Merengue – A brief introduction

For those taking our introduction to salsa classes, you probably noticed that for the first twenty minutes of your first day, we’ve been teaching you an entirely different dance – merengue (pronounced ‘mer-rang-gay’).

So what is merengue? How is it different from a meringue and why do word processors get them confused? Why is it so important that we’d have to take time out of salsa to learn this? Why do my calves hurt after doing it? Finally, what’s with all the hip movements?!

What is merengue

Merengue is dance on two beats, counted as: “one, two, one, two, one, two…” It is an incredibly easy dance to learn and explore, with heavy bass beats telling you when to step.

Due to its simple beat structure, you’ll find many similarities between merengue and much of today’s club music; in fact, some of them are almost interchangeable. You might be familiar with Rihanna’s Please Don’t Stop the Music? Now meet its merengue mix:

Merengue originated in the Dominican Republic, and was made the country’s national dance and style of music, as well as a source of national pride. The origin of merengue is lost in history, but one of the more popular myths involves an unnamed general/hero of the Dominican Republic who loved to dance. The hero was wounded in the leg during a revolution, and upon returning to his village, the villagers, sympathizing with him, danced by dragging one of their legs, mimicking the hero’s wounded leg.

A more probable origin involves slaves working in sugar beet fields. These slaves were connected to one another by a chain strapped to their ankles, so they marched to the beat of music by dragging one leg as they worked.

From its humble roots, merengue has been transformed in style and instrumentation by musicians all over the world (with predominance in the United States, due to its large Latino population). Like salsa, merengue is considered a dance of the people, and is changed accordingly by those who play it; Dominican Republic immigrants in New York, Cubans and Puerto Rican musicians, hip hop and R&B artists, the list goes on.

Here are a few examples of different styles of merengue:

Pintame by Elvis Crespo

Azul by Raul Reyes

El Tiburon by Proyecto Uno

Why is merengue important in an introduction to salsa class?

Merengue, due to its simple beat count, is a great vehicle to introduce important dance concepts to beginners; concepts such as posture, hand positioning, hip movement, foot placement, and staying on the beat. These mechanisms are transferable across many of the popular Latin dances, and they definitely apply to salsa. What makes merengue such a great teaching tool is that its simple beat allows first time dancers to focus on the techniques mentioned above, without having to worry about additional details such as footwork and complex timing. Once you master these basic elements, it will make all future learning much, much easier.

Furthermore, many of the patterns and combinations used in salsa can be used in merengue, and thanks to its beat structure, dancers can use merengue to practice leading difficult salsa moves without being restricted by the “1,2,3, 5,6,7” salsa count. Hurray for merengue!

Merengue in the salsa scene

Merengue is a fan favorite for beginners and advanced dancers alike when they want to relax for a song and have some fun. It is usually played every 4-5 salsa songs, with a cha-cha or bachata thrown in before or after.

However, due to its simplicity, merengue has also been looked down on by some dancers as being unchallenging, leading to the saying “I dance salsa, and rest during merengue songs.” There are even places where merengue music is replaced entirely by cha-cha and bachata.

Dancers at Summer Salsa on Sparks Street

Merengue’s simplicity is also one of its greatest benefits to a salsa social: it is a great way to get the crowd going, with its catchy tunes and upbeat melody; it is an opportunity to throw the rules out the window, goof off, and just enjoy the music.

All in all, merengue in an integral part of the salsa scene, and we at Azúcar! can’t be thankful enough! You say merengue, we say yes please!

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