Latin America is known for its spicy dances such as the tango and the salsa, but the Caribbean is home to a rich tradition of dance as well. Caribbean dances run the gamut, from ballroom and ballet, to steps created for dancing in the streets.
Though the dances of the festivals, parties, and streets may be the best-known dancing in the islands, travelers searching for more formal routines can find just what they're looking for. However, as is true with many other Caribbean arts, talented dancers often leave the islands looking for opportunities to practice their skills.
The differences in dance styles throughout the Caribbean abound, but there are two main types of national ballets that put on performances throughout the islands. Some specialize in traditional ballets, such as Swan Lake. Others perform folkloric dancing, educating and entertaining travelers with traditional dances from the islands, such as the Jamaican jonkonnu dance.
However, like many of their members, these dance troupes often travel internationally, bringing a taste of Caribbean style to places around the world. It may be easier than you think to learn a bit about Caribbean culture.
Ballet is common, but it often infuses a touch of Caribbean heat into performances. The Ballet Martiniquais is one of the world's most prestigious dance companies, where brightly colored costumes accent traditional ballets. Martinique is also home to Les Grands Ballets de la Martinique, which offers traditional folkloric styles and costumes to its patrons.
Aruba also has a folkloric troupe, the National Folkloric Ballet of Aruba, as does Puerto Rico - also called the National Folkloric Ballet. Puerto Rico is also home to Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, which was named, upon its debut on the mainland, one of the United States' best kept secrets.
Wide acclaim for Caribbean dance, however, doesn't end with its troupes. Ballerinas from throughout the region have been "discovered" by international communities. In the early 1900s, Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso found her way to the stage in New York but returned to Cuba to help found its National Ballet.
The Dominican Republic more recently let go of dancer Michele Jimenez, who began her training with the Ballet Clasico Nacional de Santo Domingo. Now she dances with the Washington Ballet.
Of course, Caribbean dance has spread to every community in which Caribbean immigrants had settled. Ballet Creole in Toronto specializes in African and Caribbean styles fused with traditional dance in an urban setting, which results in a form that is totally unique.
Many say that no matter where you turn in the Caribbean, you will hear music. Each island has its own particular rhythms, but the result is the same: dance. Some of these styles fuse to become new styles, but many of their basic elements remain the same.
Mambo was popularized in nightclubs in Havana, Cuba, in the mid-1900s and was brought to the U.S. via Harlem. However, mambo evolved into the sexy dance style known as salsa when it was taken from the ballrooms and the dance floors to the streets. It combines many Afro-Caribbean elements but remains essentially faithful to the mambo.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti brought meringue to dance floors, but there are two different stories about the development of this dance. The first tells the story of a war hero returning from battle with an injured leg, limping and dragging one leg as he danced, all of the people at the victory celebration felt obliged to imitate his dance out of sympathy. The other story says it began with chained slaves, who were forced to drag their heavy foot along as they cut sugar to the beat of a drum.
Using a rhythm that is favored throughout the Caribbean, the meringue is an easy dance to learn for those who want to have a bit of Latin flair in their dance while on vacation. It's also well-suited to small, crowded dance floors since it does not require much room. Bachata combines meringue with the romantic bolero style.
The rumba, originally a slow dance, has become even slower over time. It is another very sexy dance, and one where the pattern is very small and good for crowded dance floors. Meanwhile the cha cha is a mid-tempo dance, a variant between the rumba and the mambo.
Zouk is a form of dance and music in the French Caribbean descended from the Brazilian lambada. From the word "party" in French Creole, zouk has been described as a lighter version of the lambada, whose music combines reggae, salsa, and meringue with a fast beat.
The beguine is a dance also adapted in Guadeloupe and Martinique, though it began as a slow rumba. This slow, close dance gained popularity in major part due to a song written about the dance by Cole Porter.
Throughout the Caribbean, music and dance go hand-in-hand. This is particularly true when it comes to new and popular dance styles. Dances are often named for the music or song that they resulted from.
On Jamaica, dancehall music often inspires new styles, and these styles can change as quickly as the popular music itself. These are usually named by the song, but songs themselves call out new dance moves.
Other dances like the limbo are traditional dances that became popular for a short while. Many dances develop on the country sides of the islands, the opposite of Jamaican dancehall styles, which are urban-influenced.
Knowing a bit about the basics of Latin dances can often go a long way for those who want to get out on the dance floor. Dancing is something that many islanders enjoy in its traditional, classical, and modern forms.
Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.