It is a well known and accepted fact that merengue is the most joyful music in the world. As if it were the national anthem or the flag to start a competition, merengue is usually the starting point of any party in the Dominican Republic.
As Joseito Mateo used to sing, “when a merengón is played at a party, people will dance to it…” but because it is such a contagious rhythm, those who stay in their seats and those who don’t know how to dance also dance or move to it.
The joy of this musical rhythm is so impressive that in the tourist places of the country foreigners jump on the dance floor, even if they do not master the most elementary steps of merengue.
But at this point it would make sense to ask why merengue dancing is not universally as popular as salsa and bachata, despite having such an exciting and cadenced rhythm and relying in principle on three basic movements: a side step, a step forward and a step backward, plus some easy-to-execute turns… and a world of creative possibilities.
Why is it that when merengue orchestras perform in large international venues, such as Viña del Mar in Chile, the public reacts with real frenzy, but with a notable limitation to move to the rhythm?
The simple explanation is that outside of the Dominican Republic very little is known about the technique of merengue as a dance, outside of what is projected on video by the fronts of orchestras and the stylized choreographies that accompany these groups, which do not give any idea of how it is danced in pairs, which is supposed to be one of the great strengths of our rhythm, as recognized by UNESCO in its 2016 declaration.
Another explanation is that the development and evolution of merengue as a musical rhythm was never accompanied by a strategy to show it as a couple dance. And it is still like that, although since the times of the Combo Show, Johnny Ventura left us some classic steps that almost all of us apply when we hit the dance floor after the second drink.
Even at the international level, when in the 40’s and 50’s the famous Spanish musician Xavier Cugatl took merengue to the most exclusive salons in the United States and the world, the front of his orchestra never showed the dance in pairs, although he maintained an attractive choreography, a tradition that is still maintained in Dominican musical groups, especially since the emergence of Johnny Ventura and his Combo Show and later Wilfrido Vargas.
A great opportunity to relaunch merengue
Now that merengue has been declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, by decision of UNESCO, which commits the State to its preservation as a symbol of identity, in addition to the attraction it can bring as part of the country’s tourist offer, it seems that the time has come for merengue to promote its other great strength as a dance and dance in pairs, following in the footsteps of bachata.
The idea is to project merengue not only as a musical rhythm to be listened to, but also as a popular dance and partner dance, as Juan Luis Guerra has shown in some of his videos, especially in “Cosquillita” and “I Love You More”.
It would also help if the choreography of merengue orchestras and groups included one or two couples dancing the popular genre, especially given the growing number of tourists visiting the country, many of whom have never seen the few videos on Youtube showing how merengue is really danced.
By the way, the outstanding international couples on Youtube promoting merengue as a couple dance are the Dominican Junior Aquino and Colombian Carolina Bustamante, both based in Stockholm, Sweden; and Alex Morel, a Dominican from Los Minas, Santo Domingo East, and Desiree Godsell, from New York, United States.
It is promising, however, that the Dominican foreign service under the responsibility of Foreign Minister Roberto Alvarez has outlined a policy of support for cultural diplomacy, which includes the projection of the country’s cultural values, including the promotion of merengue and bachata.
The kids are satisfied with moving to the beat of a dembow or the so-called urban music, but they do not always dare to dance merengue and bachata because they do not know how to do it, commented to me the community members Andres Mañon and Luis Reyes, when defending the idea of creating an academy of tropical rhythms, a project in the process of development that has the sympathy of authorities and personalities of the milieu.