Merengue Dance History

The merengue is considered the national dance of the Dominican Republic and first gained popularity in 1850, when it replaced another folk dance, the Tumba. With a heightened sense of nationalist pride, native Dominicans boast that the merengue is 100% a hispanic dance from their country, but there are evidences in merengue history that some foreign steps and rhythms may have inspired it, including a telling fact that in Haiti, which shares an island with the Dominican Republic, they have their own local folk dance called the mereng or, in some areas, the meringue.

Discussions of merengue history always mentions the Haitian mereng. There are differences between the Dominican merengue and the Haitian mereng, despite the fact that their names and the main step of each dance – stepping out to the side with one foot and dragging the other foot to close – are very similar. The music and execution of the Haitian mereng is much slower than the merengue of the Dominican Republic. Also, the mereng of Haiti is said to be inspired by the French contredanse and minuet, merged with African slave rhythms. As we’ve mentioned, merengue is touted to be a homegrown dance, although it also shares characteristic with the Cuban danza.

The history of merengue can be traced according to the history of the Dominican Republic, but since there is an argument that it has no foreign influences, many scholars debate on the authenticity of these origin stories. For example, some scholars are convinced that since Dominican Republic and Haiti were at war with each other during the time the merengue was developed, then it was impossible that each could influence the other’s dances. However, there was a short period wherein Haiti ruled the entire island, and the roots of the dance, through sharing the dances could have sprung from there.

Another connection to history is that when the African slaves finally staged a bloody uprising against the French colonizers, many fled to Cuba to get away from danger. Eventually, they would return to the Dominican Republic, with much exposure to Cuban culture. There are debates whether the merengue was actually derived from the Cuban danzas as a result of this, or if the merengue was the one to influence the danza. Valid points are made by several conflicting parties on this matter.

The fondest stories told about the origin of the merengue are slave tales where the Africans would drag their feet along as they were chained together, and later this intimate community was immortalized as a dance. Another story is how a soldier was wounded during the revolution, and how his friends and family, who knew how much he loved to dance, decided to dance with a limp to sympathize with him on the dance floor. The dance was named after a sugar confection with pointy peaks because the nature of the dance resembled the abrupt peaks of the candy.

Because of merengue history’s concordance with the country’s own history, it can be said that merengue can be a bearer of Dominican identity. Which explains the Dominican pride in discussing the origins of such a lively dance.

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