Since the 1930s Merengue is readily
recognized as the national dance of the Dominican Republic. However, there
is some controversy regarding it's origins. To get an unbiased opinion we
really do need to differentiate between the music's historical roots and the
nostalgia of the dance itself. Musically, it has links with Cuba but the
dance belongs to the island of Hispaniola - one third of which is now called
Haiti and the other two thirds make up the Dominican Republic.
A quick look at the island's history might assist in providing some
understanding to the debate about Merengue's origins.
In 1697 Spain ceded one third of the island of Hispaniola to France, who
created the colony of Saint-Dominique. The French colony became the most
productive agricultural colony in the Western Hemisphere. By contrast the
Spanish colony of Santo Domingo was small and it's economy mainly depended
on subsistence agriculture. Prosperous French plantation owners sought to
maximize production by importing great numbers of slaves.
By 1790 Saint-Dominique was a powder keg waiting to explode! About 500,000
black slaves were being managed by only 57,000 whites and freedmen (in Santo
Domingo there were about 60,000 black slaves to 65,000 whites and freedmen).
The inevitable happened and in 1791 the slaves revolted. The initial
reaction of Freedmen, French colonists and Spanish colonists to news of the
slaughter of Frenchmen to armies of rebellious slaves was to flee to Cuba
taking some of their slaves with them. It took 20 years before the first of
these émigrés returned to the island. Hence the Cuban connection. It is
regularly discussed whether the Merengue music was taken to Cuba
(influencing the music there) or whether on return to Santo Domingo the
émigrés brought back Cuban music which in turn influenced the development
The independent nation of Haiti was established in 1804 and ruled the entire
island to 1844. Hence, the Haitian connection. Of the dance; one story
alleges it originated with slaves who were chained together and, of
necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of the
drums. This being true the dance probably originated with the slaves of the
However, the most popular story relates that a great hero of the revolution,
who had been crippled in one leg was welcomed home with a victory
celebration. It was known that he loved to dance but all he could do now,
was step with one leg and drag the other to close. Out of respect, everyone
dancing copied him and the Merengue was born. The trouble with this story is
that "which revolution" is not mentioned. If it is the slave revolt then the
dance originated in Haiti. If it was the revolt of Spanish émigrés against
the Haitians then the dance could be either Dominican or Haitian depending
on which side tells the story.
Who invented the dance and how it came to exist really doesn't matter to
anyone but the Dominicans and maybe the Haitians! The important thing is the
imagery of the above stories, both describe stepping side and dragging the
other leg to close both are worth remembering as you learn the basic dance
From the middle of the 18th century the Merengue developed as rural music in
both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, the Haitian méringue is sung
in Creole and tends to have a slower, more nostalgic sound, based on guitar.
The most representative form of Merengue only survives in the rural areas of
the Dominican Republic. It consists of paseo (walk), body and "jaleo". In
time the walk disappeared, the body has been extended and the jaleo has been
alienated by the insertion of exotic rhythms.
These days, Merengue is done with the man holding the woman in a vals-like
position, they step to the side (paso de la empalizada - stick fence step).
Turn clockwise or counter clockwise while maintaining closed dance position
(merengue de salón) or individually perform turns while holding onto at
least one hand of their partner (merengue de figura).
Strangers and older couples tend to keep a respectable distance from each
other, while more intimate couples break the barriers of personal space and
entwine their bodies. Whatever age the contagious beat causes the adrenaline
to rise and you can imagine yourself dancing bare foot to the pulse of a
From 1838 to 1849, a dance called URPA or "UPA Habanera" (UPA from Havanna),
which had a movement called Merengue, gained some popularity throughout the
Caribbean. Whether or not URPA is the root of the Merengue is unconfirmed.
Extant documentation from about 1850, indicates that Merengue was very
popular among the peasant classes. However, because of its obscene lyrics
urban class moralists considered it vulgar. Consider the following lyric and
make your own judgment...
All prostitutes are from Santiago
and they have a good life in Santiago
and because of that damn woman
I am from Santiago too
Its known that in 1875 the moralist, Ulises Francisco Espaillat, started a
campaign against Merengue. However, by that time the dance, especially in
the Cibao region, had been so integrated into peasant society that the
campaign failed. As more educated musicians from the urban classes were
introduced to the Merengue rhythm, the music started to be modified. By the
beginning of the 20th century, educated musicians established Merengue's
musical form and attempts were made to introduce it into the urban
dancehalls. However, the lyrical content hadn't been changed and because of
the vulgar lyrics mainstream society continued to reject it. The situation
changed from 1930 onwards.
In 1930 Rafael L. Trujillo, used several "Perico Ripiao" bands for his
presidential campaign. Using the recently installed radio stations he caused
the Merengue rhythm to be heard in the parlors of the urban classes.
Trujillo became dictator of the Dominican Republic and held power from the
1930s until his assassination in 1961. He was from peasant roots and he
promoted the Merengue as a symbol of national expression and the culture of
the former underclass. Though he repressed its traditional role as a music
of social commentary, he did provide a forum for the musicians in the
dancehalls. Larger Merengue orchestras were developed, with piano and brass
to cater to the taste of the new urban audiences.
Still for some time Merengue wasn't accepted by the more refined classes,
until an aristocratic family of Santiago asked Luis Alberti to write a
Merengue song with "decent lyrics" for their daughter's fifteenth birthday.
Alberti wrote "Compadre Pedro Juan". The song was not only accepted, but
became a hit. With the help of the radio the Merengue then started to
disseminate rapidly. As its popularity grew variants of the Merengue rhythm
began to appear and while the rural peasants continued playing Merengue the
same way (Folkloric Merengue), a new music form began to appear that we
associate with the Merengue today.
Merengue was originally interpreted with the instruments common people owned
and were easy to obtain, Dominican Bandurrias, Tres and Cuatro. At the end
of the 19th century the German accordion displaced the bandurria in the
Cibao region. The music began to be played on accordion, saxophone, box bass
with metal plucked keys, a guayano (a metal scraper transformed from a
kitchen implement), and a two ended tambora drum, struck with hand and
stick. However, due to the accordion's melodic limitations, the music itself
became limited, and consequently altered the Merengue.
Since the 1960's the sound has changed even more with the accordion being
replaced by electric guitar, keyboards and synthesizers. The saxophone is
now highlighted, giving the music a sharp, stuttering momentum that the old
style only hinted at. Despite the change of instruments, the basic rhythm of
Merengue remains unmistakable, with the tambora keeping a fast pulse,
working around conga patterns, while the bass drum, operated with a foot
pedal, provides a continuous 1-2-1-2 pulse
Today, throughout the world, Merengue has become a Salsa sister dance, with
many of the Salsa body moves being practised in the easier to perform
There is no intentional hip movement in
any of the Latin dances. The hip motion is a natural consequence of changing
weight from one foot to the other. Sub-consciously we do this when walking
backwards. We feel for the first back step with our toe, roll onto the small
of our foot and place our weight onto the leg, as we lower the heel.
The Roll of the foot
Unless the music is really slow (Bolero/Rumba) always take small steps. If
the music is really fast (Salsa/Cumbia), max it at just a half foot length!
When you step, whether forward, backward or side, step onto the inside ball
of your foot (big toe), roll your foot onto the small ball (little toe) and
imaging you are squashing a grape under your heel, place the foot flatly
onto the floor, straightening the leg. If you have done this correctly, your
body weight is now on the foot you have lowered and you should be able to
stand on one leg without falling over.
You shouldn't need to consciously bend your knee. Relax! As you change
weight onto one leg the other leg should naturally bend at the knee and the
heel of the foot raise. In the Latin dances whenever one leg is straight
(bearing weight), the other should be bent. If this hasn't happened then
your weight is probably centered. Simply shift your weight onto the
appropriate leg. It may take a bit of practice to co-ordinate your
movements. Try not to think about the isometrics, just let your body do what
Your weight should be focused into the middle of the foot. Sorry about the
analogy but if you are in the correct position and I drove a pike through
the middle of your skull, it would come down your spine, come out at the
base, then penetrate the mid thigh, follow the leg skeleton down and come
out the middle of your foot. If your weight was centered (incorrect
position) the pike would come out between your legs. Simple fact of physics,
center your weight and you won't be able to move either foot. To help
isolate the hips and increase hip roll, turn your feet out in a V shape
(heels closest together) and as you straighten your leg (change weight) bend
the other leg toward the straightened leg. The hip roll looks more
exaggerated if you keep the upper body steady (don't bounce around or sway
the upper body about - it looks nerdy). There shouldn't be any perceivable
rise and fall in the body. If there is, you are raising on the ball of the
foot, instead of rolling the foot and lowering the heel - probably means you
are not changing weight fully onto the leg. If you are swaying the upper
body, it will throw both your timing and leads out (or in the case of the
girl the acceptance of a lead), not to mention, probably annoy your partner.
Girls seem to think they look sexy if they sway about but it looks really
bad and is a mega turnoff for the guy. So don't do it!
Leading and Following
Its helpful to think of the Latin Dances as being sexual pantomimes. Even
though the man leads the whole dance, the idea is that the man is trying to
seduce the lady, he is pushing forward and she is pushing him away. So
maintain a slight forward pressure with your body. If you are in hand to
hand position the man keeps his hands/arms at the lady's hip height. If you
are in closed dance position - the man's right hand should be just below the
shoulder blade (thumb on the back bra strap), and his left hand gently takes
hers in his - the lady must never place her right hand above the man's
shoulder, if he is short she places her thumb on the intersection of the
muscles just below the shoulder (he should have a little slot where it fits
naturally), if he is tall then the lady positions her hand lower down the
arm. Her aim is to have her elbow slightly above his. That way he can lead
her. A simple rule for the man: if the girl is much shorter than you, stand
further away from her. If she is much taller than you, stand closer. The
cardinal rule is hold each other comfortably. Under no circumstances should
you stretch to reach your partner.
Arms and Elbows
Try not to thrash your arms and elbows about. You'll look silly and probably
cause an accident on the dance floor. The man should use his arms to tell
the girl when to go back or come forward or whatever. Both need to keep some
tension (pressure) in the arms, so the man can lead. A common problem is
girls complain that guys can't lead. These girls should consider that maybe
they aren't allowing the guy to lead. Typically, they, are the ones that
sway their body about too much, flap their arms, bounce around, fake their
hip movements and do not sustain hand/arm pressure when dancing. A guy can't
lead dead fish, seagulls or bowls of jelly. Guys, even if you are a
beginner, you can dance effectively, if you stand erect and keep a firm
forward pressure on your partner.
Although its useful to imagine the Latin dances as sexual pantomimes, that
doesn't mean the man should be sexually aggressive. The dances should be
performed with a hint of sexuality but remember, children maybe watching.
Guys keep your upper body erect (that means from the waist up) and be gently
aggressive. Girls and Guys, stand up straight, look at your partner. Enjoy
- Tricks & Tips
If you lose the beat and find yourself out of step with the music don't try
to catch up. It will make things worse and confuse your partner. Instead
just close your feet to return to the start position (do nothing). Wait for
the second beat of the next bar of music and start again (step forward or
Guys be considerate of your partner
You might want to perform some fancy
move but she might be on the wrong foot, not ready or someone has got in the
road making it hard or even dangerous for her to do the move. Be aware of
what is around you and always lead the girl into an open space before you do
a move and most importantly, before you do a move, wait until you are both
obviously in the correct position. She'll appreciate it and consider you an
above average dancer.
Girls you can't both lead!
So let the guy lead. After all it is
his job! If he is having trouble be considerate and show him what you are
expecting but be warned, he might be leading you into a move you haven't
learnt yet, so before getting too helpful, see what he has to offer.
Guys and Girls
A lot of moves have been invented from
people making mistakes. If either of you does something the other didn't
expect and it felt or looked good - assume it's a new move. If you started
to do a standard move and something happens where you have to modify the
steps (eg: you forgot what to do) - fake it (innovate), you might have just
invented a new move!
Dance is about partnership and team work
A marriage of two minds, if not bodies.
Guys you might be leading but you are not the center of attention (nor are
you girls). Co-operate with each other! Your partner doesn't have eyes in
the back of their head. So if your partner is stepping backwards, and
something will obstruct their step, its your responsibility to prevent them
from stepping back. Guys, be prepared to accept a lead from the girl, it
might save you from injury!
Like most modern music, Merengue is written in 4/4 time (4 beats to a bar of
music, and therefore four dance steps to a bar of music.) In Merengue you
move on every beat!
To perform it really well, all you need to remember is the most popular
story relating its origins. A hero of the revolution, who loved to dance,
was honored with a ball on his homecoming but with a wounded leg all he
could do, was make a small step to the side with one leg and drag the other
Here we have a description of the steps of the entire dance. Step side, drag
to close, Step side, drag to close or Step forward (or back), drag to close.
What could be simpler!
The complications in the dance come with the body moves and these will be
discussed in the next section - Basic Moves. The timing is often described
as slow-slow, where the slow represents one whole beat of the music but this
can be confusing to the beginner. It is probably better to think of the
movement as Step (Side, Back or Forward) and Drag to close (Side, Back or
Forward). Then do it again.
In Merengue you can start moving on nearly any beat but to give the dance
its character, you change weight as you step to the side (count 1), again as
you roll your foot (count &) and drag the other foot to close (count 2).
This will become meaningful in the description of the basic steps. Counting
from the 1st beat of the music, my preferred count is 1 & 2, 3 & 4.
- Basic Movements
There are three basic movements to the Merengue - the Side Basic Movement,
the Forward Basic Movement and the Back Basic Movement. Variously coupled or
combined and often with small variations in body position, these three
movements create the Merengue moves. A move is loosely defined as any
sequence of eight steps. Generally, you don't change from one movement to
the other until a count of eight steps but in some sequences movements are
interchanged after four steps and still some others after two steps.
The Lady facing the man, will perform steps complimenting his. So if the man
moves his left foot forward, back or side left, the lady will move her right
foot back, forward or side right. This is very sensible. Otherwise, the man
would probably tread on her!
As you dance the Merengue the look and feel of the dance will be
considerably enhanced if you keep your upper body erect and as still as
possible. Try not to thrash your arms about. Focus the Merengue action into
your legs. This will provide you with the latin hip motion that makes
Merengue look seductively attractive.
Side Basic Movement
The Man waits to start with his weight on the right leg. On the first beat
he steps left onto the inside edge of his left foot. On the half beat, he
rolls his left foot (puts the foot flat on the floor) and changes weight
onto it. On the next beat using the inside edge of the foot, he drags the
right foot to close, returning to the start position.
The lady does complimentary steps. Side right, drag to close left.
Forward Basic Movement
This movement is usually performed after completing a Side Basic or Back
The Man starts with his weight on the right leg. On the first beat he steps
left slightly forward onto the inside edge of his left foot. On the half
beat, he rolls his left foot (puts the foot flat on the floor) and changes
weight onto it. On the next beat, he drags the right foot forward to close,
returning to the start position.
The lady does the complimentary steps - the Back Basic Movement.
Back Basic Movement
This movement is usually performed after completing a Side Basic or Forward
The Man starts with his weight on the right leg. On the first beat he steps
slightly back onto the inside edge of his left foot. On the half beat, he
rolls his left foot (puts the foot flat on the floor) and changes weight
onto it. On the next beat, he drags the right foot back to close, returning
to the start position.
The lady does the complimentary steps - the Forward Basic Movement.
We attempt to teach beginners a standard choreography that
can be applied in multiple dances. This allows the man to master his leads
while diversifying the number of dances he can perform. The First sequence
captures elements that need to be mastered before attempting more advanced
Many of the leads and body moves used in Merengue can be used in Mambo,
Salsa, Cha Cha, Rock'n'Roll and Swing but for now we'll concentrate on the
basic Merengue Sequences.
The First Sequence
Starting the sequence in closed dance (vals) position. Do a Curved Side
Basic for 8 steps. Into a forward basic for 4 steps. Into a push away back
basic, breaking into two hand position (4 steps). Into lady wrap (4 steps),
with forward walks (4 steps). Complete with a lady unwind (4 steps),
followed by forward basic (4 steps). Repeat the sequence or try a different
combination of moves.
Remember that most of the Latin dances are closely related and have a strong
Congas basis. There was a time that the native dances were danced as a
sexual pantomime. When performing the dance, you want to be close to your
partner, and unless your performing a turn, never turn away from each other
(your aim is to always be facing each other). Even though the man leads the
whole dance, the idea in all moves, is that the man is trying to seduce the
lady and she is pushing him away. Remember to keep a forward pressure
between you and your partner. For the man it makes leading easier and for
the lady, acceptance of the lead more intuitive.
The Curved Side Basic
This is the most basic and common move. Usually its performed for a full
count of eight steps and is curved, so that on completion of the eight steps
you have completed a full circle. The man moves around the lady. So, he
needs to take slightly bigger steps than the lady. The move is performed in
Vals (closed dance) position. Simply perform the side basic movement four
times for a count of eight steps (see section on basic movements).
However, instead of simply stepping side man left; step at an angle. Step
side but slightly forward. As you step, slightly twist your upper body
following the direction of the turn. Then complete the move with right drag
to close. The lady does complimentary steps. Side right but slightly back,
left drag to close.
The Push Away
This move is used to convert from closed dance position into two handed
position. Starting the sequence in closed dance (vals) position. Do a Curved
Side Basic for 8 steps. Into a forward basic for 4 steps. On the next four
steps both the man and woman perform Back Basic Movements. The man leads
this by pushing away from the lady with his left hand. They fall into two
hand position as the man releases the lady with his right hand and as he
steps back slides his right hand along the ladies left hand until her hand
falls into his (4th step). The lady does complimentary steps. On the last
four steps of the Push Away, she steps backward away from the man. At
completion of the move you are eight steps apart.
The Lady Wrap
This move can be used after converting from closed dance position into two
handed position and you are eight steps apart. Throughout this move, keep
hold of your partner's hands. The move simply requires the lady to walk four
anti-clockwise steps (reverse half turn), so she ends up on the right hand
side of the man, facing in the same direction as him. The man, simply
performs the first four steps of the curved forward basic, as the lady
Assuming you have just completed the Push Away move, you are in two handed
position, eight steps away from your partner. As you complete the move, the
man lifts the lady's right hand (his left) bringing it across (to his right)
so that it is raised above the ladies head and more or less in front of her.
The lady steps forward right, closing left to perform a quarter turn. She
repeats this sequence once. As the lady completes her last turn the man
lowers her right hand in front of her. You should now be in the wrap
position. You could finish the eight step sequence by simply unwrapping the
lady (lady unwind), replicating a similar sequence used in Cha Cha, but
then you'd lose the seductive illusion of Merengue. Instead, keeping the
wrap position, perform a forward curved basic for four steps. Then do the
Lady Unwind, and return to closed dance position by performing a forward
The Lady Unwind
There are numerous moves that end with either the man or lady in the wrap
position. Usually, to return to the start position, whoever is "wrapped",
simply reverses the steps they performed to become wrapped. Assuming you are
in the Lady wrap position. The man raises the lady's right hand above her
head and she steps forward right, close left making a quarter anti-clockwise
turn. She repeats this sequence once, so that she ends up standing in front
of the man. While she is doing this the man performs the curved forward
John Barendrecht, History of Dance
Tambora y Guira, Merengue History
Sue Steward, Merengue