Latin dance has a rich cultural history rooted in the traditional dances of native peoples of Latin America. These dances were heavily influenced by European colonists and African slaves during and after European colonization of Latin America. The dances we know today traveled to Europe and the U.S. where they were popularized by musicians and dance companies. Because of this rich and varied history, many Latin dances have several different forms. Those performed at ballroom competitions today are only the tip of the iceberg.
Latin dance originated in the traditional dances of indigenous cultures of Mexico, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Like many cultures around the world, dance was essential in communal ritual life. They were performed during rituals and festivals as a symbolic representation of cultural beliefs.
Native Latin dances were precisely structured and highly organized. They involved massive arrangements of dancers who moved in intricate patterns. Traditional dances symbolized many things including cataclysmic events, combat, the movement of workers sewing and harvesting, and the movement of astral bodies.
In the late 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish and Portuguese colonists conquered the indigenous empires. Catholic priests and monks incorporated Catholic saints and ideas into traditional rituals. The native ritual and festival calendar was also modified to coincide with Catholic events such as Ash Wednesday and Patronal Feasts. These blended rituals became an important part of colonial religious festivals.
During the 17th and 18th century, upper-class European immigrants brought fashionable European dances with them to Latin America. These dance styles swept quickly through Latin America. Over time, elements of European dance styles were adopted into indigenous dance rituals.
In the 19th century, social dances became fashionable in elite society. As they became more commonplace, they spread across urban and rural areas where African slaves left a lasting mark on the styles. African dance elements incorporated at that time include polycentric rhythms and movements, improvisation, body isolations, and whole-foot steps.
Development of Modern Latin Dance
Today’s popular Latin dances developed in separate cities and countries in organized social spheres. Many developed in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Spain, and were modified and formalized in the U.S. and Europe by professional musicians and dance companies. The Salsa has deep roots in Cuba, Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Bolero originated in Spain and Cuba then spread to the rest of Latin America. The Cha Cha, Rumba, and Mambo are dances of Cuban origin. The Merengue originated on the island of Hispaniola, which includes the Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Paso Doble traveled between Southern France to Spain. The Samba originates in Brazil.
Long before Americans and Europeans were dancing Salsa, Bolero, Cha Cha, Rumba, Mambo Merengue, Paso Doble, and Samba, indigenous peoples across Latin America were performing intricate dances during community gatherings and rituals. In the 15th-19th centuries, these vibrant dances were blended with European and African dance traditions. The dance forms we know today evolved from a profound and widespread dance tradition with a rich cultural heritage.