Merengue is sometimes called the national dance of the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic shares the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with its neighbor Haiti. Merengue music in turn shares similarities with the Haiti's Méringue or Mereng music. The Dominican Merengue is sung Spanish while the Haitian Mereng is sung in Haiti's native Creole. Merengue was also influenced by the Cuban music and dance called Upa Habanera.
Merengue has not always been considered the national dance of the Dominican Republic. Since Merengue music has strong African roots, rather than European roots, the music and dance were initially rejected by the upper class and those with European roots. Merengue nevertheless prevailed and the the Dominican dictator (1930 - 1961) Rafael Trujillo aided in spreading its acceptance and popularity.
Merengue the dance and music is distinguished from the pastry meringue only by spelling. Both mean whipped egg whites and sugar in Spanish. The name appears to have been given to the music before the dance came into vogue - in a fashion similar to the use of salsa as the name of the music that bears the name.
While Merengue's popularity in the west is relatively recent, it has been the music of choice in the Dominican Republic since the mid 1800s, when it displaced the then popular Tumba as the island's favourite music. Its longevity as popular music is remarkable and its ability to stay current with the times is even more remarkable.
The origins of the dance, which followed on the heals of the introduction of the music, are surrounded by folklore. One of the basic steps is a series to side steps to the man's left called the chasse or chase. A version of this step is sometimes danced with a stiff right leg which is dragged to meet the left foot after which the left foot steps to the left repeating the sequence. This particular style is attributed to a war hero, some say a pirate, who had a wooden right leg. He would dance on the Dominican beaches and his style was soon emulated by the rest of the population.
Merengue Dance Styles
Authentic Native Merengue
Authentic Merengue is one of the simplest Latin dances to learn. The beat is clear and the rhythm constant. As with Bachata, the other popular Dominican dance, the emphasis is on simplicity in step patterns rather than drama and style. Dancers employ few if any turns. When turns are used, Merengue's turns are casual walking steps rather than the spin turns seen in Salsa.
Authentic Merengue's beauty is in its simplicity and rural, unsophisticated feel. There is no need for the exaggerated Cuban hip action popular with ballroom Latin dancers, when dancing the Merengue.
Indeed authentic Merengue can be defined as being everything that is the opposite to ballroom Merengue dancing. There is as much similarity, or should we say dissimilarity, between the two as there is between, say, Argentine Tango and Ballroom Tango.
The concept of eight count step patterns, executing turns in say four or eight steps is alien to dancing authentic Merengue. The turns are executed in as many steps as the partners so choose without any thought to the number of steps.
The emphasis in authentic Merengue is to go with the feel of the music, the partnership, improvisation, and the mood of the occasion, rather than style, what look good to others, and established patterns.
If there are some themes, it is that when dancing simple steps, the dancers dance in closed hold, while when making walking turns, the dancers open to a two-hand open hold with both hands held overhead when making the turn. What follows is either a reversed turn in order to unwind, or a pretzel-like hand movements that take advantage of the twisted hand hold in which the partners end after a turn.
Paradoxically, it is Merengue's relaxed, unrushed, step movements that allow dancers to execute complex pretzel-like patterns that would otherwise require more precision and training than in, say, Salsa or Swing.
Nightclub dancers add complex patterns and dips when dancing Merengue. As with nightclub Bachata, couples sometimes dance the Merengue in very close embrace.
As mentioned earlier, Ballroom Merengue is more rules based. Instructors tend to spend a fair amount of time and energy in teaching Cuban hip action as an integral part of all Latin ballroom dances. In addition, the emphasis is on posture and fair distance between the dance partners when in dance hold. Ballroom Merengue has not captured the imagination of ballroom dancers as has Mambo, Cha-Cha and Rumba. Therefore, Merengue music is played sporadically, if at all, during ballroom dances.
Moves and Steps
The basic Merengue step is taking small steps to the side with the partners holding each other in closed dance position. The closed dance position is danced in open embrace or if the couple so desire in close embrace.
The side step basic is called paso de la empalizada or stick-fence step. Ballroom dancers may call it a chasse, the chase (with one foot chasing the other to the side). Even though dancing in closed dance hold is called Merengue de salón, or dance hall Merengue, it is nevertheless a spot dance and the side steps are very small. Dancers must always take care not to invade the dance space of others.
This is done by gently turning the side walking step, or even turning gently in one spot.
Solo turns (one partner turning) are sparing used in Merengue. When they are used, the solo turns are gentle walking two-hand or one-hand turns. Two-hand turns can result in complicated figures - a style called figure Merengue or Merengue de figura.
After its introduction in the Dominican Republic, Merengue music remained controversial and relegated to the lower classes and Dominicans of African origin until the 1930s when dictator Rafael Trujillo used Perico Ripiao (a style of Merengue music) bands playing Merengue music for his presidential campaign.
Later, a wealthy member of the upper class the capital, Santiago, commissioned one Luis Alberti a write compose a Merengue song for a daughter's fifteenth birthday. The result was Compadre Pedro Juan a song that became so popular, it became a Merengue anthem.
A typical and simple Merengue ensemble is called a conjunto típico. The instruments used by a conjunto típico when playing Merengue music, are a diatonic accordion, a two sided drum called a tambora held on the lap, and a güira. The güira is a home-made percussion instrument made from a sheet of metal perforated with a nail and then rolled into a cylinder. The güira is brushed with a stiff brush on the downbeat with an and-a or a more complex movement added for variation or emphasis at certain points.
The ensemble gives way to bands and orchestras with the addition of instruments such as a saxophone, piano, timbales, hi-hat, conga, and electric bass guitar.
World famous Merengue singers include Cherito, Miriam Cruz & Las Chicas Del Can, Los Hermanos Rosario, Juan Luis Guerra, Wilfrido Vargas, Sergio Vargas, Johnny Ventura, Kinito Mendez, Ravel, Josie Esteban y la Patrulla 15, Pochy y su Cocoband, Fernando Villalona, Cuco Valoy, The Freddie Kenton Orquestra, Elvis Crespo, Hector Acosta, Los Toros Band and Conjunto Quisqueya, Julian, Toño Rosario, Aguakate, and Amarfis. Milly Quezada is known as the Queen of Merengue. Puerto Rican Merengueros include Elvis Crespo, Olga Tañon, Grupo Mania, Limite 21.