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A Few Notes On Merengue

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Merengue is called the “cruise ship dance” because of its Caribbean sound and the ease of doing it. If you can walk, you can merengue. One step is taken on each beat of music, with Cuban motion.

It is an American style Rhythm (or Latin) dance that originated in the Caribbean and came to the United States in the late 1940s.

Basic Steps

Figures are done in combinations of four steps--counted quick, quick, quick quick or 1234—with one step on each beat of music. The foundation element is side, close. The merengue basic in Butterfly or Closed Position is side, close, side close. Each step is small, taken under the body. Think cruise ship and a small, packed dance floor.

The idea is to get hip action with each step. To do this, you begin the basic with a side step onto the inside edge of the moving foot. As weight transfers, the foot will roll flat, the knee of that leg will straighten and the hip is pushed up and back. At the same time, the knee of the other leg bends as that foot begins to move and that hip drops. This creates a subtle hip action. Lead with the rib cage as the foot goes out. Otherwise, the upper body has little or no movement. Maintain the same height throughout the dance, keeping the head up and shoulders relaxed. Watch not to dip the shoulders from side to side. Think Carmen Miranda balancing a hat full of fruit while her hips undulate through the merengue.

Basic tips: Keep time with the music, move your hips, let your rib cage swing, never stop your feet or your hips.

Merengue was the star of this past year’s Roundalab convention, as 19 new figures were added to the Manual of Standards, from phase III up to and including one new figure in phase VI.


Some believe the name of the rhythm came from the light and frothy character of the dance, akin to the confection of sugar and egg whites that chefs know as meringue.

The dance can be dated back to the early 1800s on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, but how it got started is a mystery. Several stories have persisted to explain its signature step in which the lead foot steps and the trailing foot closes to it, almost in a drag.

One story has it that the dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity, were forced to drag their chained legs as they walked along cutting sugar to the beat of drums. Others claim the dance came about when a war hero crippled in action was welcomed home with a victory celebration. He loved to dance but because of his injury, all he could do was step with one leg and drag the other. Out of respect, the townspeople copied his stepping and dragging. True or not, the legends today are important mostly for the mental image they evoke to help remember the basic steps.

It is possible that the dance originated in Cuba which also has a dance called merengue. French and Spanish colonists of Hispaniola could have seen the Cuban dance when they fled to Cuba in 1790 in the wake of a slave revolt on their island. It was 20 years before the first of the émigrés returned to their island, raising the question of whether they took the merengue with them to Cuba or brought it home to Hispaniola on their return.

Merengue is now the national dance of the Dominican Republic. Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which share the island of Hispaniola, claim to have the authentic merengue, although each country has a slightly different version of the dance, Haiti’s being slower and more sensual.

Musical Timing

Merengue has a wide range of tempos, from 28 measures per minute up to 52 measures per minute. In round dancing, it is played between 28 and 32 measures per minute. It is danced to music with four beats in each measure. Emphasis can be put on count 1 by taking a slightly bigger step, adding to the dragged leg feel on count 2.

Dance Position

It is danced mostly in Closed Position but like other Latin dances, it can be danced in Semi-Closed, Butterfly or the variety of open positions.

The New Merengue

What’s old is new again. Many of the new figures were danced in 2000 in the Casey & Sharon Parker Hot Merengue. You will find most of the new figures in phase III. Some of the new ones—like the Lariat—copy what you already know from other rhythms. Others are similar but different—like Open Break, which is an apart, recover, side close—note the basic “side, close” element at the end. And we have some that are peculiarly merengue: Promenade Turn Away, Rock Turn (both phase III) and Side Separation, Promenade Swivels, Continuous Cucarachas, and Continuous New Yorkers (in phase IV).

One exciting—and controversial—figure added this year is the Back To Back, a 16-count, four-measure, in-place figure, now in phase IV. The name was the issue, as it has no resemblance to the existing phase II two-step figure called Back To Back.

Although we don’t dance many merengues at this point, Mixed-Up Rounds shows 104 merengues in our possible repertoire. As with most things, you don’t know if you like it, until you try it!

From clinic notes prepared by Dan and Sandi Finch , November 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May/June/July 2015.


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