Introduction to Cha-Cha

Cha-cha, or cha-cha-cha is often a welcome presence whenever it is played at salsa socials; it signals a change of pace, and a chance to emphasize sensuality over speed for the next 3-4 minutes.

Michael Buble – Sway – A pop cha-cha that’s quite popular nowadays

The origin of cha-cha music
Cha-cha music was introduced to the world by Cuban composer and violinist Enrique Jorrin in 1953. Said to have been derived from other popular dances at the time including mambo and rumba, cha-cha got its name by imitating the shuffling of the dancer’s feet as the music plays syncopations during the 4th and 8th beat.

Enrique Jorrin – La Enganadora – Old, old, OLD school cha-cha music

The origin of cha-cha dance
The cha-cha dance is said to have been formalized by a French ballroom/Latin dancer by the name of Pierre Jean Phillipe Zurcher-Margolle (he goes by the name of Monsieur Pierre; I can see why). Monsieur Pierre visited Cuba in the 1950s to see what Cubans were dancing at the time, and noticed the this new trend, and brought the idea to England, eventually creating what is now known as the ballroom cha-cha-cha.

Bryan Watson and Carmen Vincelj doing international ballroom cha-cha

Back to the streets
While ballroom cha-cha is still celebrated in ballroom classes everywhere, this form of cha-cha is not what we dance out on the social scene. Ballroom cha-cha is characterized for traveling sideways in an “L” pattern, while “street” cha-cha is remarkably similar to salsa, and is danced in a linear pattern. While I do not have an exact explanation to how street salsa evolved to what it is today, I have a few theories on why it happened:

  1. When comparing the two styles, ballroom cha-cha definitely has more complex footwork, since it requires the dancers to switch multiple directions while doing their basic (for example, the guys need to move back, then forward, right, forward, back, then left again). Street cha-cha, on the other hand, only moves in two directions – front and back. This simplicity makes street cha-cha faster to adapt, and easier to dance.
  2. Again, due to the “L” pattern, ballroom cha-cha requires a lot of maneuvering space. This is a big disadvantage when considering how limited the spaces are in most social dancing situations, making the wide swings and dramatic styling characteristic of ballroom cha-chas impractical.

Leon Rose dancing cha-cha at the Amsterdam International Salsa Congress.

Advanced reading: The “on 2” debate
This is an issue very close to my heart *deep breath*, so ok, here we go. Cha-cha, due to its mambo heritage, is supposed to be danced “on 2”, which means that we start our basic on the second beat, rather than the first beat. This is designed so that the “shuffling” syncopated steps synchronize well with the syncopations in cha-cha music.

Dancing cha-cha on 1 makes kittens very unhappy. Think of the kittens!

However, due to the higher difficulty of learning to dance on 2, there are many people who chooses to dance “on 1”, which counts like this: “1 and 2 and cha-cha-cha and 5 and 6 and cha-cha-cha and…” The result is that people end up shuffling when the music did not ask you to shuffle, and as anyone musically inclined would tell you… it physically hurts them to see people dancing cha-cha on 1. This is even worse for the musically inclined ladies, since they have to follow the lead’s (wrong) count.

With that in mind, here in Azúcar!, we will be teaching our students how to dance the “on 2” cha-cha. There is a cha-cha workshop held every Saturday from 1 to 2pm, so come check us out!

Michael Buble – Save the Last Dance for Me (fun fact: the guy busting out all the salsa moves about two thirds through the song is Jeff’s old salsa teacher!)


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