The history of the merengue is quite complex and somewhat unknown. However, what is known about it speaks for the rich culture of the Dominican Republic and it can be concluded that this dance form is truly the “national dance of the Dominican Republic”. The controversy of the meringue lies in its origin and it is unclear how the dance actually was formed. So to even begin to dissect into this, it is important to first learn and understand the history behind the island of Hispaniola and behind the music and dance themselves.
The island of Hispaniola is now known as two different countries; one third known as Haiti and the other two-thirds known as the Dominican Republic. In 1697, Spain ceded one third of the island of Hispaniola to the French, would created what we know as the Dominican Republic but was then called Saint-Dominique. By 1790, the French had about 500,000 African slaves being managed by only about 57,000 whites and freedmen, or colonists. In 1791, a portion of the slaves fought back and slaughtered numerous Frenchmen causing some to flee to Cuba with their slaves. Haiti still ruled over Saint-Dominique until about 1844 when it was then termed the Dominican Republic and then the United States took on the role of helping to support the newly formed nation. A powerful military leader, Rafael Trujillo was the first democratically elected representative of the new Dominican government but he was actually a brutal dictator who continued to oppress the rights of the people. The nation of the Dominican Republic went through a really devastating line of dictators before the United States intervened once more to restore the peace in 1965 and since then the Dominican Republic has been a democratic nation.
The merengue is not only the nation dance of the Dominican Republic but is also claimed to be the most famous Latin American dance holding much national significance to the country. As I said before, the exact origin is unknown for merengue but it has been agreed that the dance was formed over two centuries ago! There are a few stories circulating about how the dance found its start. The first is the result of a group of partying villagers who out of sympathy for a war hero who had just returned home with a limp. The soldier came back, most likely after the uprising from the slaves in 1791, and the villagers danced as though they had been wounded too. The second is based upon the foot dragging movement that resulted from slaves whose feet were chained together as they cut sugarcane in the field during a day’s work. Slaves living on the island of Hispaniola watched the European colonists perform their slave master’s dances and incorporating the foot dragging motions along with setting the beat to drum sounds to make it more rhythmically entertaining.
Merengue itself is a fusion of European and African cultures and quickly became the most popular form of dance in the Dominican Republic because of the simple steps and movements. Partners could either hold hands throughout the dance or separate while still maintaining close contact. Dancers would add steps frequently and attach an individualistic style onto the dance form. The term “merengue” is a Spanish variation off the word “meringue” in French which translates to “a confection made from whipped egg whites and sugar”. The description applies to the “light and fluffy nature of the dance where one gradually shifts their weight between feet in a very fluid motion” and refers to the dancer’s sweet and frothy character. The original merengue was strongly influenced by European contredance but due to the vast African influences on the island, the dance quickly inherited strong Afro-Caribbean rhythms which in turn livened up the dance to a great degree.
The original form termed is the merengue típico and it has a very set structure, really highlighting its European influences. There is a slower instrumental walking section which continues into a softer, lyrical section where the singing begins. The last section is a call-and-response type of directional dance. In this form, the audience participates by dancing a basic two-step pattern to a very fast tempo. In the merengue típico, the unique factors are the use of the accordion and saxophone for the instrumentation to highlight the period of jazz that was occurring elsewhere. The second form is Ballroom merengue where all the steps are on a set beat and have that limping characteristic in the feet and body movement that was described in the story about its origin. It is a partnered dancer where they hold each other closely and perform rather simple choreography where twirling and spinning around in a slow circle is seen. Though the speed may increase of the music, the movements remain slow, controlled and centered. The second is Club merengue and the form development from the ballroom type but incorporated a much stronger sense of erotica and urban feelings. It is definitely a form that is more popular with the younger population. The last type is termed Folk merengue, which is perhaps the most familiar to the merengue típico. It can be found practiced in the most rural areas of the Dominican Republic. Dancers tend to move their hips in a full circular motion while maintaining a straight and upright body negating the more well known back and forth bodily movements.
The history of the merengue is quite traumatizing in the fact that there were many social and performative barriers put onto the dance that caused its rollercoaster-like history. There was such disturbance within the social class of Dominican people because the ability to perform and practice the merengue was determined by the dictator that was in power at a particular point in time. When Trujillo was in power, he scrutinized the upper class as he always disliked them coming from a lower class himself and made merengue a huge part of his campaign and ruling. In a roundabout way, he did start to bring merengue into a more social and widespread setting by doing what he did. Today the merengue continues to be thought of as a significance of cultural pride for the people of the Dominican Republic but strives to maintain the sense of individuality and beautiful, tactile rhythms that make the dance what it is!