3 Hot Latin Dances:

Breaking Down the Connection Between Salsa, Bachata, and Merengue

By Julio Compramada

"Latin Dance" is an umbrella term, which encompasses many different styles of dance from many cultures, countries, and periods. Latin dance can be very seductive and slow, or very fiery and fast. Despite the vast amount of variety in the world of Latin Dance, everyone seems to know it when they see it. Three of the most well known styles of Latin Dance are Bachata, Merengue, and Salsa. While these names may be familiar to many Americans, there are many misconceptions about the styles.

Bachata is a modern evolution of Latin American guitar music. Trios or quartets including stringed instruments and percussion were a popular form of music through out much of Latin American, and as the music started to become more elaborate and rapid, dance steps were created to go with it. Bachata came into its own in the Dominican Republic in the nineteen sixties. However, the music is associated with the lower classes, so despite high record sales and soaring popularity, Bachata doesn't get as much industry acceptance as Merengue. Bachata usually covers subjects of sadness and its name stems from the term "bitter music". It may be considered similar in this regard to the Blues of the American South. Bachata is in 4/4 time and often makes use of amplified guitars to allow for sound effects such as reverb. These effects are a signature part of the sound that differentiates it from its traditional cousin Bolero. The modern music of Bachata gives way to a dance style that is also very modern and lively.

Bachata has received a lot of influence from another Dominican dance style, the Merengue. The Merengue is the national dance of the Dominical Republic, though people often assume it is of other origins. The Merengue is marked by very precise, quick moves, and often includes changes in tempo. Merengue often speeds up greatly at the end of the dance. Ballroom Merengue tends to be a little bit slower and uses more hip movements to create a more romantic feel in contrast to the very sexy nature of the faster Merengue style. The Merengue is a descendant of the French Minuet. The African slaves that later inhabited the Dominican Republic watched the French dance their Minuet and created a version of their own. Originally, the Merengue was not danced in pairs, but by a group of people that formed a circle. While the Bachata is the dance and music of the people, and tells tales of sadness and heartbreak, the Merengue is more socially acceptable and mainstream, even if the popularity of the two styles is very similar.

Salsa is a style that gets most of its history from Cuba. It is similar to the Mambo, but with more importance given to spins and turns. Salsa is primarily derived from African Rumbas, but with elements of European country dances mixed in as well. Salsa takes inspiration from so many styles, and so many countries, that it is impossible to pin the style down or describe it in few words. Salsa is a prime example of just how much variety there is in Latin dance, even within one style. Salsa has been performed in many Latin American countries and is popular in the United States as well. Within the United States, Salsa has undergone many changes in different regions. Some regions incorporate modern instruments and effects to give Salsa a much more modern sound, perfect for city nightclubs. Salsa essentially conglomerated many elements in the nineteen fifties and was given its own name as it started to take on a life of its own. Sale is driven by percussion and makes use of conga drums and maracas to give it a very Caribbean feel.

Salsa and Merengue are fairly similar in that they use pairs of dances and usually contain fast steady rhythms. They display a lot of passion and flair and usually do not tell a complex story, but are rather a release of emotion and energy. Both styles are very popular in clubs and offer performers and onlookers an entertaining time. Compared to Salsa and Merengue, Bachata is much less formal. It is not a ballroom style, nor derived from a ballroom style and is more of dance to perform after work with friends than at a club or dancehall. Where Salsa and Merengue usually relieve more general emotions and passion, Bachata is about story telling. Bachata usually has onlookers identifying with concepts of heartbreak and betrayal. The emotional release of Bachata is usually focused on very specific events and makes the bitter moments in life seem like a pleasurable bitterness.

Bachata is also much more based on the sounds of stringed instruments, notable the sounds that modern amplified stringed instruments can make. While the percussion is most definitely important to Bachata, the chords and arpeggios of the guitar set the mood just as much. This gives listeners the overall impression that the music is more closely tied to the guitar music of Latin America and Spain than the dances of Europe and Africa. In reality, it is a combination of many of these elements. Salsa and Merengue, on the other hand, are much more a product of European and African dance styles, notably French ballroom dancing. Bachata makes use of a rhythm guitar to create a syncopated rhythm to contrast the arpeggios of the primary guitar, where Salsa and Merengue usually create this syncopated feel with percussion alone.

Despite the different musical inspirations and footwork rules of these styles, they are easily identified as Latin American. Their overall soul is very similar and they all take old world influences and combine them with uniquely Latin American flair and passion. The Latin American cultures, by their nature, are made up of many different elements from many different cultures. Latin American dance combines the soul of native styles with the structure and techniques of European and African forms. This creates a unique combination of elements that is not found anywhere else in the world.