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Rumba Styling

by Shirley Aymé ©

The Rumba influence came in the 16th century with the arrival of the African slaves in Cuba. The main development was here, although it was also being danced in other Caribbean islands and Latin America. The impact of African music with its syncopated Afro-beats was so compelling that in many cases the Spanish musical and dance forms were completely transformed. A new music labeled “Afro-Cuban” was born — an explosive Latin sound that took on the world. 

At its roots, Rumba was extremely erotic, with harsh sinuous movements of the hips and torso. The lady would use a scarf to heighten her steamy tortuous gestures, which were offset by the man asserting his machismo, attracting her with strong body lines. This uninhibited form was the rave of the red-light quarters. 

The original concept of Rumba emerged from the walk of the cock, and his pursuit of the hen bird! Even today it still captures this and many other African hallmarks — the earthy action, the hip movements, and the still shoulders, the latter being a vestige of slavery, when heavy weights were carried on their perfectly balanced heads with their feet barely leaving the floor. When walking in the sugar cane fields the bare-footed slaves took steps slowly and without weight at first, until they felt the ground was free of sharp pieces of cane. 

These elements were merged with features of Cuban life, such as walking round old cartwheels as danced in the Spot Turns and the Natural and Reverse Tops, and from squashing the cockroaches in dance clubs, as danced in the Cucarachas. 

The steps in Rumba are not unduly long and should always be comfortable. Generally, steps are taken first on the ball of the foot, lowering to ball-flat, as if to press the foot into the floor. 

“Latin-Motion” is an integral part of Rumba styling. It is achieved by moving the hips and ribcage in opposition to the foot that is in motion, (i.e., the hip and ribcage being held as long as possible over the supporting leg before transferring). There is a constant soft flowing hip movement. When a step with a slow count is taken, Latin-motion is paced to fill the full step value. 

Correct use of the knees is most important as it creates correct hip movement. When taking a step forward, back, or to the side, keep the knee of the moving leg relaxed, stepping first on the ball, keeping most of the weight with the hip and ribcage over a straight supporting leg. Then transfer the weight as late as possible. As the full weight is transferred onto the whole foot (BF), straighten the knee and gently roll the hip. For example, when stepping to the side with the left foot, the right leg is straight and the right hip moves as far to the right as it can. As the full weight is transferred onto the left foot, the left knee straightens, the left hip rolls, and the right knee relaxes. When the right foot closes to the left, the right knee is relaxed as the step is taken on the ball. As full weight is transferred onto the whole foot (BF), the right knee straightens, the right hip rolls and the left knee relaxes. The shoulders are held level and without tension, and the ribcage is poised to create Latin style. 

International Rumba is slow and soulful, with swinging body volume, classic body lines, and an element of balletic movements which project an elegant interpretation. The man pursues the lady, whilst maintaining his strength and bravado. The woman is playful with an air of restraint. She is pure class, and always looks beautiful, whether projecting a line, or taking a single step. 

The Characteristic Stance — 

With the exception of some competitive actions, the body above the waist should be held steady. This is characteristic of all the developed Latin dances. The upper torso is held poised and toned with the ribcage lifted. The shoulders are held relaxed at normal height, and care must be taken not to raise them. 

Floor Pressure — 

Contact with the floor is the most valuable thing a dancer has. Pressure should be made from the floor through the feet to give strength and style. As in all Latin dances, the more contact the feet have with the floor, the better the stability and control will be. Floor pressure should remain constant throughout all movements. The strength of action of the moving foot is taken from the standing foot. The feet glide lightly across the floor, and are only fractionally lifted and placed into position. 

Hip and Leg Action — 

A characteristic of International Rumba is fully straightening the leg as the weight settles into the foot. This applies to steps taken in all directions. Straightening the leg automatically starts the hip action. Rumba is a body dance with the emphasis on body volume through the movement of the hips. Apart from a few exceptions, there is a hip action on every step whatever the direction. As the weight settles into the foot, the knee fully straightens and the hip moves outwards. Because of the position of the pelvis, the hip action is at its strongest on side steps. On closing steps, the feet do not tightly close, as the hip action would be restricted. 

The moving foot is placed in position at the start of the beat, (e.g., count 2), and the hip action continues on the 2nd half of the beat (count &). In the case of a step with a 2-beat value, the hip action continues on the 2nd half of the 1st beat and the 2nd beat (count & 1 &). The hip action should be perpetually flowing from one step to another without any visible breaks. A habitual error even amongst high-grade dancers is to focus on the next step and not finish the hip action on the current step. 

When making a turn, the principle is to turn on a straight leg. The turn is started at the hips and reflected in the feet. The shoulders will automatically be in correct alignment. Another error is overturning the shoulders. Again, this error is often made by anticipating the following step and turning the shoulders in advance of the body, instead of correctly using the hips to initiate the turn at the right time. Fully settling into the leg is only made after the turn is completed. 

The “FFF” Principle — 

As a general rule (and exceptions are the Checked Forward Walks and the Cucaracha), when taking a step forward, the body initiates the action, and moves fractionally before the step is taken. This is in stark contrast to incorrectly taking a step with the body following. Remember that the feet move faster than the body and apply the “FFF” principle — “Feet Follow Frame.” 

The Point Of Body Force © — 

The “Point Of Body Force” refers to the “point of no return,” when the hip of the standing leg is rolling back, and the body becomes slightly off balance because the upper body moves forward in opposition to the hip that is moving back. This is the point when the free leg is passing or closing to the standing leg. At this point the body weight is at its lowest point and is fully settled. It is at this time that the body has its force. At the “point of body force,” there is no option but to move forward. If the “point of body force” is reached before the allocated beat value of a step, (i.e., the hip has not used up the full beat value), the dancer will be off-time on the next step as they will have stepped forward too soon. This error often occurs on step 1 of the lady’s Hockey Stick, making her off time on step 2. 

Leading — 

Partner connection is a major factor that greatly affects the total picture. It is the man who leads the lady, giving her help when she needs it. He is responsible for timing her, changing her direction, and stopping her. The fundamental principle of leading using the man’s bodyweight applies. Leading does not require strong muscular force. It is incorporated as part of the body movement rather than a separate isolated motion. The lead transmitted to the lady must be made fractionally before the action in order to be on the beat. 

In Rumba, the leads are normally directing the lady back. She should come forward herself with only slight pressure through the man’s fingers, she should not be pulled. She only needs a lead forward when her weight is back, (i.e., when she is going from a backward step to a forward step), or when she is going into a syncopated figure. The general principle of leading through the arm in an open hold is: If the man directs tension towards the lady, she directs tension towards him, and if he directs tension away from the lady, she directs tension away from him, thus creating a counterbalance. Partners maintain a degree of tension towards each other through the arms until the man changes the forward tension to a slight pull; then she also changes to a slight pull. 


Rumba is a love dance, it soothes the soul, it moves with deep poetic artistry. There is sex and sexuality, a storyline expressing the “Fatal Attraction” between a woman and a man. There is deep human emotion, passion, sensuality, seduction, love, harmony, joy, ecstasy, yearning, sorrow, betrayal, and jealousy. Each musical phrase or step sequence should tell a story. The man’s focus is to make the woman the centrepiece, while maintaining his macho image. The woman has a sophisticated elegance. She is daring, and will often tease the man and turn away. The word Rumba originates from Bantu-Congolese, and means to “get down.” The Spanish word “Rumbear” means to party, and when a Rumbero goes to a “Rumba,” he definitely has this in mind!



This essay was taken from chapters 1, 2, 3, & 8  of Shirley Aymé's Latin-American At Its Best — Rumba, © Shirley Aymé, 1999. All three of her books are available from IDTA. Click and search for Aymé.

this article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, June, 2008

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