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History of the Modern Latin Rhythms

by Sandi & Dan Finch

The latin rhythms we dance in round dancing were developed by the English within our lifetime, but they date back to folk dances evolving over centuries in their countries of origin. They came to us by way of political upheaval that sent Cuban, Brazilian, as well as Argentine immigrants to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, where they danced as at home to bands of their contemporaries in dance halls of the day. And as fate would have it, a French ballroom teacher saw it, liked it, and took a demonstration of this new dance craze to London. His show consisted of Argentine tango, paso doble, samba, and rumba.

His name was Pierre Jean Phillipe Zurcher Margolie, known only as Pierre, who had been blinded in one eye after being struck by a tennis ball. Pierre and his student and partner Doris Lavelle traveled to Cuba in the 1950s to learn the Cuban style (see A Concise History of Latin American Dancing in the United Kingdom by Irene Evans).

Blame him for starting rumba and cha cha on the “2” beat. It wasn’t originally that way. He first saw the rumba in Paris in 1931, according to the Concise History. He codified it, and his work was adopted by the Imperial Society, but he was dissatisfied with it. He had to wait until WW II ended and he could travel to Cuba, the home of the rumba, to take lessons with the then Cuban champions Suzy and Pepe Riviera. They told him he was “out of time” by starting on the “1” beat, as the Cuban way of dancing rumba starts on the “2” beat, “to capture the essence of latin music,” according to the Concise History. In 1948, he introduced the “Cuban system of ballroom rumba” to England. From then until Castro became dictator of Cuba, they traveled regularly to Cuba and to South American to study. It was during that period that they discovered Cuban bands were adding extra beats to rumba music, that dancers marked these with their feet, and the cha cha cha was born. In 1955, his technique book of latin dancing was adopted in England, the first attempt to standardize it and the basis of today’s Imperial Society syllabus.

Rumba was originally danced with no partner contact, portraying the pursuit of the hen by the rooster, who never caught her, according to the History. Its provocative movements were toned down as it moved onto the dance floor, and contact became desirable.

Samba originated in Brazil but has few figure names in Portugese, the native language, mostly because Pierre had little command of that language. Most names are French, except bota fogo, derived from any number of Brazilian sources, and corta jaca, meaning “cutting the apple.”

Merengue was introduced to England from the Dominican Republic by another dance teacher but never caught on there. The History carries a story that the dance arose from the disability of a war-wounded general who dragged his right foot, and out of respect for a national hero, the people copied his action in their folk dancing.

Dan and Sandi host two weekly Carousel Clubs and teach a weekly figure clinic on advanced basics in Southern California. This article comes from their club newsletter, March 2013, and was reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February 2014.


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