Dance and the performing arts are an important part of Puerto Rican culture

Photo credit: © Jaime Olmo

Dance and music have always been traditional cultural expressions of Puerto Rico's ethnic heritage. There are many different styles of dance that are performed on the island, including salsa, merengue, danza, plena, bomba, and cha-cha, to name a few. The majority of Puerto Rico's dance steps are choreographed to accompany specific music, and the dance and the music usually share a name. The roots of dance on the island can be traced back as far as the days prior to European contact.

History of Dance

To learn about dance on Puerto Rico is to also learn about the island's history and culture. The Taíno Indians were Puerto Rico's first inhabitants before the arrival of European explorers. They held religious ceremonies and other traditional celebrations that featured dance as a focal point of the festivities. After the island was taken over by Spain, the music and dance of Puerto Rico became a blended harmony of musical styles borrowed from Spanish, African, and other European cultures, creating Puerto Rico's signature style of Latin dance.

Types of Dance

There are many different kinds of dance on Puerto Rico, and the following are some of the most popular styles.

  • Merengue: Adapted from a genre of dance on the Dominican Republic, the style of merengue that is popular on Puerto Rico has two variations. The choreography of the ballroom merengue is a basic two-step, but with a contrary twist of the hip to the right, which makes it somewhat difficult to perform. The two dance partners get into a vals, or waltz-like position. The couple then side steps, which is known as paso de la empalizada or "stick-fence step," followed by either a clockwise or counter-clockwise turn. During all of the dance steps of the ballroom merengue, the couple never separates. The second kind of merengue is called the Figure Merengue or Merengue de Figura, and the performing couple makes individual turns without letting go of each other's hands.

  • Plena: Couples dance the simple choreography of the plena, though there is evidence it was originally danced apart. Some plena dances are performed at a blistering pace, accompanying vivacious drum beats.

  • Bomba: The bomba dance is vital to the bomba genre of music and provides the foundation for the rhythm. The history of bomba can be traced back to the end of the 17th century, when the dance was developed along the coast of Puerto Rico. The West African slaves and their descendants used the bomba dances to celebrate baptisms, marriages, and even to plan rebellions. For this reason, the slaves were only allowed to hold these ceremonies on Sundays and feast days. The bomba is danced in pairs, but there is no contact. The dancers each challenge the drums and musicians with their movements by approaching them and performing a series of fast steps called floretea piquetes, creating a rhythmic discourse.

  • Salsa: The word salsa simply refers to a fusion of different rhythms and is a mixture of many Latin and Afro-Caribbean dances. Salsa music was first created in the 1960s, and since then its popularity has extended to the non-Latino world. Similar to the mambo, salsa dancing has a pattern of six steps danced over eight counts of music. Salsa has a side-to-side feel, and turns are an important part of the dance.

  • Cha-Cha: Named for the scraping sounds of the dancers feet, the cha-cha-cha is a spin-off of the mambo. Dancing the cha-cha consists of three quick steps called the triple step or cha-cha-cha, followed by two slower steps on the one beat and two beat.

Other Performing Arts

Theater is another form of cultural expression, and several professional theater institutions are located throughout Puerto Rico. The chart below will direct you to some of the island's theaters and performing arts centers:

Theater Telephone Number
(Area Code 787)
Teatro Music-Hall Sala Victoria Espinosa
San Juan
Café Teatro El Josco
San Juan
Teatro Emilio S. Belaval
San Juan
728-1515 (ext. 2345)
Teatro de la Universidad de Puerto Rico
San Juan
764-0000 (ext. 2085 or 2089)
Teatro Jesús María Sanromá
San Juan
751-0160 (ext. 233)
Centro de Bellas Artes Alejandro "Junior" Cruz


Puerto Rico's performing arts are an important part of the island's culture and are one of the best ways to understand the commonwealth's mixed heritage, while providing exciting entertainment.


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