How to Do the Colocho: Merengue Dance
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Merengue (/məˈrɛŋɡeɪ/) is a style of Dominican music and dance. Partners hold each other in a closed position. The leader holds the follower’s waist with the leader’s right hand, while holding the follower’s right hand with the leader’s left hand at the follower’s eye level. Partners bend their knees slightly left and right, thus making the hips move left and right. The hips of the leader and follower move in the same direction throughout the song. Partners may walk sideways or circle each other, in small steps. They can switch to an open position and do separate turns without letting go each other’s hands or releasing one hand. During these turns they may twist and tie their handhold into intricate pretzels. Other choreographies are possible.
Merengue was made the official music and dance of the Dominican Republic by Rafael Trujillo. In an origin’s version, the dance originated from the slaves working in sugar beet fields. These slaves were connected to one another by a chain strapped to their ankles and had to walk in such a manner as to drag one leg.
Although the tempo of the music may be frenetic, the upper body is kept majestic and turns are slow, typically four beats/steps per complete turn.
In the social dancing of the United States the “empalizada” style is replaced by exaggerated Cuban motion, taught in chain ballroom studios for dances of Latin American origin (cha-cha-cha, rumba, mambo, salsa).
According to Merengue: Dominican Music and Dominican Identity by Paul Austerlitz, “we will probably never know with certainty the true origin of this music, but theories about it express deep-noted feelings about Dominican identity. One theory links merengue to the Haitian mereng. Although they differ in important ways, the Dominican Republic and Haiti share many cultural characteristics. Like merengue in the Dominican Republic, mereng (in Haitian Creole; méringue in French) is a national symbol in Haiti. According to Jean Fouchard, Mereng evolved from the fusion of slave musics such as the chica and calenda with ballroom forms related to the French contredance (1988: 5-9). Mereng’s name, he says, derives from the mouringue music of the Bara, a Bantu people of Madagascar (1973: 110, 1988: 77-82). That few Malagasies came to the Americas renders this etymology dubious, but it is significant because it foregrounds what Fouchard, and most Haitians, consider the essentially African-derived nature of the music and national identity. Dominican merengue, Fouchard suggests, developed directly from Haitian mereng (1988: 66).”
Also, according to mentioned that Merengue actually comes from acoustic groups, and in the Dominican Republic, the folklore, is the merengue, and during the 20th century Merengue’s original lead instrument was the guitar. By the 1940’s and 1950’s it was performed with accordions. On the other hand Burr explains that today, modern Merengue that is heard in nightclubs is epitomized by artist such as Elvis Crespo and Olga Tanon. According to Merengue Tipico originated in the rural Northern Valley region around the city of Santiago. That’s the reason this type of Merengue is known as Merengue Cibaeno. Also Merengue Tipico emphasizes traditional songs dating back as far as the last century. Its performance context and practices differ in their emphasis on close personal relationship between audience, and performers. That’s the reason the genre of Merengue Tipico is more complex than one familiar of merengue. The rhythm of merengue includes of merengue derecho, and merengue apanbichao.
Merengue in the United States
Merengue has transformed in style, instrumentation, and rhythmically in the Dominican Republic post Trujillo in so many ways, and one important thing to note is its influence in the Dominican Populations of New York City. Dominican musicians first began migrating to the United States in the early 1900s despite the limited travel allowed due to the Trujillo dictatorship. Since then, especially post-Trujillo, there has been an exchange of musical influences and cultures that has allowed for the progression and popularity of Merengue in the United States. Merengue típico symbolizes the traditional and rural life of the Dominican Republic, relating to its dance movements, and religious aspects, thereby creating musical history for the U.S. because of Merengue’s rapid and vast expansion that can still be explored today.
In the 1960s most of the Dominican musicians living in the U.S. were from the Cibaeño region of the Dominican Republic and they often looked for ways to connect their homeland to their newly inhabited population in NYC. There were talented accordionists, such as Arsenio de la Rosa Caba and King de la Rosa, who formed their own quartets which included the accordion, tambora drum, guira scraper, and marimba. They played at local clubs and around the neighborhood, spreading the popularity of the traditional music, and allowing for new types of music such as Hip Hop and R&B, as well Cuban and Puerto Rican populations, to influence the Merengue that can be heard today. Merengue was fused with reggae-ton and Mambo, so much so that it is often the standard of music for younger populations, and what you can still hear on mainstream radio. However, this does not negate the typical traditions associated with the early types of Dominican Merengeue that one can hear live at different Merengue típico clubs all throughout NYC, and even found on the east coast in areas with a Dominican Presence.