How did this dance begin

Merengue developed as a result of a fusion of African influences with the French and Spanish contradanse

The origin of every dance is different depending on the country you are in when you ask the question "how did this dance begin?" Dance has placed an important part in the social development of every country and this is particularly true in Latin America.

Many of the dances that are enjoyed around the world today have their roots in Latin and African rhythms, and those roots are always highly contested, with various nations claiming credit for the invention of the more popular rhythms. In reality it is impossible to know exactly where each dance began but we're going to have a look at some of the more widely accepted claims for the Merengue.

Merengue first emerged in the Dominican Republic in the sixteenth century when the Spanish brought African slaves to the island to ensure adequate labour for plantations. The Africans brought their drums and religious practices with them and incorporated elements of European culture as they intermixed with the Spanish.

The result was a culture of syncretism – mixing – which can be seen in the practice of vodu, in which African deities are hidden behind Catholic saints, as well as in Dominican music.

Paul Austerlitz, jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, and author of the definitive history of Merengue, Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity, made the following statement about the development of Merengue in an interview with Sean Barlow for cultural magazine 'Afropop': "Merengue developed as a result of a fusion of African influences with the French and Spanish contradanse. So these French and Spanish influences came in, they were blended with African influences and became Merengue."

A colloquial story about the origins of the main Merengue dance step, the two-step march or shuffle, also states that the dance originated with the African slaves in the Dominican Republic. This legend claims that the slaves were forbidden to marry, to have relationships and also to dance, as this was believed to undermine the authority of the landholders.

Slaves who did any of these things were severely punished and forced to wear ankle shackles in order to prevent their movement. While wearing these shackles, the only thing these slaves could manage was a shuffling march, thus this became a quiet rebellion that enabled the slaves to feel a sense of self and hope for the future. As the rhythm is counted 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 this was easily disguised when the landholders appeared. Although this version is unable to be proven, it is a very popular one!

What is known is that in 1930, Rafael Trujillo was elected president, beginning a thirty-one year dictatorship. He assumed complete control of the nation and did not tolerate any dissent. In addition to being responsible for the deaths of many of his own people, he perpetrated genocide of Haitians, killing in the region of 10,000 to 20,000 who had migrated to the Dominican Republic for work. At the same time, bandleader and accordionist Luis Alberti, was experimenting with using jazz orchestration with the rough peasant-style of Merengue, lending the music a softer, more refined sound.

Trujillo, who liked Merengue, heard this and decided to use the music as a political and social tool. Paul Austerlitz states: "Like Hitler, whom he admired, he knew how powerful the arts and symbolism can be. So he decided that it would be a good idea to bring Luis Alberti's band to the capital and make it the official dance band of the state. And he did that. And Luis Alberti said yes, because dissent was prohibited, no one was really saying no to anything that Trujillo asked. And the band was renamed "Orquesta Presidente Trujillo."

So in one fell swoop, Trujillo decided that Merengue should be the national music of the Dominican Republic. Composers were required to write songs about Trujillo. And many Merengues extolled the virtues of his regime."

In this way, the Dominicans were forced to accept Merengue as their national dance and at the same time, this was a denial of all other countries' claim to the rhythm. This ownership has now become a source of pride and national identity for many Dominicans.

Merengue began to permeate Western culture with the Dominican immigrants, mainly in New York and Puerto Rico, who began emigrating in the 60s. As the popularity of salsa among Latino communities waned in the 80s Merengue caught on and attained a place on the international music stage.

Nowadays Merengue is heard in one form or another in every dance club around the world that plays modern music. The catchy 1-2 1-2 1-2 1-2 rhythm is easily recognizable in many popular music songs and it forms the basis for more complex steps. The uplifting harmonies combined with the compelling beat of the tamboures (drums) makes it almost impossible to resist, and the sheer simplicity of the steps means that literally anyone can lose themselves in the music.

By Callie Elward

Spanish Australia Magazine

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