Merengue: Marching to The Beat of Your Own Tambora

Oh, the simple things in life! Jeans and t-shirts. A deck of cards. Toast.

Sometimes we forget to appreciate the simple things in this go-go-go world of ours. As such, when you take the time to simplify, it’s very refreshing. I know this is absolutely true when it comes to dancing. Your basics are the only things that will be able to set you above other dancers. Many very strong competitive couples fail on the basis that while they may have a lot of flash and skills to demonstrate, they lack the clarity of strong, well-practiced basics. This is true of all styles. Couples like Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova, Tony Dovolani and Elena Grinenko and Tomas Mielnicki and JT Thomas built careers and became champions on the basis of their basics. I love complexity to death but if it’s not supporting your basics in some way, it’s not worth your time. Look at any top-tier professional’s choreography: Believe it or not, it’s usually a manipulated basic sequence punctuated by lines/highlights and padded with elements that embody the style they’re dancing. Ta da!

“But basics are boring!” “Basics are hard!” “I’m beyond basics!” Wrong. Right. Wrong! Students by and large have complicated relationships with their basics for a myriad of reasons. I think this stems in large part from most students not knowing how to practice on their own. Many people only practice choreography and the priority shifts to being able to execute someone’s larger idea and interpretation of a style than the actual style itself. Choreography probably takes more brain power to memorize but you’re doing a body a disservice by not allowing it to absorb and practice the core principles. I always tell my students to begin by practicing elements — start with simple, singular movements like walks, rocking or initiation. Once your elements are refined, apply them to the basic figures they inhabit. Upon refreshing your basics, your choreography will really start to sing. Now repeat. Every day. Until you die.

The dance that epitomizes this idea of the neglected basic is unfortunately merengue.

I am of two minds when it comes to merengue. The first is from my first experience with it while in the BDTC. The Rhythm II quarter had just begun and I was feeling stronger and more competent after a rough Rhythm I quarter. The thing about rhythm and most Latin dancing is that it takes time to sink into your body and for your body to respond by creating actions through your hips and ribcage. I know now how dumb it was of me to expect to be excellent but I did and I wasn’t so my rhythm relationship was strained. So along comes merengue — the most paired-down, simple dance of the bunch. I did that same shimmying tip toe everyone does when they first dance merengue. It wasn’t pretty, but it was kinda fun (’cause Melissa Saphir can make anything fun). Learning the syllabus was tricky because what’s actually a great thing about merengue — you can do anything! But without a set guideline of a repeatable pattern, the merengue figures just got more and more jumbled. Chassés, side rocks, fifth-positions… It was all marching to me.

Cut to: not a long while later, I was working at my first studio in Oakland. Three times a week we would have parties and would dance all different styles with our students. The beauty of merengue is quickly found when one must grab a stranger with unknown dance experience and lead them smoothly and impressively for the next two-ish minutes. Then the simple marching dance is revealed for what it is: a playground of plentiful actions and is actually a ton of fun. Everything I liked about other styles I incorporated along with tricks and exciting things because it was so simple. A stripped down style shows one how dances are made interesting, whether socially or choreographically. Variety in timings, positions and actions make dancing fun — though this is only done when you understand how to dance the style itself.

When you combine these two ideas — the structure and technique of a dance teacher and the raucous-yet-pragmatic partygoer — you find the beauty of merengue. Simple and straight-forward while still spontaneous, merengue really beats the band.

It doesn’t take much to enhance merengue. The trick is mainly not to waste energy and (you guessed it!) simplify.

Due to the speed and incremental direction changes, merengue action is different from normal Cuban motion. Using a stronger-than-normal ribcage action as well as a very direct up and down piston-like action through the hips to decrease lateral pull from side to side. The body shouldn’t break up  like in other dances — it must move with a precise conveyance of energy from the ball of the foot connecting with the floor to the shoulder’s response to a contracting lat muscle.

Additionally, probably the most upsetting part of merengue as it’s danced socially is that Dramamine-requiring metronomic rocking. Our goal in all styles should be to stay as tall and vertical as we can manage unless deliberately shaping one way or an other. This is the not only to create an attractive body shape, allowing our hips to move freely and clearly but it also allows us to interpret timing changes. If I want to change the timing either faster or slower, I’ll need to either rise or lower to communicate that. Dancing with a long, clear spine will transform any figure into a malleable piece of choreography.

Lastly, the most important factor in dancing merengue to me is making it flow. You have two choices: connect or contrast. I’m always conscious as a leader of what I’m doing and more importantly, what I’m doing next. I want to make sure that what I do makes sense on the whole from an aesthetic and balance standpoint. I’d need to link my actions together in coherent, deliberate ways. The easiest way to do this is to take my time. Taking a couple extra beats to figure out what’s next benefits everyone. Meanwhile, my partner would not like it if I made her turn left a dozen times in a row. It would not look good to the outside if I just did similar wrapping actions over and over — it would be boring. This is why I also must do contrasting actions. Left turns followed by right turns, wraps followed by hammerlocks, tunnels followed by ducks. The more creative you get with your dancing the more interesting it will be for both partners and the more mileage you’ll get out of your punctuating basics.

The simple dances may seem fun and easy but they necessitate clean and precise movements. So take your jitterbugs, your merengues, your four-step hustles and ask yourself, “am I doing too much? Or not enough?” The answers may surprise you.