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Home » Culture » Cuba » Cuban Music » Salsa and Merengue

Salsa and Merengue

Learn about the latin music salsa & merengue. Information about the Caribbean rhythms & dances.

Did you know that the majority of Latin dances derive their roots from Afro-Caribbean rhythms? And these dances, especially Salsa and Merengue, are popular not just because of the benefits one reaps (happiness, social connections, improved self image, weight loss, better coordination and overall good health); but because they are the type of body-shaking social activities that are so much fun, it's an actual workout! The best thing about Latin dances? Anyone with enthusiasm can learn!


If you thought “salsa” was a tasty sauce you would dip your crisps in, then you haven't been introduced to the very essence of Hispanic culture. Salsa is a high-energy, high-impact couples dance. Movies like 1998's “Dance with Me”, the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club”, and legendary Salsa-singer Celia Cruz have made salsa an international phenomenon. Despite originating in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the nearby Caribbean islands during the 1950's, salsa's first recognition as a dance came in the New York City Latin nightclubs of the 1970's.

One aspect of salsa many non-Hispanics have trouble accepting is that salsa is a strictly “macho” dominated dance that follows the gender role assignment of traditional Hispanic society. This means that the man is the leader and the woman, as the follower, must accept and follow his lead. In salsa dancing, the man guides the woman by giving her "claves" (signals), which are little tugs, pushes, or checks at the right time in the momentum of the dance that lets the woman know when to turn, hesitate, dip, cross-body, etc., in a flawless manner.

Mastering the basic steps, the timing and the beats of salsa rhythms before moving on to learning the more leader-follower specific hand and body movements is easy and less complicated than it sounds. Understand that the rhythm of the music is what marks the beat - and once you get the beat, you'll feel the steps and motions fall into place naturally.

Get started listening to the romantic songs of Marc Anthony, the upbeat style of legendary salsa Queen Celia Cruz, and the nostalgic tributes to Cuba of Latin sensation Gloria Estefan.


As with salsa,“merengue” is not just a culinary term for cake frosting, but the name of the national dance (and national pastime!) of the Caribbean island of Dominican Republic. Merengue is danced on every festive occasion in “the Republic” (as Dominicans sentimentally call the island), and also throughout the rest of the Caribbean, Central and South America countries.

With less complex movements, merengue is easier to learn than salsa as it allows more freedom (and hip-swaying) movements. It's a fast-paced dance whose steps simulate marching in place. With no running around all over the dance floor, it is an ideal “spot” dance: marching in rhythm through turns, dips and other improvisational moves that can be danced with bodies close together or separated. There is a slight “limping” in the steps which is explained in “Merengue Típico” by Arsenio de la Rosa. In this 3-minute song, Arsenio sings about Columbus' arrival to the island (called Quisqueya), the island's colonial era, its buildings, the Dominicans' fight for independence and the story of a hero soldier who danced merengue with a limp because of a wounded leg. The Dominican people, always humorous, proudly proceeded to imitate his limping. The idea stuck and it is the way merengue is danced today.

Enjoy merengue listening to the following Dominican singers: Johnny Ventura, Wilfrido Vargas, and today's world famous singer of ballads, merengues bachatas and even gospel-version merengue: Juan Luis Guerra. If you want the best of the best, dubbed the “classic” of all merengues, take a listen to the song “Compadre Pedro Juan”.

If you want to meet people, have an amazing time, and experience “tremendo sabor” (tremendous flavor), study Spanish in don Quijote Latin American destinations of Cuba (Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad) or Guatemala (Antigua)… and learn to dance salsa and merengue!