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Moving to Latin Beats

Latin dance styles, growing from South American, African and European traditions, make a splash in the United States. 

Dizzying spins and gasp-inducing drops, tightly coordinated rhythmic footwork and sensual, playful interactions—these are all defining characteristics of Latin dance in the United States. Drawing mostly from traditions born in Latin America and the Caribbean, Latin dance has grown to become a hugely popular art form within the United States and among dance enthusiasts around the world. 

“The United States is so multicultural, with a growing and diverse Latino population not just in big cities like New York City and Los Angeles, but in smaller towns as well,” says Lester Tomé, assistant professor of dance history at Smith College in Massachusetts. “Latin dance is one way for these communities to affirm their Latino identity and to reclaim ties with cultural traditions that go back generations.”

Latin dance forms are popular not just among Latinos, but also with a diverse global community of dancers, enthusiasts and appreciators. “Latin dance styles provide avenues for communication and self-expression, regardless of whether you’re a Latino or not,” says Tomé. “You can make friends and join a community when you dance. Some people also get interested because it’s a healthy form of exercise, both physical and mental.”

According to Tomé, the thriving world of Latin dance in the United States traces its roots to the early 20th century. American tourism to Cuba, as well as a transnational network of musicians connecting Havana and New York and technologies like music recording and radio, helped popularize rumba across the United States. Other Latin dance styles like mambo, samba and cha-cha became widely loved in the 1940’s and 1950’s for similar reasons. 

Even today, technology continues to play a role in the growing popularity of Latin dance. Instructional videos, for example, are easily accessible on YouTube. “Some of those videos are of good quality, which means you can learn new steps in a relatively easy manner,” says Tomé. “Through Facebook, you can connect to a network of dancers in your city and stay abreast of local and regional events. Due to these developments, it’s much easier to become an enthusiast and practitioner.”

One of the most popular and widespread Latin dance forms within the United States is salsa, a style Tomé describes as energetic and playful, with complex footwork and vibrant rhythms. “Salsa has deep Cuban and Puerto Rican roots, and also draws influence from jazz music and New York City itself of the 1960’s,” he says. “It’s a hybrid, a fusion of cultures that took place in America, where it developed in El Barrio—the Latin neighborhood of New York City—in connection to the Latino cultural movement during the Civil Rights era.”

“On the one hand, salsa can be traced to ways of moving and performing that enslaved people brought from Africa to the Americas,” he continues. “On the other hand, some elements of salsa are traceable to European culture. The way one partner turns the other, the way partners hold each other in an embraced position, and the geometric patterns of footwork are related to European ballroom traditions.” 

Tomé mentions tango as another thriving dance form in the United States. “Like salsa, tango is a blend of elements from Africa and Europe, but it developed into something unique in Argentina,” he says. “Unlike salsa, tango is meditative and introspective, with a sense of nostalgia and romance.” Tango partners dance very closely in smoldering, seductive ways. “The footwork of tango is very complex. The sequence of the steps is improvised, which requires creative resourcefulness and strong communication between partners,” Tomé continues. “It’s an immersive experience and can be a spectacle to watch.”

Latin dance forms from the Caribbean islands include merengue, a style that has its roots in the Dominican Republic and is believed to have come to the United States in the 1980’s. Tomé describes merengue as a form as playful as salsa, but with more straightforward choreographic and rhythmic vocabularies. 

Whether you are amid the salsa clubs of New York City or in a small village in India, learning more about Latin dance, and giving it a try, is as easy as getting online. “There are many blogs about Latin dance as well as videos on YouTube that can help you learn about salsa, tango and other styles,” says Tomé. “I also recommend that anyone who wants to go more in-depth look at the literature. In recent years, dance historians, sociologists and anthropologists have written excellent books that examine dance forms for their artistic values and sociocultural complexities. These books look at how these forms have been used to construct identity and create meaning within the communities that practice them.”


Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.