Merengue, the official music and dance of the Dominican Republic, remains an extremely popular source of entertainment in modern-day island life.
Allegedly dating back to the 1850s, Merengue, the official music and dance of Latin American and Caribbean nation, the Dominican Republic, remains an extremely popular source of entertainment in modern-day island life. Considerably different to when it first arrived on tropical shores more than 150 years ago, Merengueis now a partner dancewhich, in addition to a variety of other instruments, is accompanied most prominently today by the big-band-like sounds of the saxophone. Thanks to its easy-to-learn, improvisational and fun movements, the dance style continues to appeal to people of all ages and abilities both on the Caribbean island of its believed origins and in the United States where it arrived in the early 1900s.
- Although the precise origin of Merengue has never been unanimously agreed, historians claim that the dance form either derives from the one-foot dragging of chained slaves or from a Dominican community who, during one of the island’s numerous revolutions, dancedin a limping-style out of sympathy for a local wounded hero.
- Held annually in late July or early August in Santo Domingo, the island’s capital, the Festival del Merengueis a week-long event solely dedicated to Merengue dance and musical performances and serves to celebrate this central part of Dominican Republic’s creative culture.
Although the historical origin of Merengue music and dance may be uncertain, its nationalistic importance during the Trujillo era (1930-1961) is well-recorded. A keen Merengue dancer himself,
the powerful Dominican leader, Rafael Trujillo, endeavored to promote Merengue as a national symbol and it is thanks to his influential affiliation with the art form that Merengue is still so widely enjoyed in the Dominican Republic today.
As for the distinctive movements of the Merengue dance style, the routines consist ofthree; the side, the forward and the back basic movements. Although it was originally performed as a circle dance, the Merengue is now choreographed to be performed as a partner dance and participants hold each other in a closed position while moving to the traditional two-step Merengue beat. While the man holds the female partner’s waist with his right hand and keeps his left hand at her eye level, the female carries out steps which compliment all of those being performed by the male. For example, if the man moves his right foot back, forward or side right, the woman will move her left foot forward, back or side left. This creates a fluid movement which is truly mesmerizing for spectators to watch when being performed by professionals. However, for those complete Merengue novices visiting the Dominican Republic and wishing to partake in the national dance, there is no need to be daunted by the impressiveskills of the island’s inhabitants; dance schools in the coastal towns of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, for example, take great delight in welcoming beginners into their classes all year round.
As is the case with all dance forms, Merengue would not be the same without its musical accompaniment. Traditionally relying on the diverse, yet harmonious, sounds of the accordion, saxophone, tambora drum, box bass and güira (a metal scraper-like percussion instrument), present-day Merengue music has taken advantage of modern technology by introducing various, and perhaps more mainstream, hi-tech electronic instruments. Although the tempos greatly vary, modern musicians stilladhere to the basic 1-2-3-4 rhythm laid down by the original Merengue players and the end of the compositions are often characterized by a sharp quickening in pace which is matched by the dancers´ final fast and energetic jive-like movements.
Although listening to the albums of renowned musicians such as Wilfrido Vargas, Johnny Ventura or Los Hermanos Rosario will give you a taster of this lively musical genre, it is only by travelling to the Dominican Republic and experiencing the art form first-hand that you will truly be able to appreciate the incredible atmosphere producedduring an authentic Merengue performance.