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“Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”
- Martha Graham

Dance is not just a collection of steps and techniques, slides and heel steps, and posture and cadence. Dance is a story, a cultural history, and an inspiring expression of passion and life. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the music and movement of Latin dance. Styles such as the mambo, cha-cha, and samba have evolved through an intriguing blend of several cultures, each influencing and building upon the past, to create something new.

So for the uninitiated, or for those of you with an already burgeoning interest, here is a primer on the three popular styles of Latin dance.


The spirited music of mambo has a rich heritage, drawing from European social dances, such as the French contredanse and the Spanish contradanza. The music evolved further with the arrival of black Haitians in Cuba, who are responsible for adding the distinct rhythms and syncopations that make the music so energetic.

In 1940′s Havana, Perez Prado developed a dance set to mambo music which gained widespread popularity when he fled Cuba for New York City. The mambo is characterized by the hip movement that occurs when you shift your weight, and the fact that you only move your feet on the second and fourth beats.

Helio & Julianne mambo


The Cha Cha was derived from the mambo and gets its name from the dragging movements of the dancers’ feet. Although the dance is known as a Cuban dance, it was originally created by French dance teacher Pierre Zurcher Margolie, who visited Cuba in 1952. Further simplifications were made to the dance by Arthur Murray, to make it easier for American audiences.

The Cha Cha does differentiate itself from other Latin dances in its rhythm in that the dancers’ feet move on the 1st, 2nd, and 4th beats.


Unlike the Mambo and the Cha Cha, the Samba is a dance of Brazilian origin and originally imitated some movements from Afro-Brazilian rituals. There are several varieties of Samba – among them Carioca, Mesemba, and Carnivale – all of which differ in tempo and technique. Done in triple time, the Samba was created with the restrictions of a crowded dance floor in mind, explaining its small foot work, and is represented by its smooth waltz-like style.

We are in the midst of a renewed interest in Latin dance, thanks in large part to the overwhelming popularity of American TV shows, “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars.” And while it may be easy to feel intimidated when watching the professionals, please don’t let it stop you from joining in. (And don’t worry – the sequins and spandex are entirely optional.)