is a step that lasts for one musical beat and a "slow" lasts for two beats.

To see a video clip of Salsa dancing, click here.

Rueda de Casino (Cuban Salsa)

Salsa Performance

During the 1950s, a dance craze called Casino Rueda became popular in Cuba.  The name "casino" comes from the name of the social club where the dance began. That club was called El Casino Deportivo. "Rueda" means wheel or circle. It is a type of salsa dancing done by a group in a circle, with partners being passed around.

The moves to this dance are numerous and can be very complex. The dance is done by two or more couples who do the moves in synchrony. A member of the circle calls the moves for everyone to execute. Each move has a name and most have hand signals since it is hard to hear in noisy nightclubs. Moves can be called in quick succession, and along with frequent partner exchanges, this creates a very dynamic and exciting atmosphere for everyone involved.

The group nature of the dance is unique and makes it quite social. A group consciousness develops to make the rueda work well---with everyone watching the leader for the calls. Dancers have to open up their sphere of awareness far beyond what is necessary for ordinary partner dancing. Whether you are dancing or watching, it is thrilling when a rueda circle works well and flows smoothly!!

This festive dance was brought to Miami by Cuban immigrants and took hold there in the l970s and l980s. From Miami, it spread first to major U.S. metropolitan centers with large Hispanic populations and eventually to other cities as well. The movie "Dance with Me" has a segment of Cuban Salsa (Rueda) dancing which helped popularize the dance in this country. To see the fabulously joyful nightclub scene from that movie, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpJUATcOusg.

In recent years, Casino Rueda has swept the world.  The joyful spirit of this dance has made it popular just about everywhere--from Israel to Alaska, from North and South America to Europe, Australia, and beyond. Groups of Salsa dancers assemble in classes, clubs, and conventions all over the globe to teach, practice, and perform beautiful Casino Rueda moves done in a circle!  What began simply in a Cuban social club, quickly became a world-wide dance phenomenon!

Salsa movie


Salsa performance
This photo was taken on 10/8/05 at a performance where DanceInTime dancers simulated the famous rueda scene from the movie "Dance With Me." This movie starring Vanessa Williams, helped make Rueda popular in the US. To see a video of the original movie scene, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpJUATcOusg

To watch a 60-second trailer of DanceInTime's documentary, "Casino Rueda: Cuban Dance Captures the World" about how the dance became popular world-wide, Click hereThe full DIT documentary (7 mins. long) was shown a couple of times in August, 2011 at the Albuquerque Latin Fest (see ALBLATINFEST.com) to an appreciative crowd!

To see a video clip of Casino Rueda dancing (done for Fox 5 New's coverage of DanceInTime), click here.

(To read an article in a dance magazine about Casino Rueda, click here .)


Click here to see Michele and Doug do a Rumba

Salsa dancingSalsa dancingSalsa dancing

Rumba is a sultry and romantic dance, often referred to as the "dance of love". Its roots can be traced to Africa where it was a street and courtship dance.

Rumba dancing originally was done with an emphasis on the dancers' body rather than their feet. The rumba tune was considered to be less significant than the intricate rhythms that were danced to with a lot of body movement.

Like many Latin dances, rumba developed gradually in Cuba.  It became mainstreamed into a ballroom dance, with music that was slowed down and moves that were more sedate.   It is now the second slowest of the Latin dances, a little faster than only the Bolero. 

In ballroom style rumba, three steps are generally taken in one measure of music.  A measure has 4 beats of music.  The additional beat is used for weight transfer and turns.  

Rumba dancing in this country became popular in the 1920s and 30s, and a greater emphasis was put on the tune or melody of the music.  A man named George Raft further popularized the dance in 1935 through a movie, where he was featured as a suave dancer who won an heiress’s heart through dancing.  Today, Rumba dancing remains a romantic dance and a favorite Latin dance among ballroom dancers.

The rhythm for the basic step of Rumba is slow-quick-quick. Notice that both the Rumba and the Salsa have an underlying pattern that includes one “slow” and two “quicks.” But in Salsa you begin with the “quicks” and in Rumba you begin with the “slow.”

Cha Cha

Click here to see Susan and Doug do a Cha Cha

Salsa dancingCha Cha evolved and developed around the mid-1900’s. Cha Cha music is similar to Salsa, but the tempo is slower. Thus there is time to replace the slow step found in Salsa with the “cha cha chas.” Indeed, Cha cha was originally called triple Mambo because you take 3 cha cha steps in place of the slow step in mambo (and Salsa). 



 The name "cha-cha" imitates the sound of heeled shoes as they hit the floor percussively.  This explains why some refer to the dance as the cha-cha-cha while others call it cha-cha.

Cha Cha quickly became very popular and remains today the most well-known of the Latin dances to Americans. Cha Cha music is catchy, and has a lively, happy sound.

You’ll notice that most dances have “rhythm breaks,” or steps that vary from the basic rhythm of the dance. If you watch Cha Cha closely you may be able to see some of these different patterns which include syncopations and other types of variations. These rhythm breaks make the dance more interesting and challenging. They are particularly easy to notice in Cha Cha because any alteration of the “cha cha cha” tends to stand out.

Merengue Salsa dancing

   Merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic and, to some extent of Haiti which shares an island with DR. This dance was developed in the early 1900’s. The music has a repetitive quality and pounds out a steady beat. The dance rhythm is quick-quick-quick-quick. It is the only dance that doesn’t have a mixture of “quicks” and “slows”.

The movement of all Latin dances is characterized by “Cuban motion.” This is the hip sway that is created by stepping onto a bent leg and then straightening it. “Cuban motion” is most easily taught in Merengue due to the steady beat. As a result, it is the Latin dance that beginning dancers often start with.

In the basic movement of Merengue, one leg is dragged slightly. There are a couple of legends about why this is so.  One is that the dance originated with slaves who were chained together. So they had to drag one leg as the cut sugar to a drum beat.  Another story is that during one of the revolutions in the Dominican Republic, a great hero was wounded in the leg. He came home to a celebration in his honor. When the villagers danced at the celebration, they all limped and dragged one leg as a gesture of sympathy for him.


Bachata is a popular form of music from the Dominican Republic.  The first bachata was recorded in 1961 by José Manuel Calderón.  But over time, bachata began to be associated with the world of prostitution, crime, and delinquency.  The stigma against bachata was strong enough that only one national radio station would play it.  From about 1970 to about 1990, bachata music told stories of an underground life-style such as men who loved prostitutes, poor country boys who get to the city and are ripped off, impoverished barrio dweller without light or water, etc. 

But bachata’s popularity began to grow, as Anthony Santos and others used the new style to record more acceptable, romantic songs.  Over time, middle class musicians experimented with bachata, and were so successful that the music began to be accepted by all sectors of society.

In its current form, bachata is listened to throughout Latin America, and is particularly popular in New York City today. Many seasoned dancers in the US have witnessed the tremendous rise in popularity of Bachata dancing.  Around the late twentieth century, it was only occasionally played by DJs at clubs.  But now it is far more commonly heard, and many interesting dance moves have sprung up to make dancing Bachata richer and more interesting.


Danzon is a Latin dance wih a very formal structure. First the music has an introductory section during which people don't dance. They chat, the lady fans herself, they applaud the orchestra, etc. The dancers all begin to move at precisely the same moment, when the next section of the music begins. This is a melody to which dancers do something resembling an American Rumba. The introduction often repeats later on, followed by another melody. Dancers always stop dancing whenever the introductory section is played. They again applaud the orchestra, chat, etc. Finally, the last segment of a Danzon is the liveliest one and is called the montuno. It is the montuno that went on to ultimately develop into Salsa which is popular all over the world today.

Salsa dancing The dancer's rhythm during the slower melody is slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow, close. This is 4 measures of music in which each measure has 4 beats. The man begins leading by going forward on his left and he does a box step. Because the second box is not completed, successive basic steps would result in the couple "migrating" slightly to the man's right. Only closed figures are done during the slower melody, which means that the woman and man face each other as they dance.

During the faster montuno section of the dance, the dancers may open up into moves where they don't face each other if they wish. During that segment, they may also do complete boxes, running the slow, quick quick rhythm continuously. That is, they do not close their feet (i.e. bring them together) on the fourth measure.

Danzon (pronounce the "z" like an English "s") remains popular today in some places such as Mexico. In Mexico City on most nights, for example, hundreds of people can be found doing Danzon in public areas. The development of this dance can be traced to the late 1700's. There was a bloody Haitian revolution, after which many people fled to Cuba. They brought with them "Contradanza," which was popular European-based dance music. Eventually by the late 1800s, this evolved into Danzon. Much of the original structure of the dance still remains today, and its multiple sections provide an element of variability which make the dance a rich experience.


roots of the Samba are African, but most of the development of this dance was done in Brazil.   Samba was originally a street festival & celebration dance.  A Broadway play called "Street Carnival" introduced it to the US in the late twenties, and the dance became known in Europe around the same time. Europe was really captured by the Samba in 1948/1949. Walter Laird and his partner Lorraine, developed the Samba to be what it is known as today.

As Samba became popular internationally in the 1920's and 30's, it was structured into "danceable patterns" by and for ballroom dancers.  This made it easy to dance in partnership, and the set of specific steps helped to make it easily "teachable." Samba is one one of five Latin competition dances (along with rumba, cha cha, merengue, etc) in the ballroom competitions that can be seen on TV.  It is a fast paced dance with a bouncy movement and rhythm.

It is notable that in Brazil, the form of Samba that is danced is very different.  It's done by a single person--not in partnership. And that "Samba" features extremely fast foot movements and fewer dance patterns.  

The music for all forms of samba is joyful and contagious, making it a very festive dance. Samba's "fun factor"  has contributed to its continuing popularity.


Lindy Hop

Just as jazz helped shape the evolution of Latin music and dance, it was also fundamental to the evolution of swing dancing. In a sense, you might say that if the Latin dances are closely related to each other, then swing is like their second cousin. They are all related through jazz with its African roots.

One of the features of jazz music is the subtle pulse, or swing, that animates the music. In the l920s and 30s, jazzy, big band sounds became popular and with that, swing dancing began to evolve.

On March 26, 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened in NY and was an instant hit. People flocked there every night to dance and listen to bands play what was called "Swinging Jazz."

One night, a dancer named "Shorty George" Snowden was asked by a newspaper reporter what was the name of the dance being done. It happened that Charles Lindbergh had just made his famous flight, and there was a newspaper on a bench by Snowden. The headline read: "Lindy Hops the Atlantic." Glancing at the newspaper, Snowden answered, "Lindy Hop." And the name stuck. By the late 30s, Lindy Hop was sweeping the nation.

Salsa performance
Above: Some members of the American Dance Montage do a Swing Routine blending a number of different form of Swing. This was choreographed by Frank Regan who kindly lent the use of the choreography to a show outside the Ronald Reagan Building in D.C.

In Lindy Hop, the dancers move in an elliptical pattern. The rhythm of the basic step is 1, 2, triple time, 1, 2, triple time. A couple of styles of Lindy Hop gradually emerged, notably the Savoy and the Hollywood styles. Ultimately, Lindy Hop developed into some completely different forms of swing dancing described below. These variations on swing are characterized by different rhythm and movement patterns.

East Coast Swing

A. Single Swing

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a form of swing developed that was called "East Coast Swing" since it began on the east coast.

The basic movement in East Coast Swing is in a circular pattern. East Coast that is done to very fast music is also referred to as Single Swing and has an underlying rhythm of Slow-Slow-Quick-Quick.

Of all the forms of swing, this is probably the easiest for beginning dancers to learn. The fast tempo makes it an extremely lively dance.

B. Triple Swing

Music that is a little slower in tempo lends itself to another form of East Coast Swing called Triple Swing. In this dance, each of the Slow steps from Single Swing is replaced by three steps in the "Triple time" rhythm. So the underlying rhythm for this dance is "Triple Time-Triple Time-Quick-Quick." Many of the same steps can be done in both Triple Swing and Single Swing with some small adjustments. Both Single and Triple Swing remain very popular today.

West Coast Swing

While East Coast Swing was developing on the east coast, West Coast Swing emerged on the west coast. West Coast Swing is smoother, more sensual, and done to music with a slower tempo than East Coast. West Coast is danced in a line which is referred to as the dancer's "slot." Some people think that the dance developed partly because dancing in a line enabled more people to fit onto dance floors which became very crowded after World War II.

There are a number of underlying rhythm patterns that are the basis of this dance. One is Quick-Quick-Triple Time-Triple Time.

West Coast Swing lends itself to a good deal of improvisation. In fact, in some steps, the woman, who is normally the follower, can actually do what is called "hijacking the lead." She indicates that she wants to take over the lead and then controls the steps for a short interval. This is quite unique in partnership dancing. It is like a dance form of improvisation that mimics instrumental jazz improvisations. So there is a sort of parallel between the dance and the music that gave rise to it. West Coast Swing is now popular all over the country.




Joropo became the National Dance of Venezuela in 1882.  It is danced throughout the country but especially in the Plains.

The music for the dance is made by the maracas, harp, and cuatro.  A cuatro is a 4 strong guitar which is like a lute.  The song is sometimes also sung while doing daily tasks.

It is a couples dance with as many as 36 variations on the basic step.  There are many different types of Joropo, each with a name such as Corrido Tuyero and Golpe Aragueno.

The most famous Joropo song is "Alma Llanera" (which means "soul of the plains"). It is considered to be the national song.  It was written by composer Pedro Elias Gutierrez.  No ball dance would be complete without it.

Starting in 1960, a tournament was held in the city of Villavicencio, where people showed off their Joropo choreographies in several categories.  Judges give out prizes for the best music, dancers, and the best players of the harp, cuatro, and maracas.  The event was of course accompanied by a big feast!


Fandango refers both to a kind of music and a kind of dance---much the same as Salsa does.

It is a very old dance.  The earliest description of it was found in a letter by a Spanish priest in 1712.   It was fashionable among the aristocracy in the late 1700s.  

It is danced at celebrations which are described as "massive public spectacles" in the context of special days for the peoples of the Colombian Caribbean region.  They celebrate with parties honoring patron saints and the crop harvests.

The dance is very popular.  It sometimes starts slow and then it increases in speed.  Fandango often starts with a man inviting a woman to dance. The woman always responds defensively, but moves in a flirtatious and sensual way.  The man is persistent in pursuing her through the dance.

San Juanito

San Juanito is a folkloric dance from Ecuador and it has several dozen variants from different regions of Ecuador.

The dance is done to a type of music from the Ecuadorian Andes which originated in the province of Imbabura.

The music is structured in 4 beat measures, with certain beats getting a heavy emphasis.  This popular music is played and danced to in festivals.  Some people call the beautiful and simple music for San Juanito the "music from heaven."

 Music for the dance is played by some traditional instruments as well as other "western" instruments such as the violin and mandolin.


Cumbia emerged around the end of the 17th century and in the early 18th century, among the slave populations of coastal towns in Colombia.  The slave owners gave them permission to dance and play music on certain holidays.  So on those holidays, they would gather to dance cumbia, accompanied by African drumming and singing.  Cumbia emerged from this tradition, as social and courtship dance.  The name of the dance comes from the Guinean dance cumbè”.

In the dance, men and women came to the event dressed entirely in white.  Women wore long, multi-layered skirts and the men carried bundles of candles or torches, and they gathered in a circle.  Couples then took turns coming to the center to dance flirtatiously. The man attempts to win favor with the woman by dancing and passing her fire from his bouquet of candles to symbolize his interest and devotion..

Over time, flutes and other instruments were added, as cumbia music developed. Cumbia music and dance has evolved into one of Colombia’s cultural treasures. It is now danced and performed throughout the country, not just on holidays.

Click here for a page on the history of ballroom/partnership dance in America.


copyright: 2002 by Barbara Bernstein


Copyright Barbara Bernstein of DanceInTime.com, 2005