Although simpler in terms of dance moves unlike the Tango, Milonga and Rumba, Merengue is classified as an amorous dance. Merengue is somehow light and frothy, just like the sugar and egg whites confection that bears the same name, subtle and delicate in its movements. Merengue, as a dance form is also popular and has a bit of national status in the neighboring country of Haiti. To make the distinction, the similar dance in Haiti is called Méringue, also sometimes spelled as Mereng.
It started out as an imitated court dance but additional steps, a fusion of dance moves from other dance forms began to be incorporated into the original merengue steps, and it’s now danced in different tempos, depending on the dancers and the music that they have chosen as accompaniment. The original merengue is a fun dance, something that is easy to learn, with basic steps and repetitive movements suitable for young and adult dancers who would like to spend some enjoyable time on the dance floor. The competition and ballroom form of Merengue takes on another form altogether.
According to the accounts of Dominicans themselves, Merengue evolved from the French Minuet mixed with African flair during the 1700s. It was said that the African slaves tried to mimic the social dance they have seen in their masters’ houses. Over time, the slaves found that the dance was quite boring and lacked the rhythm and bounce they were more used to and slowly added their own traditional African moves like the fast movement of the feet and the thumping beats of the drum.
Still, living in a conservative society during those times, Merengue was a group dance rather than a dance for couples when it gained ground. It was a circle dance, with the partners facing each other and holding their partner at arms’ length.
The exact origin of the dance can no longer be traced. Some accounts said that it started with the African slaves, who worked in pairs with one of their legs chained to the other as they cut the sugar cane to the staccato beat of a drum. With their inner legs chained together, they were forced to drag their tied legs as they worked, just like in a three-legged race. This dragging movement created the slight hip sway seen in the dance.
Another account said that the dance evolved as a tribute to a local hero who lost his leg during one of the many wars he had fought for the Dominican Republic. Given a hero’s welcome, they held a festival for the victor and presented him with a wooden stump to replace his lost leg. True to form, they paid homage to him by dancing with one of their legs being dragged.
Regardless of the true origins of the dance, what is certain is that the people of the Dominican Republic, and later other Latin American countries, have fully embraced it with open arms and swinging hips.
Merengue Basic Moves
If you were to look closely while Merengue is being performed, you would notice that the basic footwork involves the left foot moving outward then the right foot following in the close position, in a subtle imitation of dragging one foot stiffly. Dancers make a series of small side steps called chase or chasse, repeating the steps and using the same foot that initially made the open move to travel across the floor. Today, the partners hold each other in the closed position, in what is called Merengue de sálon, with the male placing the left hand below the shoulder blade of the female. Shoulders of the partners are squared, with the female placing her arm over that of her partner’s and laying her hand on his shoulder. The right arm is bent at the elbow and raised to clasp each other’s hands.
The change of weight from one foot to the other as the partners move around the dance floor cause the hips, of both the man and the woman, to move ever so slightly, in a smooth and natural rhythm to move up and down in a continuous motion. The upper torso remains upright, with the shoulders firm. The movement of the hip is also guided by the control exerted by the dancer from the rib cage. The hip movements of both partners go in the same direction throughout the duration of the dance.
There are very few turns in Merengue, and the turns are not dramatic spins like in other dances but rather made using casual steps just like walking and could be achieve with as many steps as the partners choose. It the dancers do decide to turn, they could use a one-hand turn or employ a two-handed turn called Merengue de Figura.
Official dance of the Dominican Republic
The music and the dance had strong African roots and the European nobility initially showed strong repulsion for the Merengue. It was Rafael Trujillo, the former president of the Dominican Republic, who was responsible for its acceptance and popularity and for naming Merengue, both the dance and the music as the official dance and music of the country.
Just like its dance counterpart, the origin of Merengue music had been obscured by time. By all accounts, it was first mentioned in 1854 in the Dominican Republic. The music had suggestive lyrics and the movements of the dancers were on the sensual side, the reasons for the three versions of Merengue music played in the country, depending on the occasion and the location. The oldest form is the Merengue Tipico, also called perico ripiao (ripped parrot), said to be the name of brothel where the music was regularly played. Big band merengue or merengue de orquesta and guitar merengue or merengue de guitarra are the other two types.
The Merengue music is arranged in a fast 2/4 beat, traditionally played with an accordion, a güira and a two-sided drum called a tambora. Also common are caballito rhythm arrangement with a quarter and two-eighths beat. For the purists, though, the true Merengue music is one with a quintillo, its signature rhythm, characterized by a regular pattern that is broken by five successive hits on the drum, played at the transition between each second and third beats. The hits on the drum alternate between using drumstick and the hand.
Francisco “Ñico” Lora was a prolific merengue composed and popularized the inclusion of the accordion in Merengue music. Tatico Hernandez on the other hand introduced the use of a saxophone and replaced the marimba with the electric bass. He was behind some popular Merengue songs like Comiendo Gallina, El Mango and Altagracia. Other composers continued the innovation while still composing Merengue Tipico, using a bass drum with foot pedals. Around the early part of the 1900s, new composers began to appear, composing orchestrated and written musical scores for Merengue. Santiago’s Juan Francisco Garcia composed Ecos del Cibao in 1918. Luis Alberti wrote the Compadre Pedro Juan in 1936. After 1961, other composers and band leaders began to upgrade Merengue’s beat, creating more showy choreography that showed influences of salsa, and some even with rock and disco rhythms. Fusion Merengue was popularized by groups such as Cheche Abreu and Los Hermanos Rosario. The new and more basic rhythms made it easier to adapt other styles like the Mexican rancheras, pop music from North America, the vallenato from Colombia and the Dominican Republic’s own bachata.
Johnny Ventura, whose real name is Juan de Dios Ventura Soriano, is a singer and bandleader from the Dominican Republic made hits like El Ron Es Mi Medicina, Cabo E’ Vela and Fiquito y Toño. Later his songs began to incorporate American music elements as merengue became more popular in the United States.
Popularity in and out of the Dominican Republic
Within the Dominican Republic, Merengue gained its popularity during the mid-19th century. It was the main dance in every occasion that calls for dancing in the country. Soon, it became known throughout South America and the Caribbean and included in the standard dances of Latin America.
When Merengue was introduced in New York in the early 1960s by immigrants from the Dominican Republic, competition with other Latin dances was stiff. It did eventually gained foothold in the club scene, as the steps are easy to learn. Its glory days in the Big Apple came in the 1970s, and revived during the turn of the 21st century. While the original Merengue had the basic step called paso de la empalizada in Spanish, or a stick-fence step in English, it was replaced by the more sensual Cuban motion where the dancers slightly bend their knees to exaggerate the swing of the hips when the weight is transferred from one foot to the other while straightening the knee. This is the distinct characteristic of the Merengue as performed as a social dance in the United States, taught by dance studios specializing in Latin American dances, such as the cha cha, salsa, mambo and rumba.
In the Dominican Republic, the biggest merengue celebration is the Merengue Festival, which is held in the last week of July each year. For more than 30 years, the Dominicans in the capital city of Santo Domingo flock to the streets and dance away to the top Merengue bands in the country churning out the pulsating rhythm and frenetic beats that typifies Merengue music. There are free concerts during the Merengue Festival and it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable and highly anticipated dance celebrations in the country.
A standard Latin American dance
It’s true that you can’t keep a good thing down and this is true of Merengue. The upbeat tempo simply proved too irresistible and so the dance and music genre quickly spread to other South American countries and all throughout the Caribbean. Today, Merengue has become synonymous with Latin American dancing. While Merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic, Mereng or Méringue is a national symbol in neighboring Haiti, with its music guitar-based rather than accordion-based original Merengue music from the Dominican Republic. Haitian Creole is also the language used in the Mereng songs from Haiti, which is still very much a part of the Haitian Mardi Graz.